So you want to make kombucha, eh? Well, you’ve come to the adequate place! I’ve been brewing my own small-batch kombucha at home now for a couple months and some of my friends have been asking about it. There is a mystique around kombucha brewing that implies it is difficult to manage. This might also be coupled with the knowledge that brewing cider, beer, or wine is a very technical and long process. Kombucha brewing couldn’t be further from that! Once you have your brewing cycle down, you can go from freshly brewed sweet tea to flavorful, carbonated kombucha in about 2 weeks.
Usually, these types of articles have several sections on the history and health benefits of kombucha. Look, it’s super good for your gut. That’s really all you need to know. If you want to dive into the ins-and-outs of all that, I trust you can find no end of sources. Me? I want to talk about the brewing process, this simple science magic you can perform on your countertop and produce a delicious and healthy beverage out of virtually nothing.
So, if you have an urge to brew your own kombucha and somehow have stumbled so far down the internet to find my guide, let’s get started!
Step 1: Acquire Brewing Supplies
Before getting started, you want to make sure you have the appropriate vessels for brewing and storing your kombucha. You’re going to be in a real pinch if it comes time to brew or bottle and you don’t have the right volume of containers.
First, a brewing container. This should be a large container, at least 2 quarts, and have a very wide mouth. We’re looking for something where the opening is practically as wide as
the container itself. This is going to make handling the scoby so much easier, but more on that later.
Your brewing vessel should have a removable lid. If it’s a mason jar, large pickle jar, or anything similar, just unscrew the lid and toss it. I mean, you can tuck it away if you think this jar will be used for anything other than kombucha in the future, but at no point during the process will you need to lid up this vessel. I say save the drawer space.
If you end up with a large swing-top container, for storing flour and the like, you can use a pair of pliers to remove all the hardware. Again, you don’t need to keep these if you don’t want.
What you are going to cover this vessel with is a small square of muslin, cheesecloth, or similar fabric. You can get these at most kitchen supply stores but you can also get some from fabric and craft stores. Measure the diameter of the opening of the container, add 4-5 inches, and cut a square that size. You’ll drape this over the opening of the container and hold it in place with a couple rubber bands. This allows the scoby to breathe while preventing any bugs or dust from getting in. Feel free to trim some of the excess fabric if you want to make it pretty for social media.
You can also use paper towels or coffee filters in a pinch, but if they get at all wet they’ll basically fall apart. While you’re going to try your very best not to splash your brew on the covering, if the muslin gets wet it won’t be the end of the world.
You’ll also need some containers for storing your finished product. I recommend a sturdy, food-safe swing-top bottle. If you’re unfamiliar, these are those old-timey bottles with the rubber stopper and a bunch of weird metal loops on the top. These are perfect for homebrewing because they’re relatively inexpensive and the seal on the top is airtight. They also make a super satisfying sound when you pop them open.
Alternatively, you can reuse kombucha bottles you purchased from the store or brewing supply store. You can also use the same types of bottles you’d use for bottling beer, so if you’re into that, you probably already have what you need.
Now, I’m going to say that you should get a kitchen scale. I know, that’s a bit of an investment, but hear me out. Virtually every recipe on the planet is better and easier to follow if you weigh stuff instead of measuring it and kombucha is no exception. This is also true in baking, so don’t think about this as a kombucha-only purchase. You can thank me later.
I also recommend a pair of silicon-coated tongs to aid in removing and replacing the scoby during bottling. You can do this with your hands, but it’s kind of yucky and will be especially difficult if you have a smaller vessel.
Optionally you can get a siphon or auto-siphon to transfer kombucha from the brewing vessel to the bottles. This is highly recommended if you’re doing 2 quart or larger batches. With my 1-quart containers, it’s really easy to just pick up the jar and pour it. If you skip the siphons, invest in a cheap funnel for bottling.
