Weekend Project: How to Make Your Own Kombucha
When the pandemic hit, I realized it was time to finally learn how to make my own.
There was a period of two-ish years, 2012 to 2014, when I was separated by the same degree from both Scientology and kombucha. I knew a brew movement had started. My relationship to the expensive drink was sustained by my desire for gut optimization, which was a health trend that I readily succumbed to the moment someone pretty talked to me about it.
But in late 2016 or -17, a YouTube philosopher told me that kombucha is total bullshit. He said it’s like any other sugar drink and that the same type of cult-prone people who believed in things like ketosis and never washing their hair believed in the drink responsible for half of my grocery bill came as a huge relief to me. Then came the pandemic, when I returned to kombucha for the first time in a while in the earlier days of lockdown, thinking it would maybe change... something. It sort of does.
Sure, maybe the airy, fluttery feeling it gives you -- like getting lifted under your little kid armpits by your whimsical, loving uncle -- was just from a combination of around .3% alcohol and feeling like you’re doing something good for yourself. But I never wanted to believe that it was all a scam. So when my friend Hannah offered up two of her kombucha starter “SCOBY” (symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast) on Instagram, I quickly claimed one.
Kombucha’s rich history puts the 2000s gut health movement to shame
The term “microbiome” was coined in 2001 by Nobel-Prize winning microbiologist Joshua Lederberg, but the concept of a healthy gut goes back to ancient China. I called up Hannah Crum, founder and president of Kombucha Brewers International and Kombucha Kamp, to learn more about the drink’s origin. While there’s no way of knowing for sure how ‘buch got going, it seems to have originated in China back around 221 B.C.
“The Chinese are famous for their quest for longevity elixirs,” Crum said. “We presume that's where kombucha came into being. It was kept as an imperial secret passed down through the courts, and over time, it got out and now has made its way around the world many times.” Crum also told me that the US movement began in the eighties, but that it only became commercially available in the '90s.
Beginning a non-toxic relationship with my SCOBY
The SCOBY itself looks like the first time I attempted to make flan: flat, caramel-colored, and insufferably gelatinous. It appeared so inconsumable that its proximity to something I would put in my body was enough to make me question centuries of tradition. I left mine in my fridge for two months before brewing, which is apparently a big no-no because it makes the SCOBY “dormant,” a.k.a. potentially not acidic enough to ferment properly. As an under-seasoned brewer, I recommend making a SCOBY from scratch and not practicing avoidance strategies to cope with stress, which takes around 2-4 weeks with the help of a little starter kombucha.
Otherwise, the process is the same as if you’d already acquired a SCOBY. The bacteria and yeast culture is a cellulose byproduct of the kombucha brewing process, so it really only requires a little extra time. The flat flan has multiple roles in the brewing process: first, the yeast converts sugar to alcohol, then the bacteria convert the alcohol into organic acids.
The recipe I used said that if I already had the SCOBY, I would only need tea, sugar, and a starter kombucha (again, if you don’t have a SCOBY, one will form... it just takes more time). So here’s what I put in:
I brewed the tea in a big pot and waited for it to cool. Then I combined all the ingredients together, covered the jar with a cloth, and stuck it in the closet (prolonged exposure to sunlight can have anti-microbial/anti-bacterial properties). I later realized the vinegary smell gets on your clothing. I was unperturbed, considering I’d only styled one pant-shirt combo for the past two months.
The jar sat beside a pipe in the closet that made a sort of tinkling, swooshing noise, so that I believed my concoction was emitting as it brewed the greatest first attempt at kombucha ever documented. I carried the jar a few meters away and listened closely, getting more and more depressed as the sound dissipated into the silence characteristic of the gradual, “fulfilling” processes that so frustrated impatient me.
Speaking of alcohol, kombucha won’t get you drunk
When I first got into the booch, I bought the wrong-ish product -- a 6% alcoholic kombucha that I grabbed from the 100 options at Whole Foods in the morning and chugged as quickly as I would a bottle of juice. (Those were some of my most creative months). But once I realized my mistake, why they ID’d me at a grocery store, or why I was so creative at 10 am, I started to think about percentages. Was sipping kombucha giving me the ABV-induced internal massage that comes with a few sips of beer?
Crum shared with me that Whole Foods pulled Kombucha in 2010 when regulators and retailers started to worry that the drink was too boozy to live on an all-age shelf. According to Crum, no is the short answer for the alcohol question, but the long answer is more complicated and comes down to a mixture of science and history.
To understand how the measurements work, let’s review the first part of the process for a second: yeast from the SCOBY creates alcohol. But Crum says this is a “competitive mechanism,” referring to the second step: bacteria convert the alcohol into organic acids.
“Think about rubbing alcohol on a wound,” she said. “So alcohol has an antimicrobial property to it. Same in kombucha. That's what the trace amounts of ethanol are for.”
She told me regulators consider anything over half a percent of ABV as “alcoholic,” but that if you dig into the numbers, science doesn’t back it. “It's not based on science,” she told me. “It's just based on taxation and what came out of prohibition as a way to collect money on alcohol sales. But it is not at all tied to inebriation.”
