Trying kombucha — and what the heck is a scoby?

Kombucha is a kind of fizzy, slightly fermented, sour tea. It’s supposed to have “probiotics” and all that other healthy stuff, but I don’t pay much attention to that. When I’m sick I go to the doctor.

I like making stuff and I wanted to try my hand at kombucha. First, because it’s crazy expensive in the store, second, because I don’t drink soda (and shouldn’t be drinking beer all the time), and third because … I just like doing that sort of thing. At least once.


My daughter bought me a copy of Emma Christensen’s True Brews, which is a good book to have around the house in case you want to try making anything weird like sake or kephir or … kombucha.

To make kombucha you need a scoby, which is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. That thing on the plate is the scoby I grew. Essentially it’s a big, gross, slippery fungusy thing that grows in your tea. If that’s over the top for you, don’t try kombucha.

You can buy a scoby from a store, or online, but of course I wanted to grow my own, so I bought a bottle of kombucha from the health food store and used that as a starter. It worked, but it took way longer than I expected. More than two months.

My plan is to make a couple batches of kombucha, but then I’m going to experiment. What would happen, for example, if you used a scoby to ferment a wort?

If you want to learn more about making kombucha at home, here’s a good page.

One thing for you homebrewers to note. The instructions say to use paper towels or cheese cloth to cover the fermenter. “Ah, so primitive,” I thought. I figured I’d improve things by using a fermentation lock.

That was a mistake. You actually need the air flow to make this work. The paper towels (or cheese cloth) are there to keep bugs and dust and cats and things out of your kombucha, but you need the wild bacteria and yeast that’s floating around your house.

Free advice on home brewing

beginners guide to home brewing

My Beginner’s Guide to Home Brewing is free today through Tuesday.

This short kindle book is not meant to compete with Papazian or rival any of the really good books out there on home brewing. This is a short, simple introduction. It’s for the people I meet all the time who are curious, but not curious enough to read a long book.

It’s also for the people who have been given a home brewing kit and don’t know what to do with it.

There are a lot of details in brewing and sometimes they can get overwhelming. Beginning brewers often say they worry they’re not worrying about the right things. That’s why they need this book. There are a few things you need to pay attention to, but it’s probably easier than you think. Home brewing ingredients are so good these days that if you’re moderately careful you can make really good beer at home. Without worrying.

If you’re ready to be chill and try your hand at home brewing — without sweating all the little details — then this little book should help.

And …. Right now this book is #1 in two categories on Amazon! Woo hoo.

number one on Amazon

So I found this kegerator on Craig’s list …

A friend had a bad night bottling his latest batch and is interested in taking the plunge into kegging — kegerator and all — and wanted to get my opinion of a deal he found on Craigslist.

It’s a kegerator with dual taps and includes 3 five-gallon kegs, a CO2 tank, fittings and such, all for $350.

In terms of price, here’s what you’d be looking at to buy a new one.

Count on about $250 for the frig. I use a 4.9 cubit foot Sanyo refrigerator — SR-4912M. It works well, is just the right size, and looks decent. It’s the kind of thing you could keep in your living room.

I should mention that if I was doing it all over again I would get a horizontal freezer. Those things have lots of room and can hold your kegged homebrew and your fermentation vessels so you can do true lagering. You’d have to rig a system to control the temperature, but there’s stuff online about how to do that. But right now we’re just evaluating the basic kegerator deal.

You can do the taps various ways, but I think the nicest is a double tap tower. Here’s one for about $100. You can spend a lot more than that if you want, and you can spend a lot less with just hoses and thumb taps.

Fittings, hoses and stuff are going to run about $50.

A reconditioned CO2 canister might cost you $75.

You’re up to $475, and that doesn’t include labor, any drill bits or caulk you might need, etc.

So a working kegerator for $350 isn’t a bad deal.

But how do you know if it’s a bad deal? Here are some things to look out for.

