Gone are the days when waiters in restaurants would greet teetotallers with the classic question, “fresh lime soda, sweet or salty?” The popularity of sober drinks, also known as mocktails, is on the rise and the beverages in the mocktail sections of menus are becoming more creative. And kombucha, a fermented tea, has found its place on the beverage menus of some of the best cafés and restaurants in India.
Recently, I visited a new café with friends but their coffee machine was down and we couldn’t have any of their freshly brewed iced coffees. Luckily, kombucha came to the rescue with its berry and basil flavour in a light, fizzy, chilled bottle that hit the spot during Bengaluru’s ongoing heat wave.
Kombucha is made by fermenting sweet black tea with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (Scoby) and a small quantity of kombucha starter (similar to using some dahi, or yogurt) to set it. Some people call it mushroom tea because a full-grown Scoby looks like a mushroom without a stalk. My Scoby in the current batch of kombucha is thriving in the hotter than usual summer in Bengaluru. I jokingly told my friend Bharath yesterday that this growing Scoby reminds me of lab-grown meat.
Kombucha or “booch”, as it is lovingly known, has joined the list of health foods populated with quinoa, kale, avocado and almond milk. Like every new trend, though, there is not enough evidence to prove that kombucha leads to specific health benefits. If it is to be recommended as prevention, and cure, for ailments, studies need to be conducted to determine the dosage, frequency and duration in different populations and subpopulations, as an April 2020 article in Discover magazine pointed out.
One common question is whether the good bacteria in kombucha survives the acidic environment in the stomach and successfully colonises the gut. There is a theory that the pH of kombucha is similar to the pH of the stomach, giving the bacteria a better chance of survival than other probiotics since they are accustomed to an acidic environment.
If you drink kombucha for its probiotic benefits, drinking it an hour before a meal is a better idea than having it with a meal. When we eat, the stomach starts secreting acids and the pH drops to 1.5, making it difficult even for the acid-loving bacteria in kombucha to survive.
Even though kombucha is popular among teetotallers, it is not strictly zero-proof, for fermentation leads to a small percentage of alcohol production. Home-brewed kombucha without standard brewing protocols may have higher alcohol content if the brewing time is extended. Because kombucha has a small percentage of alcohol, and the levels could vary in unpasteurised, home-brewed varieties, it is best for pregnant women and children to consult their doctors before drinking it.
What you need
2-litre glass jar
A piece of Scoby
2 litres water
Heaped half-cup sugar
2 tbsp loose leaf tea (the one you use to make chai is fine)
Half-cup unflavoured kombucha as starter*
Cotton handkerchief or cloth to cover the mouth of the jar
Rubber-band or string
In a pan, boil half a litre of water. Add the sugar to dissolve. Add the tea. Cover and let it brew for 15 minutes. Once the liquid is cool enough to touch (around 30 degrees Celsius), pass it through a sieve into a clean 2-litre jar. Add the remaining 1.5 litres of water to this and give it a stir.
To this, add the unflavoured kombucha starter and stir to mix. Now gently add the Scoby. Cover the mouth of the jar with the cloth and secure with rubber-band or string. Keep it undisturbed on your kitchen counter.
After five-six days, the colour of the tea will lighten and become somewhat cloudy and you will see a thin layer of new Scoby growing on the surface. At this stage, you can taste the kombucha and bottle it as is to keep refrigerated or let it ferment some more if you want it to be more acidic.
Notes: *You can get Scoby + starter kombucha from someone who brews it at home, or by attending a kombucha workshop that gives you a starter kit. You can also buy kombucha starter kits online.
Don’t add any flavour or natural colouring agents like flowers to the initial tea brew during the first stage of fermentation. Scoby is a delicate ecosystem and it could contaminate the Scoby and ruin your kombucha.
How do you know when to stop the F1 process? Go with taste. In hot weather, start tasting every day or every other day after five-six days. If the taste is tangy enough for your liking, you can either bottle it or drink it as is.
Bottling is needed only for carbonation and flavouring, which happens in the second stage of fermentation, or F2.
If you don’t have extra kombucha to use as starter, you can buy unflavoured kombucha from a reliable brand—Mountain Bee Kombucha and Bombucha sell unpasteurised kombucha without any additives like yeast inhibitors— and use that as the starter.
Flavoured kombucha (F2)
What you need
3-4 clean dry flip top bottles
Around 1 cup fruit purée
1.5 litres plain kombucha
Reserve at least half a cup of the prepared kombucha to use as starter for the next batch, along with the Scoby. The remaining kombucha can be used for F2.
Take around 4 tbsp of fruit purée or fruit juice of choice, or a mix such as pineapple-ginger, basil-strawberry, per each 500ml flip-top bottle. Stir the kombucha well and add in each bottle, leaving around 1-inch head space. Seal the flip tops of the bottles. Ferment one-two days at room temperature, depending on how hot the weather is, and then transfer to the fridge. Once chilled, open carefully over a bowl or a sink to catch the fizz overflow. Enjoy!
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.