Kombucha, Tepache and the art of fermented drinks
We try our hand at the noble art of fermentation, and do our best not to blow anything up in the process
We're sitting in Aizle, the delightful forage-to-plate restaurant in Edinburgh's southside, eyeing a range of glasses with varying degrees of suspicion. There's the kombucha blended with grenadine, and there's the kombucha that's been mixed with ginger and citrus. They're delicious, intriguing sippers that have a nice tart kick to them. Then there's the kombucha that's been working away for two months, mixed with nothing. We take a sip – don't know if you've ever been punched in the face by someone made entirely of vinegar, but that's the vibe here. Challenging, we believe is the word. The kombucha, akvavit and citrus cocktail is lovely, as is the puffed beef tendon with Xo sauce and purslane. Also on the table is a small brown paper bag, but we'll get to that in a second.
First of all, a quick primer on one of the year's hottest food trends – fermentation. Put extremely simply, fermentation takes place when the sugars in a food are broken down by yeasts and bacteria. That breakdown creates the acidity, the funky smell and flavour and the 'good bacteria' that allow you to smell something like kimchi at twenty yards away, and has powered everything from sourdough to kefir to the aforementioned kombucha. Food or drink goes in, funky version of food or drink comes out. Sounds fairly straightforward, we thought, so we decided to arm ourselves with some rudimentary fermentation gear and give it a bash. We haven't died or sparked a botulism outbreak, so we're already off to a positive start.
We decided to kick off with something easy, something that would probably taste nice, something whose main ingredient was on special offer in the supermarket at the time. Tepache is a Mexican beverage made up of pineapple, ginger, cinnamon, chilli, brown sugar, and water. This one's pretty simple; start by taking all those marbles and pencils out of that mason jar you bought at IKEA, sterilise it (the jar, not the whole of IKEA), and throw in your ingredients. Stick the lid on, close the lid, and – here's the crucial part – make a note of when this first stage took place.
You see, ginger's very active when it comes to fermentation, and it'll team up with the natural yeasts in the pineapple rind to begin the process. Those two start to break down the pineapple solids and the sugar, converting the sugars into alcohol but also producing carbon dioxide. Because it's sealed, this process will keep going until a) it runs out of fuel, b) you let some of the gas escape by opening it or c) the CO2 builds up and builds up and blows the whole thing to pieces covering your kitchen in pineapple and broken glass. Just don't give it longer than a week and you should be fine.
Next step is to strain it off and bottle it up for secondary fermentation. This second stage allows the liquid to carbonate, so you'll need to leave a good amount of space at the top of the bottle unless you fancy playing the lead role in Tep-OUCH-e: The True Story of How An Exploding Glass Bottle Broke One Man's Nose. Seal up your 'pache, leave it on the counter for a few days and boom – you have yourself a sour, tangy, fruity drink that goes well with a splash of rum. As a beverage, it's decent – fizzy tropical drinks are quite easy to find in shops and most of those don't require setting aside sections of your kitchen – but as a grown-up science experiment it's a surprising amount of fun, provided you like looking at things in jars.
And if you like looking at things in jars then you're in luck, because good lord kombucha is a Thing in a Jar. (Probably) first developed in China two millennia ago, kombucha's a tea-based fermented drink that's packed to the brim with good bacteria (like those Yakult adverts always talked about). The theory is that those bacteria help your gut and aid in your 'general' health; we're not doctors, so we can't say definitively whether that's the case, so we'll just end this sentence here having thrown some doubt on the subject.
To make kombucha, you really don't need many ingredients – you'll need tea, sugar, water, a jar to put it all in, and one other thing. The thing that was in the paper bag from earlier; a thing that, in its purest form, looks like a blobfish fucked a Danish pastry. A scoby (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) is basically a portable Kombucha factory; leave it in some sugary tea and the bacteria inside will reveal themselves and turn the liquid into kombucha. It looks deeply strange, a bit like a mushroom that's gone off the rails. Suspend anything in liquid and it'll take on a bit of a 'weird things happening down the lab' vibe, but this particular organism takes the biscuit, then spits it out having turned it into kombucha.
The kombucha process doesn't take long – the bacteria go to work immediately, so your kombucha will be on the way within the week. Strain most of the liquid off once you're happy with the flavour, add some fresh tea and sugar, and it'll start again. The scoby keeps growing and growing, so you can give layers to your friends and/or enemies to get them involved. It's basically the liquid equivalent of a sourdough starter, and the culinary equivalent of a puppy in that it demands your attention, smells a bit funny, and has a habit of attracting nearby owners and enthusiasts.
Then there's the taste. It's pretty sharp – some of the elements that make up the kombucha scoby are the same that power your favourite vinegars – as well as being tangy and sour, so if you're in this for shits and giggles rather than for your health you'll probably need to blend it up with something else. Some recommend bottling it up with fruit juices to give it a sweetness while also keeping the bacteria fed with sugar, while Aizle primarily use finished kombucha in cocktails or mixed drinks to get a bit of funkiness into otherwise funk-less beverages. We have a large jar of the stuff sitting in our kitchen, so are open to suggestions.
Is kombucha the nicest flavour in the world? Honestly, no – but it does have a certain something about it. And if you're looking for a healthy alternative to homebrewing, or just fancy getting a very low-maintenance pet who lives in your kitchen, then we have your winter sorted. We'll be the ones trying to offload bits of scoby on everyone who passes...
Cast your vote in The Skinny Food & Drink Survey 2018 using the form below...