Galley Wench Tales

Exploring the world through the people we meet
and the food they eat.

Entering the weird world of kombucha making. Image credit goes to Paul Hammond.

Given my checkered results brewing ginger beer,*  for years I’ve resisted my longtime desire to try my hand at crafting kombucha. 

*When we made ginger beer aboard the results were explosive! Not that my ginger beer was that good – though sometimes it was pretty delish, but that I got a little too carried away in my fermentation experimentation and the concoction container blew up, making a wet sugary mess of my galley.

Besides, Merriam Webster’s kombucha definition 

a gelatinous mass of symbiotic bacteria (as Acetobacter xylinum) and yeasts (as of the genera Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces) grown to produce a fermented beverage held to confer health benefits; also : a somewhat effervescent beverage prepared by fermenting kombucha with black or green tea and sugar” 

sounds remarkably unappetizing!

Then there’s the culture. 

First, there’s the literal special culture — a gross-looking goo — used to affect the transformation. It’s called a SCOBY(symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) used to make this vinegary brew. 

Lionheart starter SCOBY. Mmmm. Don’t you want to just glug this down? Not!

A SCOBY looks like a squid or a jellyfish got into a tussle with a hand mixer and lost the battle but also killed the mixer in the process.  Remember that brilliant comic scene in Young Frankenstein when Marty Feldman fills in Gene Wilder about the source of Frankenstein’s jarred brain explaining, “His name is Abby something — Abby Normal”? That’s what both the goo and the process reminds me of.

Then there’s the counter-culture of kombucha-makers, or at least my perception of “them.”  The ‘booch (pronounced booch) makers, coining such a deceptively cute and cozy name that harkens up images of fluffy miniature alpacas. Those strange modern-day alchemists conjuring up an ancient Chinese brew, intimidating the heck out of me with all the contradictory brewing dos and donts, alternating between long scientific names and acronyms. 

  • Do use a fresh SCOBY. Don’t refrigerate it. A refrigerated SCOBY is fine. Do keep a backup SCOBY in a SCOBY hotel. [My SCOBY gets a hotel!?! Heck I don’t even spring for a hotel for myself!]
  • Don’t use plastic or metal for anything. It reacts badly with kombucha.
  • Don’t cover it with cheesecloth or you’ll get swarmed with fruit flies getting into the brew. Do use cheesecloth. It’s fine.
  • Do add the SCOBY when your sweetened steeped tea temperature is ? degrees. Don’t add the SCOBY before it cools to that temperature or it will kill the SCOBY.
  • Don’t keep in direct sunlight. Do make sure it is well ventilated. Keep its temperature between 70-90 degrees F.
  • Do sterilize everything. Don’t use bleach. Do use Star-San. Don’t use Star-San. 
  • Don’t open your kombucha without chilling it down or it will explode. Don’t wait too long on your F2 or your kombucha will explode.  

What the heck is an F2?!? (F2 is the second fermentation, but I’m getting ahead of myself here).

Did I mention I have an aversion to making things that can explode? Especially when those potential kabooms are fermented in glass containers! And that I live on a boat, usually at anchor, which gets rocked pretty assertively from time to time by river traffic and that kombucha is supposed to be left “undisturbed.”

My gallon kombucha-making jugs. On the left is the SCOBY I pulled out of my first batch to re-use for the next batch.
On the right is the fermented tea, in its first pass of fermentation. The first round of fermentation takes 7-14 days.
My first batch took 10 days.

It’s been a long time since I was accused of being a Birkenstock-wearing granola chick. For the record, I’ve never owned or worn a pair of Birkenstocks, though do like and have made my own granola. And I’ve never braided my armpit hair. 

In my heart of hearts, when it comes to cooking something that strikes me as more akin to a lab experiment, I am more apt to embrace my friend Connie’s alternate definition of DIY (normally do-it-yourself) “delegate it yourself.”

Did I mention kombucha-making strikes me as a science experiment? This Ph test strip was used to test whether my kombucha’s acidity had reached the right level. It had – as I wanted mine toward the more tart, higher acidic level.

