Summer is generally a time to relax, have a little fun, and abandon anything closely resembling a healthy and balanced diet.
But in the middle of August, I had just come home from a trip to the beach with my family, which left my stomach in an absolute wreck. The two times I managed to drag myself out the door for a run, it felt like I was carrying an over-inflated volleyball in my gut. All of those times I was “forced” to order a basket of fries as my entree when there were no other vegan options on the menu (I couldn’t believe the veggie burger had eggs!) were really starting to catch up with me.
Then with another set of weekend trips looming and the chances of seeing a salad being slim, I decided that preparations had to be made in advance for a full gut recovery. I decided to brew my own kombucha.
Why? Kombucha, a fermented tea drink, has had its turn in the health food spotlight because it is packed with probiotics, making it a supposed boon to your digestive system. You can get a similar benefit with almost any food that’s been fermented and is unpasteurized—like sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, tempeh, or miso—but I wanted to give kombucha a chance because I’ve liked the taste when I’ve tried it before (it’s like a drinking a fizzy, funky glass of sweet tea), and it seemed like an easier road to give my gut a boost than scarfing down plate after plate of sauerkraut.
When I started looking into the best store-bought ‘buch, I found that some brands are packed with sugar to try and mellow out the funky flavour. Then I learned some commercial kombuchas aren’t as heavily fermented in an effort to keep their alcohol content (a byproduct of the fermenting process) under control.
Luckily, I have a bit of a DIY streak in me (the mounting job I did on my television is an absolute work of art), so after a little bit of research I decided to give home brewing a shot. By making a batch of my own, I could whip up my own full-strength tonic to ease my stomach troubles and really up my vegan cred at the same time. Win win.
Because kombucha takes about two weeks to brew, I went online and ordered a brew-at-home starter kit from a company called Kombucha Brooklyn before I left for my first long weekend trip. Here’s what came with it:
- tea leaves
- a 2l glass jar
- a living SCOBY
What’s a SCOBY? It stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. It’s a rubbery little blob that makes regular old tea and sugar into stomach-saving kombucha. The bacteria and yeast feed on the sugars in the tea, multiplying and producing acids, B vitamins, carbon dioxide, and a trace amount of alcohol. (So women who are pregnant should avoid drinking it.)
Here’s how the two-week brewing process went.
Day 1: It’s a pretty simple process: you bring water to a boil, steep some tea, and stir in a little sugar. Then you pour your sugar and tea mixture into your brewing vessel, add cold water to fill it, and plop in your SCOBY. Basically, you’re making a batch of sweet tea and throwing in a big old yeast booger. Simple and delicious!
I covered the top of the jar with a cotton cloth and gently placed my infant kombucha in the cupboard above my fridge. I found myself starting to worry. Would it be warm enough? Would it be okay on its own?
Day 5: As soon as I got back home, I checked in on my brew. Another SCOBY had already started to form on top of my original, which is a natural part of the brewing process and a sign that my ‘buch was alive and kicking. So far, so good.
I also noticed that a few strands of yeast, like a scraggly little beard, now dangled down the sides of the jar and that my brew had a strong fermented smell. Hair? Odor? I turn around for one second and my kombucha had turned into a gnarly teenager.
Day 8: Before I left for my next weekend away, I checked in one more time on my brew. Its new SCOBY had started to swell. There were bubbles forming at the top of the jar and the liquid was clouded with bits of yeast. It looked like my little sugar tea was finally maturing into a full-grown kombucha.
Day 14: Thankfully, after four days of subsisting on tortilla chips, I returned home to find that my kombucha was ready to drink.
Ready to finally consume, it tasted pretty sweet up front with a strong, sour finish. It was close to most store-bought kombuchas I’ve had, but with a more aggressive fermented flavour and without as much carbonation. (Kombucha only gets a good fizz going after it’s bottled. As a first time brewer, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to invest in a full set of miniature growlers.)
I’ll admit that drinking a full glass left me feeling slightly flushed in the face and more than a little worried that I had accidentally whipped up a batch of moonshine. But over the rest of the week, I carefully sipped my way through the entirety of my batch. (I was also drinking a lot of water and cup or two of coffee day in an effort to encourage an overall system “flush.”) I’d drink about half a glass of ‘buch in the morning while I made breakfast and then another half a glass in the afternoon. I found that it was a good little pick-me-up when I otherwise might have wanted to make a cold brew run. And after hard runs, the sour flavour was a nice kick in pants.
My gut slowly got back on track. That bloated feeling I had when I ran went away and my trips to the bathroom were more frequent and solid; every runner’s dream!
Was it the kombucha that did the trick? It could have simply been because I reintroduced non-beige coloured foods into my diet (and went out of “vacation-mode” when it came to my alcohol intake), but I like to think that my homegrown bacteria brew had something to do with it, too.
Even if my kombucha was a total placebo, I realized that doing my own home-brew got me refocused on my diet and my running. After a long break, it’s always nice to have a little reminder to get off the couch and on the road. Sometimes it’s a new pair of shoes. Sometimes it’s a big jar of fermenting tea. Whatever works.
Ryan Haney is a Brooklyn-based, vegan writer, and 3:02 marathoner. Check back every few months for his sarcastic musings on being a plant-based runner.
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health US.