8 Essentials for Successful Microbe Brewing

Brewing microorganisms is almost an act of faith. You add some ingredients to the brewing tank, wait 24 hours and then apply the discoloured water to your soils or crop. You can’t see the new workforce you have created so you simply trust that something worthwhile is involved. You can, of course, minimise the guess work by buying yourself a microscope or by taking advantage of the free NTS service where one of our Chemists/Agronomists will check out your efforts and offer guidance if necessary. You will also maximise the potential of biological multiplication if you follow a standardised brewing protocol. Here are the essentials for successful microbe brewing.

It is not just about reclaiming tired soils, releasing locked up phosphorus, fixing nitrogen or creating a disease resistant soil. Soil structure, water management, plant health and productivity are all part of the potential gift package when you refurbish your biological workforce.

The Seven Essentials

1) Hygeine is essential if you want to avoid contamination of your brew. Microbes are everywhere but they accumulate wherever there is a food source. Any residual liquid from your last brew, left in the bottom of the tank or within the pipes attached to the pump, is food for other organisms. It consists of microbe food and huge numbers of the bodies of those creatures you last brewed. Pathogens can breed up in these residues and some of them can be inadvertently brewed up, along with the good guys during multiplication. To avoid the introduction of undesirables, your brewing system should be cleaned and sanitised immediately after each brew and before beginning a new brew. NTS has developed a high-powered agricultural disinfectant, Path-X™, which is an ideal tool to sanitise the system before and after brewing. It simply involves the addition of 20 to 50 litres of water containing ten mL of Path-X™ per litre (a dilution of 1:100). Alternatively, you can just use household bleach or hydrogen peroxide as a sanitiser but make sure that the disinfectant has been completely flushed from the system or you may kill or compromise the beneficial workforce you are trying to multiply.


2) The microbe food source must be sterile. Microbes need the same things that we do. They require, protein, carbohydrates and fatty acids and these could theoretically be sourced from something as simple as dog food or, perhaps, soya bean meal. The problem is that these potential foods are invariably contaminated with a multitude of organisms, many of which can multiply during the brewing process. It is much better to start with a food that is completely sterile. You may be concerned that if a biocide was used to sanitise the food source then it may have a negative effect on the beneficial microbes in the brew, but this is not the case. Concentrated liquid food sources are generally used at one litre per 100 litres and this level of dilution ensures that the biocide has no ongoing negative effect. NTS has developed an exceptional liquid food concentrate for brewing microbes, LMF™ (Liquid Microbe Food). This food contains a wide range of nutrients to nurture the multiplying organisms and to ensure good microbe counts in the end brew.


3) Contaminated brewing water can be an issue if the only available water for brewing comes from a dubious farm dam. In this case the water can be easily sterilised with pool chlorine but the chlorine should be gassed off before adding the microbes. This process is simple to monitor. Just bubble the treated water with your aerator until there are no further emissions of chlorine gas (this process usually takes around 60 minutes) and then add the food and microbes.


4) Use your nose to monitor your progress. If the end brew has an unpleasant smell, then it may be contaminated and not safe to apply to your crop. I have seen anaerobic brews that have actually done crop damage, so this is an important consideration. An unpleasant smell usually heralds either contamination or poor aeration. Poor aeration can sometimes be linked to overheating during the brewing process. Heat is generated during the free-for-all, breeding party that unfolds during microbe brewing. The heat should be monitored throughout the brewing process and ideally should not exceed 30 degrees centigrade. You will need to throw cold water on the proceedings if overheating occurs.


5) Choose a brewing inoculum that best suits your requirements. For example, if you have used a multitude of chemicals in your farming operation over the years, it is a safe bet to assume that you will benefit from building biodiversity. The best choice here is compost tea, as you are multiplying many thousands of different species and re-introducing this diverse workforce to your soils. If your farm has a history of applied phosphate and you are seeking to access the locked up reserves that are part and parcel of the use of acid phosphate (up to 70% of everything you have applied in the past), then you will get a more pronounced response if you select a task-specific inoculum to release this frozen reserve. We have had tremendous results for the past 15 years in over forty countries with our task-specific inoculum, Nutri-Life 4/20™. Unlike compost tea, this blend contains huge numbers of a couple of dozen specialist species that excel in the release of locked-up phosphate and the fixing of nitrogen from the atmosphere. You will always see a more pronounced and obvious response with a task specific inoculum, like 4/20™, due to the nitrogen and phosphate response, but this should not detract from the importance of building biodiversity with compost tea. There are also cellulose digesting fungi in the 4/20™ blend and it is now possible to select for either bacterial or fungal dominance when brewing.


