All the cool kids are drinking kombucha now, but the rest of the world has been on trend for a couple thousand years already. If you’re new to the home-brewed ‘booch game and want to dabble in some DIY, you’re gonna have a ton of questions about methods and looks and smells and tastes. Below, I try to answer all of them for you and share my way of doing things.
What is kombucha?
Kombucha is fermented tea. Essentially, you make sweet tea and add a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (also known as a SCOBY) to the mix. The tea ferments as the yeast and bacteria feed on the sugar, creating a probiotic drink beneficial for gut health, as it helps feed the good bacteria in your gut for better digestion and energy, among its many healing benefits. Gut health is important because 75% of our immune system lives in there, so a compromised environment in the gut can affect many other systems in the body, like digestion, mood, energy levels, and skin.
Here is a basic recipe you can print. I go into more detail on each step below that.
- 14 cups of filtered water
- 1 cup of organic white cane sugar
- 8 bags of organic tea (or 8 servings of organic loose-leaf tea)
- 2 cups of starter (leftover from a previous batch), or 1 plain store-bought bottle of kombucha
- 1 SCOBY
- Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat.
- Add the tea bags and brew according to instructions. After it's done brewing, remove the tea bags or strain the loose-leaf tea and let cool completely.
- Add cooled tea to gallon jar with starter or store-bought kombucha and drop SCOBY in the jar as well.
- Cover the jar with a thin, breathable fabric to let air circulate, and secure with a rubber band. Place away from direct sunlight in a warm, dry place where it won't be disturbed for at least 7 days and up to 3 weeks.
To make a batch, you’ll need:
Thin, breathable fabric (or a nut milk bag)
14 cups filtered water
1 cup organic white cane sugar
8 bags organic tea (or 8 servings organic loose-leaf tea)
2 cups starter (leftover from a previous batch), or 1 plain store-bought bottle of kombucha
1. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat.
2. Add the tea bags and brew according to instructions. An easy way to do this is to tie the ends of the tea bags together and drape them over a wooden spoon that sits across the pot so they dangle in the water and you don’t have to fish them out. After it’s done brewing, remove the tea bags or strain the loose-leaf tea and let cool completely.
3. Add cooled tea to your gallon jar (disinfected with white vinegar), along with the starter or store-bought kombucha, and with clean hands, drop your SCOBY in the jar as well. Do NOT put your starter or SCOBY in hot tea; you’ll kill off all the good stuff that makes this whole process work!
4. Cover the jar with a thin, breathable fabric to let air circulate, and secure with a rubber band (or place a nut milk bag over the jar and tighten the drawstring). Cheesecloth may not work here unless you have many layers, otherwise fruit flies may sneak their way in.
5. Place away from direct sunlight in a warm, dry place where it won’t be disturbed. I let mine sit on top of the fridge, but you can store yours in a cabinet if you have space. Let it sit for at least 7 days and up to 3 weeks.
Here’s everything I could think of you asking (and questions you actually sent to me). If I missed anything, feel free to comment. There are no dumb questions. Chances are if you’re wondering, someone else is too! I suggest skimming through all of them before beginning your first batch, just in case. I update this post periodically with new questions that I get on social media, but take a look at the comments for more info too!
Where do I get a SCOBY?
If your ‘booch circle runs deep, you can get one from a friend, and sometimes you can even find them on Craigslist or neighborhood Facebook groups. You’ll notice as you brew that a new SCOBY will form and may be attached (firmly or not) to your original SCOBY; the more you brew, the more you’ll have, and the more you can share with friends. You can cut it in half to give away (at least three inches is a good enough size to brew with), or if it’s on the thicker side you can peel apart the layers to divide it up—but it’s alive, so apologize to it first.
Alternatively, you can buy a bottle of plain kombucha at the store and let it sit out covered (but uncapped) at room temperature to keep fermentation going, and those slimy bits you usually see at the bottom of the bottle will eventually form into a little SCOBY. If the bottle is filtered or pasteurized, however, this probably won’t work.
If you’re leading the charge amongst your pals, consider buying a kombucha starter kit (I got this one for Christmas one year and never looked back). You can also purchase dried SCOBYs that you can reconstitute, but I like ’em moist.
How can I tell if my SCOBY has gone bad?
Throughout brewing, you’ll notice stringy brown bits forming around your SCOBY (that’s its beard, they grow up so fast). You may also see a white film or bubbles—these are all normal and with every batch you’ll notice something different. It can be pretty obvious when mold occurs, it’s our denial we have to cope with.
