Adventures in fermentation

A while back I started making kombucha, and this is bascially a bunch of meanderings from my first three months of experience with it (mostly for my reference). I took a class at People’s Co-op given by Dori Oliver of Nourishing Foodways, and I use her recipe and simple 5-step process, and also received a scoby from her. I don’t bother trying to dechlorinate or use distilled water, though. It seems not to be a real problem.

The first batch seemed to take forever to start. Dori had said that oolong tea (which I was using, as it was the only thing I had around) was the slowest, with black the fastest and green in the middle. Both my own experience and information from my friends has since suggested that the tea type is not the most essential thing about speed, but more the conditions of the brewing area and how much starter is included and the size of the mushroom. I had just half a cup of starter from Dori (the suggested minimum), and a small mushroom (she grew them in little bottles; they grow to the size of their container). Also, our kitchen is very cold. I started in mid-April, when temperatures in Portland were around 50-60 degrees, and our house is heated to between 64 and 66. This is too low for optimal kombucha growth, according to most sources, which suggest somewhere between 72 and 79 degrees.

The first batch did taste great once it finally finished almost two weeks later. I was pretty enchanted. The oolong tea turned out to be a good choice. It was Harney and Sons Formosa Oolong (not the Fanciest Formosa, but their regular), which my brother gave me at Christmas. I was using a large jar, but not large enough for a full batch, so I made a half batch (about 1500 ml or 1.5 quarts). This works fine. Later I bought a full-size jar so I can now make 3 quarts.

Subsequent batches have been faster (still around a week to ten days, sometimes more, until recently), so I developed a theory (with no factual basis) that the scoby was also adjusting to my teas and environment. It seems more likely to do with the larger scoby, warming weather, and later more starter (because I had more of a bottled supply, so I was fine with letting more of it be re-used rather than drunk).

Since then I have tried some green tea called Soaring Crane that I bought at Townshend’s, and some black tea, also from them, which purported to be English Breakfast. The Soaring Crane tends to turn out too sour and herbal for me. It’s a fairly grassy tea, although not so much as some, and I did ask them for a nuttier style, but I don’t think they have anything really suitable. The English Breakfast from them was also a failure, too smoky for me. I think I am more used to an English Breakfast style heavy on the Assam, and I suspect this one had too much Keemun. This type improved after some storage in the fridge, but still didn’t get to a point that I really liked. (The Soaring Crane doesn’t seem to be affected by the aging in the fridge as much, although it does help.) Later, I bought some English Breakfast from the Alberta co-op which I preferred, and then an “organic black tea”, also from them, that I think is Assam. The latter has produced very textbook brewing and scobys so far, but the taste is nothing remarkable. Rather than tasting like any particular tea, it tastes ‘like kombucha’.

For a time I was taking the starter off the bottom of the jars where the yeast tends to hang out, because a friend recommended it (and because this part often has more floaties and such anyway, so why not put them back in?), but recently I learned that this can cause sour kombucha and thin scobys if it gets out of hand. It may be a good idea to alternate taking from the top and buttom. Apparently the bacteria tends to hang out at the top. I think it was a good idea to take the yeasty bit for a while, because my kombucha was not very fizzy at all, but it got out of hand, especially in some of the green batches, which taste very sour.

I learned from another friend that he was trying chai kombucha. This isn’t recommended, because of the amount of oil in the tea, which Dori had mentioned, although she also said that it was important for the tea to be caffeinated, which I understand now not to be the case. Peppermint is also not recommended. Basically, the chemicals in the actual Camellia sinensis leaf, particularly when more oxidized, are particularly good at keeping the cultures balanced (tannins, acids). But it’s all right to use some herbs, or mix herbs with tea, you just want to be careful about re-using the scobys — either throw them out, or use them consistently for one kind of tea. I decided to try chai kombucha anyway, with an extra scoby I had stored. I tasted it yesterday (it’s not quite done) and I am skeptical. My blend may have too much clove (a common problem with chai mixtures).

Mostly I have had too many rather than too few scobys. If they are not in great shape, I compost them, otherwise I store them if I have room. I am running out of room and have tried to give away and sell them, but aside from two successes giving them to friends, there is not great interest that I can tell.

I had some problems with ants. My jars were on top of the fridge, and I thought they were well-sealed, but apparently not well enough. After that I was more careful about sealing them, and eventually I moved them to a table. We don’t know where the ants are coming from. The first two batches with ants were badly infested and I threw them out and threw out or really rinsed the scobys (what a waste of tea!), but in the one that only had a few, which brewed while I was in Vancouver, I actually drank that kombucha, as well as rinsing and re-using the scoby. It seems to have had no ill effect.

I had one batch go bad for no discernible reason. It just didn’t taste good. I threw out the batch and the scoby.

Recently, with the summer weather arriving, our kitchen has been at a better temperature. However, this has mostly caused the kombucha to brew faster and taste sourer, so I am ending up with more bottles than I can drink before the next batch finishes, and even with buying new stoppered bottled from Storables (very excellent for bottling, although you have to be careful as they can overflow when using a funnel, because the escape of air is very slow and it’s easy to accidentally overfill the funnel; this problem is less severe with jars, which I had been using, putting wax paper under the lid as Dori suggested) I still did not have enough space to store it. Then, since it’s warm and I am delaying bottling a bit, it gets overbrewed (to my taste) and sour, with less character. So lately I have not been as happy with the batches I have made, although I have a lot of batches.

Also, I have noticed that when the scobys fit tightly to the container, gas bubbles become trapped under them and it can push the scoby out of the water. My latest batch of Soaring Crane had this problem and the new scoby basically had a hole in it. You really have to open the top and push the scoby down a bit if this happens, or preferably don’t fill the jar too full (since jars narrow a bit at the top, having the scoby close to the top is more likely to cause this).

Soon I’d like to try secondary fermentation, probably not by itself, but with flavoring sounds nice.

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