Kombucha: Tips & Troubleshooting

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a gallon jar of brewing kombucha with a purple cover on top

“I approach cooking from a science angle because I need to understand how things work. If I understand the egg, I can scramble it better. It’s a simple as that.”
~ Alton Brown

Tips for a Successful Brew

So, you’ve read my first article in this Kombucha Series: Myths vs. Truths, and now you’re ready to make your first batch of home-brewed kombucha. Awesome. You need to gather a few things together:

  • First, you’ll need a SCOBY. Where do you get it? Ask around among your friends. If any of them are brewing kombucha, they can give you a SCOBY, because a new one (called the baby) is created with every batch. If you are the first in your social circle to brew kombucha, you have lots of options: (1) You can buy a SCOBY online through places like Kombucha Kamp. (2) You can join a fermentation group on Facebook and see if there’s a SCOBY source in your region. (3) You can try to grow your own SCOBY from a bottle of unpasteurized store-bought kombucha. Alexandra of the Creative Simple Life blog shows you how.
  • Next you need to choose your tea. Black, green or white tea all provide the chemical composition your SCOBY needs, because they are created from the same plant (Camellia sinensis). The difference is when they’re picked and how they’re dried. White tea is made from the earliest leaf harvest and the leaves are simply sun dried. Green and black tea are made from the later tea harvest, with green tea being steamed and black tea being fermented. Many kombucha enthusiasts like to use a blend of green and black tea, saying it creates the most beneficial blend of acids, combined with the best taste. However, people have had success with 100% black, green or white tea. If you would like to add one or two herbal tea bags to your blend, for added flavor, that’s fine, but you cannot make kombucha with 100% herbal tea. Also, be sure to read the labels on herbal tea blends and ensure that it’s pure tea. Many of them contain soy lecithin and “natural flavors” – a term which hides a number of ingredients that might harm you or the SCOBY.
  • Where do I get my starter tea? Starter tea is simply previously brewed kombucha. Usually, you’ll be given some with your SCOBY. You’ll need at least 1 cup. If you have a SCOBY and no starter tea, try to find GT’s Classic “Original” kombucha in one of your local health food stores. This is still raw kombucha (not pasteurized like most store-bought bottles of kombucha). It can act as your starter tea. If you can’t find that brand, look closely at the bottles and find one that is unflavored and clearly marked as being raw and unpasteurized.
  • What kind of sugar should you use? Refined white sugar is the easiest for the SCOBY to digest. Organic evaporated cane juice is second best for the SCOBY, and possibly best for you. Those are the only two recommended sugars. Raw sugars are too difficult for the SCOBY to digest and the SCOBY suffers over time. Raw honey can actually kill the SCOBY, due to its anti-microbial properties. Molasses creates a very unpleasant flavor, and stevia starves the SCOBY.
  • What kind of water do you need? You need clean water, free of bacteria and chemicals. Therefore, filtered water is best.
  • What kind of brewing container do I need? You need a wide mouthed glass jar. A gallon mason jar or cookie jar works well, but you can use a smaller or larger container, to suit your needs. Just don’t use plastic, because it will leach into the kombucha, and don’t use metal because it can corrode and harm the SCOBY. Bonus tip: the wider the diameter of the top of your jar, the wider your SCOBY will grow and the faster your kombucha will brew.
  • Do you need to sterilize the jar? No. There’s a difference between clean and sterile, and your goal is clean. Simply wash the container with dish soap, hot water and a little distilled white vinegar. Rinse it well. Never use bleach, and never use antibacterial soap. Similarly, when you wash your hands before handling the SCOBY, you want them clean, but not antibacterial. The SCOBY is alive and vulnerable to sterile potions.
  • Should the jar be airtight, or open to the environment? Somewhere in between. Your SCOBY needs to breathe, but it also needs to be protected. Cover the top of your jar with a tightly woven cloth, secured with a rubber band. This allows air in, but keeps contaminants out. Don’t use cheesecloth, because it’s too porous and can let things in that can harm your kombucha.
