Fermentation Paradiso

Last Sunday, I bottled my second batch of kombucha. Following a couple of suggestions on a website that Lo had suggested to me, I finished the bottles with about a tablespoon each of different fruit, including the blueberry, ginger and strawberry teas seen above. I filled the swing-top bottles as full as I could, and left them on the counter to continue their bottle fermentation. Early this morning, I cracked open a strawberry-blueberry bottle and actually had to hold the lid down due to the overwhelming carbonation. I was excited since my first bottling was tasty but fairly flat. I decided to put them all in the fridge, and got ready for my tutorial in homebrewing with R1's husband, Mr. Mork.

Boy-O and I drove out to the House of Mork around 9 this morning, and I couldn't wait to witness the whole process of homebrewing. Mr. Mork chose a kit from Northern Brewer called Tongue Splitter Ale, a west coast style ale with plenty of hops. He has been brewing at home for more than 10 years, so the process is second nature to him. His explanation to me of the brewing process was concise, and I couldn't help but think of the Northern Brewer employee who spent so much time talking with me last week. He was mentioning to a new homebrewer about the journey of brewing, not the end product - but the means to the end. That is exactly the process I got to see today, and it made me appreciate the craft of fermentation even more.

Mr. Mork purchased a kit to brew this beer, and explained that a kit allows a tried and true formula to be reproduced with a consistent result. A lot of trial and guesswork is removed when you go with a kit, and companies like Northern Brewer seem to have very detailed descriptions of the end result. Much the same way as a chef would publish a recipe for a home cook to follow, beer kits take a basic formula and let a homebrewer tweak the flavoring components. This can be done a little or a lot, and like pretty much anything food and flavor related, the possibilities are endless.

I was actually pretty surprised at how easy the entire process is. I mean, brewing a beer seems like something that you should leave the professionals, right? But like anything worth enjoying to the fullest, doing (or in my case, witnessing) the work yourself helps you appreciate the entire experience all the more.

The standard amount for homebrewing is 5 gallons, and that is exactly what I saw today. 2 gallons of pure, un-softened water went into the stainless brewing pot, and needed to come to a boil. Around 100 degrees, the grains went in, and the grain "tea" steeped until the water heated to the 170 degree mark.

After the grains come out, barley malt extract goes in. Mr. Mork lets the container sit in a sink full of warm water to help it pour easier:

After the extract goes in, the mixture returns to a boil, and you officially have a wort: the brewer's term for unfermented beer. After this point, the mixture boils for 60 minutes, with various variety of hops added at different times in the duration of the boiling. When I saw the sealed packets of hops, I was envisioning the actual hop blossom. I was surprised to open it and find this:

Chopped and pelletized hops! If you have ever smelled an ale, the characteristic hop bite that comes to your olfactories is nothing like the pure hop bite I smelled today. The fermentation process tempers the strong and almost metallic floral aromas. Each package had an alpha acid percentage, a different one on each of the 4 types used. The higher alpha content hops were added earlier in the boil. According to Homebrewing for Dummies, at harvest time, hops are measured for this acid content which is related to their bitterness. The alpha acid content percentage is a ratio of the acid's weight in relation to the weight of the whole flower, the higher the content, the higher the bitterness of the hop.

After our 60 minutes of boiling, I asked if I could taste the wort. It was thickened and syrupy, and surprisingly sweet from the addition of barley malt extract. It was delicious, and not at all as bitter as I thought it would be after smelling the hops as they boiled along.

After the wort was cooled using a wort chiller, the mixture was poured into a 5 gallon carboy to continue on it's journey to complete fermentation. The wort went in, followed by enough water to equal 5 gallons. Yeast is finally added, 100 billion yeast cells ready to work their magic on the humble wort. It now graduates into a growing and living thing, and active fermentation will begin in Mr. Mork's basement sometime within the next 24-48 hours. 7-14 days from now, second fermentation will begin, and 2-4 weeks after that, bottling will commence.