While I do lean toward imbibing in more healthy food and drink, I’ve never been into eating or quaffing anything that doesn’t also taste good to me. Yet many a normally kindred soul’s wrinkled their nose at the concept, globular appearance,  vinegary scent or taste of kombucha, even when they’re normally into healthy foods. 

But I genuinely like kombucha. It’s refreshing. That it’s healthy is a bonus. If I didn’t like kombucha I’d be perfectly happy just popping a probiotic pill.

But it irked me to pay $4 for a bottle of something that was mostly water. Worse, most of the kombucha out there was far too sweet for my taste.

Lionheart a local Portland Oregon brewer, makes my favorite kombucha (and their Ginger Fix is my favorite flavor). Lionheart refers to their kombucha as “dry kombucha” because it has the least grams of sugar per serving on the market. My SCOBY culture and brew recipe came from them, with back-up help from Facebook’s Kombucha Home Brewing group and reassurance and a very simple to follow set of directions from Hunter at Main Street Home Brew Supply in Hillsboro.

Setting up for F2 or the second fermentation round. Additional sugar is required to feed the yeasties. It’s also the time to add flavoring if desired. This second fermentation takes 3 more days in bottles sealed with pressure caps.

I dove in.

I bought the supplies

  • 2 1- gallon glass jugs ($4 each – used)
  • 6 1 liter flip-top glass bottles ($19.99)
  • 1 package of PH test strips ($7.95)
  • 2 starter SCOBYs ($17.50 + postage $$$)
  • green tea bags (cheap)
  • black tea bags (cheap)
  • sugar (cheap)
  •  One- Step a no-rinse for cleaning my jugs (don’t remember but less than $10)
  •  STAR-SAN a no-rinse to sterilize my jugs (don’t remember but less than $10)
  • disposable kitchen cloths to cover brewing kombucha (free – I had them on tap) 
  • rubber band to keep the kombucha cloth cover on (free – I had them on tap) 

The first fermentation took 10 days.

The second fermentation took 3 days. When transferring the brew into the bottles for fermentation, this is the time if you flavor your kombucha to add flavor.

Kombucha flavorings are limited only by your imagination! One of the flavors I used was lemon thyme — fresh from the garden of my friends Kathleen and Michael Baker.

I made 3 flavors:  ginger (fresh, peeled ginger, grated), cherry (purchased a flavoring from the brewing store), and lemon thyme. My gallon, with the SCOBY reserved to start the next batch, made 5 1/2 liters.

My bottles came with these labels and a “chalk” felt pen.

Then, heeding the instructions to chill down my kombucha before opening, I waited, just a little longer. Besides, I wanted a cold refreshing beverage — that was the whole point!

My first batch of kombucha! Ready to drink at last!

The result?

Wayne thought it looked disgusting, but he never had any interest in trying it anyway. I strained my ginger batch for easier drinking…

My first batch of cherry komboucha. The glob on the bottom,
a bit of extra probiotic is perfectly normal. 

Maybe I am Abby Normal. But I will declare these delicious! 

I’ve tried all three flavors and they’re all quite yummy! The ginger was the fizziest so far and my favorite of the bunch.

A definite do-over. In fact, my second batch, fermenting quicker thanks to a little warmer weather, is about a day away from its second fermentation, or four days away from bottling and drinking. I bought another 6-pack of flip-top bottles though I fully intend to finish the remaining 3 bottles before the next batch is due to chill out.

A good start. Not counting my initial start-up costs, still less than $100, I figure it costs me pennies per bottle. Four batches and my return on investment is covered! And I don’t need to make a grocery run to quench my kombucha cravings anymore.

And nothing exploded. Yet.

Sauvies Island, where we’re usually anchoring this summer.

Location Location
We are currently anchored off Sauvies Island N45 47.473 W122 47.199, near Portland Oregon. We just returned from a road trip to Olympia, where we caught up with cruising friends we last saw 2  1/2 years ago in Vanuatu. More on that in a future post.