6) Use molasses or sugar sparingly as bio-stimulants during microbe brewing. These simple sugars tend to select for a limited number of bacterial species and these species then completely dominate during the brewing process. The end result is less biodiversity and an increased likelihood of brewing undesirable organisms. For example, E-coli runs rampant in the presence of these simple sugars during brewing. It is a far better option to use fulvic acid to encourage bacteria. This natural acid boosts the full spectrum of bacteria.


7) Create your compost tea inoculum from several different compost sources for maximum response. There are quite different mixes of species in different compost sources. A compost made from cow manure contains different organisms to a compost made from chook manure, pig manure or no manure. The ideal inoculum would involve  a little of each. The compost should be stored separately before use rather than blending the mix in advance to avoid a likely loss of biodiversity that can occur over time in the warfare world of the soil foodweb. Seek the very best sources of these different composts and the cost is immaterial. Even if you pay an exorbitant price for a great compost, shipped from thousands of kilometres away it does not matter. There are only very small amounts of actual compost required to make compost tea. For example, one kilogram of compost makes one hundred litres of compost tea and that amount is applied to a hectare. If the compost costs as much as $400 per tonne, this still only equates to 40 cents per hectare, so you might as well source the very best inoculum.

If you have not yet discovered the multiple benefits of microbe brewing then it is time for a pleasant surprise. It may sound like some strange, foreign process but it is really quite simple and incredibly cost effective. You can source a 1000 litre shuttle for around $300 or a 200 litre drum for $50 and these serve as microbe brewing tanks (depending upon the scale of your operation). A small submersible pump can be used in the 200 litre drum or a spa pump can be utilised in the shuttle. You can make your own venturis to deliver oxygen or you can source venturi kits from NTS. We will offer advice to help a D.I.Y setup or we can supply a range of accessories for microbe brewing. The bottom line is that many soils have been biologically compromised with extractive agriculture and microbe brewing offers a unique opportunity to re-charge soil life at minimal cost.


The Eighth Essential


We’ve discussed the seven essentials for successful microbe brewing but there is an additional requirement that is at least as important. This eighth essential relates to your capacity to control the microbe brewing process to achieve a desired species mix. Herein lies a major problem experienced by most people who have embraced bug brewing. It is really difficult to achieve fungal domination when brewing microorganisms. This is a constant frustration because it is beneficial fungi that are the creatures most lacking in most soils, when a soil life count is conducted. Bacteria subdivide at a much more rapid rate than fungi, so, in a brewing situation, it is inevitable that the bacteria take command and unfortunately this creates undesirable conditions for fungal proliferation. Bacteria release alkaline exudates but fungi prefer acidic conditions so this simple biochemical ploy magnifies the bacterial dominance. You can start a compost tea with a compost, rich in visible fungi, but the bacteria that are still present exert their dominance within hours. One trick that helps slow down the bacteria is to add an acid material to the brewing tank. The pH of the brewing solution must be maintained below 5 throughout the process to encourage fungal domination. Vinegar or citric acid are popular choices but unfortunately it is not as simple as it sounds. The bacteria don’t give up without a fight. They continue to release their alkaline exudates knowing that if they can spike pH above 5 then they can resume control. The pH of the brew solution must be monitored throughout the 24 hour brewing process and more acid material is often required. This does not bode well for those who like their sleep!

It was an important step forward in brewing technology and user friendliness when NTS developed Dominate™ (fungi), a liquid that can maintain the ideal pH for fungi, throughout the brewing process, with the simple addition of just one litre per 100 litres of brew.  Dominate is the eighth essential and it is not just limited to success when brewing fungi. There is also a Dominate™ product that ensures huge numbers of bacteria.

