Make Your Own Herb Kombucha

This popular, fizzy beverage provides flavor, health benefits, and an opportunity to use some of your favorite herbs. Learn how to brew up a batch of homemade kombucha.

Known as the “tea of immortality” in China, where the earliest recorded use dates back to 221 BCE, kombucha has enjoyed an epic rise in popularity here in North America over the last several years. Cruise through the beverage aisles in any grocery store and you’ll likely find kombucha from several different brewing companies, with a huge range of flavors to choose from. The appeal of this unique beverage and the opportunity to personalize it with herbs and other additions make brewing your own kombucha a creative endeavor that tastes good and may also offer some benefits to your health.

Getting Started

So, what exactly is kombucha? It’s a fermented tea – a combination of brewed tea from the Camellia sinensis plant, sugar, and a fermentation agent called a SCOBY. This symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast {SCOBY being the acronym} is a live culture that transforms the other ingredients into a fizzy, tangy beverage. Unlike a bottle of soda, for example, which relies on carbon dioxide for its fizz, kombucha is alive and chock-full of beneficial microorganisms, bacterial cultures, and probiotics considered a good contributor to overall gut health. It also contains high amounts of B vitamins and antioxidants, and it is touted to balance the pH of the body. Since tea serves as its base, it may also deliver the benefits of Camellia sinensis; kombucha, especially made with reen tea, seems to have antioxidant effects in the liver, and kombucha made from black or green tea appears to provide strong antibacterial properties, including against infection-causing bacteria and Candida yeasts.

For the tea: Black and green tea most commonly serve as the basis for making kombucha, but you can also use white and oolong. As tea drinkers already know, the stages at which tea leaves from C. sinensis are harvested offer up unique flavors, and the same goes for the tea used in kombucha. Skip the Earl Grey! Do not use tea blends or teas mixed with other flavorings, as they may interfere with the brewing process. Choose organically grown tea, if possible, and if you use tea bags, ensure they don’t contain any kinds of chemicals.

For the water: Use purified, filtered water to brew the tea. The water should not have any chlorine or fluoride in it. If your municipal tap water contains chlorine, you will need to allow it to off-gas by letting the water sit for at least 12 hours. Because it doesn’t contain minerals, avoid using distilled water. The microorganisms in the SCOBY do use small amounts of minerals, so distilled water may weaken your SCOBY over time.

For the sugar: The other important ingredient in kombucha, sugar is required to feed the yeast in the SCOBY and create carbonation. Many types of sugar are suitable, including refined granulated sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, muscovado, and demerara. Do not use fine granulated “baking” or “berry” sugar or confectioners’, as they may cake and will not dissolve properly in the tea. Never use artificial sweeteners – the may actually render the batch unsafe. You can use honey, but only if it’s pasteurized.

For the SCOBY: Not particularly attractive, the SCOBY is brown-beige in color – a rubbery, slimy mat bound together by cellulose fibers. You’ll usually notice strands of yeast hanging off of it. The original SCOBY you use to start your first batch of kombucha is called the “mother.” As you brew batches of kombucha, the mother will produce additional layers typically referred to as “babies.”

The mother will generally last for 10 batches of kombucha, after which you can use it for other purposes, such as in cooking and cosmetics, or simply compost it. The babies can be used to brew successive batches of kombucha, and are often gifted to others interested in creating their own brew. The babies form on top of the mother during brewing. The mother will be stiffer and less pliable than the babies due to its maturity. Each SCOBY is completely unique, and with subtle differences in how the ingredients are prepared and the conditions of brewing, no two batches of kombucha are ever completely alike.

Obtaining a SCOBY is often a matter of seeking out friends and family who already brew kombucha; they are always producing SCOBY babies and will gladly part with one since they don’t want to waste them. You can also purchase commercially manufactured SCOBY online or at most organic food markets or health food stores. Make sure your SCOBY is fresh when you receive it – it should never be frozen or dried.

For every batch of kombucha you make, you will also need a bit of “starter tea.” If you obtain your SCOBY from a friend or family member, ask for a bit of fermented tea from his or her current batch. If you don’t receive any starter tea, just purchase some pre-made kombucha. Ensure it doesn’t have any flavorings added to it. The starter tea is inoculated with yeast and bacteria that are needed to get the SCOBY working.

Materials for Brewing

You will need a few tools and pieces of equipment to brew kombucha.

Brewing vessel: a large glass jar with a wide enough opening so you can put your hands into it to place or remove the SCOBY. {A glass batter bowl also works well, since it has a pouring spout.} Do not use metal containers. While plastic is acceptable, most brewers prefer glass. Many first-time brewers will start with a small batch of kombucha, usually a 1-gallon container.

Stainless steel saucepan: for boiling water.

Glass bottles: for the end product. These must be strong enough with tight seals to withstand the pressure of the highly carbonated kombucha. As sunlight or even fluorescent lights may degrade the quality of the kombucha, look for bottles made of dark, not clear, glass.

Tightly woven cotton cloth: such as a tea towel to cover the brewing vessel and prevent particles like dust and cooking oils from contaminating the batch. {Do not use cheesecloth, as the weave is too loose.}

Large rubber band: to secure the cloth around the top of your glass container.

