Make Your Own Kombucha
What exactly is Kombucha?
If you translate directly from Japanese, kombucha means kelp tea: “kombu” is a type of Japanese kelp, and “cha” means tea in Japanese. In general, a good rule of thumb is that if the name of your tea ends in ‘cha,’ it’s probably Japanese—such as sencha, matcha, and genmaicha. The deeper you look though, the weirder the story of kombucha gets. If you went to Japan and ordered a cup of kombucha, you’d get a tea brewed from Japanese kelp rather than the fermented, fizzy green or black tea based drink you might have come across in the US. So then how did kombucha get its name if kelp never touches it?
There’s one common story about a Korean doctor bringing this tea to Japan to treat the emperor somewhere in the first half of the 5th century, though it’s likely inaccurate and virtually never cited . Though not popular in Japan, there is a Japanese name for what we call Kombucha: koucha kinoko, which roughly means “black tea mushroom.” This is another misnomer, though one that makes more sense, considering the specific thing that ferments the tea does indeed look like a mushroom. Coincidentally—or perhaps not coincidentally—the Russian name for kombucha is chayniy grib, which also roughly translates as ‘tea mushroom.’ Another less common theory is that the name kombucha was a misinterpreted loan word, since strands of yeast and bacteria that form in the fermenting process look a bit like seaweed. This can likely be comfortably ruled out, as though they may look a bit like seaweed, they don’t really look anything like konbu—the specific type of kelp this tea is purported to be named after in this story.
To answer the original question, Kombucha is a specific type of fermented tea that may trace its roots to China as far back as when the Terracotta Army was made. The fermenting process involves something called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast), which despite not containing any fungus looks considerably like a mushroom (or as others have observed, a jellyfish—though I wouldn’t have been brave enough to be the first to try it, I’m certainly glad someone did). In the fermenting process, a SCOBY is added to sweetened tea, where the sugar and caffeine are broken down by the bacteria and yeast and CO2 is produced, carbonating the drink if properly bottled.
Kombucha is widely available, and there’s a good chance you could find it in your nearest supermarket. As hinted at earlier, kombucha has been popular in Russia for decades, though its popularity has exploded across the US in the last decade or so. While fantastic in its own right, kombucha is also a great soda substitute. Some people warn about the acidity of kombucha, and to be fair it can be pretty acidic. Finished kombucha has a pH of between 2.5 and 3.5, somewhere between a lemon and a tomato. Keep in mind though, Coke has a pH of about 2.4, Gatorade tends to be around 3.0, and sprite is somewhere in the range of 3.3 .
How to Make it at Home
If you like kombucha, however, and you’re willing to wait a bit, you can always make your own for only the price of a SCOBY, a simple black (or maybe green) tea, and sugar—all in all, about the price of 4 bottles of kombucha. What’s even better, buying a SCOBY is a one-time cost, as there are stories of people using the same SCOBY for years or even decades, and if you know a kombucha brewer you might be able to get one from them. Everyone has their own way of doing it but in general the process is fairly simple.
*A note about homebrewing: like everything, there are some potential risks with homebrewing. Kombucha is a bit acidic and alcoholic, as byproducts of the fermentation process. This helps preserve the drink, and the level of acidity and alcohol are usually not enough to cause problems unless you’re particularly sensitive to either and you use a glass container. If you do brew your own, keep in mind that like any food, you shouldn’t drink it if it smells or tastes off. Now, it’s possible to get sick from homemade kombucha, though these stories are fairly rare, and what’s much more common are stories of people brewing for years or decades without a single problem. In other words, like everything there’s a bit of risk, so pay attention to your observations and use your best judgement. Currently, I’m making my own which is well on its way and tasting better than I’d expected.
Step 1) Make 2 cups of strong black tea (roughly 6 teabags, or teaspoons, for a gallon) and dissolve 1 cup of sugar into it. It’s important not to skimp too much on the sugar here. If you don’t have enough you’ll starve your SCOBY, which breaks it down in the fermenting process.
Step 2) Pour your sweetened tea mixture into a glass gallon jar and fill the rest of the way with filtered room-temperature water, then place your SCOBY in.
Step 3) Then cover the jar with a cloth and leave it to ferment for somewhere between a week and a month—generally, if it’s warmer your kombucha will ferment faster, and if it’s cooler it’ll go slower. That said, too hot and you’ll kill your SCOBY; too cold, and you might get mold. Try to keep your brew somewhere around 75 degrees, and once your SCOBY starts to get thick your brew should be ready.
Not only is it cheaper than store bought after your initial investment, you can tweak it to suit your exact tastes. There are plenty of great resources on brewing your own kombucha from people who’ve been at it for years, and none of them are too complicated or time intensive.
Step 4) The real fun of the process for many comes after the first fermentation. Keep about 2 cups of the kombucha you’ve just made to start your next batch, and pour the rest into flip top bottles with whatever fruit and flavoring you want.
I’d recommend leaving room at the top of your bottle to allow the gas produced by fermentation to expand—filling up to about the neck usually works. I’m a big proponent of storing these in a cardboard box just in case they get a little too excited and pop on you. In general, it’s advisable to open the bottles about once a day to release excess carbonation. (I learned this one the hard way—depending on what exactly is added, they’ll ferment at different rates meaning that one bottle may be barely carbonated while another might be about ready to explode.) Once they reach the desired amount of carbonation, you can store them in a refrigerator. The cooler temperatures will all but stop the fermentation, so it won’t be necessary to keep opening them. When you open your bottles, champagne rules apply: point the top of the bottle away from anything you’re too afraid of breaking just in case, and be ready for a bit to overflow.
As for what you should add to your kombucha to flavor it, there’s no right answer. Any combination of your favorite fruits, herbs, and spices could yield good results. Otherwise, you can think about some of your favorite flavor combinations or look to different types of kombucha others have made for inspiration. Generally, about ¼ - ⅓ of a cup of fruit added along with the kombucha when you bottle it will do the trick. It’s not generally advisable to add any flavors during the original fermentation process (as well as avoid using flavored teas as your base) as it may harm the SCOBY.
A fun thing about homebrewing is that everyone does it a bit differently. Some people say to leave kombucha for strictly 7-10 days during the first fermentation, while others recommend 2-3 weeks, or even a month during the winter. Some people swear by filling bottles as close to the top as possible and/or never releasing the CO2 (although this just seems like a good way to create an unwanted champagne-like explosion, but more messy and less fun). Some people skip the second fermentation entirely. And none of these are wrong! The shorter your ferment, the sweeter your kombucha, the longer the more acidic. The less you open your bottles and the more you fill them, the more carbonated your final product, at the cost of an over-carbonated bottle being a mess or mild explosion. Kombucha is great straight after the first ferment, and the type of tea used can make a huge difference, though a second ferment can add plenty of fun flavors. And since every batch leaves you with a new SCOBY, some people even eat the old one! (I’m not quite there yet myself, but you do you.) The point is, experiment, and you might find something new and fun. As long as you like what you’re drinking, you made it right.
 “Origins and Legends of the Kombucha Mushroom Tea.” Kombucha Kamp, Kombucha Kamp, 4 Mar. 2021, www.kombuchakamp.com/what-is-kombucha/history-and-legends-of-kombucha.
 Reddy et al. "The pH of Beverages in the United States." Journal of American Dental Association. December, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.adaj.2015.10.019