Of Ritual and Tea

Ritual.  Repetition with meaning.  To begin, it is a single act.  In the dark, cool bedroom, I wake up to see Elinor sitting, watching me sleep.  I hug her, and she settles her head into the nook where my torso and shoulder meet.  She sings quiet, delicate songs to herself.  We stay here for minutes; soon a half hour has passed.  A memorable morning.  This was last Wednesday.  Each morning since she has done the same.  A ritual.  A child’s ritual, more fleeting since interests morph in perpetuity.

Some rituals are less overtly meaningful.  Each Saturday morning just before eight o’clock and as Elinor and I head to the market, Dave walks five blocks to get his weekly cup of dark, heady coffee and then walks three more to the boulange, where the smell of baking brioche lingers as he waits for them to finish making his sandwich: soft, pungent Cambozola and crisp slices of pear pressed into a still-warm walnut baguette.  I like to think that this is his time to spend with his city and his thoughts.

I have an office ritual involving an effervescent amber liquid that, while seemingly inconsequential, propels me through the last hours of my workday.  Sometime around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, I open my label-less bottle with a muted pop.  A rush of pinhead-size bubbles surges toward the opening and then subsides.  I take a drink.  The bubbles tiptoe over my tongue, down my throat.  And suddenly any afternoon lethargy disappears.  I am alert, my body vivacious.  Am I throwing back IPAs every afternoon as I draft agreements?  Decidedly not.  Rather, I sip kombucha, a restorative tonic of sweet-sour cultured tea (with whatever other fruit, vegetable, herb, or spice I’m inspired to add).

Kombucha (middle syllable “boo,” like Halloween, not as in a male deer) is an ancient brew that purportedly originated in China more than 2000 years ago.  Made over the course of many days at room temperature, it results from a gelatinous culture slowly and systematically converting the sugar in sweetened black or green tea to something piquant, faintly sweet, and altogether different from other American drinks.  Still not familiar?  Perhaps you know it as teeschwamm, wunderpilz, hongo, cajnij, or Divine Che.  Or perhaps you’ve sample it in Russia, Japan, Poland, Bulgaria, Manchuria, or Indonesia, where it is now widely consumed.

Its proponents, sometimes bordering on zealots, claim myriad health benefits, for example, positive effects on the digestive and immune systems, and metabolism; liver detoxification; antiviral and anti-yeast properties; encouraging cell regeneration; therapy for gout, arthritis, hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, nervousness, and symptoms of old age; rejuvenating the elderly; darkening gray hair; tightening the skin; and reducing metastases.  Most everyone agrees that the end result is chock-full of probiotics and live active enzymes.  While I can neither support nor refute these assertions, my anecdotal experience tells me simply that kombucha makes me feel lovely.  Happy.  And I’ve never been sick while drinking it regularly.

Perhaps it’s the healthful elements that make me feel so well, or perhaps it’s the unconventional agrodolce savor.  But I suspect it might simply be the ritual, the burst and the bubbles and my slowly sipping it throughout the long afternoon hours.

My Dear Kombucha

While making kombucha takes very little hands-on time, it does require some planning.  If you’re going to use Option 1 below, you’ll need to find a kombucha culture.  If you live in San Francisco, I’ve got plenty to share; if not, order one.  Also note that it takes several hours for the hot tea to cool enough to add the culture or previously fermented kombucha, so heat the water at least six hours before you would like to put the cooled tea in jars.

1 gallon (16 cups) filtered water (the chlorine-based compounds in unfiltered water can stymie fermentation)
1 cup organic sweetener (cane sugar, beet sugar, maple syrup, rapadura)
5 bags or 5 teaspoons organic black or green tea

Special supplies:
1-gallon glass container (or slightly larger if using Option 2), as wide-mouthed as possible
Cloth napkin or kitchen towel, clean
Large rubber band
Culture (also known as a SCOBY—symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast—or “mother”) (for Option 1)
1 quart (4 cups) kombucha (for Option 2)

Makes 1 gallon

P R E P .

First fermentation: sweet tea → kombucha

  • Option 1. Sterilize the jar by putting in the oven, preheated to 225°F, for about 20 minutes.  In the meantime, bring the water to a boil in a large pot and turn off the flame.  Stir in the sugar until dissolved.  Then add the tea and let the water cool to room temperature.  Once cool, remove the tea bags or tea ball, and pour the tea into the jar.  Place the culture—opaque side up—in the liquid. Do not worry if the culture sinks.  Cover the opening with the napkin, and secure with the rubber band.  Leave for seven to 14 days out of direct sunlight, until a second culture has formed on top of the original culture or until the kombucha has reached your desired tartness (use a clean spoon to taste every few days).  I like my kombucha quite tart and so stop the first fermentation after about 10 days, when there is the slightest bit of sugar left.  Fermentation occurs faster in a warmer temperature, so you may want to keep the jar in the kitchen or another warm area.  Once it has reached your desired taste, remove both cultures; you can save them to make more jars of kombucha at once the next time, give them away to other kombucha junkies, or compost them.  If you save them, keep them in a covered glass jar in the refrigerator.
  • Option 2. Follow Option 1, except add 1 quart of already fermented kombucha to the cooled tea instead of adding a culture.  Within about seven to 14 days, a culture will form.  Save this for later batches or discard if using this option in the future.