Spots (black, white, brown, and especially green), fuzziness, and powdery patches are all mold and are all found on the top of the SCOBY, which is the part that’s exposed to air and thus more susceptible to mold. It will not occur underneath. Unfortunately, you can’t do anything but throw the whole thing out if it’s been compromised. Don’t freak out though, it doesn’t happen that often if you follow directions.
Do I throw out the SCOBY when I’m done?
NO. If you’ve decided to end your kombucha-brewing days, hand it over to a friend or try to offer it up on Craigslist before tossing it (yes, there is an audience for this). If you’re planning to continue, you’re gonna need a SCOBY Hotel. This, my friends, is a glass jar of all your SCOBY children chilling in a bath of your homemade booch. Keep it covered with kombucha (or filtered water, but start with a little kombucha) and store it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it again.
How do I prepare my brewing jar?
Wash the jar thoroughly with soap and hot water and let dry completely. Then, pour some white vinegar on a paper towel and wipe the inside down to disinfect the glass.
Can I use tap water?
I would not use straight tap water. I want my water as watery as possible so I filter it to get rid of any chemicals like chlorine (which is used to kill things, and our SCOBY is alive) or anything else that may be lurking in there waiting to potentially disrupt fermentation.
What kind of tea do I use?
Organic, for starters. What’s the point of spending weeks to make a batch if it’s just going to deliver pesticides into your system? The probiotics don’t outweigh the downsides there, IMO. I use plain black bagged tea. Loose-leaf is cheaper but bagged tea makes for less of a mess, so that battle is up to you.
You can also use green tea or white tea, but avoid flavored teas as the extra ingredients may interfere with the fermentation process. You can flavor your brew later—doing it during the first round, especially if adding things like fruit, can open up more of a possibility for mold, especially if you’re leaving it to ferment for a few weeks.
Herbal teas are not typically recommended, as they don’t contain enough of the nutrients the SCOBY needs to continue thriving batch after batch. You can try it, but I’d wait until you’ve done this a few times so you’re not super disappointed if it doesn’t work.
Do I really need a starter?
No, but I recommend it to help the brew along. Always save some of your batch to go towards your next one. If you’re just getting going, your kombucha kit may come with some starter, or you can purchase a plain bottle of kombucha at the store. Adding a starter helps make the environment acidic and keeps mold out, which is hugely important so you don’t ruin your whole batch. But sometimes mold happens—prepare yourself for the possibility, and if so, you gotta dump it all and try, try again.
What kind of sugar do I use?
Regular white granulated sugar will work fine, but let’s go all natural—pick up some organic cane sugar.
A whole cup of sugar? What kind of nutritionist are you?
If you brew properly, the yeast will feast on most of the sugar (along with the caffeine), and what’s left is minimal and makes the batch tolerable enough so that you don’t have to choke it down. Use a plastic pipette to taste-test. If it’s too sweet, it needs to ferment longer.
For some perspective, I only buy kombucha in the store if it has ~6g remnant sugar on the label (it’s hard to find any less). On your first go-round, pick up a plain bottle with little sugar at the store to compare to your brew so you know when it’s ready.
How do I really know that the sugar and caffeine are gone?
As mentioned above, sugar is relatively easy to gauge based on taste (though you won’t have an exact amount), but caffeine is more difficult to assess. Unless you want to spend money on a pricey hydrometer or slightly less pricey Accuvin tests, it’s okay to assume that there is only a minimal amount left if you come out with a successful batch.
Does it matter what utensils I use?
Yes. Once the SCOBY and starter brew are in the mix, do not use any metal from there on out. I can’t find anything on the science about it, but the hippies say metal can damage your booch, and I believe them, so use a wooden, plastic, or silicone spoon for stirring. For tasting, I use a plastic pipette to suck up the liquid and either squeeze it into a cup or…directly into my mouth.
How do I know if my SCOBY is actually working?
If you’ve done it right, you should notice growth within the first couple days. Particularly with jars that are wider than the SCOBY itself, you’ll see a thin film begin to cover the surface of the liquid, which will eventually grow and thicken the longer you let it ferment. It’s actually fascinating to watch over time, and if you look closely you can see all of its super-thin layers (kind of like the rings of a tree). You’ll be so proud of your new offspring. My last batch grew a MASSIVE new SCOBY that was double the size of the original I used to brew with in both length and width.
