I started making my own kombucha years ago when I first moved to California and discovered this weird-sounding new drink on store shelves. I’m a fan of anything sour, tart, and tangy, so with kombucha, it was love at first sip.
I loved it so much that I eventually wrote a book about kombucha, along with cider, beer, and other favorite homemade beverages called True Brews. Astute readers will notice that the method I give here is a little different from the one I first shared in the book, and also a little different from the recipe I shared on The Kitchn a few years ago—I’ve streamlined the method over the years and tried to make it a little more approachable for new brewers.
WHAT IS KOMBUCHA?
Kombucha is a fizzy drink made by fermenting sweetened tea. It starts off tasting like your average glass of sugary Southern sweet tea, but after a week or two of fermentation, it transforms into a tart, tangy, effervescent beverage. It’s not for everyone, certainly, but for those of us who love those kinds of flavors, it’s unbeatable.
This fermentation is made possible thanks to something called a SCOBY. This stands of “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” Dig around the internet for long enough and you might also hear this scoby referred to as a “mother” or a “mushroom.”
The scoby looks and feels like a flat, rubbery, beige-colored pancake—not the most appealing thing, to be sure, but it houses all the yeast and beneficial bacteria needed to ferment the sweet tea into kombucha. It’s similar to the mother used to make vinegar or the starter used to make sourdough bread.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF KOMBUCHA?
Why would anyone want to make fermented tea using a blobby pancake? Well, aside from just liking the way it tastes, kombucha also contains a lot of beneficial probiotics, which many of us believe help out with gut health.
You hear a lot of pretty far-out health claims about kombucha — everything from “it made my acne go away” to “it cures baldness.” Personally speaking, I just find that regularly drinking kombucha seems to keep my whole digestive system happy. It’s not a cure-all and it’s doesn’t produce miracles, but personally, I think it’s overall beneficial for my health.
If you’ve never tried kombucha before, I recommend picking up a bottle at the store before making it yourself just to see if you like it. GT’s is a very good, widely available brand, though it tends to be fairly vinegary and tart. If you want a gentler introduction, seek out locally made brands of kombucha, which I often find to be sweeter and less assertively vinegary.
The Ingredients for Kombucha
Here’s what you need to make a batch of kombucha at home:
- Water: Filtered water or spring water is best for making kombucha, but if your tap water tastes good to drink, then it’s usually totally fine to use it to make kombucha.
- Sugar: You can use any cane or beet sugar to make your kombucha, including regular table sugar, turbinado, demerara, sugar-in-the-raw, or brown sugar. Alternative sugars, like agave and coconut sugar, are trickier to work with and can cause problems with fermentation; wait to experiment with them until you have more experience brewing kombucha. Do not use artificial sweeteners like stevia or Sweet-and-Low; these will not work to make kombucha.
- Caffeinated tea: Any caffeinated tea can be used to make kombucha: black tea, green tea, oolong tea, or white tea. Avoid herbal teas or any teas with essential oils (like Earl Grey); these can cause problems with fermentation and potentially lead to mold growth on the scoby.
- “Prepared kombucha”: For the “prepared kombucha” either use store-bought, unflavored kombucha or a few cups of homemade kombucha saved from your last batch. (Flavored kombuchas can cause mold growth on the scoby, but I have heard from people who’ve successfully used ginger kombucha and citrus-flavored kombuchas for this ingredient.)
- The scoby: You can get a scoby from a kombucha-making friend, grow one yourself, or order one online from a place like Kombucha Kamp. If you order online, I recommend getting a “live” scoby in its liquid rather than a dehydrated scoby if possible; live scobys are generally heartier and easier to get going than dehydrated scobys.
How to Grow Your Own Scoby
Growing your own scoby from scratch is possible, but can be hit or miss. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t and either the scoby never forms or it develops mold. If you want to give this a try, just be prepared for a bit of a science experiment!
To grow your own scoby:
- Prepare a half batch of the recipe below, but leave out the scoby (obviously!). Cover with a double layer of a tightly woven napkin or tea towel secured with a rubber band and leave the jar somewhere out of the way. Try not to move it or jostle it since this can make the scoby take longer to form.
- Let the jar sit for one to four weeks. Check it after one week and then every few days after that. If all is well, you’ll see bubbles forming on the surface, which will eventually join together into a thin, transparent layer that looks and feels kind of like a contact lens. This layer will start to thicken and turn opaque.
