A scroll through Instagram these days shows a lot of bread baking. People accustomed to leaving the house at regular intervals are coping with a new normal, and fermentation helps fill the void. While bread is a popular option, kombucha should not be overlooked. With time—something many of us have in abundance right now—a combination of black tea, sugar, and a living culture called a SCOBY yields a lightly carbonated beverage full of probiotics. For kombucha brewers both experienced and novice, this habit has taken on added meaning in the present moment.
Julia Skinner already had big fermentation plans. The Atlanta-based fermentation teacher is recipe testing for a book on fermentation and runs Root, a company dedicated to fermentation and food history, with online and in-person classes. There have been some challenges, like shopping for recipe testing as people swarm the grocery stores, but she’s embracing the process. Even with a crisis outside, fermentation can’t be rushed. Skinner explains, “I love that fermentation asks us to slow down and be present: You can’t just dump a box of premixed stuff in a bowl and magically have a finished product 30 minutes later. You have to check it, and adjust, and make a happy home for your microbes. I learn something new every time!”
In Washington DC, Mary Claire Sullivan, a fundraiser, has also used the quarantine to slow down, a necessary step with any ferment. She’s been brewing jun, a green tea and honey-based cousin of kombucha, on and off since 2016. Her current SCOBY (which stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”) is from Kombucha Kamp. (A contactless drop off is another option if you know someone who brews it locally, or you can start with a SCOBY from the bottom of a bottle of store-bought kombucha, as Skinner did.) Now that she’s working from home, she has time to appreciate the “transformation from the inputs to the final product. The quarantine is limiting in many ways, but it also helps me focus on slowing down. Most fermenting projects require more waiting than active time. You make it, you write down what happened, you repeat.”
The ability to mark the passage of time is also a plus for Kathryn Phelan, a consultant in the Bay Area. She typically works with restaurants to help them set up fermentation projects, like in-house sourdough programs. Like many who work in or adjacent to the hospitality industry, her work has dried up due to mass layoffs and restaurant closures.
Fermentation projects are helping her pass the time and she’s willing to share her SCOBY with anyone in the Bay Area who needs it. She’s also published illustrated guides to kombucha brewing on her site and wants to grow her online offerings. Phelen began making kombucha more than a decade ago and she appreciates it even more now. “It’s hydrating, it’s an extra thing to boost your immune system, and it’s more interesting than water,” she says.
In Berlin, Hilary Bown, a freelance writer, editor, and translator, is drinking less kombucha than usual, though she still appreciates it as a chilled alternative to a hot cup of tea. She is also using it to treat her boyfriend’s digestive issues and “typically dilute[s] sour first-ferment kombucha with sparkling water for a refreshing drink, not unlike a shrub.”
Brittany Hutson, a UX design researcher in Detroit, appreciates the science of kombucha brewing, which she was introduced to at an event hosted by a friend of her therapist’s. “It’s like a science project to see the fermentation and the bacteria reproduce,” she says. “I nerd out about stuff like that.” Hutson does a double fermentation for extra carbonation, which mimics the bubbles of store-bought versions. Quarantine hasn’t changed her process, but it’s made her appreciate the saving on commercial brands even more. Making kombucha also allows her to experiment with flavors, such as strawberry hibiscus and apple cinnamon, made with fresh apples, Vietnamese cinnamon, and nutmeg.
A common kombucha homebrewing cycle takes about a week and multiple people interviewed for this story mentioned an appreciation for that schedule, as it becomes harder to distinguish one day from the next in isolation. Bown says she enjoys “the simple, repetitive process of making it.” Sullivan adds, “I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, but I do know that by a week from now, I'll have kombucha.”
Looking to start brewing? Try these resources
In addition to the resources on her site, Skinner recommends The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz (the tome is also valuable for at home beer brewers), which offers “a lot of great rabbit holes to jump down. It’s the most thorough book I know of, and has helped me tremendously.” Bown loves the detailed guides on You Brew Kombucha. Grab your ingredients during your next socially distanced grocery run (or order jars or a kit online). Local brew shops in your area may have a SCOBY and tools as well.
Phelan’s illustrated guide is helpful, and Food52 has a detailed guide with lots of images. As Phelan attests, a happy byproduct of kombucha making is extra SCOBYs, which can be shared with others from a safe distance (arrange dropoffs outside their doors). Fruit flies are the enemy of kombucha, so follow Phelan’s lead and cover your jar with a non-airtight plastic lid or kitchen towel rather than cheesecloth. Or use a little extra kombucha as a fruit fly trap, a trick from Bown.