Maggie and I are strong proponents of “hands-on” living. We believe raising and making our own products and meals is superior to simply purchasing our needs and wants.
Taking this route may be more costly, but saving money is only one form of wealth building. Another is having a stronger connection to what you use and eat, or creating something that ends up on your plate or in your glass.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this approach is seeing the ratio of items served at the dining table change over time to a greater percentage of items we raised or made ourselves. It’s an ongoing pursuit that is gratifying.
Items that come to mind are eggs from our chickens, fresh oatmeal honey bread using local honey from our beekeeper friends, jams from the fruit in our orchard, grape juice from our vineyard, eggplant parmigiana from our tomatoes, spices and eggplant from the garden, kale and citrus salad, and an effervescent drink: kombucha.
This drink is made by fermenting tea and sugar with kombucha culture. The resulting drink has very little alcohol in it (typically less than one-half of a percent), carbonation from the carbon dioxide that is produced during the ripening phase, and lots of live beneficial probiotic organisms. The taste varies depending on the type of tea used, as well as what flavorings may have been added after the brewing is done. Basic kombucha, which is what we make, is a somewhat sweet and sour taste (with tones of apple cider vinegar), and with a slight fizz. We’ve found it to be quite refreshing, and really cuts the thirst after a good session in the garden!
Kombucha is immensely popular and is being discovered by new consumers. We encountered it about five years ago when we visited our daughter in California. She managed the deli in a natural foods cooperative and introduced us to this “new” drink. But like the book of Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Kombucha’s genesis is more than 2,000 years ago. There are historical references in the Chinese Manchurian culture from 221 B.C.
Like all traditions and history from antiquity, it is difficult to be precise about the origin of kombucha in different cultures. Although who did what first is uncertain, we do know there is a kombucha tradition in China, Korea, Japan, Russia and Eastern European countries.
The name “kombucha” is believed to have come from Japan around 400 AD. A Korean physician named Kombu (or possibly Kambu) is said to have used the tea to treat the Japanese Emperor Inyko for some sort of malady. As the story goes, “kombucha” is the combination of the physician’s name, “Kombu” and “cha,” meaning tea.
Whatever its background, the beverage’s popularity is growing. The consumer interest in the U.S. has been strong enough to get the attention of beverage giant PepsiCo, which acquired the KeVita brand in 2016. KeVita’s products include kombucha and probiotic drinks.
There have been some strong claims made for kombucha, including miracle cures. One popular brand, GT Dave’s, still has a statement on the company website about the curative power of the beverage in curing breast cancer in the mother of the company’s founder. While there has been studies showing that kombucha doesn’t have these types of healing qualities, there are benefits it does provide.
Kombucha does contain a significant amount of live cultures, as well as vinegar related acids. Unpasteurized kombucha, which has not been put through a high heat process, contains probiotics. This has been documented.
Much like desirable cultures in certain dairy products such as yogurt, kefir and cheese, kombucha provides microorganisms that are friendly to the human digestive system. These tiny “bugs” provide anti-inflammatory properties. As you are probably aware, various forms of inflammation in the body are associated with differing negative conditions and diseases. To what level a regular diet of kombucha helps address this is up for debate.
I enjoy the taste of kombucha, its immediate thirst quenching properties, the energizing sensation, and I’ve had a reduction of acid reflux, which has long plagued me. Because the drink is slightly acidic, it does cause a pH change in the stomach. I started drinking it in smaller quantities and now have about eight to 16 ounces (one or two cups) a day. While it’s possible there is a placebo effect going on, I have noticed that I don’t need nearly as much Nexium (Omeprazole) to keep reflux at bay.
Kombucha currently retails for $2.50 to $3.50 per 16-ounce bottle. That can be pricey, although it’s in the same neighborhood as some “boutique” drinks at a coffeehouse, or cola-based drinks at a “Sodalicious” type drive-thru. Said plainly, you can spend a lot with a beverage habit, including kombucha.
But I’ve learned that making your own kombucha is a simple and cost-effective way to enjoy the drink without breaking the piggybank, and having the satisfaction of crafting your own beverage.
When kombucha is brewing, the appearance of the culture, known as a scoby, can be gross to some people. It was to me the first time I saw one. “Scoby” is an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria (and) yeast.” The scoby is a tan to caramel-colored rubbery pancake that floats on top of or is suspended in the mixture. Like a sourdough culture used in bread making, the scoby turns a mixture of sugar-sweetened black or green tea into an elixir.
To make a new batch, begin with one cup of sugar dissolved in boiling water, along with eight bags of tea added and brewed in the sugar water until it cools to room temperature. The bags are removed and squeezed out, and the cooled tea is poured into a gallon glass jar.
To assure that no “unfriendly” organisms get into the tea while it is fermenting, a couple of cups of mature kombucha — which is acidic — is blended in as well. The lower pH preserves the mixture. Water is then added to make a gallon and the scoby is placed in the mixture. The top of the container is covered with a close-knit fabric or paper towel to keep insects out, particularly fruit flies that can be attracted to the vinegary smell.
The yeast begins consuming the sugar, producing a flavor change and developing moderate levels of alcohol. The bacteria in the scoby then converts the alcohol into vitamins and friendly acidic compounds, including acetic acid, with a typical alcohol level under one percent.
Curing is done at room temperature and takes about a week to 10 days. Once a batch has ripened, the scoby is lifted out and set aside, two cups of the mature mixture is set aside to put in a new batch, and the remaining liquid is strained and bottled. We make a gallon at a time, and are able to fill six two-cup bottles each time that we have collected from earlier kombucha purchases.
The volume produced can be easily scaled up or down. During hotter times of the year, production is raised to two- gallon batches at a time. The scoby is easily divided because it develops layers over time that can be readily peeled apart.
You can learn to craft kombucha by reading Emma Christensen’s excellent book, “True Brews,” as well as reading some of her articles and recipes on the culinary website www.thekitchn.com. Christensen will teach you how to make your own scoby from a bottle of unpasteurized kombucha you can buy at the store. While on the website, just enter “How to make your own kombucha scoby” in the search box, and you’ll be on your way to a whole new culinary adventure.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.