Love Wholesome contributor Jo-ann Huang brews her own fermented tea and lives to tell the tale
Kombucha, or fermented tea, is no longer just a trendy drink loved by rich and health-obsessed hipsters. Australian brands Remedy and Mojo now feature widely in chain supermarkets, and homegrown breweries Yocha and Craft & Culture have built up loyal followings.
The 2,000-year-old elixir, which is said to have originated in China, has a long list of purported health benefits, including a calmer gut and smoother bowel movements.
The benefits come from the live probiotics in kombucha. Billions of good bacteria and yeast help to improve gut health and, in turn, other bodily functions.
Kombucha devotees swear by the beverage, claiming that it also promotes appetite control, resistance to skin breakouts and even deeper sleep. Some drinkers feel more relaxed due to the trace amounts of alcohol in kombucha.
It also has a delicious, tart flavour that’s sometimes complemented with fruits, fragrant herbs and edible flowers. Drunk chilled, its carbonation and sweet-sour taste make it a refreshing beverage on a sweltering day.
There’s only one catch, but it’s a big one: price. As much as kombucha has gone mainstream, at S$6 to S$8 a bottle it’s too expensive for most people to consume every day.
I put myself in this group: I tended to buy it if I visited a supermarket, but couldn’t afford to drink it as much as I would have liked. But after scouring the internet, I soon discovered that kombucha is pretty simple to make. After all, it’s the fermentation process that does all the work.
I now brew kombucha for myself and my family, and we drink it daily. The most difficult part is bottling the kombucha into glass flip-top bottles, and cutting fruit and herbs for flavouring. That said, it only takes five to 10 minutes of my time every three to four days.
So, don’t be intimidated – it’s time to give home-brewed kombucha a go. As far as fermented foods goes, kombucha is the least labour intensive and is perfect for beginners, and the more you practice the better your brew will get.
What you need for your first brew
Kombucha, or booch as it is known to its aficionados, requires four ingredients: sugar, tea, water and – most important of all – a SCOBY and its accompanying starter tea.
A SCOBY is an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. It’s a smooth, jelly-like mat that contains a mass of live bacteria and yeast strains.
A SCOBY should come with a starter tea, which is a concentrated liquid of bacteria and yeast strains. Both the SCOBY and starter tea jumpstart the fermenting process.
It’s best to brew kombucha in a glass so you can easily monitor the fermentation process. As you ferment the tea, your SCOBY starts to develop, and you may see more jelly-like substances building on top of it. That means the SCOBY is working! Plastic is not advisable because the acidic environment of the kombucha also leeches plastic and may release toxins. I have yet to try stainless steel but it is used in commercial breweries.
You need to keep a careful eye on its development though. If you see mould on the SCOBY, it means the batch is ruined and you’ll have to throw everything out. Brewing a batch of kombucha with a mouldy SCOBY or starter tea is a recipe for a bout of food poisoning.
You can buy SCOBY from home brewers on Carousell for a few dollars. Members of Facebook Groups such as Singapore Kombucha Brewers will often give it away for free. Both are also a good source of tips for beginners – the homebrewing community is friendly and its members are passionate about sharing their craft with newbies.
Kombucha brewing workshops are also available for those who want to learn the process in-person from commercial brewers. Bushwick, for instance, can advise on the cultures growing in your kombucha and its health properties.
Basic brewing (or first fermentation)
Kombucha typically takes three to four days to ferment. Colder temperatures can push this out to a week, while those seeking a tarter flavour will let it ferment longer.
Remember: you need to use tea of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), and not flavoured teas (Earl Grey, Darjeeling) or herbal and floral teas (chamomile, rose teas, ginger tea).
Black or green teas are loaded with caffeine, which the yeasts and bacteria will feed off. Herbal and floral teas have no caffeine, and flavoured teas also tend to have added oils that can throw off the fermentation process.
You can, however, add herbs and edible flowers during the flavouring process known as second fermentation, which I will discuss in Part 2.
After brewing a few batches and becoming more familiar with the process, you can also experiment with different types of sugars, such as brown or muscovado sugar, as well as different types of tea and longer fermentation times. Brown sugar gives the kombucha a darker look and more molassy flavour, while white sugar leaves a cleaner taste.
Don’t worry about that sugar affecting your health, though. The SCOBY feeds off the sugars, leaving little behind. That means a cup of kombucha with no added flavourings typically contains just 30 calories.
A basic first fermentation recipe
1. Put about 250ml of starter tea and the SCOBY into a glass jar. Make a sweetened tea (2 tablespoons of white cane sugar, 750ml of boiling water, 2 black or green tea bags).
2. Cool the tea to room temperature (alternatively, make a tea and sugar concentrate and top up with cold water). It’s important the tea is at room temperature, as heat will kill all living organisms in the starter tea. The starter tea needs to be at least a third of your total batch. It can be reduced to 20 per cent once you have brewed with it a few times.
3. Add the sweetened tea to the starter tea and SCOBY. Cover it with a paper towel and secure with a rubber band. The kombucha needs to breathe; screwing a lid onto the jar could cause an explosion. The paper towel also prevents fruit flies from diving in.
4. Store it in a warm, dry place. Kombucha needs a temperature range of 24 to 32 degrees Celsius to ferment. Some brewers put it in their kitchen cabinet, others place it on their kitchen counters. If the vinegary smell is too much for you, you can place it in an enclosed area.
5. Wait three to seven days. Monitor for mould and track SCOBY development. Bubbles are a good sign as it shows fermentation is underway. Your SCOBY will float to the surface eventually due to the natural carbonation.
6. Taste a little bit of it every day from the second day onwards. If the taste is okay, you can drink it straight away. You can put it into the fridge for storage and to slow down the fermentation.
Congratulations – you’ve made your first batch. Now it’s time for the next one! Repeat step 1, but leave 250ml of the existing batch as starter tea for the next batch. The more you brew, the more potent the starter tea will be, and the more live bacteria and yeasts you will create.
Things to note
The pictures of SCOBIES you see on the Internet are not real-life representations of what they should look like. They look like neat jelly discs in those photos, but in reality, they can have stringy bits, and have a pale beige to white colour (most of them look like alien specimens kept in a jar). So, basically, don’t worry if your SCOBY is one ugly mess. As your SCOBY is a living thing, you can name it like you would a pet – mine is called Larry.
It is more important that there isn’t any mould on it. Beginner brewers often mistake growing SCOBIES for mould as they resemble each other.
Mould looks just like it would on rotting fruit or on bread – fuzzy white or grey circles with dark green centres. But if you are unsure, take a photo of the SCOBY and run it by your SCOBY gifter or on one of the kombucha social media groups.
Mould happens when your SCOBY and starter tea aren’t strong enough, and when ambient temperatures are too cool. You also need to make sure it is at least a third of your total brew.
Additives in tea may also cause mould as they alter the brewing environment, so choose only black or green tea.
Singapore’s hot weather means fermentation can happen in two to seven days. I started with two days, but I have increased to three for slightly higher alcohol levels, as I enjoy kombucha mostly for its relaxing qualities.
So have fun with your first kombucha brew – you will find it’s easy to make and costs nearly nothing. Given some practice, you may begin to wonder why you ever paid for kombucha in the first place.