  • Where’s the best spot to brew kombucha? Someplace warm, out of direct sunlight, with plenty of air flow, away from your garbage can and away from plants. Why? Your garbage and plants can have mold or harmful bacteria present, and you don’t want those drifting over to your kombucha. Don’t put it in a cupboard, or it won’t get enough air flow. So, where do you put it? Some people brew their kombucha on top of the fridge, others on the kitchen counter, others in their living room. Find a space where you can leave it undisturbed during its brew cycle.
  • What is the best brewing temperature? Kombucha thrives between 72-85 degrees. Temperatures in the 90’s will eventually kill the SCOBY. Temperatures in the 60’s will put it to sleep. So, what do you do in the winter? One idea is to set your jar on a seedling mat. They raise the temperature by about 10 degrees. Alternatively, you can set a tall lamp over the kombucha, and a 25 watt bulb shining down will do the same thing. Make sure there’s about a foot between the bulb and the SCOBY, so you don’t risk overheating. Or, you can buy a heating system designed for kombucha fermentation, which keeps the brew at a perfect temperature year-round. Update 2015: After 2 years of using a seedling mat, I upgraded to this kombucha heater, and the difference it made was extraordinary! It cut my brewing time in half, my SCOBYs grew 3 times as thick, my brew was fizzier, richer in flavor, and I believe richer in probiotics.
  • How long does it need to brew? This varies, based on temperature and the maturity and health of your SCOBY, anywhere from 7 to 30 days. Let taste be your guide. The beneficial probiotics and acids are rich when the drink is tangy sour, with a little sweetness remaining. This averages 8 days at 80 degrees and 15 days at 72 degrees. If you brew it the full 30 days, it will be completely sour; some people do this, and then combine it with juice to drink. Don’t brew beyond 30 days, though, because the SCOBY will start to starve.
  • What’s a SCOBY baby? With each batch of kombucha you brew, your SCOBY will reproduce. You’ll notice it getting thicker, and the layer on top is a baby SCOBY. For the first few batches, you can simply keep them together, to strengthen your brew. However, once they reach 2 inches thick, it’s time to separate them. Gently peel them apart. Keep whichever one appears healthiest. If they both appear healthy, keep one as a backup SCOBY (explained in the next tip below).
  • What’s a SCOBY hotel? This is the place you keep a backup SCOBY, in case yours develops mold or other problems. Just clean a quart-sized glass jar, and put a SCOBY inside. Fill the jar halfway with brewed unflavored kombucha. Cover the jar with a tight fitting lid and put it in the cupboard. Check on it every month or so, to see if it needs more liquid (you always want the liquid to cover the SCOBY, and it can evaporate over time.) You can also store more than one SCOBY in the hotel at the same time. Just be sure that you don’t refrigerate your SCOBY. That can kill it or make it prone to mold.
  • What do you do with your kombucha when you go on vacation? Since a SCOBY can safely ferment at room temperature for 30 days, just let it brew while you’re gone.
  • How much kombucha should you drink? Start off slowly, with just one or two ounces, and see how your body reacts. If you have no adverse reaction, slowly increase to 8 ounces. Once you tolerate that level, you can decide whether you’d like to have a bottle of kombucha a few times per week, or smaller amounts on a daily basis. Although some people drink a few bottles daily, that’s not necessary. Fermented foods are very effective in small quantities, and it’s better to diversify your fermented foods than overdo on one kind. In fact, many people say that 4 oz. daily is a medicinal dose.
  • When should I drink it? Advice on this varies. Some people like it first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, allowing the probiotics to enter the digestive tract, and the detoxifying acids to enter the bloodstream, without delay. Others prefer to have it with food, because it aids digestion. There is no right or wrong here. Try it both ways, and see what works best for you.

