Let me be the first to admit it; I never thought I’d make kombucha.
It was the SCOBY, mostly, that kept me away. The SCOBY, a whimsical acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast, is an ominous looking beast. It’s whitish, with a rubbery, gelatinous texture, and it grows of its own accord every time a new batch of tea and sugar is introduced into its environment. I thought the SCOBY was a mushroom (or some sort of brain) but turns out I was wrong. SCOBY is made of acidophilic yeast, acetic acid bacteria, and microbial cellulose.
Sounds delicious, right? I mean, where do I sign. Tea mixed with bacteria and yeast. YUM.
But hang on. How do you feel about yogurt? Because yogurt is made by mixing dairy or nut milk with bacteria to produce lactic acid. How about beer? That’s the product of barley, water, hops, and yeast. And cheese? That’s milk mixed with a variety of bacteria which aids in creating texture and flavor.
The ingredients sound sketchy until you consider the science. Microbes are amazing creatures. They transform everyday ingredients into new and different flavor sensations, aid in food preservation, and give us a healthy way to maintain our body’s necessary bacterial levels. Kombucha, a centuries-old effervescent tea beverage, is a simple way to enjoy all three of those benefits.
My other concern (aside from having a floating brain-like organism in my kitchen) was the potential for contamination. Working with live bacteria means there’s always a chance for things to go wrong. Luckily, it seems maintaining a safe, healthy SCOBY culture isn’t all that difficult. First off, kombucha is full of tea polyphenols and acetic acid, both of which naturally ward off harmful bacteria. Second, using properly washed hands and equipment aids in keeping the tea clean. Third, using the right containers (always glass, never ceramic) keeps away potential problems with leeching lead.
Once I got over my SCOBY and contamination fear, here’s why kombucha interested me:
- Decreasing sugar intake. In trying to be mindful of my sugar habit, I don’t buy juice, soda, flavored coffee, or any other beverage that has a huge amount of hidden sugar lurking behind the label. (That doesn’t mean I don’t eat cookies. It’s just a fine balance.) Kombucha, with its minimal amount of sugar, is a bottled beverage that still feels like a treat.
- Using garden produce. The kombucha I like most is a two-step process: the initial ferment (using tea, sugar, and the SCOBY), and the secondary ferment, which is the process of adding flavor, sweetness, and effervescence to the tea. This summer, most of our flavor mixes have come straight from the farm: apples, plums, kale, carrots, tomatoes, and mint. The juice is mixed directly with the tea, sealed in an airtight glass jar, and left to fizz. Juicing for kombucha is a useful way to incorporate garden vitamins into daily life.
- Immune system benefits. With four children and a husband in and out of school, pre-school, the gym, the library, church, and the great outdoors, we encounter a lot of germs. According to the Mayo Clinic, “kombucha tea may offer benefits similar to probiotic supplements, including promoting a healthy immune system and preventing constipation.” While there are plenty of other proposed health benefits/risks to kombucha, the beneficial probiotics are the one thing that most doctors agree on.
- Getting the family involved. My kids have taken an interest in helping juice, bottle, and mix kombucha. This naturally led to them wanting to try it. So far, the two biggest flavor hits have been apple and mango, although carrots were, according to my girls, the most entertaining items to juice. My friend who gave me half of her SCOBY to get started noticed the same trend – her boys now love helping with the process. Kombucha is a new way to get the family playing together in the kitchen.
- Growing taste buds. The more I cook, the more I understand about the four elements of good cooking: salt, fat, acid, and heat. For a short but totally engrossing podcast on the topic, click here. Salt, fat, and heat I understood, but acid… let’s just say it took me a while to start noticing when the acid was present vs. absent, and how that impacted the flavor. Kombucha, with its tart, vinegary notes, has an unmatched flavor profile that I’ve learned to appreciate. Additionally, I’ve found that drinking kombucha helps curb my appetite and clear my palate when I’m craving something sweet.
From skeptic to student, understanding the basic science around kombucha has been a fascinating journey. I’ll post more once I have a solid repertoire of flavor combinations and ratios. Until then, pick up a bottle at the store sometime, or come hang out and let me pour you a glass. Leave me a comment below – let’s hear what you think!
Want to read more? Here are a couple of balanced and helpful links:
- Kombucha – the infographic version (Huffpost)
- Kombucha – the overview (Livescience)
- Kombucha – according to Mayo (Mayo Clinic)