Sunday, April 8, 2018

Things I wish I had known

Which one's the black tea?

If you guessed the bottom one, congratulations.  It's a first flush Darjeeling (an Indian black tea) using a half once per gallon ratio.  For reference, the top is a white tea champagne flavored blend using the same ratio. 

A year ago this would have been surprising to me.  My knowledge of tea was mostly informed by the cheap boxes at target, the ones that contain a hundred bags per 2 dollar box or some such and taste like burnt umber.  The idea that there is so much variety between each type of leaf, each nation's (and even farm's) oxidation and roasting process, was pretty much foreign.

Getting into brewing kombucha has awakened my curiosity about the tea that goes into it.  I still know very little about it, mostly what I've learned through conversations with people who do know about it and experimentation on my own, but I would like to pass along some of the myths I've heard about kombucha and some of the knowledge I've gained.

Myth 1.  Kombucha requires black tea

This one is completely false.  A good starter can be made from any type of tea, I actually keep one black tea hotel and one oolong that I use to start lighter or sweeter teas.  Both formed enormous mats over the top, both ferment over similar time frames and maintain similar strength and pH. I also make flower teas, like the blue butterfly (from Short and Stout Tea) that I posted a couple weeks ago.  While caffeine can contribute to the strength of a brew, the blue butterfly has made it through 5 or 6 generations and still produces consistently, though the actual chemical makeup of the SCOBY may have changed.

Myth 2. Metal is toxic to kombucha

Another one that's completely false, though based in a modicum of truth.  Kombucha has a very low pH and when kept in a copper, aluminum, or cast iron container can leach toxins from the metal over the course of days.  This is also true for certain glazes and treatments in cheap glass, ceramic, or plastic containers.  The best containers to keep kombucha in are stainless steel, untreated glass, or open top wood casks. 

The most damage done by this myth is during stirring, because a lot of people are led to believe they can't use metal spoons and use plastic or wood exclusively.  Generally this is fine, but plastic and wood tend to hold greater concentrations of bacteria than metal and are harder to sanitize due to their porous nature.  Generally this won't be an issue but if the pH of your starter is high or the balance is off, mold can overtake your brew before the SCOBY gets to work.  If the strength of your starter is suspect then you should exclusively use sanitized stainless steel and glass.

Myth 3.  Kombucha requires a second ferment

Usually referred to as F2 or (as I prefer) bottle fermentation, this is typically the step when fruits, herbs, and other flavors are added.  The idea that this is absolutely necessary is false, though depending on what you want to do there are good reasons to do a second ferment.  If you're trying to create a fruit flavored drink then it's almost always better to add after fermentation, because fruits and herbs can carry foreign bacteria that can cause mold or unexpected flavors (the lower pH and stronger culture of a completed ferment will kill those bacteria off).  It's fun to experiment with flavored first ferments but experiments should be done in an extra vessel with plenty of backup starter in case something goes wrong.

The most important thing that happens in a second ferment is that the bacteria in the SCOBY are put in stasis due to the lack of oxygen, while the yeast continue to consume sugars and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide.  During the first ferment the bacteria convert the alcohol into acid while the CO2 escape into the atmosphere.  If you like a fizzy drink, then after bottling leave the product out at room temperature for at least a week then let it bottle condition in the fridge another week or two.  However, certain kombuchas may not need a lot of fizz (I find jasmine green blends, for example, get enough carbonation in the first ferment and can go right in the fridge).  Carbonation is valuable in cutting over-acidic drinks, but can also rob sweetness and subtlety from the finished product.  It's a balancing act that depends entirely on what you want to create and ultimately you will develop your own base of knowledge and experience around this process.

Myth 4a.  Kombucha is good for every malady, is completely safe for everyone in any quantity, and contains no sugar/high levels of vitamin B.
Myth 4b.  Kombucha is dangerous and has no redeeming qualities.