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Sometimes even when you try to do everything right, you run into trouble. Here are solutions to the most common problems:

  • Too sweet; my kombucha doesn’t seem to be fermenting: Usually this just means you need to ferment longer. Continue to check it every few days. Other considerations are: (1) Did you add enough starter tea? For every new gallon batch of kombucha, you want to add at least 1 cup of fermented kombucha. (2) Are you using flavored teas? Sometimes these have essentials oils that harm the SCOBY. Use plain black, green or white tea instead. (3) Check your room temperature – it needs to be at least 72 degrees. If it’s not, try one of the heat boosting techniques listed above. (4) Your SCOBY needs to breathe. Make sure you have it in an open location and not stored in a cabinet or closet. (5) Did you accidentally add your SCOBY to the brewed sweet tea when the tea was still warm? This can kill the SCOBY. Make sure your tea has cooled off to 80 degrees before adding it. (6) If you’ve done all this and your kombucha still doesn’t seem to be brewing, you might need a new SCOBY.
  • Too sour: This just means it fermented too long. You can still drink it by combining it with fruit juice to be palatable. You can also use it for salad dressings. In future batches, taste test it sooner. If you live in a hot climate and your room temperature is hot and therefore brewing the kombucha too quickly, try to find a cooler spot in the house to put your kombucha.
  • Not enough carbonation: The fizz of kombucha is part of the fun. If you’re new to brewing, it can take a few batches before your SCOBY is mature enough to produce this effect. Here are some tricks to enhance the fizz: (1) Green tea tends to produce more carbonation than black tea; (2) After you brew your kombucha, pour it into airtight bottles and let them ferment at room temperature for a few days before moving them to the fridge.
  • My SCOBY looks funny: The good news is that SCOBYs often look funny, and yet they’re still healthy. Here are some normal variations: (1) It looks like a jellyfish; (2) It looks like a pancake; (3) It’s bumpy instead of smooth; (4) It has holes in it; (5) It’s floating sideways in the jar; (6) It sunk to the bottom of the jar; (7) It’s dark brown; (8) It has brown sludge on the bottom and brown stringy things suspended in the liquid (this is the beneficial yeast ); (9) It has white dots on the surface (that’s a new SCOBY starting to form); (10) There’s sediment in the bottom of my container. With all of these variations, there’s no need to worry. They’re perfectly normal.
  • My SCOBY is fuzzy with blue spots: Ooooh, this is bad news. That’s mold and cannot be salvaged. Throw away the SCOBY and the kombucha. Clean your container thoroughly with soap, water and vinegar. Start over with a new SCOBY. Kombucha Kamp has an excellent page which shows the difference between normal healthy variations in SCOBY appearance and signs of mold.
  • How do I prevent mold? The good news is that mold in kombucha is rare, but there are steps you can take to minimize the possibility: (1) The 1 cup of starter tea you add to every new batch of kombucha is the key to preventing mold from forming; don’t skip this step. (Starter tea is fermented kombucha.) (2) You can add 1 Tbsp. distilled white vinegar to the brew, to enhance its anti-mold power. Don’t use apple cider vinegar, though, because it’s a living food that can take over the SCOBY. (3) Make sure your kombucha isn’t brewing near plants or garbage; both can be mold carriers. (4) Make sure the cloth covering your container is tightly woven; loosely woven cloth (like cheesecloth) is more likely to let in contaminants. (5) Don’t smoke near your kombucha. (6) When you clean your jar between batches, make sure there’s no food or soap residue left behind; both can lead to mold. Rinse very well. (7) Be sure your hands are clean when handling the SCOBY. (8) Is your kombucha brewing in a humid location? This makes it more susceptible to mold. (9) Do you heat the entire gallon of sweet tea when you start a new batch of kombucha? This takes longer to cool and there’s an opportunity for mold/bacteria to be attracted to the sugar during the cooling process. Instead, boil just a quart of water and add your tea and sugar to that. Then, once it has brewed, you can add the remaining quarts of cold water to cool your brew quickly. There’s less waiting time this way, as well. You can get a new batch going in about 20 minutes.
  • My SCOBY is black: Sadly, this means your SCOBY is dead. Dump both the SCOBY and tea, clean your container, and get a new SCOBY to start over.
  • I’m overrun with SCOBYs! This happens quickly, as every batch of kombucha creates a SCOBY baby. After you’ve put a few into a SCOBY hotel and given so many to friends that they run when they see you coming, what do you do? You can simply throw them away or compost them in your garden. But you can also use them as a bandaid, a facial treatment, or you can turn them into art: Jewelry, Puppets, Monet Replicas, Sculpture, and Clothing.

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