Step 2: Buy Kombucha
Yep, it’s weird. Gotta have kombucha to make kombucha. Seriously though, the entire kombucha process is powered by a weird organism called a scoby, which stands for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. I know, the “of” gets its own letter by not the “a”, which is super lame and frankly scobay would be a lot of fun to say. I’m getting off track here.
To create a scoby is not as easy as it might sound. There are very specific yeast and bacteria we’re talking about here and not just something you can hope to grow unaided. So, to prime the pump, we’ll use a store-bought kombucha to grow your own scoby. There, back on track!
Here’s what you’re looking for: a plain or unflavored kombucha, organic is better, definitely unpasteurized. Any brand will do. We’re only going to need a cup for the brewing, but good luck finding a bottle smaller than 12 ounces. It will give you something to drink while we brew.
Step 3: Buy Other Stuff, Too
While you’re at the store, you’ll need only two additional ingredients to start your kombucha brewing journey: sugar and tea.
With the sugar, there’s a lot of flexibility. Your everyday granulated white sugar is fine. If, like me, you want to feel extra fancy when talking about your homebrew, go for some raw sugar. It’s a little coarser and has a tan to light brown color, so it’s going to look great in your Instagram posts.
There are a few more considerations with the tea. Again, there’s room for fancy here. You can purchase loose leaf tea, but the hassle of straining it out before brewing is a bit too much work for me. I recommend a standard black tea in regular disposable tea bags. If you want safe the waste, look for a reusable muslin bag.
Another tea restriction is to stay away from flavored or spiced teas. The extra sugars and flavorings in these teas can work, but it’s going to be hit or miss. For your first batch, stick to good old black tea. Once you get the hang of things you can start experimenting with any number of weird teas.
As an optional addition, you can flavor your kombucha with fruit juice. This adds a nice taste and, if left long enough in the bottle, will carbonate the kombucha all by its self. When selecting a juice, the sky’s the limit on flavors. Pick something that sounds delicious! You do want to make sure to buy organic juice that has not been pasteurized. We’re trying to grow a small army of bacteria and yeast. Getting lifeless preserved juice is not going to jive well with that party.
Step 4: Brew
OK, time to start actually doing stuff. Before anything, make sure all your vessels and tools are cleaned. Don’t worry about any fancy cleaners or solvents, just regular dish soap is fine. You do want to rinse everything in plain water VERY well. Any residual soap will hinder and even ruin the scoby. It is bacteria and yeast after all, which, by definition, is what soap is for.
If your bottled kombucha is in the fridge, take it out at this point. We want this to come up to room temp before we incorporate it.
Now that you have everything ready to go, it’s time to brew. Here’s my preferred recipe. Again, this is a solid place to start and you should get the hang of this recipe before tinkering with it too much.
- 1 quart (4 cups) of water
- 70 grams of sugar
- 7 grams of tea (3-4 tea bags)
First, put the water and sugar into a pot and crank the heat. Make sure the sugar fully dissolves into the water by mixing with a wooden spoon. Once dissolved, stick a lid on there and let it come up to a boil. Once it’s boiling for a minute or two, kill the heat and toss in your tea bags. I give them a quick stir to make sure they’re saturated and giving up the good stuff before putting the lid back on.
Steep the tea for as long as it says on the package. I like a stronger tea for kombucha; I feel like you get more tea flavor in the final product this way, but that could just be in my head. If that’s your jam, just let it soak a couple minutes longer. When it’s done steeping, remove the tea bags and do whatever you want with them.
Step 5: Wait
Yeah, here’s the tough part. We wait. The tea needs to come down to room temperature before we mix it with the bottled kombucha. If it’s too hot it will kill all the good bacteria and yeast that we’re trying to cultivate here. You’ll know its ready when you dip a fingertip into the tea and it feels indistinguishable from the air temperature. And yes, I’m serious. If you’re on the fence, just wait longer.