Kombucha has some unfortunate overenthusiastic supporters and detractors.  GTS has actually gotten in trouble for underestimating the total sugars and labeling high levels of vitamin B in their drinks, which can be downright dangerous for a diabetic drinking their product who has to carefully count every carb.  Unfortunately, label laws in the US operate mostly on the honor system in terms of nutrient and calorie counts, and this has allowed dishonest companies to profit from some of the misinformation about kombucha (and other foods/drinks).

Kombucha contains alcohol.  It's usually low, though home brewed kombucha generally is higher than the .5% abv that allows store bought brands to be sold as non-alcoholic.  I've actually had someone argue that the vinegar in kombucha (there is no vinegar in kombucha, vinegar is a completely different process) cancels out the alcohol.  This has no basis in chemistry, science, or reality except in the kind that he wishes was true.  The saddest part is that this was a thread about how safe it is to give endless amounts of kombucha to children.  My day job is working as an Occupational Therapy Assistant with children and adults with disabilities, a depressing number of whom were exposed to alcohol and drugs as a fetus or small child.  Alcohol is not safe for a developing brain, small amounts are probably ok and it's definitely preferable for a child to drink small amounts of kombucha to large amounts of corn syrup in juices or soda, but it needs to be carefully rationed to avoid even subtle damage (especially with kids in the 1-6 age range).  Just be careful and talk to a pediatrician, please.

The probiotics in kombucha are present but in most people won't make a meaningful difference to their stomach flora.  There are a couple million bacteria in a typical 8 ounce serving of kombucha, while there are trillions of bacteria hanging out in your stomach at any given time.  There are about 3 times the number of bacteria cells in your stomach than in your entire body combined.  There's a reason probiotic capsules have to mark that none of their claims have been evaluated by the FDA, and kombucha generally contains even fewer (though with slightly greater diversity).  The good part of this news is that the candida in kombucha (a yeast strain generally implicated in yeast infections) is small enough that it almost never causes overgrowth. 

On the other hand, kombucha is a low sugar, no artificial sweetener fizzy flavored drink.  It scratches the same itch that beer and soda creates and can be a good replacement for either/both of those.  Diet sodas and artificial sweeteners have been linked to higher incidents of strokes, heart disease, and (most surprising) weight gain.  Kombucha is a way to get that sweetness, fizziness, or even buzz - if you create a wine, beer, or mead with the product - without having the calories or dangers of artificial sweeteners.  It's also a great creative outlet and the fast turnaround between brewing and drinking means mistakes aren't disastrous and are easy to learn from and correct.

This post is getting a bit long in the tooth so I'll close it here.  If you have any questions or thoughts on this then I'd invite you to engage on Facebook or Instagram.  Disagreement and feedback is always welcome as are recipe swaps and brewing discussion.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

New Facebook group and Instagram!

Now you can join us on facebook to discuss brewing and arrange exchanges, or follow on instagram!

Facebook (There's also a link on the main page)


Saturday, March 24, 2018

Getting Started: What is a SCOBY and How to Make Your Own

There's a lot of people out there who either don't understand or don't want you to understand how easy Kombucha is to start brewing.  I saw a 30 dollar kit in a refrigerator at the Albany Co-op the other day, ironically across the isle from a series of Kombucha taps and bottles that could give you the same exact product with the exact same (or less) work for as little as 4 bucks (also, the bottle method is generally more reliable).  So how do they get away with this?  Well a lot of it stems from an incomplete understanding of and propagation of internet mythology regarding SCOBY.

SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) is often stated to be the mat that grows over a fermenting batch of Kombucha, which is an incomplete statement.  While the mat contains yeast and bacteria that contribute to the fermentation process it is mostly made up of a collagenous byproduct of the process that forms a protective seal over the top of the liquid (to keep foreign contaminants out).  The truth is any mature, non pasteurized kombucha tea can qualify as a SCOBY and serve as a starter for your brewing process.  All we need to do to make it usable is crank the microbial inhabitants into overdrive by feeding and finding them the best environment.

The recipe is pretty simple.  Take half a cup of sugar and a pint of black tea that was allowed to steep until the water goes from boiling to room temp.  Combine them with a bottle of (ideally) plain tea kombucha.  In this case plain simply refers to anything whose primary ingredient is tea.  Kombucha brewed from jasmine flowers or black tea and rose petals, for example, would still work fine but may be a bit expensive to use for this kind of purpose.