The whole process of brewing beer is strangely similar to the process of brewing kombucha, only instead of a SCOBY, the yeast is added as a liquid and no symbiotic union of bacteria is present (and, of course, more alcohol is produced as a result of the fermentation). Indeed, fermentation of most fermentable things is similar, and that is really amazing. I don't know why I thought there would be some complicated steps in the process, but really it is just an ancient technique, only modernized slightly by good hygiene practices and more intricate knowledge of flavor. I love to think about how imaginative people figured out how to brew, culture and ferment foods as a method of preservation. Mr. Mork relayed this story of the real King Midas, and a beer that was made based on the remains of the funeral feast found in his tomb. Here is the story of how a 2700 year old beer was recreated!

My copy of Wild Fermentation (recently recommended to me by E in Maine...) just came in from the library, and will be the perfect thing to read when I'm out of town for the next few days. I hope that I don't lose any of the memory of smells from today, since every one of the components of the Tongue Splitter were very distinct. I'm looking forward to trying the finished product and matching them to what I remember.

The whole idea of flavor profiling and taste memory is very fascinating to me. It is what makes a great cup of coffee, a stellar glass of wine, or even a cup of milk taste exactly like where it came from; it is what will help me find a good flavor for my kombucha experiments, and it is something that I am increasingly conscious of. Almost as if the more attention I pay to every component of the foods and drinks I consume, the more I appreciate them - an action of gratitude through consumption.

I have a flickr set of annotated brewing pictures, that you may peruse to see more of Mr. Mork's homebrewing process today, and I will update it as I continue to watch to progress of this batch. I'd like to encourage any curious and adventurous readers to get out there and try and brew something! Be it tea or beer or even a cup of joe, try really tasting what it is that makes you happy on a day to day basis and really appreciate the work that was involved to produce it. I promise you, you will taste it in a whole new light.

I have a bit of work to do in the kombucha fermentation field, since it seems that my natural carbonation dissipates through refrigeration. When I popped a few bottles to take some pictures this afternoon, all of the amazing fizziness that I was so excited about earlier this morning had vanished. Just a trace of that lid-popping effervescence remained, but it was enough to make me curious about what I'm doing wrong. Sunday evening, I'll likely bottle another batch, and tweak the process yet again, in the same manner of curious brewers from ages past. I could be frustrated, but I am not at all. Getting to the final destination is really half of the enjoyment!

My Bravest Adventure Yet: Kombucha

GT's brand was my first experience with kombucha, a fermented tea beverage, probably about a year ago. Now through the wonders of friendship and Internet, I can say I will probably be GT's free indefinitely. Starter teas and finishing flavors including different juices, can vary, but the hallmark vinegar bite generally does not, and home brewing of kombucha allows the brewer a hand in controlling the amount of tang in the finished drink. This was certainly one thing that a year ago I would never have envisioned myself making in my home kitchen.

Kombucha is another item in the list of "love it or hate it" type things, due to it's unique flavor profile. I think, for me anyway, kombucha could be likened to cilantro; when I first tried cilantro - sometime in the 1990's I think - I hated it. Really, really hated it. Then, a few days later at work, an indescribable craving for cilantro came over me. I had to have cilantro, and from then on I couldn't get enough. That is how kombucha was, one sip and I was kind of amazed, a day or two later, I was full out obsessed.

Prior to my first sip, I had only generally overheard people talking about kombucha, and had seen it sold for exorbitant prices in the co-op, when I decided to purchase a 16 oz. bottle for about $4.50. I didn't know what to expect, so I didn't know that opening a freshly shaken bottle, in the car mind you, was going to be a really bad idea. About a third of my expensive trial run ended up stickily coating the interior of the Olds, and I learned firsthand about the natural effervescence of kombucha.

While the price of bottled kombucha appears to be going down (I assume in part due to increased competition from other brands), it is by far less expensive to make it yourself. And if you have a need for kitchen projects, as I do, the attraction to this one is purely irresistible. For some reason, I used to think that this was something best left to the controlled environment of a commercial kitchen laboratory, but now that I have been living with a SCOBY for a bit more than a week, any fears I had about home brewing tea from a living organism have evaporated. It is interesting to cohabitate with a culture of this nature, who goes through daily changes, and can perpetuate many generations. It could be the stuff of science fiction, or it could be age old wisdom in the new-fangled guise of popularity. Whatever it is, it is delicious, and it's worth giving a try!