Not cool with waiting? OK, here’s a little trick you can try. Instead of the original 4 cups of water, you brewed with, you could instead brew with 3 cups and put the remaining cup into an ice cube tray ahead of time to freeze. Brew as normal with the 3 cups but pay attention to the sugar dissolving. With a higher sugar-to-water ratio it might take a little more stirring to mix in properly. After the tea is steeped, you can mix in the 1 cup of frozen water to speed up the cooling process.
Or, you know, you could put the tea into the fridge for a little while.
I’m a fan of waiting. I feel like it’s just more natural and maybe it develops more flavor? I’m not a scientist, I just now that my kombucha tastes amazing.
Step 6: Mix
Now that we have our room temp bottled kombucha and brewed tea, it’s as easy as mixing the two together in our brewing vessel. Just pour them in, maybe give it a quick stir with a clean wooden spoon if the mood strikes you, and then get ready to wait some more! Find a safe place for your jar, remembering that there’s no actual lid here. You want to place it somewhere it won’t need to be moved. You’re also looking for about 70 degrees (room temp) and out of direct sunlight. I have mine on the counter by my coffee maker and they do just fine.
In this phase, we’re trying to coax all the bacteria and yeast from the bottled kombucha to chow down on the sweet tea we just made and grow into a fully formed scoby. This can take up to 30 days but might be quicker depending on the environment, where you live, temperature, all that.
You should start to see some early action in the form of bubbles after only a few days. By about two weeks you should see stuff like a thin film on the surface, or a small disc starting to form. These are all good signs that the scoby is coming along nicely. If by the end of week two you haven’t seen any of these signs, it’s likely the scoby isn’t going to happen. You can either wait another week to be sure or start over and try again.
By the end of the 30 days, your scoby should be a disc that covers the entire surface of the liquid in the container, anywhere between 1/16 and a 1/4 of an inch thick. Don’t worry if yours is on the small side, it’s still got the power to make some kickin’ kombucha.
Step 7: What Have You Done?
OK, so all that time, money, and effort was well spent, and we have some delicious kombucha to drink. Well, no. This first “brew” is all about forming the scoby, not creating a tasty beverage. The liquid left in the jar is probably really strong and, if you’re looking for a light and refreshing kombucha experience, this will most likely put you off. Feel free to drink it straight, bottle it with some juice, or, in my case, water the plants with it.
Whatever you do, reserve 1 cup to seed your next batch. Don’t forget this step; it’s arguably the most important. Kombucha brews in cycles, always contributing to the next batch. Some people refer to this as “leaving some for the mother”, which is another less-weird term for the scoby.
Whether you decided to try the brew or not, you should now have 1 cup of liquid in a jar with your newly formed scoby. Now it’s time to brew your first real batch of kombucha.
Step 8: Brew Again!
Just like before, use the recipe provided to brew up some sweet tea. If you want to get into larger vessels you can do so by adjusting the recipe up. You can double it pretty easily to 8 cups of water, 140 grams of sugar, and 14 grams of tea (about 6-8 tea bags). Just make sure you have enough vessel space to accommodate this tea and the cup of kombucha and the scoby with a little space for air.
Not that I think you’ve forgotten, but please make sure your tea is room temp before pouring into the vessel. You will kill your scoby if you pour scalding tea on it and you’ll have to start from square one again.
Step 9: Waiting, but Less
The nice thing about kombucha is that it brews relatively quickly compared with ciders or beers. Usually, it only takes about 7 days to get the right level of fermentation. I recommend tasting the brew every day of this process to get familiar with the changes it goes through. Do this by gently pushing a spoon down on the scoby, letting it fill up with a little of the tea. Whenever it tastes good to you, it’s ready!
Step 10: Bottling Day
Now we finally get to put something in a bottle! I have a routine that incorporates all the steps to not only bottle the kombucha but also brew another batch of tea to start another brewing cycle. This also helps to eat up some of the wait time as the tea cools. Here’s what you do:
Brew the Tea
Same recipe as before, adjusting up for larger vessels. You should be really good at this part by now. Set this aside to cool.