Every brew is different, too, depending on room temperature, sugar ratio, etc., and you’ll notice the SCOBY looks unique every time. They all have different personalities and vary in size, slime, and color, just like real children.
My SCOBY isn’t big enough to cover all the liquid. Am I screwed?
No. As mentioned above, it’ll take care of the problem itself by growing its own protective seal, aka a new SCOBY that’ll act as your own personal kombucha pool cover.
My SCOBY sunk to the bottom of the jar. Did I do something wrong?
No. Sometimes the SCOBY likes to hang out at the bottom in the beginning. It’ll eventually rise to the top.
My SCOBY is floating sideways in the middle of the jar. Did I do something wrong?
No. Sometimes the SCOBY likes to go for a swim in the beginning. It’ll eventually rise to the top.
What is the ideal temperature for brewing kombucha?
Your ferment should be stored in a warm, dry area and can brew well anywhere between 68-85 degrees. Mine stays at around 75 degrees and I find that is ideal for me. If it’s too cold, the tea won’t ferment; if it’s too hot, you could damage the bacterial culture.
Not sure what “room temp” actually is for your room? You can buy a stick-on thermometer strip to attach to your glass jar—my starter kit came with one—and it’s washable, so you don’t have to worry about it peeling off (but I wouldn’t put it in the dishwasher).
How do you know when it’s ready?
Timing depends on the temperature of your home (the cooler it is, the longer it’ll take) and how you want it to taste. I generally like it more on the vinegary side, so I take it right to the limit. You can also experiment with pH strips so you know at which pH level you like the flavor the most. Usually, somewhere around 2.7-3.0 is good for my taste buds.
When it’s ready, bottle and refrigerate. If you want to flavor or carbonate the beverage, read on.
It’s ready. Now what?
Once your first round of fermentation is complete (for me, it’s between 2-3 weeks), it’s time to bottle and bubble! This is known as the second ferment, or 2F if you start hanging around fermentation-focused Facebook groups. Your batch won’t necessarily be carbonated just yet, at least not like the ones you get at the store (sometimes it will never get that fizzy depend what and whether you add to it for flavor, as brands may add extra CO2). This happens during the second, anaerobic fermentation.
You’ll need either wide-mouth mason jars or swing-top bottles to help keep the air in during 2F. As the yeast continues to eat the sugar, the fermentation creates carbonation, which is mostly released in the first round. In the second round, we keep it in—but not too long, otherwise, it could explode and you’ll have a sticky mess and shards of glass to clean up and things could get dangerous.
During second fermentation, “burp” (open) your bottles or jars once a day to release the built up pressure, keeping your hand firmly on the lid while unscrewing or releasing the swing-top, unless you want to watch it fly. You can also keep a towel over the top while you open it in case of volcanic eruption, and a bowl underneath to catch it all if you think it’s really going to get wild. 2F can last anywhere from 1 day to 7 days or longer, it’s up to your desired taste.
Store finished kombucha in the fridge, and burp the fruitier batches every couple days, I notice those build up even when chilled. Make sure you strain through a mesh sieve when pouring your kombucha into a glass, otherwise you may get a slimy micro-SCOBY waiting to slither down your throat. Or don’t, to each their own.
When did we add fruit? (aka how do I flavor my kombucha?)
Flavor time happens during 2F. You can use natural juice (apple, orange, even ginger), fresh fruit, herbs, or extracts. You generally want to start with a ratio of 10% whatever you’re flavoring with to 90% kombucha, and experiment from there, unless you’re working with extracts, then you want about 1/4 tsp per cup of kombucha. Remember, you’re letting it ferment, so the flavors will intensify. You can do single flavors, or play around with combos. Some of my favorites so far:
ginger + lemon + cayenne
ginger + pumpkin puree + cinnamon stick
apple + cinnamon stick
blueberry + lemon
strawberry + basil
Do I use my SCOBY during 2F?
No. After 1F, it’s time to go to the SCOBY hotel. Keeping the SCOBY in while you’re flavoring your batch can damage it, and you’re also kind of mucking it up for the next batch, especially if you end up with a flavor that sounds better than it tastes. Don’t worry about it not fermenting without the SCOBY, you’ll notice that teeny baby SCOBYs form in the 2F batches, too, which is why you want to strain them when you pour yourself a glass, unless you like a little slime with your morning beverage. Toss those; you can try if you really wanna get experimental, but I wouldn’t use them for brewing because of the flavoring.
What kind of bottles do I use?
