Wild Culture: Our SCOBYs, Ourselves

Fermentation with fervor

Food Features
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Fermentation is a glorious thing.

It’s a natural process, so it’s no surprise that we have been consuming fermented foods for thousands of years. In a time of scarcity, a hunter-gatherer probably consumed a piece of rotten fruit or two, and over time, a taste for fermented foods, and later drinks, developed.

Not only is fermentation is one of the oldest forms of food preservation, but some anthropologists believe that it was the desire to produce alcohol that led our primitive ancestors to settle down and devote themselves to agriculture. In fact, fermented drinks date back at over 7,000 years, to the time of Babylon. Many of us in our own kitchens have let a bottle of juice go past its prime, so it’s easy to imagine a vessel of damaged grapes spontaneously fermenting and leading to the first taste of wine.

Today we have a renewed appreciation for this old tradition, and people are taking to fermentation with fervor. Some of us get into baking sourdough with a starter and others launch into the world of pickling. But whatever kind of fermentation you do, there’s a high chance that you’re adamant about it.

Kombucha is the perfect example.

For many, kombucha has become a gateway drug into the world of fermentation. Fueled by an increasing interest in the health benefits of probiotics, the sales of kombucha have grown exponentially. Kombucha sales for 2015 are projected to be upwards of $500 million. But at one point or another we realize that our addiction to the bottles at the grocery store is becoming an expensive habit, and it’s high time that we brewed our own. This is the moment that we turn from kombucha fan to kombucha fanatic.

I myself have been brewing kombucha for about ten years. I remember the first time I drank it (in a shared house in Portland, of course) and I remember the first SCOBY I was given (from my roommate in said house). A SCOBY—which stands for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast”—is often called a “mother,” and it’s what you need to brew kombucha. It’s a gelatinous-looking thing that’s filled with microorganisms, and when you feed it a batch of sweet tea, it turns it into a tangy, carbonated drink.

What’s interesting about a kombucha mother is how attached some people can get to theirs. You can buy one online, or brew your own. But since the SCOBY multiplies in the process of brewing kombucha, most often, we are gifted one from someone else who is trying to pass along their SCOBY extras. And if we don’t have someone in our immediate circles to pass one along, there’s always the internet. The Facebook group Wild Fermentation, for example, has an entire page dedicated to people looking for and offering various cultures for fermentation.

If the SCOBY comes from someone else, we tend to remember who. Asking around, everyone I know who brews kombucha remembers who gave them their first SCOBY.

The same even goes for fermentation master Sandor Ellix Katz, and author of several books on fermentation including The Art of Fermentation. “My first SCOBY was a kombucha mother, given to me by my friend Spree. Spree is a long-term AIDS survivor and had gotten interested in kombucha due to its immune stimulating reputation. He made a lot of kombucha and soon had more mothers than he knew what to do with, so he became a promoter and shared many SCOBYs with friends,” says Katz.

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