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Hoochie 'Boochie

Kombucha: science-fair project or refreshing beverage?

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 9/30/2009

A few months back, facing some pretty unfriendly Personal Economic Indicators, I realized my little $3/bottle kombucha habit had to go.

For those not acquainted with pricey bottled dietary-supplement beverages, kombucha is a fermented tea that has health benefits and tastes terrific (well, when it's done right, anyway--over-brewed 'booch can, as my City Paper editor pointed out, taste like bile). Best evidence of kombucha's origins point to about a century ago in Russia and the Ukraine, where it's related to other traditional fermented beverages like kvass. Contrary to wild-eyed claims by internet kombucha slingers, however, it has nothing to do with ancient Asian medicine.

Another of the wild claims out there is that kombucha cures cancer; there might actually be some emerging science to sorta support that one, though formal studies of kombucha and its effects are few. Traditionally, kombucha's main health benefit has been understood to be detoxification, helping the body--particularly the liver--rid itself of undesirable digestive byproducts, while simultaneously boosting immune-system function. The main agent in this process is thought to be glucaric acid, which occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables (in much lower concentrations) and is being independently studied for potential cancer-prevention properties. Beyond cancer, kombucha is also purported to cure baldness, arthritis, and AIDS while reversing the aging process, so what's not to like?

I mainly dig the 'booch for its probiotic value--like yogurt, kefir, and other fermented foods, kombucha contains living organisms that are beneficial to the digestive system--though I also like how it tastes. I had shied away from brewing my own home kombucha because, well, I make so many other damn things from scratch, I didn't need one more high-maintenance weekly food chore. But once budget woes axed my Whole Foods checkout-line kombucha treat (pretty much axed shopping at Whole Foods altogether, come to think of it), I missed my 'booch and decided to take a shot at making my own.

Home-brewing kombucha is simple: It requires tea, sugar and a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) or "mother"--basically, a big alien-looking gelatinous pancake of yeast cultures and acetobacter (acetic acid bacteria). Since every batch of 'booch generates a brand new one of these yeast "mushrooms," it's fairly easy to score a free SCOBY in Baltimore--just ask around, or post on Craigslist, or even drop me an e-mail (plasticafantastica@gmail.com). I got mine from friends, though if you're shy you can also buy one off the internet.

Home-brewing kombucha is ridiculously easy, but there are a few precautions. Brew in glass--the tea's acidity can react with metal and leach chemicals from plastic or ceramic containers. Any big, old jar will do. As in home canning, containers need to be clean and sterile--I either run mine through the dishwasher or wash in hot water and rinse with vinegar.

Boil six cups of water and pour it over three tea bags (my signature blend: one black, one green, and one mint, all organic) and a half cup of sugar (which sounds like a lot, but the probiotics consume the sugar during fermentation and the end beverage is very tart) in the big glass jar, and let it sit 15 minutes to steep. Some people add a little "starter" liquid from the SCOBY or, lacking that, some vinegar to create an acidic environment during the steeping. Kombucha is unusual in that its live cultures thrive in an acid pH, which inhibits any other, potentially funky, microbes: When done properly kombucha is safe, and when not done properly it grows flagrant black or green mold and you toss it. I never added extra liquid or vinegar, and my five months of home 'booch brewing have been uniformly successful.

Remove the tea bags and allow the brew to cool completely. At this point the container needs to be covered with a breathable but secure material--a coffee filter and a rubber band works for me--to keep out fruit flies while allowing some air; kombucha's living cultures need to breathe. Once the tea has cooled to room temp, using tongs or clean hands drop in the SCOBY mother, allowing it to float around freely in the tea looking like a disembodied brain from a sci-fi movie. Cover, and rest for a week on the kitchen counter allowing the tea to ferment. You can tell things are going well when a white haze forms on top of the tea, and then slowly thickens into a new SCOBY daughter. After 7 or 8 days it's time to pull the SCOBY mother and daughter out and start drinking. (You can use mother or daughter in future batches, but they do start to lose vim after several go-rounds so I usually compost the mother after three batches--sorry, Ma. Not to worry, though, as every batch makes a new one, so you'll soon have an army of the things.)

Correctly brewed 'booch is pleasantly sweet and tart, with an enjoyable effervescence. The longer kombucha ferments, the more acidic (and bile-like) it grows. Sans SCOBY it keeps in the fridge pretty much indefinitely, though those indomitable bacteria might start forming faint traces of a new mother. Most people begin by drinking two ounces at a time to see how their internal flora adjust; initially kombucha can be, let's just say, cleansing.

I drink eight ounces a day and though my results are not rigorously scientific, I am definitely not bald.

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