At this point you have a sugary and acidic starter.  If you have pH strips it's a good idea to make sure it's under 4.0 so you can be assured it's protected from foreign bacteria and molds.  Either way, cover it with a thin, rubber banded cloth and put it somewhere dark, well ventilated, and between 70-80 degrees.  It should be ready to use within 2-3 weeks and you should also see a healthy mat about a centimeter to an inch thick on the surface (There is a lot of variation in SCOBY mat thickness and a lot of reasons for that variation.  It almost never indicates the health of the culture itself).  All cleaning should be done with warm soapy water or distilled (NOT raw) vinegar and thoroughly rinsed and dried, all stirring is best done with stainless steel as plastic or wood usually has higher bacteria concentrations (if you don't have steel or aluminum plastic or wood is fine, it just raises your chances of mold forming a bit).

Now the reason this method is generally more reliable than buying a purpose built kit is both price, viability, and acidity.  As I mentioned before a SCOBY as part of a kit can run anywhere from 20-70 dollars depending on what it includes.  To contrast a bottle of plain kombucha will be somewhere between 2.50 and 4 dollars and a 1 gallon glass fermenting vessel along with some mason jars is another 15 or so.  That makes this a lot more accessible to people without a lot of extra money.

There are also practical concerns with bought SCOBY mats (or mushrooms).  Refrigerating a SCOBY tends to put the bacteria into stasis, so when it is put in a bacteria friendly environment foreign contaminants basically get a free day or two to take over before the SCOBY can get to work.  With the bottle method the pH is low enough to keep most contaminants from ever getting a foothold, and there's enough SCOBY to actively compete once they do wake up.  It's a lot easier for the lesser amounts in a store bought mat to get overwhelmed because they usually don't include a lot of starter tea.

In any case, now that you have some good starter it's time to scale up.  You have some options about how and I'm going to get into all the different brewing methods at a later date, but the two main options right now are whether or not you want to keep a SCOBY hotel or just get right into brewing.  For background a hotel is a jar of very strong kombucha starter (basically vinegar) that is built to provide starter for batches as well as a place for overgrown or inactive SCOBY mats to remain in storage until you want to use them.
Black tea SCOBY hotel covered with a loose cloth that is porous to air

This is a harder choice than it sounds like.  I actually opted to go without and just get started, mainly because there's an excitement factor with brewing and drinking the product that was motivating to me and a hotel would've delayed that gratification.  It also meant I wouldn't have to buy extra jars or spend money on store bought booch while I waited for the hotel to become viable, and for someone brewing and drinking on a budget that can be a big deal.  Finally, you can make a hotel at any point in the brewing process and I wanted to see if I could make something tasty enough that it was worth the time and effort before getting into all the side stuff.  In my thought process it was easier to grow and expand over time than to lay out infrastructure I didn't necessarily need.  On the other hand now that I have hotels (I keep one for every flavor profile I use), it gives me that fine tuning control over the process and extra room to fix mistakes as needed.  Your mileage and needs may vary.

In either case the process is the same.  If building a hotel just use the same extra strong tea/water ratio you used for the starter (1-1.5 ounces or 10ish bags per gallon) and a cup of plain white table sugar and let ferment in a wide mouthed glass jar with your starter for 3 weeks.  At that point you'll have a gallon of kombucha SCOBY as well as a storage space for SCOBY mushrooms that you can split or use to cook with at your leisure.

If you want to make something now and damn the torpedoes, this is when we start getting a little more technical.  What you brew and how is entirely a matter of taste and personal needs.  Personally I brew in batches because I like the flexibility to try new flavors and methods and I don't trust most spouts in such a high acid environment, but continuous brewing can be a godsend when you have limited time or you don't like waiting.  Since it's a big topic and this post is getting a bit long in the tooth, I'm going to more thoroughly explain both methods at a later date.

