Fermented tea drink looks like pond scum but is delicious and healthy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 6:19am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 6:19am

Artichokes are one of my favourite foods, yet I've often wondered what masochist first took it upon himself to eat one.

Questions about the wisdom of our ancestors' culinary choices returned to me the first time I tried kombucha. I knew that the drink was based on very old traditions. I'd also heard health-conscious friends extol its virtues.

Still, when I peered into the clear, brownish liquid and saw little floating strands of what I now know to be culture but looked a bit like pond scum, I thought: Really? I never see strands of slime floating in my Coke Zero. If I did, I'd probably be on the phone to a lawyer, making plans to quit my day job once I got the settlement money. Accustomed as most of us are to the industrial sameness of most bottled beverages, the look of kombucha might initially give you the heebie-jeebies.

And yet the drink was delicious: tart, lightly sweet, fizzy. Once I mixed some kombucha with gin and tonic syrup, I was sold; the resulting highball was crisp and tart. Many kombuchas remind me of vinegar fruit shrubs and can be used similarly. The ones that have gone through a second fermentation stage have the added appeal of carbonation. Many of them mix beautifully with spirits.

"You're playing with that same shrub acidity with the added benefits of what kombucha brings to you," says Kavita Singh Brar, co-owner of New Heights restaurant in Washington, and its tiny downstairs bar, the Gin Joint.

Singh Brar started drinking kombucha for its purported health benefits. A fitness fanatic, she says kombucha helped her get back into running after she started experiencing joint pain last year. Too much was not great for digestion, but "two cups a day and I was good".

She started making her own, experimenting with teas - she prefers a green tea base - and flavours from fruits and spices, incorporating them into the cocktail programme at the Gin Joint. Kombucha mixes well with most spirits, she says.

I beat back renewed squeamishness when I grew my own Scoby, the weird colony that sits atop a batch of sweetened tea and causes its fermentation into kombucha. The name stands for "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast". It's no wonder people call them Scobys; the scientific term a unappealing mouthfuls, whereas Scoby just sounds like some hippie.

A Scoby is the mother of all kombucha; you can't brew your own without one and if you're comfortable with sterilising jars and keeping things clean, you can grow one. It's time-consuming but not difficult. Keep the environment warm - 22 to 29 degrees Celsius - and keep checking to make sure no moulds are forming.

Mine took longer than I expected - Scobys want to be snuggly warm - but after about a month, there it was, ready to start brewing. I felt an odd, uneasy pride over bringing into the world what looked like the offspring of snot and an ice hockey puck.

When they're ready, I'll find their offspring, more baby Scobys, lurking in the jars. If I have time between making drinks, I might even start naming them.

Make your own Scoby (makes two starter-culture disks)

You'll need two wide-mouth one-litre jars, cheesecloth and rubber bands for this recipe. Do not use reactive vessels for brewing kombucha or for storing the Scoby; glass is best. Should mould ever form on the Scoby or in the kombucha, discard both and start over.

Ingredients

Water 1.9 litres

Black or green tea leaves 1 tbsp

Sugar ½ cup

Store-bought raw kombucha 340 grams

  • Sterilise the empty jars by placing them in a deep pot of boiling water over high heat; boil for 10 minutes, turn off the heat, and use tongs to transfer the jars to a dish towel.
  • Boil water in a pot over high heat; remove it from the heat and add the tea. Allow the tea to steep for 30 minutes, then strain out the leaves. Add the sugar to the tea and stir until dissolved. Let the mixture cool to room temperature before adding the kombucha; do not add it to the tea when it's still too warm, or you'll kill the cultures. Stir gently and divide the mixture between the jars.
  • Cover each jar with a double layer of cheesecloth; secure the cheesecloth with the rubber bands. Place the jars in a warm, dark place. After two to four weeks, you'll see the Scoby disks form on the surface of the tea; they can then be used to ferment batches of kombucha. You won't want to drink the tea, because it will have become quite sour.

The Washington Post