Friday, July 2, 2010

Kombucha - Part I: The SCOBY

I'll just start off by demystifying the title of this post for any of you who may not be hip to the kombucha game. Kombucha is a fermented beverage made from sweetened tea. It's been around since the Chinese began brewing and drinking it some time around 200 B.C. They referred to it as the Tea of Immortality because of the amazing health benefits the beverage imbued upon those who consumed it.

Kombucha has been gaining popularity here in the West in the last several years. It can be purchased at any health food store under a few different labels, and here in Seattle, a local brewer sells bottles of his kombucha (Communitea Kombucha) at farmers markets around the city. The store-bought brands come in a myriad of flavors and are a great way to become acquainted with this drink. I guess I've come to a point now where I want Kombucha on hand all the time. I want a glass in the morning to get my day going and one every night as it's coming to an end.

Why? What's so special about this stuff that makes me want to go to the trouble of making it? Well, it's an excellent digestive aid. The fermentation process ensures that kombucha is loaded with beneficial bacteria that your guts just adore! As someone with pretty hefty digestive issues, the idea of getting to sip on a fun, fizzy, delicious drink that will also fix up my drain pipes... is like the best thing ever. Not convinced? Head on over to Food Renegade for a more detailed explanation of the health benefits of kombucha. Kristen Michaelis, the author of the site, is a registered dietician and goes into some depth about the research that has been conducted and the ways in which kombucha can positively impact your health.

So how is kombucha made?
Luckily, the process is insanely simple. Basically, tea is brewed, sugar is added and the SCOBY takes care of the rest.

What the hell is a SCOBY?
SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. It is the muscle behind the fermentation process, without which there could be no bubbles, no bacteria... no kombucha. Don't be frightened by its funky appearance. It really is a magical creature.

Where do I get a SCOBY?
Well, they can be purchased online from a few different places, although it can cost you $40 for two of them. That seems ridiculous to me, when you can grow one yourself for under $5. Another option is to find a friend who brews kombucha and get one from them. They are rarely on short supply since these suckers reproduce with every brew.

I wanted to do everything myself for this project, so I chose to grow my own SCOBY. One of my classmates brought some of her brew into class for a fermentation presentation that we had, and I used this as my starter. Here is the complete ingredient list:
  • 1 bottle kombucha (unflavored)
  • 1 C. tea (bagged or loose leaf will work - green, black or whatever you want to try)
  • 1 T. sugar (use only refined sugar - natural sweeteners, honey, etc. are not the way to go)
  • 1 glass jar (mine was 1/2 gallon size but whatever you have will work)
  • 1 clean dish towel (whatever you use in the kitchen will work fine)
Once you've assembled your supplies, this is what you should do:
  • Stir the sugar into the tea and mix until dissolved. Then pour both the kombucha and the sweetened tea into your glass jar. Cover the jar with the towel and place it in a dark corner of your kitchen, out of direct light. You can also store it in a cabinet.

  • Let it sit there.
  • After a few days, you will notice some bubbling on the surface of the liquid - this is what you want! After about a week, you should have a layer of white stuff forming on the surface - this is your SCOBY growing! It will continue to grow and thicken with time. When it gets to be about a 1/4 inch thick it's ready to go.

You are now the proud parent of a kombucha SCOBY! Love that SCOBY. Marvel at its weird, fungus-like appearance. Touch it if you like. It's pretty remarkable, isn't it?

Stay tuned for the next installment of this series:
Kombucha - Part II: The Brew
Where I'll explain how to use your new SCOBY to brew your first batch of kombucha!

There are a few very important things I forgot to add to this post.

  1. In step one, make sure you stir the sugar into the tea while it is hot so that it will dissolve completely.
  2. Before adding the tea and kombucha to the jar, cool the tea to room temperature. The bacteria will not grow in a hot liquid.
  3. Make sure you save the liquid that you grow your SCOBY in. You'll need some of it to start your first batch of kombucha, and the SCOBY needs to remain immersed in it in order to survive.
  4. Finally, here is an excellent resource for this process. There are tips and photos that I found very helpful in working through this process.
Good Luck!!


  1. Do you know if evaporated cane juice is an acceptable substitute for refined sugar? (I'm talking about the stuff that looks kind of like coarse, slightly beige refined sugar, not the powdery dried-ground-molasses stuff.) It's all I keep in the house these days!

  2. Wendolen, I do think that evap. cane juice would work. Things like sucanat, honey, and agave are the things to stay away from. Let me know how yours turns out!

  3. any suggestions on how to start a scoby for cheap with no access to store bought kombucha? I just moved to Bogota Colombia and i'm having trouble getting started. Do you know if part of someone's dried scoby could work?

  4. Kara, I'm not sure what happens to the scoby once it's dried out. You might try re-hydrating it with sweetened tea and then trying to use it to make a batch of kombucha. I honestly don't know how it would turn out or if the bacteria and yeast would still be alive, but it would be worth a try. Another thing you might consider is trying to order a scoby online. Maybe someone will ship to Columbia. Good luck! Let me know what happens if you get the chance.


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