According to Crum, you cannot get drunk on a bottle of kombucha. When I asked her what the lifting feeling was, she explained that it was a flood of B vitamins like B6, B12, riboflavin, thiamine, and niacin entering into the body in a living form.
That mold thing at the top of the jar is probably not mold and you’re probably not going to die
One day, in the middle of telling my girlfriend about the brewing process, she said “it kind of scares me to make kombucha, because you can just fuck it up and die.”
After dismissing her notion, I googled “death kombucha” like my life and my ability to die with dignity, depended on it. I discovered an endless scroll of mold/not mold comparison images, with the former normally having a few deep blue spots scattered on the surface, and the latter looking much like mine: an equally revolting but less colorful amalgamation of white bits, bubbles, and brown residue. I later discovered that that was just new SCOBY forming.
But my girlfriend kept saying she was thinking about something other than the mold thing, so I kept digging and found that the drink had been involved in a few... mystery deaths. In an article published by the CDC called “Unexplained Severe Illness Possibly Associated with Consumption of Kombucha Tea,” in April 1995, “cases of unexplained severe illness (including one death) occurred in two persons in a rural town in northwestern Iowa who had been drinking kombucha tea daily for approximately two months.” At the end of the article, the CDC does not discourage consumption in general, though because kombucha is neither a food nor a drug, it cannot be properly regulated. The CDC simply warns that it could have adverse effects on a few, and because of the drink’s acidity, it shouldn’t be kept in ceramic or lead crystal containers where the toxic chemicals may leak into the drink.
My advice: brew in a sterilized glass mason jar and use your senses to determine if your brew is bad news. Are there fuzzy black or green spots? Is it white and brown? Does the liquid smell fresh and tart? Is there something rancid eclipsing the vinegar scent?
Why drink kombucha?
I wanted to find out what exactly made kombucha a “health drink” aside from containing vitamins that were also found in energy drinks. Before doing the research, all I understood of the drink was that it might be a probiotic, but that the science was a bit hazy. This turned out to be true; there’s a reason Hannah Crum had to create a trade organization to defend and promote the drink. In a 2019 review of empirical evidence regarding kombucha’s health benefits, researchers stated that they only found one study reporting results of empirical research in human subjects.
After talking to Crum about the list of reported health benefits -- better skin, less headaches, improved digestion -- and talking to my friends about success stories they’d heard about or been the subject of themselves, I started to wonder what the hell was going on. How could a drink that required a full cup of table sugar be just as healthy -- if not healthier -- than taking a probiotic pill?
I reached out to Sandor Katz, author of the award-winning book The Art of Fermentation, who mainly focuses on “wild fermentation,” or the proliferation of microbial cultures in natural foods via do-it-yourself fermentation techniques. He prefers sauerkraut and sourdough products over kombucha, because a sugar-based drink is not his first choice.
“Some kombucha is extremely, extremely sweet still,” he said. “Those sugars are still intact.”
But Katz said that there’s “a good amount of biodiversity” in the SCOBY, or what he and many other brewers refer to as the kombucha “mother.” During the brewing process, the yeast and bacteria feast and multiply, creating a variety of microorganisms. It’s generally understood that high variance in the microbiome is associated with good health. Some studies have even shown that people with diseases tend to have a less diverse gut.
Katz made it incredibly clear that fermenting doesn’t fix everything, because nothing fixes everything. But he told me that his digestion was much better when he regularly consumed naturally fermented foods.
“The thing is, the benefits of probiotics are really general. They can potentially improve digestion, they can potentially improve mental health. But, you know, that doesn't mean they're going to address any particular,” he said. “But where I start feeling really skeptical is when people make specific health claims. Not just about kombucha.”
He told me he’d recently seen someone make a claim online that kombucha prevents your hair from going gray.
“I mean, a month hasn't gone by in the last 30 years where I haven't had some kombucha. And in those 30 years, my hair has gone gray. It seems ridiculous for people you know to claim such things.”
The final product
To tell you the truth, I poured my first glass of kombucha a few days too late. It’d been fermenting for around 13 days, and I’d recommend between 7-10 after having tasted it on both of these days. I wanted to wait to see how far I could push it before it became unbearable to drink, but tasting the mix after two weeks was one of the greatest adversities I’ve ever faced. Mid vinegar shiver, I had a flashback to my conversation with Sandor.
“Sugar is what's fermenting in kombucha, and it creates acids and a certain amount of alcohol. But if you leave it to the point that all of the sugars are broken down, what you have is something that tastes like vinegar.”
I swallowed a gulp of the stuff and said farewell to my stomach lining.
“I mean, you can use it as vinegar, but nobody wants to drink a glass of it.”
Nobody? I asked myself bitterly, staring at my pursed lips in the reflection of a kitchen window, silently calculating all the time and resources I’d put into this batch. Maybe I do.
But I ended up caving, adding water, berries, and maple syrup, which made the drink delicious. It felt like cheating a system.
On the back of the KeVita kombucha I used in the original recipe, I found a quote: “If we would just take a moment to look around, we would find that the universe is in constant communication with us.” And therein lies the frustrating beauty of fermentation: it requires listening from start to finish to start again. The more we pay attention as nature runs its course, the more likely we are to experience the drink at a perfect sweetness.