Traditional Beverage: Kombucha

Written by Kate Tietje, Contributing Writer

A couple years ago when someone first told me about WAP (Weston A. Price), I joined an online group.  People there kept talking about kombucha.  It sounded weird!  I had no idea what it was, or why anyone would want to drink it.  They kept talking about it as this special, prized drink that they wanted their children to have, and debating its merits. It wasn’t until almost a year ago (quite awhile after I first heard of it!) that I really tried it — and liked it.

Today I brew about 6 gallons of the stuff every two weeks. Yes, we go through that much, and could honestly go through a lot more, if I had the jars to do it.  But what is it?  And why do you want to drink it?

Basics on Kombucha

Kombucha is actually a traditional, femented Chinese tea. Its exact origins are actually unknown, although there are various theories on where it came from and how.  There’s one story about how a man was really trying to make a type of vinegar, but some sort of “contamination” got in, and it grew this tough, beige-colored “mushroom” on top.  But he loved the resulting drink so much that he continued to brew it, and spread it around.

Today, kombucha has regained popularity among many, including celebrities (there was a bit of a scandal last summer involving Lindsey Lohan, who apparently drinks it and loves it, which resulted in several commercial brands being pulled from store shelves temporarily).  It is a dairy-free probiotic drink.  It has a sweet-and-sour taste to it, owing to the fact that it is slightly “vinegar-ish.”  It is reputed to contain lots of B vitamins and enzymes; and be able to cleanse the liver; repopulate the gut with good bacteria; improve skin, hair, and nails; improve digestion; and much more.

In our personal experience, we feel much better when we drink it on a regular basis.  It’s usually naturally carbonated, so it makes a great low-sugar replacement for soda. It’s a great method of hydration too.  It does take some getting used to for some (others like it immediately), and homemade is very different from store-bought.  Home brewers can adjust the taste to their liking in a variety of different ways.  As I said…we’ve been brewing for about a year and we love it!  Except my daughter…she doesn’t like anything that has bubbles in it.  My son, however, loves it!

The Alcohol Conundrum

There is a small question about whether or not kombucha contains alcohol, since it is a fermented product (and many go through a second ferment with some fruit juice that’s done in sealed jars, when it can produce some alcohol), but most estimates put the potential alcohol level at less than 0.5%. We don’t drink, but I have no qualms about consuming kombucha, even in large quantities (I’ve had up to 40 oz. in a day before) or giving it to my small children.  You may feel as if you are drinking alcohol when you first consume it (warm, happy, buzz-type feeling; but this is caused by the probiotics and enzymes, not alcohol), but every source I’ve found says it is not an alcoholic beverage.

Please be aware this is a small concern with almost any type of fermented food (not just kombucha), since the fermentation does naturally produce a very small amount of alcohol.  Trace amounts only.

Image by zeevveez

Brewing Kombucha

While there are several brands at the store to choose from (my favorite happens to be G.T. Dave’s, the largest), it’s expensive.  A 16-oz. bottle typically runs around $4. Obviously if each person in your home is drinking at least 1 bottle a day, that can add up fast.  Who can afford it?!

However, home brewing is very cheap.  A gallon costs me around $0.30 (for plain) or $0.95 (for grape, our favorite). Even with a flavor we’re still talking 7 16-oz. bottles for less than $1!  That’s a week’s worth for each person — completely affordable.  Even on my newly restricted budget!

To brew, you will need:

  • 1 gallon-size glass jar
  • 2 quart-sized bags of black tea (or 8 individual sized bags)
  • 1 gallon of filtered water
  • 1 cup of white sugar (it gets eaten in the fermentation so it doesn’t matter here)
  • 1 SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) with at least 1/2 c. prepared kombucha
  • A tea towel or other cover and a rubber band

**Stephanie’s note: Several of you have asked me where you can get a SCOBY to begin making your own kombucha. One fantastic place that I know of to buy kombucha starter (and many other starter cultures) is Cultures for Health. They sell the starter for $12 and a starter kit for only $16. Another option is craigslist. You can often find someone local to you who is willing to give away or sell their extra SCOBYs. As well, I’ve also heard that you can make your own SCOBY (though I haven’t tried that myself yet). A reader left this link to a tutorial on how to do so.

