I enjoy a drink of beer or wine, but often as not, it's for the taste rather than the alcohol content. I don't really like sweet drinks with food and, apart from plain water, there aren't many savoury alternatives. My interest in fermented foods led to me hearing about fermented drinks, including kombucha, and wondering whether they might be a good alternative. The first step, then, was to try some and see what it tasted like.
I found a bottle of kombucha in the whole food shop that I buy malt extract from. On trying it, well... it was sweet and fizzy, which wasn't exactly what I was after, but it should be possible to tweak both. The underlying flavour was nice, so I pressed on to Step 2.
Step 2 was cultivating a
mother of kombucha, or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). I checked before buying that the drink wasn't pasteurized, which would kill the yeast and bacteria. I saved a little of the drink to breed a new SCOBY from, and put it in a pint of sweet tea (normal black tea - one teabag in one pint* of boiling water, leave to cool then remove teabag and add two tablespoons of sugar). I covered the jar with cloth, put it in a warm-ish place and waited.
A light, white film formed within a few days, but then nothing seemed to happen for ages. It was about a month before I had something resembling a kombucha mother. I'm sorry I didn't take a photo at this stage, but then again, perhaps best not - they're not pretty. Now I had a mother and starter tea (a lot of the yeast cells are in the liquid, apparently, so you need both) I moved on to a larger batch: three and half pints or two litres of water, which is about the capacity of my larger saucepans, three teabags and 100g sugar. This time I used two green teabags with one black one - I have some rather old green tea with mint that needs using up, so I ignored the advice about not using flavoured teas at this stage (apparently the oils can inhibit the bacteria) and chucked a couple in.
This went into a half-gallon jar that once held pickled eggs, scavenged from the local pub. It took a while to get rid of the pickled egg smell, but it's OK now. This being rather heavy, I decided against the top of the cooker as the warm place. The adjacent cupboard gets quite warm, too, as it's against the chimney. I say quite warm - I put a thermometer in there and it read 18°C. It's all relative.
In theory, having the jar tucked away at the back of the cupboard should stop me moving it all the time to have a look and see how it's doing, but it didn't quite work like that. In spite of my interference, a new scoby formed within a week, albeit a thin one. I tasted the drink at seven days and liked it, though it's still a bit on the sweet side, if nowhere near as sweet as the commercial one.
I took some photos this time, so you can see what the scoby looks like:
The misty film on the top develops into a cellulose mat. The old one floated up underneath the new one, which is what the beige patches are. The edge is bent down where I poked a dropper through to sample a bit before deciding whether to bottle it.
From the side, you can see bits hanging down from the floating mat. It's supposed to look like this. Apparently this is a good thing.
At this stage, people often add flavourings and a little extra sugar when bottling, for a second fermentation, to produce a little fizz. It's very much like making beer. Since the drink's already a bit sweet, I'm not adding any more sugar this time. Also, at this stage, I'm sticking with the natural flavour, though I'll probably experiment with flavourings at some point.
The main change I'm planning to make is to replace the tea with something that doesn't have caffeine. Apparently it's the tannin that's important, so oak leaves are an obvious choice. I think beech leaves have tannin, too, and also blackberry leaves, which I may try if I don't get round to hacking back the brambles before they put out new leaves in the spring.
I'm hoping that with a bit of playing around, I'll end up with something that's (virtually) non-alcoholic, has no caffeine, almost no sugar, but still tastes good. It sounds like a pretty tall order, when I put it like that, but I think it might be possible. It's got to be worth a try, anyway.
* I knew that American gallons are smaller than British ones, but it only recently occurred to me to check pints - yes, American pints are smaller too. I'm using British pints.