Fermentation 101: Kombucha… what happens next?
There it is… your SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast)… sitting on your counter. It appears to possibly be staring at you, it is alive after all. You made your first batch of sauerkraut and it is doing its fermenting thing, but this thing… it sort of scares you. So what do you do now?
In class we do a demonstration of what you are doing through your first ferment. You get to see and touch a living SCOBY and of course, get your own to take home with you. Because we feel that transporting a gallon of fermenting kombucha to and fro would be a little arduous, we only demo kombucha brewing. But we have found that folks are really hesitant to get moving forward on brewing.
After the class:
First and foremost- the most important thing to remember is that you should use your SCOBY much sooner than later. If it remains dormant for too long (refrigerated or room temp) or with its starter evaporating out in the open, it will become stale. What is stale for a SCOBY? Stale basically means that those amazing colonies of bacteria are dying off. Ideally you should use your SCOBY within two weeks of receiving it. The longer it sits, the less you have to work with.
I always fall back on the movie The Robinson’s when I think about failure. The motto of the Robinson family is “keep moving forward” and they celebrate the failures because you learn from them. So let’s just say for instance you brew a batch of kombucha and it tastes horrible? Celebrate; glitter, streamers- shoot- go out to dinner! Why? Well because at least you have started and from that, you are beginning to learn. When you get back from your dinner, brew some tea, blend in the sugar and start again!
There is very little to really worry about. If you use best practices when brewing your booch, you are NOT going to kill yourself or anyone else. That being said, I have heard some horrible stories of folks brewing their batches under bathroom sinks and such… which, let me tell you- that is just a terrible idea. TERRIBLE. Be certain that all your brewing materials (bottles, fermenting vessel, blending spoons, etc) are all clean. A good vinegar wash or run through the dishwasher (no soap needed, just heat) will ensure that you’re starting off with a clean working surface. And for the love of Pete, place your fermenting kombucha in a place of glory, on a shelf or on top of the fridge or build a dedicated pedestal for it- just don’t stick it in a dark dank place that is breeding with nasty UNHEALTHY bacteria.
Ok… mold is the enemy to fermentation… seriously. BUT do not mistaken dark spots in your SCOBY or dangly dark bits as mold. If you see some funky things happening, look at the surface of your SCOBY… is there fuzz? No? Keep moving forward (cautiously). Just keep an eye on it; check on it every few days to see how it is developing. You do see mold? Welp, it’s time to find a new SCOBY. There are ways to recover a SCOBY, but really, the easiest and healthiest thing to do is find a new SCOBY (which we usually have in the shop). Whatever you do, DO NOT consume moldy SCOBY booch…it tastes terrible, but more so, it could make you sick. But with all honesty, mold is a somewhat rare occurrence if you follow the guidelines above. So don’t be afraid… just keep moving forward.
My mother had Amish Friendship Bread when we were growing up. A co-worker gave her a starter and she kept going forward with it. I remember watching the bag fill with air and look like it would pop and she would add the next ingredient and mash it all together. It was tasty… but she hated it so much because it was a continuous bread making adventure. It took a considerable amount of commitment to keep it going.
Kombucha is sort of like Amish Friendship Bread… only the benefits are much better. For a little time, it gives you amazing gut health, probiotic benefits and so much more. Plus… the minimum you want to let your booch run is a week-10 days, but if you let it go for several weeks… well benefits are still there too. You can brew your kombucha for a week or taste it and brew it until you like the way it tastes. After you have been brewing for a little while, you will get a feel for your own preferences in your first ferment. If you happen to totally forget about your booch and it tastes like some wicked vinegar… it’s ok. Keep moving forward. Just dump the batch, be sure to keep enough fluid to use as a starter for a new brew (at least ½ cup) and start again. If you are worried there won’t be enough oomph (a.ka. bacteria) to start a new batch, you can always add some already made kombucha that is store bought (just be sure it is raw and unflavored).
Stinky, vinegary, bubble-less? There are a lot of things that can happen when you are brewing. The longer you do it the more comfortable that you will get in what you are doing. I tend to fall back on a number of great resources like Len Porzio, a kombucha fanatic and master. He has an incredibly detailed page called Balance Your Brew which offers an amazing breakdown on some troubleshooting once you start to get a little more comfortable with what you are doing. I find that the longer I brew, the more I get into the details of balance of flavor, dryness, sweetness and more. He is a great resource for finding that perfect booch balance. I often reference Jill Cicirelli in class as well, a great resource for awesome small batch fermenting. She has a page dedicated to kombucha making here and of course there is her book- Fermented, A Four Season Approach to Probiotic Foods.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if after a few brews you are the only one who will drink your kombucha. First of all, well, yay, more booch for you! Secondly, as you keep going, your brew will get better. I had been brewing for several months with very skeptical looks from my kids until one day my second ferment just suddenly disappeared… into their bellies. Once you get the hang of your first ferment, you can start to work some magic in your second ferment. But, you don’t have to do a second ferment to have beneficial kombucha. Enjoy what you are doing, experiment and have fun. Remember if you screw up, you can usually just start over. So… just keep moving forward.