The complicated process behind it and how to make your own
In a dark, barely used office of The Denver Post, a jar filled with liquid sat on a desk. Floating inside was a whitish glob, with dark, hair-like tendrils hanging down from it, and strands of an almost opaque matter, like a jellyfish, drifting underneath.
Curious reporters did second-takes as they walked past the office door. “What is it?” “It’s alive,” I’d tell them. “What’s it for? A science experiment?” “I’m brewing kombucha.” They weren’t always won over by my confidence that this was completely normal. But I would still offer:
“I’ll let you try it when it’s done.”
Kombucha is a fermented tea. It’s made by introducing a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) into brewed black or green tea, and sugar. The mix is left to ferment for a week to a month. The result is a fizzy drink that can vary from sweet to vinegary, depending on how long it ferments. Fruit, herbs and spices can be added for a second fermentation, to add additional
The popularity of kombucha in Denver is growing. Denver’s Happy Leaf Kombucha not only has its own taproom, but its product is also is showing up on tap in local breweries around town. And American Cultures Kombucha Taproom in the Highland neighborhood serves up flights of the drink brewed all over the state.
I like the slight tangy flavor and fizziness of kombucha. I also appreciate having a different drink to choose from on those all-day brewery crawls through Denver (kombucha is sometimes on tap at craft breweries). Kombucha does have a tiny amount of alcohol, as a byproduct of the fermentation process, but no, you don’t need an ID to get it. To put it into perspective, most kombuchas have between .5 percent and 3 percent alcohol content; a domestic light beer will have around 4.2 percent and most wines have around 12 to 14 percent alcohol content.
While there is little science to back it up, folks who drink kombucha regularly swear to its health benefits.
Haley Bettin, who works at Happy Leaf Kombucha, describes it as “the cure-all that doesn’t really cure anything. It just sets your body to heal itself.” Which, in turn, might help with everything from acne to joint pain.
That may be because kombucha is rich in probiotics, which helps with your overall gut health.
“It just makes me feel better,” says Danielle Brooks, owner of American Culture Kombucha Taproom. She used to have terrible heartburn and said she was taking so much medication that it was destroying her esophagus. Brooks says she started drinking kombucha, and the heartburn went away.
Kombucha is also full of Vitamin B, which helps with energy and clarity, Brooks says.
“I’m a huge fan of drinking it at 2 o’clock to get me through the 2 to 5 part of the day. (But) it’s not like coffee, where you drink it and are buzzed and then crash.”
Her answer to kombucha critics, who say it’s all hype? “Haters gonna hate.” My opinion: It tastes good, so to me any health benefits are secondary.
My jar sat in the office for nine days. Not everyone was standoffish; a few had already discovered the drink in taprooms and on supermarket shelves and were excited to see how it was made.
I moved my fermenting kom- bucha to the conference room for a second fermentation. I strained out the SCOBY, and the dark yeast strains, added blackberries and ginger, and let it sit for another three days.
This is the more attractive stage of the fermentation, when the mixture is bubbly and slightly pink from the berries. More coworkers were signing up to try it.
But there was a little voice in my head that expressed concern: I’d read horror stories on the internet about kombucha that had gone bad.
There is a risk when brewing kombucha, says Ethan Tsai, assistant professor of chemistry at Metropolitan State University of Denver. When you’re trying to get a microorganism — yeast or bacteria — to do the work for you, you provide an attractive environment for all sorts of microbial life, and can risk secondary infections, he says.
Tsai’s advice to avoid infections in home-brewed kombucha is to start with sterilized jars and lids. “The law of the land as a brewer is cleanliness is godliness,” Tsai said.
That means more than just washing everything with warm soap and water. Tasi recommends caustic sterilizing agents that you can find at most stores that sell home-brewing equipment. You can also buy kits to test what bacteria are in the tea, to make sure they’re not harmful.
That’s not something you need to worry about when buying kombucha in stores. And Brooks says all of her providers pass health code regulations. “You can’t just brew it in your house and bring it here,” she says.
Bettin, who has been homebrewing kombucha for years, assured me that it’s pretty obvious when a batch goes bad. It doesn’t look right or taste good.
But fermentation itself is not bad, Tsai says. Beer is also a product of fermentation. “We have harnessed (it) to do a lot of work for us.”
“Fermentation is just when some kind of microbe … yeast or specific bacteria is used to metabolize (or) to consume sugar and have it produce some kind of acid, alcohol or gas,” Tsai says. It happens in wine, when the sugar in grape juice is fermented into the alcohol, in bread when yeast produces CO2, a gas that makes the bread rise, and in yogurt, when bacteria creates lactic acid.
Brooks recommends first-time kombucha home-brewers take a class, such as the ones offered through Happy Leaf Kombucha. (Check their website in January.)
BBB It was time to try my kombucha. I poured it into a glass, and it bubbled up to the edge.
It was sweeter than I expected, but still had that vinegar tang I have come to know in kombucha. I could still taste the black tea, with just the slight amount of fruit. Perhaps it could have used a few more days to ferment.
I poured some for my coworkers.
The two most common responses: “Will this make me sick?” followed by, “Actually, this tastes good.”
A few even came back for seconds. Amy Brothers is a digital photo editor at The Denver Post
SCOBY and the starter liquid are available via online vendors or included in classes offered locally. Adapted from kombuchakamp.com. Ingredients 1 gallon glass container 3 quarts purified water (no chlorine) 1 cup sugar (no Stevia or xylitol) 4-6 tea bags or 4-6 tablespoons loose leaf tea Kombucha SCOBY 1-2 cups of starter liquid (unflavored kombucha from a previous batch, or purchased) Cloth or coffee filter to cover jar Rubber band Directions
Heat 4 cups of purified water in a pot. Just as the water starts to boil, take off heat and let cool 1-2 minutes. Add tea and let steep for 5-7 minutes. Remove tea bags and stir in 1 cup sugar until dissolved.
Pour into glass container and add the remainder of the purified water, which will lower the temperature of the water to lukewarm.
Add SCOBY and starter liquid. Cover container with tightly woven cloth and rubber band.
Place the container in a warm (75-85 degrees) room, in a ventilated area out of direct sunlight for 7-21 days. (The longer it sits, the stronger the vinegar taste, and it may or may not get fizzy. Taste it through a straw after a week to test.) The SCOBY may rise or sink to the bottom; both are fine, since the new culture will always form at the top.
With clean hands, remove the SCOBY from the jar. Place it in a clean container and pour 2 cups of liquid from the top of the brew over it. This will serve as your starter liquid and SCOBY for the next batch. (Note: Never refrigerate the SCOBY and starter. If you see mold, throw it away.)
To store your kombucha, use clean bottles with tight-fitting lids. Avoid metal lids that may corrode.
Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth into the bottles. If flavoring, place fruit, juice (to taste), flowers or herbs into bottled kombucha. Set aside for 1-3 days, burping the bottles daily to release carbonation.
Move bottles to the fridge as they reach the desired flavor.
The above kombucha is infused with blackberries and ginger.
Jenni Lyons fills a growler with kombucha at Happy Leaf Kombucha in Edgewater. Happy Leaf Kombucha was Denver’s first Kombucha tap room and recently moved to Edgewater.
A sampler flight of five varieties of kombucha at Happy Leaf Kombucha.
A SCOBY floats in a batch of kombucha.