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  • This and That: April 2016 Update + Kombucha Brewing At Home (PLUS: The Kombucha Shop Kit Review!)

    It has been a while since I have visited this page, so it is time for some spring cleaning and updating! I had intentions of updating sooner, but typing "I still really, really want to keep bees but I don't have the resources at hand right now" seemed a little...boring? Right? 

    But that is what it boils down to. I am still very much interested in keeping bees, but have decided to hold off on taking the plunge until I have better resources (i.e. a better location that isn't an apartment with no green space!). But until then, I hope to use this space to share my current project and kitchen experiment: brewing my own kombucha!

    I was really inspired with a tour I took with a friend. We had an informal tour of the NessAlla brewing facilities, tasted lots of 'booch (my favorite: Juniper Rose), and enjoyed the company of others that think this ancient tea-based elixir is amazing. Really, though, it is and ANYONE can do it! Kombucha is full of probiotics, beneficial yeasts and acids, and happens to taste great as well. Oh, and it is SUPER easy to make! The basic ingredients are water, black tea, sugar, time/patience, as well as a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast). And once you make the initial investment, you can literally make kombucha for pennies....kind on your wallet AND the earth!

    To get started, I did a cost anaylsis of a) purchasing the components indiviudally or b) getting this kit + buying several liter flip-top bottles at the Wine and Hop Shop on Monroe Street. Turns out, going with option b was the best bet. (ps: the Wine and Hop Shop carry this kit, as do both Williamson Street Cooperatives in Madison, which is where I purchased mine).So, let's dive right in: THE KIT! Overall, I was really happy with it, and would 100% recommend it to anyone who wants to take the plunge into home brewed kombucha. However, below are some of my thoughts, and aspects that I think are notable (but are no means an extensive overview of the brewing process, or factors that are beneficial or harmful to home brewing kombucha!). 

    What I Liked:

    I loved the easy instructions, the straight-forward language and the extensive information on the website. Brewing my first batch was a low-stress, enjoyable produciton. It was refreshing to have a kitchen experiment of sorts that was so straight forward, a polar opposite of conducting food research (HEH!). The hardest part for me was to enter in the promo code to get a fresh and alive SCOBY delivered to my door. For me, this only took 2 days, so I was brewing in no time. I also really love the temperature reading strip that you stick to the brewing jar (it is accurate-I kept a thermometer beside the jar for several days to verify), and the fact that the tea is from the renowned Rishi tea company in Milwaukee. Along those lines, the website states that the kit uses locally-sourced, USA made materials, which I think is also pretty darn rad! And perhaps the best part: the SCOBY provided with the kit is made with love and good juju from the NessAlla team here in Madison! How awesome is that? 

    What I Didn't Dig:

    Double-edged sword here: I also didn't love the simplicity of the instructions. Now, I know, it cannot be overly complicated or else it will completely scare people off from brewing. But there were two important factors that I had to research on my own before getting started that I felt needed to be addressed a bit more: 

    • Cleanliness and Sanitaiton: now, call me a quality nerd (I did work in quality for 3 years, ya know), but starting with clean hands and equipment is important, regardless of what type of food product you are going to be making. For kombucha, avoid using anti-bacterial soap. This makes sense, though: you're dealing with a culture of bacteria and yeast-those little critters that antibiotics are meant to destroy. Start with clean hands whenever your are working with your SCOBY or your booch. Clean your brewing tools using warm water and vinegar. I prepared a big bowl of warm vinegar water, and kept it in my sink throughout the primary brewing, and during any other time I was working with my 'booch (i.e. bottling and preparing for the second fermentation). And on that note, I think it is important to realize that like antibacterial soaps, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides applied to fruits and/or herbs you may use for your second fermentation should be addressed. Either use locally produced, organic items or clean your ingredients in a solution vinegar water. 
    • Water Quality: here in Madison, we have really hard water due to the plethora of limestone. We get lots of calcium deposits or "scale". I didn't think using regular tap water would be good for brewing the 'booch. Like many other food products, mineral deposits can lead to off-flavors, inhibition of bacteria and/or yeasts, yucky films forming on the surface of liquids, and in certain cases, can actually harbor bad/pathogentic bacteria in the (very rare) event a build-up occurs. So, start with filtered water (I use a faucet-mounted PUR filter), or purchase spring water from your grocery. In addition to minerals, it is important to use filtered water to remove chlorine-another chemical used to kill (oxidize) organic matter and bacteria. 

    Now, call me nit-picky, but I really also did not dig the plastic straw that was included in the kit. I guess for me, the whole point of brewing my own kombucha is to save some money, and to reduce waste by continually purchasing glass bottles. So why not procure a glass straw for the kit, such as Glass Dharma straws? I used my own glass straw to test my brew after 7 days, and it worked like a charm. But, perhaps most annoyingly, the straw is 100% not necessary. You can simply dip in a clean spoon to taste your brew. So really, the plastic straw needs to go!

    As previously mentioned, siphoning off a sample to taste test after 7 days of brew time is performed in conjuction with using pH strips, or litmus papers. Which brings me to aspect #2 that I didn't like: the pH strips. They are fussy, moisture-sensitive, and extremely time dependent. You must read your strip immediately after dipping it in your sample, and the color will continue to change-so have your color reference chart at the ready (this is not indicated in the instructions). It is sometimes really difficult to discern what color is on your strip... for example, there are several shades of green and they all start to look similar if you look at them long enough (HEH!)!! Now, I know this isn't critical, as you would likely know if your brew was outside the target pH values by a blatant color discrepancy, but for a science nerd, this test is a touch irksome. And really, who is going to be crazy and purchase a pH meter just to home brew? My whole point here is to mindful of the litmus/pH paper test, and know the factors that may inhibit the accuracy of it. Knowledge=power, yo!

    Lastly, the instructions indicate to throw away the tea after brewing your sweet tea for the SCOBY. ONE TIME? The tea blend is of a traditional nature, a mix of ceylon and oolong, both of which benefit from more than one brew. I recommend brewing the tea for the kombucha, and then saving the tea after the first steeping for another cup or two for yourself! 

    So, I guess that is it for now! I will be back soon to share the parameters for my first brew, as well as the "recipes" I followed for my second fermentation/bottling. Cheers!