Making kombucha teas

Kombucha tea is a fermented health drink. Used for centuries in the Orient, with a sour, refreshing flavor. Nancy Monson, writing in Alternative and Complementary Therapies, says “Kombucha tea has been said to improve digestion and metabolism, boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, enhance energy, positively impact the course of AIDS, multiple sclerosis and cancer, shrink the prostate, relieve arthritis, psoriasis, wrinkles, baldness, PMS and acne, spur weight loss and improve memory among other things”. She says its estimated that as many as 6 million Americans drink Kombucha tea.

Kombucha was developed thousands of years ago, possibly in Egypt, and has been used throughout China and Japan for centuries. The Kombucha mother, or mushroom, or starter, as it is variously named, which performs the actual fermentation, or brewing process, is a man-made invention, and does not exist in this form in nature.

The starter is flat, with a whitish appearance, and looks like a pancake. The ‘pancake’ is actually a co-operative, co-existing colony of yeasts and bacteria, which work together, when placed in a solution of tea and sugar. The yeast feed on the sugar and the bacteria feed on the nitrogen in the tea to make a sour, fermented drink, with a low alcohol content of between .5 – 1%.

Kombucha is proven to contain small, but important, amounts of B vitamins and essential amino acids. Kombucha has anti-microbial benefits, due largely to the acetic acid content, which also gives it the sour, vinegary taste. For most adults, about 3-4 oz of Kombucha tea, drunk 2-3 times a day, is optimal for health.

While commercially prepared Kombucha teas can be quite pricey to buy on a regular basis, Kombucha tea is actually very easy to make at home. Ask at your local health food or organic store or farmers market for advice on where to obtain a Kombucha starter. Or ask a friend who already brews the tea for a Kombucha ‘baby’, or ‘daughter’. You can also order a starter kit from Laurel Farms, based in California. Go to www.laurelfarms.com for more information. Ideally, a new starter will arrive in some pre-brewed Kombucha liquid, which you can use to make your first batch.

You will need the following items to brew your own Kombucha:

The Kombucha starter and liquid.
A 2-quart, or 2-litre, heatproof glass, Pyrex or porcelain jar for brewing the Kombucha tea. Metal or plastic, even food grade plastic, containers are not suitable. Choose a container with a wide body, but a narrow mouth.
2 quarts, or liters, of hot, boiled water.
2 -3 teaspoons of loose black or green tea, or 2 -3 teabags, per quart or liter.
4 – 5 tablespoons of refined sugar per quart or liter.
A large square of cotton material.
A rubber or elastic band.
Enough clean glass bottles to hold the finished tea.

Wash the brewing container thoroughly with dish soap and water, and be sure to rinse out all traces of soap from the container before you put the tea mixture in it. There is no need to sterilize jars, or equipment, before brewing Kombucha tea, as long as everything is clean. Any harmful bacteria would not be able to thrive in the acidic environment created by the Kombucha culture. (However, if a batch develops a strange color or an unpleasant odor, or mold starts to grow on the culture itself, throw out the tea and the starter, re-wash your jar and start over with a fresh batch and a new starter.)

Brew 2 quarts or liters of black or green tea using the hot water and the tea. If the brewing container is heat-proof, and won’t crack or shatter, then brew the tea directly in it; otherwise, brew the tea in a heat-proof container, or teapot, and transfer when cooler to the brewing jar. Mix in the sugar while the tea is still hot. More sugar will make a more acidic Kombucha tea, less sugar a weaker one. The same will be true for the amount of tea you use. Over time, you will learn what you prefer, and adjust accordingly. Let the tea and sugar mixture cool to room temperature.

Always wash your hands thoroughly before handling the Kombucha organism, and make sure all soapy residue is washed off your hands. You don’t need to wear plastic gloves. The starter responds best to being held directly with your hands, as it is a living organism. The ‘pancake’ will feel slippery and squishy, a bit like a child’s mud cake, but you will quickly get used to the sensation.

Take the starter from its liquid with clean hands, and add it to the cooled tea and sugar mixture. Add the starter liquid to the tea as well. Put the cotton cloth over the mouth of the container and secure it tightly with the rubber or elastic band. This will stop any dust or mold form getting into the mixture, while still allowing air to get in and out. Place the jar in a cool, dark, quiet place where it won’t be disturbed. Let sit for 7-12 days, or until the drink has fermented to the right acidity or to your taste. The warmer the temperature around the tea, the faster brewing will take place.

Once fermentation has finished, remove the starter and any new babies with clean hands. Wash them thoroughly under running water. Either use the starter to immediately make a new batch of Kombucha tea, or store in the fridge in a bowl of Kombucha liquid. Pour the Kombucha tea into clean glass bottles, close or stopper the bottles and store in the fridge. The tea will keep this way for several months. If you let the closed bottles sit first at room temperature for a few days, before refrigerating, the Kombucha tea will develop a slight fizziness as the yeast in the tea continues to ferment the sugar.

Generally, the pH (or the level of acidity of a solution) of a finished batch of Kombucha tea is between 2.5 and 4.5, and optimally for health and taste, it should be around 3.0. You can use pH strips to test the acidity of a batch (obtainable from any scientific supplier). However, the best measure of determining when a batch has finished brewing is by taste.

By stopping the fermentation process earlier or later, you can work out by trial and error how long it takes to brew a tea with your preferred level of acidity. One way to test the acidity level of a brewing batch of Kombucha tea is to insert a clean straw, or wooden spoon, into the tea around the pancake and sample, being careful not to disturb the organism growing at the top of a batch. However, consider that any disturbance of the Kombucha starter while it is fermenting is unwelcome to the organism, and may disturb the entire process.

Over time, your Kombucha ‘mother’ will develop new, smaller colonies, called ‘daughters’ or ‘babies.’ Pass these on to friends and family. When the original starter turns dark brown with age, throw it out and use a newer one.

Play around with teas used to brew Kombucha. Try mixing black teas with fruit teas for a lighter, fruitier flavor. Try using green teas that have jasmine or other types of flower petals in them, or try blending your own black or green loose tea with edible flower petals, such as rose, pansy, chamomile, hibiscus or violets. Vanilla-flavored black tea yields a Kombucha tea with a slight hint of vanilla in the taste.

If you are a smoker, or have a smoker in the household where you are trying to make Kombucha tea, be aware that the culture will not thrive where there is nicotine smoke present. As nicotine has anti-fungal properties, warns Thomas L. Stone, MD, writing in www.nutrition4health.org.

(If you are a diabetic, have a known allergy to tea, suffer from any serious health conditions, or are taking medical drugs or hormone replacement therapy, consult your health-care provider before brewing and consuming Kombucha tea. Anyone suffering from a medical condition characterized by immuno-suppression, such as AIDS, should consider drinking only commercially-prepared Kombucha beverages.)

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