To quote Sandor Katz, a renowned fermentation revivalist, “we’re eating – and enjoying – fermented foods, every single day, that we’re unaware are fermented like sourdough, yogurt, tofu, pickles, cheese, sour cream, beer, wine, and vinegar.” Katz is the author of two books on fermentation, Wild Fermentation (2003), and James Beard award-winner and New York Times bestseller The Art of Fermentation (2012).
Kombucha is made by fermenting tea and cane sugar with a yeast and (probiotic) bacteria culture called a scoby. The result can taste something like sparkling apple cider. Some have hailed kombucha as an elixir of life for its high levels of antioxidants and iron; it is believed to increase energy production in cells, limit fat storage, lower cholesterol, and reduce fatty liver disease. Those who drink it report increased energy, heightened brain function, increased immunity to colds and flu, and decreased disease and toxicity.
The exact origins of kombucha are not known, but it is thought to have originated in China and was traditionally consumed in other Asian countries as well as in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Kombucha homebrewer and fermentation instructor Anna Dounaevskaia worked as a nurse in Russia before moving to the United States in 1997. Switching to alternative medicine, she graduated in 2012 from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition with a certification as an integrative nutrition health coach and board-certified holistic health practitioner by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners.
Currently, Anna and her husband, Seva, a doctor at the Lewistown Hospital, reside in Lewistown. “Kombucha is one of the most probiotic-dense foods due to its beneficial microbial makeup and contains a variety of nutrients, particularly glucuronic acid, acetic acid, vitamins (B in particular), and enzymes,” she says. “Glucuronic acid is a strong liver detoxifier, which binds to toxins and poisons, both environmental and metabolic, and excretes them from the body without being reabsorbed into the body again!”
Dounaevskaia has worked one-on-one with clients with different chronic conditions through healthy lifestyle and dietary changes. She has taught classes on how to prepare fermented foods: vegetables, dairy (kefir, yogurt, sour cream, raw soft cheeses), and drinks (kombucha, water kefir, and beet kvass) in State College, Bellefonte, Huntington, and Lewistown.
Mount NitaNee Kombucha owner Joan Elizabeth Karp is a mother of three, wife, athlete, fitness trainer, and coach, who brews deliciously tangy and effervescent kombucha in the Penns Valley area. Since May 2017, MNK customers are hooked on the wonderfully fruity and herbal flavors, including beet berry, ginger, stinging nettle, orange-pomegranate-carrot, citrus sun, pea flower, hibiscus, pink lemonade, elderberry, Concord grape, and yerba mate.
Moving to Penns Valley 20 years ago, Joan and her husband, Jeff, formed close relationships with their Amish neighbors. As a fitness trainer, Joan had heard about kombucha’s digestive health benefits and cancer prevention properties. “Our friends from Spring Bank Acres in Rebersburg were the first to introduce me to homemade kombucha. In fact, I got my first scoby from them, and before I started my business last year, we talked to Raymond and Mary Fisher and asked for their blessing,” explains Karp. “They are amazing people and to share the love, I still order my organic cane sugar and some tea from them.”
After much encouragement from her friends, Karp contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to get licensed to start her own kombucha brewing business. MNK is available for purchase at The Barn at Lemont, Webster’s Bookstore Café in State College, Big Spring Spirits in Bellefonte, Pizza Heaven and Sense of Balance Wellness Pilates Studio in Spring Mills, The Inglebean Coffee House, Burkholder’s Market, and Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks in Millheim, as well as Sunset Natural Health Food Store in Lamar.
In addition, MNK makes home deliveries on Tuesday in the State College area, Thursday in the Penns Valley area, and pickups in Spring Mills at the Old Gregg School on Thursday evenings at 5:45. “We offer home delivery service because we love the idea of connecting with our customers and how great is it that we live in an area where you can set out a bottle, a check or cash, and get a locally-made product on your porch,” Karp says.
One of MNK’s long-standing delivery route patrons, Stephanie Delaney, loves the convenience of having kombucha delivered to her door and supporting local small business neighbors. “Our family purchases two MNK growlers each week, and although my husband, Ted, and I are the main consumers, our four kids are getting more adventurous in trying new flavors.”
Residing in Centre Hall, the Delaneys’ favorite MNK flavors are ginger and triple berry. “We drink a lot of water and kombucha is a great drink to break up the monotony, and we feel the health benefits are noticeable – relief of bloating and increase of energy.” Stephanie has worked at the Penn State University Police Department for 16 years and says, “I encourage those who are skeptical to purchase a growler and try it for a week to see the benefits for themselves. There is nothing to lose when it’s delivered to your door!”
Bellefonte business owner Michael Flickinger of Greybeard Technology began drinking Mount NitaNee Kombucha in the fall of 2014. Retiring in 2010, after 30 years as a Penns Valley School District teacher and coach, Flickinger became an instructor of tang soo do at Arteca’s Martial Arts in Spring Mills.
“The Karps enrolled their three children – Helen, Samuel, and Isaac – in this martial art and one day, Helen told me about kombucha, and I must say, I was very skeptical at first with all the touts of this elixir,” says Flickinger. “Usually in the winter, I would come down with several bad colds, but after drinking kombucha daily, I could not believe that winter, I only got one minor cold! The probiotic kombucha had to be the reason, and I kept drinking it.”
Drinking kombucha also gave him more energy and stamina. “I keep a Bubba keg dispenser of MNK in my office for me and my employees. I even take a jar with me when I travel.”
