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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

You say tea mold, I say kelp tea

Kombucha is a fermented drink with a tea base that has been claimed for centuries in many cultures to have health benefits, mainly as a digestive aid and a way to detox.  Because it is acidic and mildly alcoholic (no, you won’t get drunk on it), it is thought to be antimicrobial.  It’s been proven effective in animal studies, although there are not yet any known human studies.

It is also sometimes called "mushroom" tea, though it doesn’t contain mushrooms.  This name comes from the starter, which is a mass of beneficial yeasts and bacteria forming a cluster.  There are many names for this starter, SCOBY (Symbiotic colony of Bacteria and Yeast) being the more scientific one, and “the mother” being the more common one.  In Russia, where the first recorded history of kombucha exists, it is called “mushroom” or “tea mushroom”.  It is popular in Asia, where the Japanese make it with dried kelp, or kombu, and who gave it the name kombucha, which in Japanese means “kelp tea.”  The Chinese use three words for it, “red tea fungus/mushroom”, “red tea mushroom”, and “tea mold”.  Red tea is simply their interpretation of what we call black tea.

Kombucha tea is not too difficult to make, and much cheaper than buying it if you are a kombucha drinker.  Here’s what you need to make your own:

Starter (store-bought, or from another tea)
Large food-grade glass container with wide mouth
Small glass bottles for pouring the finished product into
pH test strips
Cheesecloth or coffee filters with string or rubber band
Funnel for pouring finished product into bottles

Any type of tea may be used: black, green, oolong, whatever your preference. (Note: "herb" teas are not considered teas for this purpose.) Teas containing oils may require more fermenting and should probably be avoided until you are a "kombucha master." You can use organic cane sugar or refined white sugar. I have not tried honey myself, but a friend who uses it says it takes much longer to brew it using honey.

Like brewing anything, special care must be taken to ensure that you are working in a clean environment with clean utensils (and hands!), using the proper temperature. Care must also be taken to use a low pH factor (between 2.5 and 4.6), as a higher factor could lead to contamination and a lower one will make the tea too acidic. You can use distilled vinegar to control the pH factor. Start with an eighth of a cup. You should test at the beginning and end of the brewing cycle.

Start with about three quarts of boiling water. Add 4-8 tea bags (I prefer strong tea myself, but the choice is yours.) Remove from heat and add one-cup sugar. Once the tea has cooled to room temperature, pour into a food-grade glass container, add the starter, and cover with cheesecloth secured with a rubber band (you can use a coffee filter in a pinch.) Let the tea ferment for one to two weeks - the longer you let it ferment, the sourer it will taste. Make sure it is in a warm place, but not in direct sunlight. You will see a culture develop. Sample by taking a small amount out of the container - do not drink from the container itself! Once it has reached the taste you prefer, remove the culture with very clean hands or preferably clean rubber gloves and place into a clean bowl with enough liquid to keep it moist. Strain the liquid and bottle it. At this point you may add flavorings or fruit (rosehips is tasty!) Let it sit at room temperature for a week to allow the yeast to carbonate the liquid. Capping the bottles tightly will aid the carbonation. Once it is ready you can refrigerate the bottles.

You may want to start a new batch with a small amount of liquid from this batch, which will aid in keeping the pH factor low. Thoroughly clean the food-grade glass container and start the process again, using freshly brewed, sweetened tea and the culture you removed.

As its popularity increases, one can find commercial kombucha more easily, and with a variety of flavorings.  I hesitantly bought a bottle recently that was ginger-flavored.  It had a pleasant taste, and I’m hoping the ginger added to its health value.  Chocolate kombucha?  Nah, I’ll pass.


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