- Once it’s about 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick, it’s ready. You can use it to make your first official batch of kombucha. You can also use the remaining liquid as your “prepared kombucha.”
Equipment for Making Kombucha
- Stockpot (at least 8-quart or larger): This is for making the sweet tea base.
- 1-gallon glass jar: You’ll use this for actually brewing the kombucha. You can use two 64-oz jars instead, but note that you’ll need one scoby for each jar.
- Finely-woven flour sack dishcloths: A double layer of dishcloths is used to cover the jar, allowing airflow in but keeping bugs and dirt out. You can also use tightly-woven tea towels, napkins, or other lint-free cloths.
- Swing-top glass bottles, or an assortment of recycled plastic soda bottles: This is for bottling your kombucha! Either brown or clear glass bottles are fine. Be sure to use swing-top bottles that are intended for brewing and holding carbonated beverages; ones that are just meant to hold water don’t have a strong enough stopper to allow the kombucha to carbonate properly.
- Small plastic funnel: You’ll use this to transfer the kombucha into bottles.
How to Make Kombucha
Making your own kombucha is actually a surprisingly easy and straightforward process. First, make a strong, sweet tea and let it cool. Transfer it to a gallon jar and slip the scoby into the liquid. It usually floats, but it might also sink to the bottom, float sideways, or move up and down during the course of fermentation; all of these are fine!
Cover the jar with a double-layer of finely-woven dish towels secured with a rubber band. This lets air flow into the jar and keeps bugs and dirt from getting it. Place the jar somewhere away from direct sunlight where it won’t get jostled too much and where the temperature is about 70°F – 75°F on average. Kombucha will ferment faster at higher temperatures or slower at lower temperatures.
Let the kombucha ferment for one to three weeks. During this time, the yeast and bacteria in the scoby will start consuming the sugar in the sweet tea, and the kombucha will become gradually more tart and tangy. Start tasting it after a week; just pour a little from the jar into a glass. Once the kombucha tastes good to you, it’s ready to be bottled.
How to Bottle Kombucha
Before you bottle, be sure to remove and set aside two cups to use as the prepared kombucha for your next batch!
Transfer the remaining kombucha to clean swing-top bottles or recycled plastic soda bottles. Secure the caps and leave the kombucha at room temperature for one to five days to carbonate. Each batch of kombucha will ferment at a slightly different rate based on how much sugar is still in the kombucha, the temperature, and whether you added any flavorings.
Check each day by opening up one of the bottles. When you hear a soft pop! and see bubbles flowing to the surface of the liquid after you open it, it’s ready! Refrigerate all bottles and drink within two weeks.
Ways to Flavor Kombucha
Plain, unflavored kombucha is all well and good, but flavoring your kombucha can be a whole lot of fun! Here are some favorites:
- Fruit Juice: Add a small amount of juice to each bottle of kombucha. I usually add 1/4 cup or so to each bottle and then top with kombucha. Use more or less depending on the size of your bottle and how fruity you like your kombucha. Some favorite flavors are cherry, blueberry, grape, cranberry, pomegranate, and mango.
- Whole Fruit: You can also chop up some fruit to flavor your kombucha, which is nice if you want a flavor like strawberry or plum that you can’t easily find as fruit juice. You can either add chopped fruit directly to the bottles, or you can transfer the kombucha to a new 1-gallon jar with the chopped fruit, cover and steep for a few days, then strain and bottle. Note that a new scoby may form on the top of the liquid; this is fine and normal, and can be discarded before drinking.
- Ginger: Chopped fresh ginger or ginger juice make a spicy, tingly kombucha. Add it by itself, or along with your favorite juice. (Do not use powdered ginger since it doesn’t dissolve and makes the kombucha taste gritty.)
- Fresh Herbs or Whole Spices: Chopped fresh herbs (rosemary! thyme! basil!) or whole spices (cinnamon! cloves! cardamom!) add a subtle punch of flavor to plain kombucha. I also like combining these with fruit or fruit juice. (Strawberry basil is a favorite!)
Note that adding fruit juice or chopped fruit to your kombucha tends to make it carbonate much faster. The sugars in these ingredients are like a fresh meal to the yeast in the kombucha! Check your bottles a little more frequently than you would otherwise.
Your Next Batch of Kombucha!
