Shortly after my fermentation obsession kicked in full-throttle, I became interested in Kombucha, a fermented beverage that enjoyed its moment in the spotlight as a health food fad through the 90s and again in the early 2000s. Having managed to skip over it entirely due to the rigorous sugar-free diet I was on back when the craze was at its peak, I bought a bottle of a commercial brand so that I could finally find out what all of the fuss was about. Since tasting it I have come to the conclusion that the tangy, fizzy beverage is enjoyable enough, but my real interest lies in the process of making it.
Kombucha is a sweet and sour drink that is made by placing an ugly, deformed, gelatinous mass that eerily resembles regurgitated rubber (hungry yet?), known as a mother or SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) into a vessel of sweetened black tea. Over time the SCOBY feeds on the sugars, resulting in a bubbly drink with a mild, vinegar-like bite.
Alchemy! The drink aside, I was immediately charged with the task of getting my hands on one of those delightfully revolting MOTHERs! I immediately imagined experimenting with my own flavor combinations, fermenting things that were never meant to be fermented (see 1 below), pulling it out at parties (see 2 below), and endlessly entertaining myself with creepy references to Alfred Hitchcock’s, Psycho. As a friend eagerly pointed out, “Now we can say that we have healthy mothers!”
If you’d like to acquire your own healthy mother in a hurry, Etsy is a great place to start. A search for Kombucha SCOBY will bring up a number of sellers and ordering options. There are also several online communities of Kombucha aficionados that will happily share a piece with locals. Unfortunately, as a Canadian, I was unable to find a source that would ship for free, trade, or cash. A biological blob is probably not the easiest thing to ship across borders.
Fortunately, SCOBYs regularly reproduce through the fermenting process and it isn’t uncommon to find pieces floating around in store-bought bottles. Poor Davin learned this the hard way when he gulped a rather large blob down whole. I wondered if I could get the thing to grow, and sure enough, a quick inquiry via Twitter and Flickr confirmed that a new SCOBY could be produced as long as you use a bottle of raw, unflavored Kombucha.
Making a Mother
The process is simple. I consulted a few sources online, but inevitably decided to take my cue from the Kombucha brewing recipe I found in Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. However, I added more sugar so that the developing mother would have plenty to feed on over the weeks that it would take to mature. Not that when I make Kombucha for drinking, I do not use as much sugar.
- 1 litre filtered water
- 2 black tea bags
- 1/3 cup cane sugar
- One-16 oz bottle of a raw, unflavored commercial Kombucha. Choose a bottle with lots of visible gelatinous masses.
Using the ingredients listed, brew a batch of sweetened black tea. Allow it to come to room temperature, then pour it into a clean and sterilized wide-mouth glass vessel. I used a large, glass jar that is meant for carrying cold beverages.
Pour the bottle of raw Kombucha on top and cover with a clean kitchen towel or cheese cloth. Do not cover with plastic as the brew needs to breath freely. The cloth simply keeps out dust, dirt, and insects.
Set aside in a comfortably warm location, out of the sun, that enjoys steady temperatures. I keep mine in the dining room because the temperature of my kitchen fluctuates due to cooking and baking.
Within a few days you should start to see a small blob forming. Mine took about 2 weeks to form into a thin, gooey pancake. The tea was very acidic and undrinkable. I have used it as a marinade, as a vinegar substitute in salad dressing, and to de-glaze cooking pans. Don’t toss it down the sink!
Shortly thereafter I used the new mother to begin a first brew. Since then I have gone on to make many more and have also passed new SCOBYs onto friends. I’ve experimented with flavors, but so far the best has been made by adding slices of fresh ginger and Meyer lemon at the time of bottling. It is surprisingly better than the commercial brand and a friend who is a Kombucha freak said it was the best she’d ever had!
Choosing a Tea: Everything that I read about Kombucha said that the oils used in flavored black tea (i.e Earl Gray) can compromise the integrity of the mother, while green and white teas are too weak. Grow a strong and healthy mother using black tea, then branch out into experimenting with other types once it’s been established. I’ve currently got a batch of white tea brewing that I hope will be a more subtle base for wilder flavor combinations.
Kombucha as a Health Drink
So much has been written about Kombucha’s healthful qualities, while others have derided it as a modern day snake oil. My own perspective lies somewhere between the two. The drink is often flavoured with fruit and other flavours and is a popular, “healthier” substitute for corn syrup loaded carbonated soda. While I do think that it is much, much better than drinking pop, I subscribe more to the idea of it as a tonic that is best when taken in small quantities. But that’s just my two cents. A few friends of mine are totally addicted and I don’t blame them nor would I ever begrudge anyone the pleasure. In fact, since I’ve begun making Kombucha, I’ve been only too eager to use them as taste testers for my concoctions. My own beverage addictions — carbonated mineral water and cappuccinos — do not afford me a high ground from which to judge!
That said, I do think it is essential to familiarize yourself with possible contaminants before starting out making Kombucha. Drinking a contaminated beverage carries serious health consequences; always err on the side of safety and toss out any batches, including mothers, that look or smell off, even slightly.
If you’d like to find out more for yourself, both positive and negative, I suggest the following resources:
- “My Adventures with the Blob” by Paul Stamets
- Gaia Research
- Web MD
- Happy Herbalist (This site is exhaustive.)
1. In the book, Wild Fermentation, author Sandor Katz mentions a friend that made Mountain Dew Kombucha.
2. I’ve since done this. I even showed iPhone photos of my SCOBY to a table full of strangers at Rancho la Puerta. It’s the perfect dinner conversation!