Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Giant Booger is ALIVE! My Kombucha Journey...

Kombucha -, is a lightly effervescent fermented drink of sweetened black and/or green tea that is used as a functional food. It is produced by fermenting the tea using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or "SCOBY".

Most of you who know me well, know that I tend to get excited about weird things.  My obsession with cloth diapers lasted for several years, I got way into baby led weaning.  The sourdough at least had practical purposes, the essential oil thing feels like it will never run it's course and now, this whole fermented tea thing seems to be icing on the cake of "Sarah's weird obsessions!" 

To be perfectly honest, kombucha would make terrible icing. I don't recommend that at all.

But as a replacement for sugary, carbonated drinks that are horrible for you - and to add B vitamins, antioxidants, healthy bacteria, and glucaric acid to your diet, this stuff is amazing...and kind of addictive.   

So having heard good things about it (can allegedly help to heal leaky gut and stop candida, reduce arthritis and inflammation, heal IBS, give you energy and of course - cure cancer.  You know, much the same as all those other "health fad/crazy hippie things" promise). I tried it at Target one day on a whim, loved it and soon became more than a little obsessed about making it myself - primarily because it is almost $4 a bottle if you buy it in the store (and I was soon buying myself a bottle 2-3 times a week, which when I added up the monthly cost made me feel a little weak in the knees. But I knew it was fairly easy to make at home, so I started my VERY extensive research process.  And when I say I am researching something, that means that I am spending hours a day, sometime for weeks at a time, online looking up every blog, article, and scientific journal I can find on it. I am talking to those that have been through the process, browsing bookstores and learning about the risks, the benefits and the exact steps I need to take in order to be successful at this.  

The biggest thing I needed to start was a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) or what I lovingly call, my Giant Booger. I wanted a good one, so I called my local health-food store, and was so excited when they said they had starter kits!  I gathered children up and stuffed them into the car, full of excitement to finally be making some of my own kombucha!  I bought the starter kit for way to much money, and a bottle of pre-made kombucha so I could enjoy it as I created.  

I had a large glass jar, as well as small ones for portioning it all out, I cleaned everything in HOT water and just a small amount of soap, rinsed it really well and soaked everything in a water/vinegar mixture to sanitize.  This step is VERY important. Since I started I have discovered just how important it is, I now go through a half gallon of vinegar per week just rinsing everything that touches my tea...I'll tell you why in a moment.  

Ah, tea!  I chose black tea, though you can also make kombucha with green. NO flavored or herbal teas though.  A full pot of water, 10 tea bags, 1 1/2 cups of white sugar. 

I find the process of fermentation fascinating. Purposefully taking part in creating something fermented always makes me feel powerful. I really have no idea why, I think it makes me feel like I know a secret that others seem to somehow be missing - maybe it is just that we as Americans are missing fermented foods so terribly in our diet.  The process of fermentation is tricky because what you are working with is alive and must be cared for accordingly.  I will admit, I get a little over-confidant sometimes in my abilities....and unfortunately this was one of those times.  

I let my tea cool to between 80-85F and added it to my jar along with the piece of a scoby and starter liquid that came in the kit, covered it with cheese-cloth and tucked it into a corner of my kitchen.

Then, I waited....and waited...and waited...SO HARD! I imagined that fizzy, glorious kombucha I would get to taste, 2 weeks is how long I figured it would take since I didn't have a fully developed scoby.  At the end of two weeks my kombucha was not very strong.  But I wanted to try it anyway.  I scooped out my newly developing scoby:

See how cute? The chunk you see was the piece I started out with and the thin film was the new, baby scoby.

I bottled my kombucha - half with juice and half plain and set it out to ferment a second time.  This is what adds the bubbles. I gave that 3-4 days, but still was not happy with the taste.  It was not very fizzy nor did it have much of the tartness I had grown to love. I figured this would take a bit of training to get it right, so I re-started the process, putting all my jars into the frig and re-brewing more tea, adding back my scoby and starter and putting the jar away again, figuring that this time it shouldn't take as long.

I checked it two days later and was horrified to see...MOLD! Oh no! Mold is the enemy of the kombucha brewer...where had I gone wrong? I started crazy research into how and why batches get mold, what you can do to avoid it and what must be done once you have it.

I was truly heartbroken when I discovered that once you get mold, there is nothing that can be done but starting over.  My beautiful baby scoby, down the drain. All my hard work!  But what about my brewed jars in the frig?   I had already had one of them - but decided not to have any more for the time being.  My scoby was gone, but I did have jars of plain kombucha still.  So I re-sanitized everything.  I brewed more tea and used my pre-brewed tea to start again.  A week later...I had mold again.

Devastated (Yeah, I get way to into this!) I threw out all my small jars.  I don't know how the contamination got into it.  I do live about 5 miles from a VERY large body of water...so I think that as a general rule, there is more mold in the air here than you would find inland. But oh, it saddened me so!