Ok. If you are squeamish, this may be where you want to depart for the day. The kombucha brewing process begins with a SCOBY:

SCOBY, circa day 3 of first batch brewing.

SCOBY stands for Symbotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. So this little guy above, a baby SCOBY given to me by my friends Peef and Lo at the Burp! Blog, is an actual living organism. He feeds off sugar, growing and fermenting the liquid he is in until the tea is ready and full of healthful strains of vitamins, enzymes and acids, usually 7-10 days but as long as 30 days depending on your fondness for vinegar and your sensitivity to sugar. The longer the SCOBY resides in the tea, the more sugar it eats. The final elixir is slightly alcoholic, but contains far less than 1% alcohol, and the SCOBY produces multiple beneficial organic acids during the process.

It seems there is no real medical fact to back up any of the health claims, of which there are many. Even the Mayo Clinic notes that there is no human trial on record to back up any such heath claims. Most fascinating to me, however, are the claims by numerous people of the beneficial effect of glucuronic acid produced by the SCOBY.

Glucuronic acid is touted as having superior detoxifying abilities, and cleans the liver. Cancer and other vicious afflictions such as rheumatism appear to have drastic positive reactions to glucuronic acid, and to the host of other beneficial acids contained in kombucha. It appears the glucuronic acid is best produced in tea stored at a constant 74-84 degrees farenheit, and not as well at cooler temperatures. I'd say my kitchen has been a little cooler than that, but it seems that I've been doing ok so far. There is no shortage of information to be Googled, if you are interested. I found some great overviews here at the Happy Herbalist and here at Food Renegade for starters.

But more important to me than unsubstantiated health benefits, kombucha is adventurous. The name, obviously, sounds very Japanese, and is thought to originate in the far east. According to Seeds of Health, around 415 AD a Korean physician named "Kombu or Kambu" treated the Japanese Emperor Inyko with "cha"(tea), and the result evidently was positive as the tea then took the name Kombucha. Kombucha then migrated to Russia and on to Eastern Europe. (The Seeds of Health link above also outlines the numerous beneficial acids contained in kombucha.) Traveling tea, made from living organisms that, I'm guessing substantiated or not, are pretty darn healthy? Sign me up!

In our food geekery talks, Lo told me of her aunt who had multiple SCOBY's and kombucha batches going. Different teas, green or black, lead to different flavors, and Lo's aunt sounds like she has an awesome "laboratory" to choose from. The culture that Lo chose was from an Earl Grey tea, a tea that generally is considered a poor choice for growing a SCOBY. We both have had good luck so far, Lo in her 3rd or greater batch, and me in my 2nd, using a high-grade Earl Grey tea from Rishi. Burp! Blog will no doubt also be posting on their kombucha adventures, so be sure to check in on their site! Peef and Lo graciously gave me my SCOBY, and a nicely typed and articulated way of brewing my first batch of kombucha. I started a week ago Sunday, and in 7 days, had a batch of tea ready to be bottled.

In the interim, I read (and still am reading) tons of information on kombucha, SCOBY's, and the health benefits of both, and also more than once have been sucked into reading disaster stories of how natural things can be bad for you. It does appear, however, that "bad kombucha" will only lead to nausea and vomiting, so it's a risk I'm willing to take. It also serves any adventurous kitchen warrior to take extra precautions when handling a SCOBY: clean, non-latex gloved hands, and a clean environment just make good sense. Another rule of thumb for kitchen experimenters is if it looks funny, smells funny or grows fuzzy mold, best not to chance it and throw it away. Also, I went a step further and after reading about PH levels, decided that I should test for my acid content prior to bottling.

To purchase snazzy swing-top bottles, I visited Northen Brewer. I had never heard of Northern Brewer, and was glad I could not (even with iPhone's help) locate my original destination and had to call my home-brewing friend, Mr. Mork - R1's husband. I have never considered brewing beer myself or even getting that excited about brewing/fermenting, but I guess in the course of culturing buttermilk, yogurt, vegan cashew cheese and sour creams the seeds were planted. This shop was so infinitely inspiring. They had a whole "Grain Room" and refrigerated liquid yeasts from Europe! I got a class sheet, and their catalog to peruse wort chillers and glass lab equipment like a crazy person over my breakfast.

