Words: Kelley Heider
Photos: Even Rogers
On a rare 60-degree day in the middle of winter, I gathered together with an eclectic group of kind strangers to learn about and discuss an ancient and controversial beverage: kombucha. What brought us together, or rather, who brought us together, is an interesting story in itself. Her name is Laura Spear. I know her as my realtor, but she is known by many as a gardener, a mentor, and a catalyst, opening the lovely home and 10-acre property she shares with her husband Tim to the public each year for a celebration of their work and the annual growth and community that surrounds their piece of paradise tucked away in Black Forest.
Laura has been making her own kombucha for years. It’s a mysterious beverage that has recently gained popularity among health enthusiasts in the United States, though its health benefits have yet to be confirmed by the FDA. Still, Laura is among the ranks of health-minded people whose commitment to a salubrious lifestyle you can only aspire to emulate, and she swears by the stuff. Having only tried kombucha once before, when I received Laura’s invitation I decided it was worth learning more about.
Kombucha is produced by an ancient method of fermenting tea using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, abbreviated as SCOBY. It’s a community drink, as anyone who wants to start producing his or her own elixir must first get their hands on a SCOBY, which is also referred to as the “mother” or “mushroom,” a thick, rubbery substance that forms over the tea’s surface and kick-starts the fermentation process. Kombucha has been around for centuries and has just as fascinating a history as other mainstream beverages of its ilk. The ancient Chinese referred to it as “immortal health elixir,” and believed it to have healing properties. Kombucha is detoxifying, and it has long been suspected that it prevents certain types of cancers – though again, no claims have been officially substantiated.
If anyone has tried kombucha, chances are they have a strong opinion about it: they either love it or hate it. My first taste was from a bottled version I bought from the grocery store – highly carbonated and extremely tart, like drinking raspberry-flavored vinegar that’s been run through a SodaStream. Come to find out: the fizz and vinegar result from longer periods of fermentation, which you can control if you are brewing it yourself.
Additionally, as you might imagine, the quality of tea you use makes a big difference in the resulting beverage. Laura buys her tea direct from David Lee Hoffman, California-based tea importer and star of the documentary All in This Tea. Laura recommends oolong tea because of its light, flowery, grassy flavor, which she likens to “drinking a meadow.” She offered us several teas to try, and after sampling the version that had been fermenting for only one week, I realized that I had been mistaken about kombucha. It was delicate and subtle, quite a lot like drinking a meadow.
Laura walked us through her process of harvesting kombucha and starting a new batch, something she does every week by maintaining a pair of two-gallon batches on alternating schedules. After sharing with us how she prefers it be prepared, the workshop participants had a chance to sample different kombuchas from Laura as well as several brought by other kombucha makers in the group. After spending the afternoon in good company, tasting and discussing the nuances of each kombucha, I understood why Laura felt compelled to bring us together and share with us her knowledge, her space, and her “mother.” It was a much-needed gift of vitality and kinship on a warm sunny day in the dead of winter.
Laura’s take on the Laurel Farms recipe:
Bring 3 quarts of distilled water to a boil in a large stainless-steel pot.
Add 1 ½ cups sugar, stirring until it dissolves; continue to boil five minutes.
Add 2 tablespoons loose tea (for each tablespoon, Laura used 3/4 tbsp. black tea and 1/4 tbsp. green tea).
Turn off the burner and let steep 15-20 minutes.
Remove tea and transfer to the two-gallon glass container.
Add water until the tea mixture reaches 80-90 degrees.
Add the SCOBY or 6 ounces of kombucha tea as a starter and stir well.
Place a cotton or cheese cloth over the top of the mixture.
Find a dark place with a regulated temperature (between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit) and allow the tea to ferment for one to four weeks. Laura adds that tea takes longer to ferment during the winter months. She generally lets hers ferment for two weeks in the summer and three weeks in the winter. To harvest, prepare the next batch and transfer the SCOBY from the fermented tea to the newly-made mixture. Transfer the finished kombucha to six 16-ounce glass jars and seal with room at the top. Refrigerate the kombucha until you are ready to drink it. When refrigerated, kombucha can last up to six months. After harvest, Laura prepares her kombucha with juiced ginger and a twist of lime.
IMPORTANT NOTE: To be safe, no metal utensils should touch the kombucha. It can weaken and even kill the SCOBY.