Okay, this is easy!  I’ll outline the procedure very basically here, but you can click through to see a photo tutorial here.

  1. Boil some of the water.  Add the tea bags and steep five minutes; remove.
  2. Stir the sugar into the hot water.
  3. Pour the strong tea into the gallon-sized glass jar and add the rest of the water, filling not quite to the top.
  4. Add the prepared (plain) kombucha to the jar (more is better; 1/2 c. is the minimum), then fill up to the top with water
  5. Add the SCOBY
  6. Cover with a towel or other “breathable” item and secure with a rubberband.  Keeps the flies out, lets air in.
  7. Let it sit for 5 – 16 days (average is 7 – 9), then bottle.
  8. If using flavor, add about 2 oz. (1/4 c.) per quart of kombucha, and let it sit 2 – 3 days longer.
  9. Place finished kombucha in the fridge; enjoy when chilled!

Not too hard, right?

I should note — when we first started brewing, we tried 11 days (this was still in the winter/early spring, so it was cold and dry) and it was too long.  7 or 8 was just about right.  In the summer as we got better at brewing and more used to the kombucha, we brewed usually 11 – 12 days, with an additional 2 days on the counter (bottled).  This winter, we needed 16 – 18 days initially and 4 in the second ferment!  It varies entirely depending on the container you use (a larger surface area brews faster and is more carbonated than a tall, skinny jar with less surface area), the temperature and humidity levels, and even the age of your SCOBY.  Don’t let that scare you, though.  Your first few batches will be drinkable but not perfect, and you’ll learn how you like it as you go along!

If you’re new to this, check out the Kombucha FAQ and Kombucha Brewing Tips and Hints to learn even more about it!

Do you drink kombucha?  What’s your favorite way?

Top image by @joebard

About Kate Tietje

Kate is a work-at-home mom to (almost) 4 kids -- Bekah, age 4.5; Daniel, age 3; Jacob, 1; and baby #4, due mid-March 2013. She is married to Ben, a wonderfully supportive husband! She blogs at Modern Alternative Mama, where she writes about natural health, real food, parenting, and all things “green.” She also recently launched Modern Alternative Kitchen, a site about traditional cooking, and is about to launch Modern Alternative Pregnancy. In her “free” time, she enjoys sewing, crafting, cooking, and playing with her children. Follow her on Facebook!

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  1. Amy Gardner says:

    First, I wanna say; “I love my sister-in-law!” She’s the one that first told me about this drink. We have been enjoying the good health benefits of it for several weeks now. That being said; we have a 15 year old dog (Jack/terrier-mix, rescued from pound, medium sized dog) that has experienced bad health in recent months. She can’t keep weight on, her eyesight is failing her – even has redness around the eyes, she can barely hear anymore, and she has lost a few teeth. We used to always joke about whether or not we will come home to a dead dog sometime – but only joking about it. The other day, she woke up with labored breathing, droopy infected eyes, a rattling cough, no appetite, and absolutely lethargic. We were all freaking out and calling the family in to “pay our last respects” to the ol’ girl. After everyone had all but written her off, I got the idea to feed her some Kombucha. I put some in her evening meal (remembering to start out with small amounts so as not to hurt her or give her cramps). We had a hard time convincing her to eat (she really was VERY lethargic) but she got it all down. In about two hours after consuming the Kombucha, the infected eyes looked like they were itching her. She rubbed at them a bit then settled in to sleep the night away. By morning, I couldn’t believe it, the infection was gone, the swelling was down, and she had energy! I put more Kombucha in her morning meal and she ate heartily. By afternoon, the redness around her eyes was almost completely cleared up! I was a fan of the stuff before but, now, I’m nearly fanatic! lol. The skeptics of yesterday that were calling for her “humane ending” just got KomBUcha-schooled! I’m almost convinced one could go so far as to say, “Drink Kombucha, live forever!” heeheehee. It surely revived our elderly canine family member…

  2. My friend gave me a SCOBY and I brewed it starting last Sunday and took my first drink today. I blogged about it here, so glad to have finally succeeded.

  3. I love your site and am so glad I found it on Pinterest.

    I make my own SCOBY using the method mentioned here. No need to pay top dollar to purchase one. Please try…


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