Barbara Cole also travels with a jar of MNK. A nurse practitioner with Penn State Health, who also works at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, Cole has a strong interest in the microbiome – the ecosystem in our gut. The microbiome is the collection of bacteria and yeasts within our bodies that helps us digest and absorb nutrients. The more diverse your microbiome, the better you are able to support health and well-being.
“There is so much research out there about the benefits of living food intake. The modern diet is inflammatory producing, and the old live foods, like kombucha, are anti-inflammatory producing foods,” explains Cole. “Inflammation is the root of heart issues, stroke, and cancer.”
Cole’s research on gut health led her to discover kombucha and its benefits. When she started drinking the fermented drink in May 2017, she had an initial detox reaction, which caused headaches, fatigue, and some nausea that lasted two months. The bloating soon stopped and she felt a boost in energy. She recommends that when adding kombucha into your routine diet to start with half a cup a day until your body can tolerate a full glass or more.
“From a medical standpoint, kombucha makes all the B vitamins, including B12 in the gut as well as serotonin, dopamine, and other neuro regulators – that’s why they call your gut your second brain,” says Cole. At a community workshop in Spring Mills last year, she presented research on how an increase in the diversity of the microbiome can cause common ailments to disappear, from diabetes and heart disease to asthma and eczema. “Because of what it produces and adjusts in the gut, it also helps with anxiety and depression,” she says.
Working on her doctoral degree in nursing practice and graduating this December, Cole started with commercial brands, but now has MNK delivered to her home in Penns Valley as well as to her office, because many co-workers drink it.
In the past several years, Counterpart Kombucha and Salúd Kombucha have also sold their products locally. As with any food or beverage, it’s best to consume kombucha in moderation. Regardless of how you feel about the health benefits of this fermented drink, it’s a refreshing substitute to sports drinks, sodas, and fruit juices to quench thirst and energize.
Brewing kombucha at home with Anna Dounaevskaia
(First, you will need to get a scoby from a friend who brews or ask around at your local fermentation groups. Someone will most likely have a healthy one to spare).
1 gallon jar (approx. 13 cups of water)
2 tablespoons of loose tea or 8 tea bags (no flavored teas)
1 cup sugar
2 cups of starter tea with scoby
Brew the tea, add sugar to dissolve. Steep tea leaves for 8-10 min max.
Cool to room temperature 70-80 F. Add your scoby starter tea, cover with light tea towel, cheese cloth, or coffee filter secured with a rubber band.
Store your kombucha in a warm place with no direct light.
Average first fermentation takes 1-4 weeks depending on room temperature and desired level of acidity. (Typically between 7-14 days). Now your tea is ready for flavoring and second fermentation.
In order to make a more carbonated drink, use a bottle with a tight cap. Add your fruits or fruit juices for flavoring. Leave about 1-2 inches space between cap and the top of the kombucha. Keep it in a warm place for additional 2-3 days.
Tips & Advice:
- Use organic tea (chemicals can be detrimental for the scoby). The best tea to use is black, green, pekoe, oolong, and Darjeeling. Herbal teas do not nourish the scoby. Flavored teas are usually made with spices or oils. Oils get rancid quickly and kill the scoby eventually. Also, some spices are antimicrobial, which interfere with normal life of yeasts, and bacteria in the scoby. Instead of brewing with flavored spiced teas, try to add it to the second ferment.
- Use organic sugars. Best sugar to use is organic evaporated cane, but others can be used as well (brown sugar, raw sugar, molasses, coconut sugar) but will need to boil with water first. Syrups and raw honey will weaken culture as well. Artificial sugars are absolutely useless!
- No chlorine and fluoride in water! To remove chlorine boil for 20 min. or let it stand for 24 hours for the chlorine to evaporate. Water is a part of culturing process, that’s why the natural structure and balance of water should not be altered. The water, which was simply filtered from contaminants, can be used for fermented drinks. Reverse Osmosis water is OK. Kombucha can be done even in distilled water and excess of minerals can kill the scoby.
- No metal, plastic, ceramic, or crystal bowls and utensils. Glass is the best.
- No direct lights on the jar (dark is not necessary, just keep away from windows; you can cover the jar with tea towel).
- Added flavors: fresh/frozen fruits, berries or juices; herbs, extracts. No scoby needed for the second ferment, just add to the ready tea and keep at room temperature for another day or two with lid on. My personal favorites are blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries.
The rule of thumb is: If you aren’t sure about the health of your scoby, get a second opinion from an experienced brewer and don’t drink it! What you don’t want is black or dark green fuzzy molds on the top of the scoby. Throw everything out!
Brown spots on your scoby and some brownish strings in the kombucha are the results of yeast life and are benign. Remember your scoby is a live organism and can move in the jar.
It is normally situated on the top of the brewing liquid, but can get down or stay even vertically. It’s normal.
The scoby mother can get thickened after some time of brewing. You can cut it, making smaller pieces. Don’t throw away the old scoby; it’s a great compost starter. You can feed it to animals as well. Chickens and pigs love it! When you obtain a scoby from someone it’s important to use same tea as it was before (from personal experience!). And slowly add tea of your choice to train the scoby to the new food.
Happy kombucha brewing!
Check out Mount NitaNee Kombucha on Facebook to place your order one time or join the weekly delivery route.
To register for Dounaevskaia’s fermentation classes, contact her at [email protected].
Follow the Central Pennsylvania Fermentation Society and Centre County Canners Facebook pages for local fermentation advice.
Vilma Shu is general manager of Town&Gown.