The Cost of Making Your Own Kombucha
Kombucha should not be expensive. It’s literally water, sugar, tea bags, and weird-ass bacteria. And yet those 16-ounce bottles are like $4?!?! No, do not pay that. Brew your own and save major kombuch-bucks.
Also? Pretty much every bottled kombucha has been pasteurized to some degree, which means some of the probiotic goodness has been murdered. It has to be: probiotic buggies keep eating sugar and pooping alcohol and CO2 until all the sugar is gone, even inside the bottle. This is extremely uncool, from an exploding bottle perspective. Homemade means you’re definitely getting all the best critters.
Kombucha Kyew and A
Q. What is even the point of drinking kombucha?
A. It’s full of bacteria and yeast that are supposedly good for your gut biome. Are you concerned about your gut biome? Simply everyone these days is concerned about their gut biome. Kombucha is an ancient health drink that will probably make you live forever because of how robust your gut biome will become.
Q. Is kombucha alcoholic?
A. Yes. Most fermented foods contain some alcohol.
Q. Isn’t that problematic?
A. Not really, unless you absolutely cannot drink any alcohol at all. Most homebrew clocks in under 1%, which is less than orange juice or overripe bananas. For most people, this amount of alcohol is not noticeable and not worth worrying about. If you are in recovery or preggo, maybe ask a health professional.
Q. Sometimes I feel loopy after drinking one of those big bottles of kombucha though, maybe I am drunk?
A. Apparently you’re not supposed to drink that much at once, but not because of the booze! The adorable hippie woman I learned to brew kombucha from said that 4 ounces a day is a good amount. She also said a lot of unscience about flushing toxins but it does seem like kombucha is powerful stuff and really just a bit first thing in the morning is all you need. If it makes you feel weird, drink less.
Q. Why in the morning?
A. Because it is made from tea, and therefore is caffeinated! Before I started home-brewing, I had no idea kombucha was inherently caffeinated. This should be more widely known.
The Cost Breakdown
So how much does it cost to make kombucha at home? To get started, you need something to brew it in. Get a container that holds at least a gallon. The bugs don’t like metal, so plastic or glass is the way to go. I started with a plastic container from the dollar store. This is even nicer and is only $11. You need a big plastic funnel, and if you want to add flavors (you should add flavors) some smaller glass bottles. You can reuse wine bottles if you want or IKEA sells nice bail-top glass bottles for $2.
You’re almost all set up and you only spent $20, bro. Now you must obtain a SCOBY. SCOBY, which is technically S.C.O.B.Y. or Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast, is the alien mushroom-looking wad of probiotic lifeforms that will make the kombucha. SCOBYs are the weirdest things. Nobody knows where they came from, originally. Beneficial yeasts and bacteria got together and created a gooey structure of cellulose to live in like big probiotic weirdos. They remind me of (spoilers!) the protomolecule in The Expanse, building mysterious ring-shaped architecture in the mists of Venus.
You can buy a SCOBY online, but really, you should be able to get one for free. There’s this idea among fermented food zealots that fermenting agents like SCOBYs and kefir grains and ginger bugs are for the good of humanity and it’s kind of not cool to sell them. They should be given away, man. A healthy SCOBY will double in size with every batch, and then can be peeled off and shared. So if you know anyone who makes kombucha, make them give you one. Or find a Facebook fermenting group in your area, or try Craigslist. Luckily, the kind of people who have SCOBYs to share tend to be bulging-eyed kombucha evangelists, so they’ll be into giving you whatever you need.
Making the Kombucha
To make a batch, gather 5 bags of black or oolong tea (or 5 teaspoons loose tea, even cheaper), 1 cup of white sugar, 1 gallon of water, and your SCOBY. Maybe you are like WHITE SUGAR IS POISON!!1!1 and want to use raw sugar or coconut sugar or honey or whatever dumb health sweetener you are inclined toward. Do not. Per my teacher, who is paleo because of course: the sugar isn’t for you, it’s for the SCOBY. And SCOBYs do not thrive on other sugars because they contain minerals and other stuff and just don’t. The bugs will eat all of the evil evil sugar and poop out delicious alcohol, don’t worry.
Boil 4 cups of water and steep your tea for 5–7 minutes. You can steep right in your brewing vessel. Strain and discard tea. Dissolve sugar in warm water. Add the rest of the cold water. Leave 1–2” breathing room in your vessel. CHECK THE TEMP! Anything over 115 F will kill your SCOBY. Please do not kill your SCOBY. Add the SCOBY with its starter liquid. Cover with a cloth and rubber band. Set it in a warm spot out of direct sun for 7–20 days (70–80F, consider a plant mat in winter). Teacher lady insists good vibes make SCOBYs happy so do whatever that means to you.
Start tasting at around a week. A good way to taste is to poke a straw below the floating SCOBY and sip. The longer it sits, the more sour it’ll become. I personally like it very sour so I usually leave it 20 days or more. It’s okay because you’ll add more sugar with the flavors anyway. When you’re done, schlorp out your SCOBY and save it with some of the liquid to start a new batch. Decant the rest into your glass bottles, leaving a few inches of headspace.
Now comes flavors! This is called the secondary fermentation. It’s when your kombucha will get nice and bubbly. The longer you let the second ferment go, the more bubbles and alcohol you get. To flavor, you can add cut fruit, a cup of juice, a tablespoon or two of fruit concentrate, sliced ginger, herbs, whatever. The critters need sugar to work, so if you let the first ferment go very sour and you’re not adding something with natural sugar (like fruit juice), maybe add back a bit more sugar. Play around with it! It’s hard to mess up.
Let sit for 24–48 hours. Definitely open the cap and release the air pressure every 12 hours or so, especially in hot weather. This will not hurt the carbonation. It is possible to shatter glass, or have a kombucha geyser erupt upon opening. If you’re freaked out about shattering, as I am, put a knee sock over the bottle so that if it does shatter the glass will be contained. When it’s done, pop it in the fridge. You’ll want to burp it every few days even in the fridge.
- If your kombucha is not getting sour, your SCOBY may be dead. It happens. Mourn and replace.
- Never use a SCOBY with black spots on it. Brown is cool, but black mold means the SCOBY died and is being colonized by bad mold.
- If you look in your kombucha and see things moving, Google “vinegar eels.” DO NOT GOOGLE VINEGAR EELS UNLESS YOU HAVE TO.
- If you start calling it “booch” then that means the mind control is working.
- In my opinion, the best flavors are ginger, apricot made with Red Jacket Orchard fresh apricot apple juice, and cherry made from tart cherry concentrate.
Okay But So How Much Does It Cost Per Batch?
One time startup cost: $20
Tea: $3 for a box of 20
Sugar: $3 for a 5 lb bag of Domino, or $5.50 for the 2 lb bag of organic
Water: Let’s call water free
Flavors: Depends on the flavor
Even if we amortize the startup cost across only 10 batches, use the fancy sugar, and allow for the spendy Red Jacket juice, it’s still only $2 for a 16-ounce serving. What a deal!
Audrey Ference will share her SCOBY with you. She previously heralded the coming of Bag in Box wine. Follow her on twitter @audreyference.
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