CO2 canisters have a useful life, after which you can’t even get them filled. Here’s a thread on the subject. If you can’t get the canister tested, the simplest thing might be to ask the guy who’s selling it to you when was the last time he got it refilled.

You’ll want to check the frig. Does it get cold? Give it a general once-over — check the power cord, see if the gasket on the door is in good shape, look for breaks in the plastic, etc.

The particular deal my friend was considering includes kegs, so you want to check them too. Do they leak? (I ruined a couple kegs by cleaning them with bleach. Bleach is great for plastic and glass, but never use it on a keg!) Fill the kegs with water and see if they leak. Replacing the rubber gaskets is no biggee. Also, look inside and see if they’re clean. If they’ve been sitting around dirty for a while, that’s not good.

If the kegerator passes all this, and the guy who’s selling it seems like an honest guy (most homebrewers are), you’re probably in good shape.

SF Lager vs. Safale 05 in a California Common

A few years ago I developed a recipe for a California Common beer, patterned somewhat after Anchor Steam. (The recipe is listed below.) The “correct” yeast for this style is WLP810 – San Francisco Lager.

Over the years I’ve modified it a bit, increasing the Vienna malt, or altering the hops slightly. It’s one of my most consistent crowd-pleasing beers.

However — I’m not a big fan of liquid yeasts. You get way more active yeast cells with dry yeast, and the fermentation starts sooner, which has always been a sign to me of a good batch. I don’t like waiting around for the yeast to get going, and I don’t like making starters. So I’ve made the same beer with Safale 05, and it seemed about the same to me.

But yeasts can make a big difference. A while ago a friend gave me two IPAs that were identical except for the yeast, and I was surprised how different they were. In one, the aroma hops were far more assertive.

So, along with my friend Pigweed, I brewed a double batch of the California Common, split it in two, pitched Safale 05 in one and WLP810 in the other. We did a head to head comparison last night.

There wasn’t that much difference. The WLP810 gave it a slightly more crisp flavor. But it wasn’t that noticeable, and, in my opinion, not worth the trouble (or cost) of using the liquid yeast.

Here’s the basic recipe. You can use 7 pounds of 2-row and 3 of Vienna if you prefer. One time I actually used all 10 pounds of Vienna, and it wasn’t that different.

8 # American 2-row
2 # Vienna
1 # Crystal (60)
1 ounce Northern Brewer (60 min)
1 ounce Northern Brewer (30 min)
0.5 ounce Cascade (10 min)
0.5 ounce Cascade (finish)
1 t Irish moss (10 min)
WLP810 San Francisco Lager or Safale 05

(If you want to get the color exactly right, you may want to add just a touch of black malt. Even as little as 2 ounces can adjust the color profile into the appropriate range for the style.)

Mash-in 11 q 170 F
1 hour mash
Sparge twice with 11 q 170 F

O.G. of 1.048

If you use the Safale yeast, the style Nazis will tell you not to call it a California Common. So just call it a California Ale.

Budweiser is losing sales to … guess

Budweiser and several other classic American beers are losing sales to other brands. But not, as fans of real beer might hope, to craft beers.

They’re losing ground to low-calorie beers.

Most of the beers whose sales declined that much have one thing in common — they are “full-calorie” beers, or about 145 calories a can. Instead, beer drinkers have turned to “light beers,” which have 100 calories a can, and “ultra-lights,” which are closer to 90 calories.

See The Eight Beers Americans No Longer Drink

Now I’m not one of these guys who rails against Budweiser. I think it’s a fine beer for what it is — a light, American-style pilsner. I don’t particularly like that style, but it’s certainly a quality product, and if you offer me a Budweiser or a coke, I’ll take the Bud, thank you very much.

With the success of serious breweries like Sam Adams, and with the amazing craft beer revolution, you’d think maybe Americans are starting to develop a taste for serious beer.

Some are, but apparently not the majority. Americans still have a taste for things with little taste. These already tasteless beers are losing ground to beers that have even less taste.

Okay. That doesn’t bother me, so long these 90-calorie beers don’t get between me and the beers I like.