Green Living: An introduction to kombucha and home-brewing

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      From hippie gunk crafted in East Van basements to artisan sip served on tap at coffee shops, fitness studios, and even microbreweries, kombucha has exploded in popularity across Vancouver in recent years. But what exactly is this occasionally murky-looking brew and why does it seem like everyone and his or her grandma is knocking back a bottle these days?

      “Kombucha is a tea blend, so it’s technically a tea, but it uses all these probiotics that live in mutual aid with our digestive tract,” explains Heidi Nagtegaal, “skipper of onboarding” and workshop instructor at East Vancouver’s Homestead Junction, by phone.

      A devout lover of kombucha, Nagtegaal began home-brewing the low-calorie beverage almost seven years ago, when a friend gave her a SCOBY—a symbiotic “colony” of bacteria and yeast. Comparable to a large mushroom cap, pancake, or UFO in shape, this rubbery disc of microbial cultures is the “mother” of kombucha.

      When submerged in a cooled combination of steeped caffeinated tea, water, and sugar—three essential ingredients found in your typical kombucha—and left alone for seven to 14 days, the SCOBY metabolizes the sugar into a host of good-for-you probiotics, amino acids, and enzymes. By essentially eating up the sugar in the tea, it leaves the mixture with a slight, effervescent tang.

      “It tastes a bit vinegary, but it’s also delicious if you know how to do it,” notes Nagtegaal.

      Similar to the beer-brewing process, the fermentation stage also produces alcohol—though not enough to actually get you drunk. And while there’s no scientific evidence that kombucha affects the human body in a positive way, the individual microbes produced have been shown to improve digestion, boost immune systems, and increase people’s overall energy levels.

      Some, however, simply enjoy kombucha for its taste—especially considering the fresh, out-of-the-box flavours that companies have begun producing. Vancouver’s Rise Kombucha, for example, crafts rose-and-schizandra-berry and mint-and-chlorophyll versions, and the local Standard Kombucha makes a blueberry-green-tea concoction that incorporates organic cane and blueberry juices.

      If you’re brewing your own batch at home, Nagtegaal suggests first familiarizing yourself with the basic brewing method and then using produce and spices you have available at home to experiment with flavours.

      Understanding the science behind ingredients is also helpful in finding a variety that caters best to your body’s needs. Nagtegaal notes that lemon and ginger are great for detoxing, for example, while chai, cardamom, and pepper are ideal for warming.

      “Once you understand what the SCOBY is doing in the tea, and what it’s doing to your body, then you start making your flavours from a more mindful place,” she says.

      Vancouverites seem to be heeding Nagtegaal’s call—the local brewing pro’s upcoming Intro to Kombucha workshop at Homestead Junction (649 East Hastings Street) sold out so quickly that the shop set up an additional class for September 14. And with good reason, she notes: making your own kombucha is much more cost-effective and ecofriendly than purchasing a new bottle at the convenience store every other day.

      It’s also pretty damn easy once you get the hang of it. “It’s hard to mess up kombucha,” Nagtegaal says. “It’s very forgiving.”

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.