Kombucha Equipment and Cleanliness
We may like it raw here at RBC, but getting down dirty isn’t really how you want to go about making kombucha. And while hard kombucha is delicious, there’s a reason why you’ve never heard of “trashcan booch.” Kombucha should only be produced in a clean environment with the correct equipment. Knowing proper cleaning, along with keeping a good kombucha toolbox, is essential to the brewing process…so let’s get you set up. But first, we need to wash up.
We aren’t saying you need to wash your hands like a surgeon before an open-heart operation, but being thorough with hand hygiene (ideally with antibacterial soap) is necessary during brewing. We can’t stress this enough. Here at the RBC brewery, we’re washing our hands throughout the brewing process, and we always use gloves. While gloves in the home brewing process are not a requirement, it doesn’t hurt to have them– especially if you have long fingernails (under the fingernails is the dirtiest place on the hands). And since you’ll be handling different items during brewing, it’s a good idea to wash your hands throughout the process– like we do here at the brewery.
Now that you’re all cleaned up, let’s talk about the proper brewing tools.
Here’s a quick shopping list to begin with– unless you are lucky enough to already have this stuff lying around! If you don’t, you can find almost everything you need in our shop. You’ll need the right vessel, utensils, and bottles if you’re looking to make quality, consistent kombucha.
What you ferment your brew in is important– you MUST respect the brew. When looking for your perfect vessel, consider its size and material.
- Clear Glass Vessels: Glass is historically what most homebrewers use because it’s easily obtainable, relatively inexpensive, and easily cleaned. Glass is also a material that won’t cause a reaction with the fermentation– super essential in any vessel choice. But the biggest reason homebrewers choose glass is because you can watch the action! However, this is one downside using a glass vessel. It lets in light, which your brew isn’t really into. While a cupboard is the best place for booch to ferment in glass, you can leave it on the counter, but certainly don’t leave it in the sun.
- Ceramic and Stoneware Vessels (Fermentation Crocks): Similar to glass, ceramic or stoneware vessels are easy to clean and won’t affect the fermentation inside. Often these are heirlooms passed down through families over generations (especially in Eastern cultures). Most people who use fermentation crocks are relatively experienced folks who know their ferments well and aren’t worried about peeking inside. Important note: if you plan to purchase a vessel like this, make sure you buy the food-grade kind. Don’t ever use decorative ceramics for fermentation.
- Stainless Steel Vessels: Stainless Steel is the vessel of choice for large scale, commercial production, and it’s what we use here at RBC. Some sites might try to convince you that all metals are detrimental to your SCOBY, but this is simply untrue for stainless steel. Nearly all the beer, wine, kombucha, and spirits in the world are fermented in stainless steel. Stainless is great! However, if you are a new brewer, we suggest using a vessel you can see through so you can observe your brew without removing the cover.
- HDPE Plastic Vessels: There’s only one type of plastic we find acceptable to brew kombucha, and that’s HDPE (high-density polyethylene). An example of this would be a 5-gallon food grain pail. Look, we don’t particularly recommend it, it is used successfully by many small kombucha breweries and home brewers all around the world. HDPE can withstand some of the strongest acids used in industry– trust us, it can handle the low pH of kombucha. But the proper HDPE vessel, with proper brewing, should produce the same quality bucha a more preferred material would make. Don’t believe anybody who says it won’t. We get why people use it…it’s cheap, lightweight, and it works. Important note: HDPE left in sunlight can leech, but you shouldn’t let your kombucha sunbathe anyway. Do NOT use plastics other than HDPE.
Materials to avoid when choosing your vessel: crystal/colored glass, cheap stainless steel, brass, aluminum, cast iron, consumer-grade plastics, rubbers, and anything we haven’t discussed in the “approved” list above. These materials are not suitable for kombucha production.
And in this instance, size DOES matter. The diameter of your vessel will determine how much it can breathe. All else equal, the more it can breathe the faster your brew will ferment. But on the other side of the equation is this: generally, the larger your vessel is, the longer it will take to ferment. It’s a balancing act, especially in commercial production.
If we’re going to be a little picky about our brewing vessel, we’ve got to be a little picky about our utensils. The type of utensils you use for interacting with your brew matter.
The two tried and trusted tools of any kombucha homebrewer are some tongs and a spoon. Both should be made of hard plastic or metal. Since these items will not be in constant contact with your brew or your SCOBY, they don’t necessarily need to follow the same guidelines of the vessel. Avoid absorbent materials such as wood, rubber, or silicone. These are harder to clean over time and can hold onto unwanted guests (bacteria, yeast, mold spores).
The tongs are for handling your SCOBY– we do not recommend handling a SCOBY with your hands. Freshly washed hands just aren’t as clean as freshly washed tongs.
If you’re going to buy a kombucha-dedicated spoon, make sure it’s one that will reach the bottom of your vessel. No tiny spoons here. This ensures when you stir your kombucha before the second ferment, plenty of the yeasty bits that activate carbonation are evenly distributed in the liquid. For tongs, it’s best to have stainless steel hingeless ones, because a hinge can act as a crevice for contamination. See the photo above.
Brewing Station Cleanliness
KEEP YOUR STUFF CLEAN! Does it need to be said again? Yes, of course! Having a clean work station and utensils is vital for creating a healthy brew. But nothing that some hot, soapy water can’t fix.
Spoons, bottles, and tongs must be cleaned before and after every brew. Every time. Other people say you shouldn’t use antibacterial soap, but we call B.S. on that! While we have specialized chemicals here at the brewery, we sanitize all our utensils every time before using them. Use antibacterial soap to clean your vessel and your utensils. Just make sure you rinse it well so there’s none left that affects your brew.
If you don’t clean your brewing tools well, you invite the potential for mold and culture contamination. See more on mold and contamination prevention here (internal link for MOLD CONTROL).!
Cleaning Your Vessel
Absolutely wash your vessel with antibacterial soap before the first use, but you don’t need to wash it every time. Once you’ve got your brew going, your vessel actually gets “seasoned” much like an iron skillet. Your vessel is teeming with life, and all that good yeast and bacteria are living in there! If needed, wipe down the outside of your vessel, but besides that, you don’t really need to clean your brewing vessel…unless you have a batch go bad. If you do have a batch go bad (mold, kahm yeast, etc.), it needs to be dumped, cleaned and sanitized.
Some of the most important information one can receive in the art of the booch is the importance of keeping things clean. Cleanliness is close to kombucha godliness. Have a routine. Make it strict, people. Your brew depends on it. Happy brewing, booches!