Dominate™ (bacteria) sponsors a brew that is jam-packed with beneficial bacteria to the extent that it has often reached saturation point. Typically, a microbial brew needs to be applied the moment that it is completed – after the aeration ceases beneficial (aerobic) bacterial cells and fungal hyphae quickly decline. However with the use of Dominate™ Bacteria or Dominate™ Fungi the conditions of the brew encourage the formation of either fungal or bacterial spores. These spores are bacteria and fungi in their protected state – they are far more robust and stable than vegetative cells. This gives the final brew additional shelf life. This is a tremendous move forward in terms of user friendliness! If it rains when the brew is due it no longer matters. Microbes can now be brewed at a central location and transported to where they are required without the normal loss of efficacy. Applying a microbes in spore form also means they have a higher chance of surviving the application process.



Nutri-Life 4/20™ and Dominate™ – Perfect Partners


Most of the developmental work with Dominate™ involved working with the popular NTS microbe inoculum, Nutri-Life 4/20. This freeze-dried blend involves both fungi and bacteria. Dominate™ (fungi) allowed us to produce a large numbers of beneficial fungi, when brewing 4/20™, the most abundant of which is a remarkable species called TrichodermaTrichoderma is a multifunction species that can improve fertiliser efficiency and contribute to the creation of a disease suppressive soil but it is also a voracious cellulose digester that can build humus very effectively. A tank full ofTrichoderma could now be produced for a very low cost and we were justifiably excited.

If, however, the goal is to access free nitrogen from the atmosphere or to unlock some of your frozen phosphate reserves then you may prefer to use Dominate™ (bacteria) in conjunction with Nutri-Life 4/20™. With this inexpensive addition, you can now achieve huge numbers of desired species in a stable brew that will last for up to two weeks.

The Top Five Reasons to Brew

1) To boost humus building capacity – when carbon is stored in the soil as humus it is not creating havoc in terms of greenhouse gases and global heating. The key creatures (cellulose digesting fungi) required to build stable soil humus have been decimated in most conventionally farmed soils. Brewing offers an inexpensive option to get back in the game by replenishing these missing workers.

2) To reclaim your phosphate investments – soluble phosphate turns out to be a pretty ordinary investment as it is openly acknowledged that you lose on average 73% of applied phosphate to lockups in the soil. This raw deal is destined to get worse as Peak Phosphate arrives. When the first half of a non-renewable resource has been used, the second half rises and rises in price, until supplies are eventually exhausted. There has never been an exception to this trend in the history of economics. Many commentators now believe that the planet reached Peak Phosphate in 2001 and, if so, the price will continue upward. There is a massive frozen reserve of phosphate in Australian agricultural soils (in areas with a history of phosphate fertilising) and it is a great strategy to reclaim this frozen reserve by brewing and applying phosphate solubilising organisms.

3) To reduce nitrogen expenditure – the atmosphere contains the equivalent of 5000 truckloads of urea (as nitrogen gas) per hectare, and that is where we were supposed to access much of our nitrogen. Free-living nitrogen fixing organisms can be easily brewed and for minimal cost you can receive a significant percentage of your crop’s nitrogen requirements from the atmosphere.


4) To build a disease-suppressive soil – a fungal disease does not reflect a lack of a fungicide, it heralds a soil food web imbalance, where the creatures who would normally feed upon the pathogen, are no longer present in your soil. The chemical sledgehammer is often not the best solution. In this era of greater soil life awareness and research we now know that chemical control creates collateral damage. The chemicals can affect species other than the intended pathogen, and that can create a whole new range of problems. If you can build your biodiversity with compost tea and specialist inoculums you can reclaim both soil-life balance and your peace of mind.


5) To reduce the crop’s water requirements – humus can hold almost its own weight in water but there is another way in which introduced biology can minimise water usage. Bacteria release a sticky, gel-like substance that serves as a protective bio-film to slow down their predators. A single protozoa, for example, consumes 10,000 bacteria each day so it is a handy survival mechanism to become  like “the boy in the bubble”, to escape their ravenous attention. The good news about this sticky jelly is that it works almost like water crystals in terms of moisture retention in the root zone. It is common for growers to report significant reductions in irrigation requirements following the introduction of a regular brewing program.