As I mentioned, swing-top bottles or wide-mouth mason jars work well and are easily available. I use these plus some recycled Health-Ade bottles. You can also recycle wine bottles/corks and screw-top beer bottles (or Grolsch swing-top beer bottles).
How far do I fill my bottles during 2F?
Leave about 1 inch of headspace when filling your bottles for the second fermentation. Too much air will yield little fizz, while not enough air will probably make your bottles explode.
Something is forming in my bottle during 2F. Help!
Refer to the question How Can I Tell If My SCOBY Has Gone Bad? for mold identifiers. If there’s no mold, it’s probably a new little SCOBY. You can do one of three things with it:
- Throw it out.
- Save it for future experiments (but keep apart from your regular SCOBY hotel if it’s flavored).
- Swallow it. Some people toss it back like an oyster shooter. You can do the same with the brown strands of yeasty bits that hang from the SCOBY, too. I can’t bring myself to do this, so I go with #1.
How long does kombucha keep?
Pretty much forever. Just don’t stick any dirty spoons in the batch or drink directly from the mouth of the jar to avoid opportunities for bacteria to get in. Always pour into a glass.
How do I make sure I don’t die? (aka, how do I avoid mold?)
Since we’re working with natural fermentation, mold may happen, but it is easily avoidable by using CLEAN tools. Sanitize your jars with white vinegar and wash your hands before touching your SCOBY. Also, make sure your tea is no warmer than room temp before adding your SCOBY. If you kill it, it won’t grow and protect the brew, it’ll just sit there and form mold. If this is your first time making kombucha, keep it very simple and stick to the original recipe. Save experimentations with different teas for later.
Now that it’s ready, how much can I have per day?
If you’re used to fermented foods in your diet, go wild. If this is new territory for you, start small and work your way up to avoid digestive upset. I suggest 1/4 cup a day to begin with. If you’ve made a particularly potent batch (meaning you’ve let it sit until it’s essentially vinegar), you can work with about half of that as a daily tonic.
Is there alcohol in kombucha?
Yes, which is why you may see recommendations for pregnant women not to drink it, but there are just trace amounts created in the fermentation process (the yeast in your SCOBY eats the sugar, creating ethanol along with the fizzy carbon dioxide).
Store-bought kombucha has less than 0.5% alcohol content, otherwise it would require you to be 21+ to purchase. Homebrews vary, especially if you do a second ferment, but keep in mind unless you have an iron stomach or have been doing this for years, you’re typically not chugging 16oz bottles in one go. This isn’t gonna turn into a frat house party where you’re playing booch pong and waking up on your lawn.
Who shouldn’t drink kombucha?
The longer you let your batch ferment, the more sugar will be eaten up, and the more acidic it will taste. If you can handle the vinegary flavor, all is well and good. If you need sweetness that is more like store-bought kombucha, you’re going to be consuming some sugar. Be forewarned if you’re dealing with any yeast issues in the body, dysbiosis, IBS, immune issues, etc. that the store-bought version isn’t going to be the healthful beverage you think it is. Homebrewing has many more benefits, but you should let it brew for a longer time.
For pregnant or nursing women, definitely discuss with your doctor (I am not a doctor so don’t read this and sue me). There is little research and lots of confusing information on the topic, but from what I’ve read, plenty of women drink it with no problems. If you’re new to drinking it though, now may not be the best time to start.
As there is trace alcohol, it is up to those dealing with alcohol sensitivities or alcoholism if they want to consume it. Some people go so far as to avoid vanilla extract because it contains alcohol—if that’s you, you may want to opt out. Always consult with your healthcare provider.
Is kombucha safe for kids?
Again, talk to your doctor, but many people give their kids small amounts. Remember that I recommended adults start with 1/4 cup for their own fully grown and matured stomachs. Keep in mind children’s digestive systems are still developing as well.
Is it worth drinking store-bought kombucha?
My opinion is that homebrews are better, but there are some pretty tasty options out there. Unfortunately, a lot of them are tasty because of the sugar content. There isn’t a lot of research on it so I’m not 100% sure if that outweighs the medicinal benefits (my instinct says yes) but I usually avoid anything that has more than ~6g of sugar per serving, and I have it as a treat rather than a daily drink.
What kombucha brands do you like?
I like Health-Ade the most for the flavors, but Kevita and GT’s are great, too. The sugar content will vary depending on the flavor though, so keep an eye out. If I need a starter, I always buy GT’s plain version, but the best brand is your own!
Phew! That was a lot of questions. If I missed something, ask me in the comments below.