Additional items: funnel, measuring cups, spoons, and a tea ball {if you plan to use loose tea leaves.} For proper food safety, all of the containers and implements used to brew kombucha must be clean but contain no soap residue, or you will ruin the brew. Thoroughly rinse all tools before using. Make sure your kitchen is clean as well, and don’t forget to wash your hands, especially before you handle the SCOBY. {Do not use hand sanitizers and remember to rinse off all soap residue.}


Basic Kombucha Recipe

Now, to the good part! Follow this basic recipe to brew one gallon of your first kombucha.

  • 1 gallon purified filtered water
  • 2 Tbls loose leaf tea {or 4 tea bags}
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 SCOBY
  • 2 cups starter tea

Heat {do not boil} 1 quart of the water. Pour it into the brewing vessel and add tea. Let the tea steep for 15 minutes, then remove the leaves or bags.

Add the sugar to the tea mixture and stir until dissolved. Then add the remaining 3 quarts of water to the brewing vessel. Cool the mixture until it’s lukewarm.

Add the SCOBY to the tea mixture, then add the starter tea. Cover the brewing vessel with a towel and secure it with a rubber band. While it’s brewing, store kombucha in a place that isn’t too hot or cold – the ideal range of temperature is 68-78 degrees F. Warmer temperatures will accelerate the brewing process, while cooler temperatures can slow or even halt it. Do not place kombucha in direct sunlight. Allow it to sit for a week or two until it reaches the flavor you prefer. {If you get busy and let the kombucha ferment for too long, it may still be saved for use as a vinegar-like product – try it in salad as a tangy dressing.}

The biggest potential issue with making kombucha is the presence of mold. This will ruin the SCOBY and the batch. If you notice mold in your kombucha, immediately discard the entire batch, including the whole SCOBY, and start all over again. Mold can pose a substantial, even life-threatening health risk and must be taken seriously.

When you are ready to harvest your kombucha, remember to save 2 cups of starter tea for your next batch.

Adding Herbs to Your Batch

This batch is typically referred to as the “first ferment.” You’ll notice that it uses straight black tea {you can substitute green, white, or oolong}. If you want to add herbs to kombucha, there are two ways to do so.

Option one: The most popular way is to use them in the optional second ferment. Before bottling your kombucha, place your chosen herbs into the bottom of the glass bottles. The amount of herbs you use is up to your taste preference: try about 1/2 tablespoon of fresh or 1/4 tablespoon of dried herbs to start, then increase or decrease the amount for subsequent batches after you’ve had a taste. Top your bottles off with your brewed kombucha and cap. Allow them to sit at room temperature for up to four days. This second ferment will boost the carbonation of the kombucha and incorporate the extra flavor. After the second ferment is finished, store the kombucha in the refrigerator.

Option two: Another option is to mix the herbs directly with C. sinensis in the brewing vessel during the first ferment. {Adding herbs without the tea may cause the SCOBY to break down and lose its effectiveness, and the whole batch can spoil.} Try blending 25 percent herbs with 75 percent tea. A 50/50 mix will work as well. If you go this route, be sure to have another straight, non-herb tea batch of kombucha going, as your SCOBY from the herb batch will no longer be useful after the batch is made. {This is a great experiment to do when you have plenty of babies to use up.} Here is a recipe for an herbal kombucha created straight in the brewing vessel:

  • 1 gallon purified, filtered water
  • 1 1/2 Tbls loose leaf tea {or 3 tea bags}
  • 1/2 Tbls dried herbs {or 3/4 Tbls fresh herbs}
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 SCOBY
  • 2 cups starter tea

Heat {but do not boil} 1 quart of the water. Pour it into the brewing vessel and add the tea and herbs. Let the tea and herbs steep for 15 minutes, then strain them out of the liquid.

Add the sugar to the tea mixture. Stir until it is dissolved.

Add the remaining 3 quarts of water to the brewing vessel. Cool the mixture until it is lukewarm.

Add the SCOBY to the tea mixture. Add the starter tea.

Cover the brewing vessel with a towel and secure it with a rubber band. Allow it to sit for a week or two until it has the flavor you prefer, then bottle it.

For your herb batch, ensure that your starter tea does not come from kombucha that has extra flavorings added to it. And remember, you will need to discard your SCOBY after every herb batch, and you will not be able to use starter tea from this batch in another brew.

Once your kombucha is flavored and bottled, keep it in the refrigerator for up to one month. Drink kombucha in moderation, especially if you’re new to the beverage. If you’re not sure you should drink it, consult your physician before trying it as it does contain a small amount of sugar as well as alcohol {created via the fermentation process,} and it may not be suited for everyone.

If you prefer kombucha in small doses, add it to other beverages, such as seltzers, spritzers, juices, shakes, and smoothies. Have fun experimenting with all the flavor combinations you can think of…

Herbs for Your Brew

There are numerous herbs you can use to flavor kombucha. Avoid herbs that have highly volatile oils, such as peppermint, as these types of plants, can affect flavor and even the success of the brew. To get the ideas rolling, here are a few herbs to consider for your next brew.

  • Angelica
  • Basil
  • Bay leaf
  • Burdock
  • Chamomile
  • Ginger
  • Ginko
  • Ginseng
  • Hibiscus
  • Lavender
  • Rose petals
  • Thyme
  • Turmeric

Want to learn more about fermentation and making kombucha? Learn how here:

The Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course by Herbal Academy

And, this is where we purchase our tea {bagged or loose leaf} for our recipes and to just enjoy sipping…