Clean and prep all your container and tools, including a funnel for bottling, tongs to extract our scoby, a clean plate for scoby to chill on, bottles for… holding, I guess. Using the tongs, retrieve the scoby gently, let it drip off a little, and place it on the plate.
Not that I think you forgot, but make sure to reserve a cup of the brew to start your next batch. Very important!
like a little flavor in my kombucha so first we’ll pour some of our fruit juice into the bottle via a funnel and then fill it up with kombucha. This part will take some trial and error as the overall carbonation and sweetness will depend heavily on the juice. As a starting point, I use about 1/3 cup of orange mango juice in a 0.5-liter bottle (about 18 ounces) and then filled it up to just after the neck starts. You want about an inch of headspace in there to allow for the pressure that comes from the carbonation process.
After pouring and affixing the cap or lid, I like to give the fruited kombucha a few turns to fully mix it. Once your bottles are filled it’s time to tuck these beauties away for another 7 days to get bubbly and delicious. I like to put these down in a cupboard out of the way but as long as you adhere to the original brewing rules (around 70 degrees and no direct sunlight) you’ll be fine.
If you want to skip the juice, you can still store these bottles away to allow them to carbonate. Start with a 7-day carbonation and see how it goes from there. Also, without the addition of any extra sweetness from the juice, this carbonation will continue to eat away at any sugars left from the tea. This can make the resulting kombucha less sweet and more acidic, so I’d recommend bottling just before the kombucha hits the right balance.
Return the reserved cup of kombucha to the brewing vessel along with the scoby. The bottling process probably isn’t long enough for the tea to fully cool on its own, so you might not be ready for it just yet. Cover up the brewing container and find something to do for a while.
When the tea reaches room temp, pour it right on in. Recover the container and store it away.
Step 12: Pop the Top
If you went with swing-top bottles, you’re in for a real treat. The “pop” you get when opening the latch is just the best. If you went with screw-on lids, I imagine you’ll get something very similar to opening a bottle of soda. Which, you know, is still OK, I guess.
When the carbonation is on point, stick the bottles in the fridge to halt the carbonating process. This is part of the trial-and-error process, so don’t feel bad if you get it wrong the first go round. Another batch is just around the corner!
Tips and Suggestions
At the time of writing this, I’ve done four cycles and expanded from one brewing container to two. While this is far from making me an expert, there are a few little tricks I’ve employed to help me keep track of everything.
At some point, your scoby will begin to split. It will look very similar to a flaky layered biscuit and those layers might begin to separate. This is totally normal and simply shows that your scoby is very healthy. When this happens, you can expand your operation to include another brewing vessel, transferring one part of the scoby to the new jar along with one cup of the brewed kombucha. Because of this last part, I only tend to split scobies on a bottling day when I’m already getting in there.
You can also give these new scobies to friends and family who want to start their own brewing operation. Again, transfer them with a cup of the brewed kombucha so they have something to live in until they start brewing again.
There are also a number of non-brewing uses for scobies. You can use them in compost or fertilizer and there are even recipes for cooking with them.
I like to keep track of dates, especially when I’m testing different durations of brewing and carbonating. For this, I simply use a piece of paper tucked into the rubber band of the brewing vessel. I write the date when I start a new batch, crossing off the date before it. This is also a fun way to see the history of your scoby.
For the bottles, I rubber band a piece of paper to the neck, noting the date that it was bottled, how many days it brewed before that, and the type and amount of juice it was bottled with. Again, this helps when testing different types of juices and durations.
What good is a bunch of data if you don’t have a place to store it. I recommend getting a small notebook, something from the dollar store is fine or a Moleskine if you’re feeling fancy (which by now you definitely should). Keep track of brewing and carbonating durations for different types of teas and juices. You can also note when you split a scoby into a new vessel or gave one to a friend. Get as crazy as you want to here.
Thanks for reading! If you try this process out, I’d love to hear about your experience. Let me know if you have any feedback or questions and I’ll try to answer them when I can. Happy brewing!