Brewing Kombucha at home is a fun and easy process. However, to the newbie, the Kombucha brewing process can be fraught with uncertainty, mostly due to lack of information. Oftentimes the mere sight of a healthy SCOBY alone is enough to inspire shudders of revulsion to the uninitiated.
Like most hobbies, the more you brew, the greater your skill set. With experience comes familiarity but first you must learn to “speak Kombucha.” Heck – you might end up like us, singing to your cultures and calling them your Boochie Babies! Coochie coo Boochie boo!
Since a healthy SCOBY can come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, it can be easy to mistake a healthy brew for a science experiment gone awry. However, using the guidelines below, you too will be able to recognize the 5 signs of a healthy SCOBY and Kombucha brew.
Kombucha has its own special smell that longtime brewers will immediately recognize. The signature sweet-sour smell of Kombucha wafting from the brewer is a unique delight. It may take a couple of days for the smell to appear but it is unmistakable once you learn it.
Sometimes described as fermented or “beerlike,” it also has notes of vinegar and a slightly sour pungency that indicates a healthy SCOBY and KT. If you store your Kombucha in a smaller room, you may notice the smell is stronger than when stored in a more open space.
TRY THIS – Smell your batch everyday and taste it too. You will quickly learn how to detect how much sugar is present with just your nose.
Healthy SCOBY Growth
One of the most obvious signs of a health Kombucha brew is the formation of a new healthy SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast – often referred to as a “baby”). While SCOBY growth will vary with the seasons due to differences in temperature, air pressure and the like, the culture is hardy and is constantly reproducing as part of its survival strategy. SCOBYs do not miraculously appear fully formed, but grow in gradually until the entire surface area of the brewing vessel is covered. This survival strategy creates a seal which slows down evaporation and allows for the anaerobic fermentation to occur.
Since Kombucha is of nature (as we are) it follows the seasons. In the summer, the Kombucha ferments very quickly and SCOBY growth is more rapid. In the winter when the temperature is cooler, SCOBY growth will still be present but may be much thinner. It can also take longer for the brewing cycle at this time of year.
Since the culture is a symbiosis of both bacteria (the SCOBY itself) and yeast (the brown strands), it is important that both are in balance. In the early stages, before the culture has fully formed, you may notice yeast congregating at the top of your brew. They look like brown strands or clumps (or a brain!) that eventually attach themselves to the underside of the culture or fall to the bottom of the vessel when they expire. Some confuse the yeast blooms for mold because beneath the newly forming culture they may look bluish or black.
Again, balance is key – so you want to have some yeast, but not too much. For that reason, it is important to always use starter liquid from the top of your brew where it is bacteria rich. Only using starter from the bottom of your vessel may result in “beery” Kombucha. Check out this article on achieving carbonation in Kombucha if you suspect yours is out of balance.
One of the Kombucha culture’s most important defense mechanisms is its low pH. The average pH of properly fermented Kombucha tea is 3.2-2.5. The high acidity prevents other potentially harmful microorganisms from colonizing the culture. In fact, the bacteria and yeast work so well together, that they kill other harmful bacteria on contact. Although making Kombucha at home seems daunting, it is actually quite safe.
TIP! Use a pH meter to monitor your brew’s progress.
However, pH will not indicate that your brew is ready to drink as it will often reach the desired pH within the first 3 days of brewing. Therefore, you need to use your taste buds to tell you when your brew is ready. Remember, the longer it ferments, the more sugar is converted and the tarter the flavor. Bottle conditioning will mellow the flavor.
Lightens in Color
A freshly brewed batch of starter tea can be quite dark, depending on what type of tea you use. Tannins give tea its color and astringency.
As the culture goes about its business of converting sugar into healthy acids, the tannins are also converted. This causes the color of the tea liquor* to gradually lighten, shifting from dark brown to a lighter tan color.
*Tea liquor is the term used to refer to the liquid created when tea is added to water.
There is no alcohol in tea liquor.
Learning to “speak Kombucha” is a fun and informative process. Use a notebook to jot down your observations. Remember – Kombucha is a living organism and as such will not behave exactly the same from batch to batch, month to month. Learning to recognize these signs will help you adjust your process throughout the year to harmonize with the seasons.
What other signs have you noticed?
Leave a comment below! 🙂