Beer is just fine, but I don't go out of my way to drink it most of the time, and here I am daydreaming over descriptions of hops! I called up Mr. Mork, and asked when his next brewing session would be since now I just have to learn more (without becoming totally committed to home-brew craft all by myself). We set a date for next week, and I am going in like a sponge to soak up all the hands-on information I can on beer brewing, and I hope to have a series of posts on my observations!

The Northern Brewer employee that helped me was completely knowledgeable and the perfect person to continue inspiring me. He was interested not only in fermenting beer, but in lacto-fermentation of pickles and ginger beer plant. I didn't realize at the time we were talking that the Ginger Beer uses the exact same process to ferment as kombucha! He convinced me, easily by the way, to invest in a product called StarSan to sterilize my jars. I did the math, and for a half gallon of water, I only need a single teaspoon of this sanitizer as a rinse for my bottles. I went ahead and sterilized everything I used in a half gallon bowl of sanitizing rinse: funnel, ladle and finally my clean and ready to be refilled 1 gallon glass tea jar.

The next day, I returned to purchase PH testing strips and while waiting to consult with him, overheard him assisting a new home-brewer. He told him it isn't the end result that home-brewing exists for, that it is the whole process of brewing that leads up to the end result. "A Machiavellian approach to life" is how he put it, which put a smile on my face to know that I am not alone in my gusto for reading more into the culinary world than meets the common eye.

He also said that testing my acid levels probably wasn't "necessary", but would be fun to know - exactly what I thought. An article I read said to prohibit the growth of bad bacterias, the acid levels should be between 2.5 and 4.6, mine checked in at 3.2 on day 7, and tasted fizzy and light without being overwhelmingly vinegary, so I decided to bottle. In two of the bottles, I added a little bit of pure ginger juice, since I read that the inclusion of juices can improve the natural carbonation. In the back of my mind, I wonder what the American Dental Association would think of my consumption of kombucha given it's rather high acid levels, but since I am not a soda drinker, I'm not going to let a daily glass of tea worry me.

I even dipped the bowl that temporarily held my SCOBY in sanitizer...

I got 4 16 oz. bottles, and about 3/4 of a quart jar of bottled tea, saving out at least 1/2 c. of tea and the SCOBY for the next batch. I was impressed at how thick the SCOBY got in just 7 days. I had almost no trouble separating it, but it did tear just a little. Aready, it appears to be mending itself.

Second batch, day 2: the baby SCOBY.

I was also reading that if you want to start your own kombucha and are not fortunate as I was to know someone with an extra SCOBY to get you started, you can take a bottle of purchased kombucha and let a culture begin on it's own. I was a little skeptical that this could work, until I did my own bottling. My quart jar has been out on the counter for two days (I moved it to the refrigerator today), and you can begin to see the growth of a new SCOBY near the top of the photo:

I imagine if you take a bottle of purchased kombucha, pour it into a sterilized glass bottle, and leave it at room temperature, you may discover that it can produce a baby SCOBY. If not, do a bit of research and I'm sure you will be able to find someone willing to share. The keys to any successful project of this sort are research, first person "wisdom of the ages", as the Northern Brewer employee put it, Internet/book knowledge, and old-fashioned common sense.

It's always a pleasure to run into other curious minds, and ones that are gonzo experimenters. For that and so many other reasons, blogging has enriched my life. I am lucky to be able to compare notes on this fascinating process with Lo, and as we both continue to gain knowledge and understanding of our little science projects, I'm sure there will be many posts to come. I will leave it to Lo to come up with some killer flavors, since she towers over me in that department... so you can be sure I'll be checking out the Burp! Blog anxiously to see what experimenting they are up to.

I'm also excited to see where my own blog takes me, now that my culturing obsession is moving forward slowly into fermentation. I have a copy of Wild Fermentation on hold from my library, and I'm sure that will only serve to add fuel to the fire. Just when I think there is nothing new on the food horizon for me, something steps in, confirming to me all the more that I am doing exactly what I should be doing at this point in my life... experimenting, reading, testing and writing about food from the standpoint of my small kitchen.