Kombucha (The Basics)

Kombucha is a slightly efferescent soft drink made from sweet tea. The SCOBY is what makes the magic.

The SCOBY: is the leathery mass of bacteria and yeast. The yeast is often the kind common to beverage making, and depending on the culture's origin is most likely a wine or beer yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). The bacteria can be any number of different organisms, again depending on their origin, sanitation and handling. Most often there are multiple strains of bacteria that most likely include some form of acetobacter, which consumes alcohol and creates an acidic by-product, like vinegar. There could also be a harmful strain of bacteria lurking, which is why source, sanitation and handling is so important.

Sweet Tea: The medium for the SCOBY to live in is a sweetened tea. Properly made tea is often made at pasteurizing temperatures - almost boiling. This helps make a sterile solution that will not introduce any odd or harmful critters to the mix. Once the tea-sugar mixture has cooled, the SCOBY can be introduced. It is important to note that the SCOBY is a living mixture of micro-organisms. They can be killed if the temperature is too warm or go dormant if too cool.

Sugar Is Food: There is sugar, about 1 cup per gallon in many recipes, but it is the food for the yeast. The yeast will dine on the sugar and release CO2 and alcohol. What happens next is features the symbiotic part of the whole colony. The bacteria in the SCOBY eat the alcohol released by the yeast and the also release CO2 as their by-product as well as a vinegar of sorts. This gives the homebrewed kombucha a sour taste.

Alcoholic?: At first I was concerned about the alcoholic content of a kombucha. Being a responsible homebrewer, there might be children who would be offered this beverage to drink. As it turns out, if made properly, kombucha is what the FDA might call a 'soft drink.' That is, it would contain less that .5% (1/2 of 1%) alcohol when the 'fermentation' process is completed. This is due to the symbiotic nature of the SCOBY. The yeast ferments the sugar to make alcohol, the bacteria feed on the alcohol which in turn creates a vinegary by-product with a slight effervescence. If the system is in balance, the sugar and alcohol is mostly consumed leaving a sparkling unsweetened tea-like soft drink behind.

Interested? Beverage Artisan can order safe packaged SCOBYs from White Labs.

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