Hopefully this was helpful to anyone looking to get into brewing but worried about the high costs.  As always critical feedback or comments are welcomed and will be responded to in as timely a fashion as I can.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Speaking for the Tea

It's time somebody spoke up for the tea.

Too often I see people give the following advice:  Use a ton of cheap teabags, throw them in boiling water, and leave them in until the water is cool.  Usually not in those exact words but that's generally the gist of it.  In this style of brewing the real flavor always comes from outside sources like fruits and herbs.  It works fine and it's relatively cheap and easy, and it's how most of the national Kombucha brands work which is probably why homebrewers like to copy it so much. In my opinion it also ignores the base ingredient of Kombucha; the tea. 
From left to right:  Blue Butterly flower, Jasmine/Green blend, and Monk's Blend. 

A closer look at the Blue Butterfly.  The tea is blue at first and becomes a deep violet as it acidifies, in the same process used by litmus paper.

Kombucha is fermented tea, not fruit punch, and without the tea it doesn't exist.  With that in mind I think we need to stop treating it like it isn't important.  A good, properly steeped tea contains complexities and depth that you can never achieve by adding some fruit to Hannaford tea bags.  On a philosophical note, to me the point of homebrewing is to explore and attempt things you can't buy in a store.  The idea of homebrewers copying brand flavors is like beer brewers trying to copy Budweiser.  We need to rise above if we want to move forward.

This is not to say the other way has no validity, just that it is far too dominant because it's easy and creates something that's usually drinkable and enjoyable.  It's how almost all of us started and it's where far too many businesses and homebrewers have stayed, and that's the true tragedy.  We don't grow without learning and we don't learn without being curious enough to risk failing, and lord knows I've failed plenty in this journey.  I've also succeeded in creating some truly delicious and artful drinks using nothing more than leaves, sugar, and a culture.  More importantly, beginning this learning process has driven me to learn more, and while I wouldn't describe myself as anything more than a novice, I still value the process.

Over the next week or so I would like to break down as many types of teas as I'm familiar with and give any insights I've gained over their transformation by the SCOBY.  As always, comments and feedback are welcome.

What This Is and What I am Not

I decided to start this blog because I want to create a resource for people.  A reference for all the mistakes I've made in brewing, the kind of thing I wish had existed when I started and was mostly working off of word of mouth (back when I thought all metal was toxic to the culture).  I want this to stand as an honest source of all the knowledge and technique I've gained over the time I've been doing this, without the superstition and overselling that so many others have conflated into this process. 

I am not a chemist, I am not anything more than a curious amateur brewer with a lot to say about brewing and drinking.  My day job is in occupational therapy (working as a COTA).  I try to source my knowledge as reliably as possible and it is largely backed up by my own brewing experiences.  Still, most of my technical knowledge is secondhand or pretty basic.

Finally, I would like there to be an aspect of sharing to this.  I love talking about and sharing what I've brewed and I feel like I know very few others who do this.  I'd like to reach out to and build on the local Kombucha community if at all possible.  I appreciate and will try to respond to any feedback or comments offered.

Booch Life

Right now I'm drinking a fermented tea I made from Jasmine blossom, green tea bags, sugar, and a bunch of yeast and bacteria working together to make it delicious.  It's called Kombucha and it's life affirming.  It is also grossly overrated and misunderstood by most of the people who drink/brew/have heard of it, while at the same time being unfairly maligned by its detractors.  As is often the case, the truth about Kombucha lies somewhere between in a murky gray zone that requires more critical thought and research than most are able to offer between episodes of American Idol.

All that said I love brewing and drinking it.  It hasn't cured my anxiety, it hasn't made me smarter or stopped my acid reflux or any of the myriad "benefits" attributed to it by an array of excitable cat-people.  What it's done is tasted good and given me a hobby and outlet to be as creative and crazy as I want when I brew.  It makes me unreasonably happy to test out new teas or brewing schedules and techniques, then talk about and share the results with others. 

In the right hands and with the right mindset, Kombucha is a gift.  In whatever way I can I would like to share this gift so if you are just getting started, you can learn from my failures in the hopes that someday we can drink to our successes together.