Since I had had success growing a scoby from simply using my liquid, and I did not want to spend the money on a starter kit again (And still being un-sure of where the contamination came from) I decided to try again using a bottle of store bought kombucha.  So I brewed my tea, added my sugar, let it cool and put it into my jar with a whole bottle of store bought, unflavored kombucha. A week later, I checked on my jar only to discover that the cheesecloth had somehow slid off of it...and my fuzzy nemesis was rearing it's ugly head AGAIN.

Cue pathetic pity party. I honestly felt like crying.

I took a break, sure that I simply did not have the touch. About a month later, mason jars were on sale at Target.  So I bought a half gallon size, and a bottle of green tea kombucha, figuring a smaller surface area might help - and I may as well try out the green stuff as my starter.

This time I used full strength vinegar to wash EVERYTHING, from the jar it was going into, to the thermometer I used to make sure my tea had cooled all the way, to my hands every time I touched anything that could cause a contaminate.

This time? It worked! It tasted amazing and I had a healthy scoby and NO MOLD!!

 I bottled it up, added mandarin orange slices and candied ginger for flavor and fizz and put it back on the shelf:

                       **I do not recommend storing kombucha where the sun can see it. I just thought it looked pretty in the window for the picture. It usually resides in my pantry or my frig once it has been fully fermented.

The second fermentation only took 2 days this time, and the result was AMAZING! Fizzy, tart, perfectly flavored.  I felt victorious!

I have now added a second jar to brew two batches at once - since my husband has started drinking it as well and it was only lasting me 2 days.  I have brewed 5 successful batches now, trying out several flavors (orange ginger and mango are my favorite. Strawberry and kiwi...not so much.) I have noticed adding real fruit instead of juice creates a better fizz.

Prepped and ready for bottling

Top view of a healthy Scoby.  See the bubbles?  It's alive! BAD is when round, fuzzy, blue and white mold appears on top there.  BAD!

My two giant boogers. Aren't they pretty? No? Maybe it is just me...?  Because I started with a green tea base I still have green flecks in my scoby, It adds to the whole booger look. I now let them rest in full strength vinegar between batches.  It helps to keep them clean and doesn't affect their brewing at all.

I do a continuous brew to help keep out contaminates.  I leave about 2 cups of tea at the bottom of each jar so the scoby goes back into strong tea before the new "food" tea is added.

Before I add the tea, I boil the (filtered) water with the lid on for 10 minutes to fully kill anything that could have been on the pot or in the water.  I then turn off the fire, add the tea and let it steep covered for another 10 minutes.  Then I remove the bags, add the cup-and-a-half of white sugar, cover it again to keep it safe and let it cool for several hours.

Altogether, the process takes about an hour a week (minus cooling time) but it costs only pennies and it is soooo much better than the store bought stuff.  And look how pretty!  Marshall's is by far the cheapest place to buy nice bottles at $2-$4 a piece. Or I also have a cleaned out wine bottle with a silicon cork.  

It was certainly a process to learn how this finicky tea wanted to be brewed. But I am so glad I stuck with it!  And while I am not sure about the whole "curing cancer thing" - I LOVE how the tea makes me feel. I drink about 4-8oz a day, and it has completely taken away any temptation to drink soda or juice of any kind. 

Please let me know if you have any Kombucha questions at all, If you would like some starter liquid (or a baby scoby) feel free to ask.  If I cannot answer questions myself, I should be able to find the answer for you or send you in the right researching direction.  

A few tips I have learned in the process - and please feel free to share your own as well.  I love learning new things, I still feel pretty new at this!

1. Mold = BAD. If you see anything fuzzy, toss the whole thing. You don't want to risk it. 
2. Patience = GOOD. It will happen. Give it time.
3. Always use glass to store your kombucha. Never ceramic, plastic or metal. It can leech chemicals from whatever it is in, you don't want to be drinking that! 
4. Sanitize EVERYTHING as you brew (with white vinegar or heat. Not bleach or soap). 
5. Always leave space at the top when you are doing a second fermentation (not necessary, just fun to add bubbles) or you could have an explosive situation! 
6. Use only black or green tea, plain white sugar and filtered, boiled water. 
7. Cover with coffee filters secured with a band of some sort. Cheese cloth and dishtowels both equaled mold for me. 
8. Start slow! No more than 4oz a day until you get used to it. Kombucha will detox your body so expect to pee constantly the first few days of drinking it (and make sure you are also drinking plenty of water). Don't drink Kombucha if you are pregnant or if you have a compromised immune system (or any liver issues). 
9. Kombucha and sourdough starter do NOT get along. Keep them far away from one another! 
10. RESEARCH! Know the Why's, the How's and the Why Not's. If you don't have it in you to truly study and learn what you are doing, stick to paying the $4 a bottle. You are drinking something that is un-filtered, un-pasterized, alive and raw. Know what you are doing, be 100% confidant it is safe! 

11. (Because did you really expect me to end on a nice, organized and round number?) HAVE FUN! Ok - so this may sound weird.  But truly, enjoy creating.  This process is amazing, what it can do for your body is amazing.  There is art and beauty to the be had in this.  Be present, be a part of the process. 

Happy Brewing!

* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.