Second fermentation: carbonation

Though the tea ferments—and thus becomes kombucha—during the initial ferment, a second ferment in an air-tight container creates carbonation, assuming there is some sugar left in the kombucha to fuel the fermentation-driven bubbles.  The second fermentation is also a good time to add other flavors.  If you opt for the additional fermentation period, use a funnel to pour the kombucha into bottles.  I use swing-top bottles because they’re air tight, but I have a 75% success rate developing carbonation by reusing other glass bottles and screwing on the lid tightly.  I highly recommend refrigerating the bottles before opening them because the cooler temperature makes the carbonation less active.  On occasion, an overly active room-temperature bottle has showered me with its brew.  Remember that kombucha is alive, quite alive, and that, while we can attempt to manage it, that goal is not always successful.

F L A V O R  I D E A S . Home-brewed kombucha is subtle, gently effervescent and entirely satisfying on its own.  That said, sometimes it’s fun to experiment with additions.

  • Freshly grated ginger. Simple.  My go-to extra after the initial fermentation.
  • Fall spices. Right now I’m working on a fallish fermentation with cinnamon sticks, vanilla bean, star anise, and malty Irish Breakfast tea.  I added the spices to the hot water with the tea.
  • Earl Grey and orange. Earl Grey tea with orange juice.  Zest optional.  Add the orange juice and zest, if using, for the second phase.
  • Elderflower. Make a strong tea of elderflowers; add a tablespoon or so to each bottle for the second ferment.

L I T T L E  D R I N K S  . While there’s reportedly only between .5% to 1.5% alcohol in kombucha, I’ve never tested mine and so don’t feel comfortable giving it to Elinor.  She needs live, probiotic-laden food and drink as much as the rest of us, so I’m starting to make her lacto-fermented bubbly concoctions of all types; more on this very fun, very delicious practice later.

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Text and photo © Blue Egg Kitchen 2010

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  • hODDY - I know you love it, but the many times I have tried it, it is just too bitter of a drink for me, but I know its super healthy for you.November 2, 2010 – 6:07 amReplyCancel

  • Jenifer - Everytime I read a post, it makes me think of the topic in a whole new light. Thanks for all the great storytelling!November 2, 2010 – 1:58 pmReplyCancel

  • ALANA - Your rituals are so nice–rituals can be so comforting–and fun–thanks for sharing!
    I have had your kombucha with ginger and loved it. I was so surprised as the kombucha I have had in the past was bitter and did not appeal to me. I have also experienced making this recipe and again you came through for me–it is so much easier than I had expected!! Let’s get another batch going soon!November 2, 2010 – 5:23 pmReplyCancel

  • Tiffanie - Hi! Came here from the WAPF discussion list.
    A quite pleasurable read. Thanks for sharing! : )
    Now for some brioche while my tea cools….; )November 3, 2010 – 11:15 pmReplyCancel

  • Sheena - HI!

    I found your post on tastespotting, I’ve always bought Kombucha from the store. I would love to learn how to make some, your post is a great tutorial. I live in San Francisco, and if you’re willing to share your some Kombucha culture I will be forever thankful. Let me know!

    Kindest Regards,

    SheenaNovember 4, 2010 – 6:39 pmReplyCancel

  • Tina - Hi I heard about your post from the WAPF discussion group and I would love to take advantage of your kind offer to share some culture as I have not tried making this before. Wonderful read!!November 5, 2010 – 3:15 pmReplyCancel

  • Bill - I use a 2 gallon fermentation glass jar and pull off a gallon at a time. I immediately add back some freshly made cooled tea with a cup or so of sugar in it to keep the process going.

    Using this method, it only takes a couple of days and I can pull the next gallon off. Tested with pH strips, my kombucha gets down to around 3.0 and it really does have a bite to it. By adding flavors, citrus slices and sometimes bicarb to it cuts the bite and makes the final result wonderful.

    Half the fun is in the experimenting – and that is how I have come to use 1/2 tsp of Crystal Lite powder in it – usually pomegranate and/or cranberry and/or lemon slices and/or lime slices and/or finely sliced fresh ginger. Unless, of course, I am experimenting further.

    BillNovember 9, 2010 – 7:26 pmReplyCancel

    • Erin - Thanks for your comment, Bill. I’ve been tempted to try this continuous brewing method for a while. My only concern is the rate at which the newly added sugar ferments, but you’re suggesting that fermentation happens in a matter of days since at least half of the solution is always fully fermented. I’m going to try this soon!November 10, 2010 – 9:47 amReplyCancel

  • Bill - I wanted to share a flavor treat with you – Safeway here in Annapolis is having a sale on Trop50 – a Tropicana drink and I got the pomegranate – blueberry combo thinking it might go well with kombucha. Well it surpassed my wildest expectations – 1/3rd or more of the Trop50 and 2/3rds kombucha.

    It’ll knock your socks off! Try it…

    BillNovember 14, 2010 – 7:50 amReplyCancel

  • ApresFete - I am psyched about this post. And inspired. I am brewing my own kombucha in 2011. First resolution. I share this ritual with you; it is decidedly the best afternoon pick up!! Ginger is my favorite and now I can savor the ritual without the $3.79 daily price tag.November 27, 2010 – 7:59 pmReplyCancel

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