To speak with an NTS Agronomist about the use of the Dominate options please phone +61 7 5472 9900.

Disclaimer: Prices quoted are estimates only and may vary without notice. Prices quoted are in Australian dollars.

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  • http://www.uos.edu.pk Dr Rai Mukaram

    The reserch is excellent, have u some material, about the composting of polutry industry waste.

  • Terrill

    Hi got your site off a compost tea group..
    I have just had a major crisis with 250 ton to 400 ton of worms and casting… A contractor buried them all 5 to 9 feet deep.. Crushing them with a Bulldozer packing them down and covering them with Clay. Then packing that down..

    The Clay has since been removed and on Tues we are going to try and dig them up without doing more damage… These people seem to think no damage will have been done to the worms or the worm casts other then I will lose a few loads of worms… any thoughts would be helpful
    Thanks Terrill

  • peter

    I do not understand why you are concerned with cleaning your system, using sterile food and then putting in compost from cow manure. What makes you think that compost from cow manure is void of any bad microbes?

  • Graeme Sait

    Hi Peter,

    Good question Peter. The major issue with using compost from cow manure for compost tea brewing is ecoli contamination and this is directly linked with the quality of the compost. We have shown repeatedly that well-made compost is free from this contamination and that the bacteria from the rumen make a welcome contribution to biodiversity in any compost. Steiner was a big fan of the use of cattle in holistic agriculture for this reason and others.

    However, I feel that I should have emphasised the need for this hygiene regime is more important when brewing a specialist innocula, where you are trying to avoid any form of contamination. Compost tea has so much happening that contamination is almost inevitable and for this reason users should wear masks and handle the product almost as if it were a chemical. This is not so much of a concern with actual compost but there is a much higher chance of breathing in undesirable organisms when applying compost tea. I wish you a great Christmas.

  • Graeme Sait

    Hi Terrill,

    I have never encountered this before but I suspect that the compost worms may be damaged if the clay has been too compacted. These worms are more aerobic than common garden worms and may be more sensitive to this kind of treatment. Please let me know how you go. I wish you a great Xmas and I hope the worms survive.

  • http://www.gardenglow.net.au Andrew – GardenGlow Tree Care

    Thank you for all the phone advice from your agronomists.
    We treated the Elm trees behind Federation Square that had been in decline for five years.
    Within one season you can see the benefits. The trees are now covered in a strong flush of epicormic growth and the crown has started to regenerate. I can send you photos of the results.

    The management were so impressed with the Elm trees that they asked us to treat the Eucalyptus in planter beds on the courtyard. We used the same brew of 4/20 , Dominate, and Kelp. But this time your agronomist suggested we add Zeolites to hold nutrients in the sandy soil and a high-carbon compost fertilizer to re-balance the carbon depletion. This work was completed in February so it is a little early to give feedback on the tree development, but you can already see the moisture retention in the soil improving.

    I look forward to consulting with the NTS agronomists on our next project.

    Andrew McKernan
    GardenGlow Tree Care Pty.Ltd.

  • http://- sergio

    hello people of NTS . I would like to know how can I Increase shelf life of compost tea . I read that low ph at the end of brewing ( 4.5 ph ) is the way to keep bacteria and fungi in resistance state ( called spores ) . oTHER people says that humic acid addition preserves microbes` population 6 months .

    best regards


  • Graeme Sait

    Hi Andrew,

    It was nice to hear about your success in applying biological principles to the elms. Keep up the good work!

    Warm regards

  • Graeme Sait

    Hi Sergio,

    Nice to hear from you. You are correct in your suggestion that low pH is a technique to stabilise your brew. It is one of the principles used in our “Dominate” product. We find we can achieve about two weeks of stability when using this additive. I have never heard the humic acid theory before and we have done a tremendous amount of work with humates. It seems highly unlikely that adding a food source (humic acid) could offer long term stability.