Properly cared for, your scoby will last for a very, very, very long time and allow you to make batch after batch of kombucha. With each new batch, another layer will grow on the surface of the kombucha. You can peel off this new layer and give it to a friend, use it to start a second jar of kombucha, compost it, or discard it. You can also just leave it, though eventually, your scoby will grow so thick that you’ll need to peel off some layers!
Scobys are happiest if you start a new batch brewing as soon as you’re done with the last one—this is like giving your scoby regularly scheduled meals. You don’t need to do anything special to your scoby between batches; just take it from a finished jar of kombucha and add it to a fresh jar of sweet tea.
If you want to take a break or you’re going on vacation, that’s totally fine. Leave your scoby in a jar of sweet tea and just let it ferment on the counter. The scoby will be perfectly happy hanging out for weeks or even months as long as it’s submerged in liquid. Check it occasionally and top it off with some fresh sweet tea if needed.
There’s a brown spot on my scoby! And weird brown threads hanging off of it! Help!
Worried people send me photos of their scobys every day, and 99.9% of the time, that brown spot and those threads hanging off of it are clumps of yeast. This is totally normal and actually a sign of a healthy scoby.
I’m not sure if this is yeast or actually mold. How can I tell?
Yeast will look kind of like dirty brown pond algae; it will be wet and slimy, and feel gritty if you rub it between your fingers. Mold looks a lot like the mold that grows on an old loaf of bread; it will be different colors and look fuzzy (not slimy). Also, mold will get worse and worse, blooming across the top of the scoby over the course of a few days. If you’re not sure, just wait a few days and see what happens.
I definitely have mold on my scoby. Can I save it?
Sadly, no. If your scoby has grown mold, it’s really best to toss it and start again with a fresh scoby. I’m sorry!
My tea bags burst and now there’s tea in my scoby!
Strain out any loose tea and transfer the liquid to a new jar. If any tea is stuck to your scoby, try to pick it out as soon as you notice. Keep an eye on your scoby for the next week or so to make sure no mold starts to grow.
My scoby sunk to the bottom! Or is floating in the middle! Is it ok?
Yup! While scobys usually float on the surface of the liquid, it’s totally fine if they sink to the bottom (see photo above!) or even float in the middle of the liquid. Scobys tend to become more buoyant the longer you brew with them.
My kombucha isn’t carbonating. What did I do wrong?
There are lots of reasons why your kombucha might be carbonating slowly or not carbonating at all. The most common reason is that the seals on your bottles aren’t totally air tight—either they’re old and worn out, or you’re not using bottles intended to hold carbonated beverages. The second most common reason is that there isn’t enough sugar left in the kombucha. The yeast make the carbon dioxide that carbonates your kombucha by eating sugar, so if there’s no sugar, there’s no carbonation. Try adding a few mashed up raisins to the bottles or a little fruit juice.
FOOD SAFETY AND MAKING KOMBUCHA AT HOME
Kombucha is very safe to make at home, even without sterilizing or using fancy equipment. The very act of fermentation protects the beverage (and you) against anything truly harmful, which is how humans have made food safe to eat for centuries. If your kombucha ferments even a little bit, it’s safe for you to drink.
This said, of course, you should use your best judgment and take note of the following:
- Clean all your equipment thoroughly before making kombucha, including your hands.
- The kombucha should smell fresh and vinegary as it ferments. If it starts to smell foul, or if you see mold growing on the surface of the scoby, discard both the scoby and the kombucha and start over again with fresh ingredients.
However, be careful of confusing “bad” signs with signs that are just unfamiliar. When you first start making kombucha, everything is new. Something that might be perfectly normal – like the smell of vinegar or some brown clumps of yeast – might make you worry that something has gone wrong.
A good rule of thumb to follow is that if something is bad, it will generally get a lot worse, the way one speck of mold on a loaf of bread will quickly turn the whole loaf green. If you’re not sure whether something with your kombucha or scoby is good or bad, just wait a few days and check again. If you’re still not sure, wait a few more days. If it hasn’t really changed, then it’s probably fine.
ALCOHOL IN KOMBUCHA
There is a small amount of alcohol in all kombucha, even store-bought kombucha. Most of the alcohol is converted into acetic acid and other non-boozy things during fermentation, but it’s not a perfect system. On average, a serving of kombucha contains less than 1% alcohol (which is much less than even a light beer).