Nina Gordon’s slogan for her home-brewed kombucha is “Because you’ve got guts!” Although it’s a funny play on words, it also alludes to the digestive benefits of the fermented tea drink whose probiotics — and many flavor options — can keep your taste buds and insides happy. She’ll be pleased to tell you all about it at the Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker Faire on Saturday, May 11, at the Ag Hall.
Gordon’s initial taste of kombucha was definitely not love at first sight. “I got into it somewhat reluctantly,” she told me. “The first time I ever tasted kombucha, it was terrible. Now that I know what kombucha is supposed to taste like, I know that the bottle I had was spoiled. I didn’t drink it again for about seven years. Then a couple of my friends started brewing kombucha and trying to get me to taste it, and I kept saying, ‘No, no, no, I already tried it.’”
About a year later, another friend convinced her to try some, and she discovered that she liked the brew, and started making her own batches. Gordon found she enjoyed going out into her yard and using whatever was in season — strawberries, peaches, and more. “I even did some with wildflowers, first checking if they were edible, like violets, lilac blossoms, mint, and clover — anything that was popping up in my garden,” Gordon said. “I would get so excited about the flavor combinations I was making that I would give it to my friends. They started asking me to make it for them, saying, ‘I’ll give you money for supplies if you’ll brew it for me.’ I realized I better make this into a business and do it properly, so I don’t get in trouble.”
Gordon said it took her two years to get her original kombucha carbonation consistent and the flavors delicious. “Kombucha itself is already low-sugar. The way we measure the sugar alcohol level is a refractometer at the beginning of fermentation and then again at the end, and you take the difference and you plug it into the calculator,” Gordon explained. “Kombucha is supposed to be 0.5 percent alcohol, it depends on your recipe, how much sugar you start out with, and how long you let it ferment. It’s a lot more of a science than cooking. That’s probably why it appeals to me. I have a science background. I’m a nurse and an artist, and brewing kombucha combines all those interests … and gardening.”
I learned that the yeast consumes sugar and makes alcohol. The bacteria consume the alcohol and tea, and make acids. They work together to form the SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), created by bacteria and yeast working together to produce the fermented kombucha. “Some bacteria and yeast make cellulose, some of it makes slime, some of it makes honey-flavored tones. Some people like their kombucha really vinegary; that’s acetic acid. The difference between straight-up vinegar and kombucha is the presence of the other acids. The longer you let it ferment, the more vinegary your kombucha.
“Some people think certain kombucha taste sweet, and I say, ‘No you’re not tasting sweet, you’re tasting the other acids like gluconic acid, which is honey tones and the tea. Some of them make enzymes. Different kinds of tea will feed different kinds of bacteria and make them grow,” Gordon said.
In terms of the process, there are two fermentations. Gordon lets the first one go down until the solution is a pH of 2.5 or 3 and there is just enough sugar left to keep the yeast alive. Then she decants it into a second vessel. That’s when she adds the fruit and the herbs and lets it infuse. The fermentation continues, but different bacteria and yeast are active in the second fermentation because it’s anaerobic. She explained that then she puts the lid on it and seals it up tight, because you want many different kinds of probiotics swimming around in there. “The whole point of drinking kombucha and eating other fermented foods, like kimchi and yogurt, is to get a variety of probiotics in your gut. It’s alive,” Gordon says.
The first fermentation phase is about 11 days. The second depends on what she’s flavoring it with, but for most, three days is enough. Then she bottles it by hand, and afterward lets it sit on the shelf for a couple of days to let the carbonation build up.
Gordon has come up with four basic flavor combinations: cranberry hibiscus, strawberry lavender, peach basil, and the pineapple, ginger, and mint, which was the one I tasted and found light and nicely sparkling. She says, “I love foraging in the summertime. Wineberry was my favorite all-time.” There was one year where Gordon found it so hard not to eat the berries that she was in danger of cutting into her inventory.
Before I left, she says, “I really love doing flavors that are tied to this Island, because it just smells so good.” At the Faire you’ll be able to taste her free samples, see and feel the loose-leaf tea and some of the herbs, and see a sample of the SCOBY.
The free Martha’s Vineyard Mini Makers Faire will take place on Saturday, May 11, at the Ag Hall from 10 am to 4 pm.