Friday, August 8, 2014

The Kombucha-fication of Kaiko

There is a science experiment happening in my kitchen right now. It's pretty low key - just a couple of glass jugs with some paper towels banded around them, no big deal, nothing is fucked here, dude - but inside those glass jars, I am growing magic.

Disgusting magic, yes; but magic nonetheless.

I first discovered kombucha years ago, when I was going through an expensive and not-entirely-reasonable phase of buying my groceries at Whole Foods despite having an annual income of $22,000. (I was dating a dude who was this sort of proto-foodie: he did zero cooking, but still had Major Opinions on food. It was complicated.) (And by complicated, I mean dumb.) I grabbed a bottle of something called Wonder Drink, because I'm a sucker for packaging, and when I cracked it open, I was pleasantly surprised. It was vinegary, yeah. Most kombuchas are. But it was also effervescent and sweet, with a creamy foam that wasn't overpowering the way soda pop can be.

It was also three dollars a bottle.

I come from a family of DIYers. My mom's hands are constantly in motion: knitting, sewing, reupholstering, gardening, painting, sanding, chopping, stirring, making. My dad, before he became a project manager, was a carpenter, and he still owns and uses a truly mind-boggling collection of saws. My dad, like all dads, went through a phase of home-brewing his own beer and wine. I grew up with the sound of drill as my Saturday-morning alarm clock. We are a family of home-cooked meals, of crayons ground into the carpet, of "want to build a deck this weekend?" When M and I decided to get married, we undertook the project of cleaning out the barn on their farm property, a project that has easily cost 100 man-hours so far and helped coin the phrase "poo-dust."

My own DIY streak is a bit lazy, but it's there. I find my truest self is when I'm making something - dinner, usually - that combines the opportunity to use my hands and my brain in equal parts. (Plus, the joy of solo kitchen dance parties can't be understated.) I spend the past winter compulsive knitting. I'm not afraid to plan something out  and devote a few hours or days to its completion (see: the cardboard Viking ship I built, then set on fire, for my 30th birthday). The very idea of making something beautiful can be a powerful drug: I spend too much time on Pinterest and Ravelry, looking up recipes for citrus curds and patterns for legwarmers.

Which brings me back to kombucha. When I went on my six-month no-Coke Zero/no-booze "cleanse," I was hard-pressed to find an alternate drink that was still interesting. Since water is for chumps, I dove into the deep end of high-end and esoteric beverages. I tried kefir and about 60 different kinds of ginger beer. I drank Fresca and San Pellegrino with abandon. I brewed enormous jugs of Moroccan mint ice tea.

And I bought lots and lots of kombucha. All flavours. All brands. I can tell you with authority that the Tonica Vibrant Blueberry flavour tastes like cough syrup; that Rise's Mint Chlorophyll looks horrible but tastes good; that GT's regularly has snot-like clumps of the SCOBY (more on that in a minute) floating around it, which is fucking disgusting; and that Wonder Drink is good but its flavours could stand to be more intense across the board. I know my kombucha shit, is what I'm trying to say.

But when an opportunity presented itself for me to start brewing my own kombucha, I hesitated for a moment. Like any homebrewing project, making your own kombucha could be a recipe for disaster. Who wants self-inflicted diarrhea? Not this girl! I made a promise to myself (and to M, who thinks kombucha is disgusting) that this operation would be clean, sanitary, and use only top-quality ingredients.

Then I started brewing. The main question mark in this process is the SCOBY, which is a "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast" (and before you throw shade on bacteriological food, think about yogurt and kimchi, please). The SCOBY is terrifying. Kombucha brewers are always optimistically saying things like, "It's like a pancake!" but if you were served a pancake like this, you would throw it over the patio fence and into a bush. It looks like uncooked alien placenta. It looks bad. Like, ideologically bad, as if it is plotting things in the night.

But when you combine this horrible "pancake" with tea and sugar, the yeast and bacteria in the SCOBY start converting the sugar into bubbles and a wee amount of alcohol. Left alone too long, it will turn bitter (but won't we all?), but after 7-20 days, the tea will be in the perfect zone of bubbly, sweet, and acidic. Take out the SCOBY, resist the urge to perform an exorcism, start a new batch, throw some herbs or fruit into your newly brewed kombucha, let that sit for a day or two to flavour it, strain the everliving hell out of it, and then keep it in the fridge. If you're feeling sassy, add some gin. If you're feeling unsassy, keep it plain.

Boom. The whole operation will run you the cost of bottles (2.49 per at your local Asian import store), a couple big glass jars (ten bucks each at IKEA), and ingredients. And guys? Sugar and tea aren't exactly an bank-breaker.

Plus! IT IS SO FUN. Handling the SCOBY, making sure everything is all clean and set up in its place before the bottling process, daydreaming about flavour combos - it's all the hallmarks of a good DIY project. I'm saving money on one of my favourite drinks, I have this little bright spot of a project, and I'm making something fun. Plus, it feels like my countertop glass jars are the spiritual daughters of my dad's beer-making garbage pail: I'm carrying on a family legacy of making stuff, and making stuff happen. And that's truly delicious.

Image (of my own kombucha!) via Instagram