Wild Culture: Our SCOBYs, Ourselves

Fermentation with fervor

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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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While kombucha brewers are happy to share, they also get attached to their kombucha mother in a way that’s hard for non-brewers to understand. We feel connected to it in an inexplicable way, and maybe that’s not so surprising given that it’s a collection of living organisms. It’s a living and active thing, squatting a space in our kitchens, and we treat it as such. For example, I once gave a friend one of my kombucha mothers, and he named her Lucy. Like any first-time parent, he was nervous. “Does Lucy look okay?” he would ask, texting me a photo of her.

We feel bad if we can’t find a new home for the SCOBY offspring and have to get rid of them. “When I first started brewing kombucha, I let the SCOBYs pile up because I had no one to give them to and didn’t want to throw them away because I felt so bad doing it,” says food writer Emily Dilling. “I finally asked someone to throw them out for me, I think the SCOBY-filled trash bag weighed over a pound.”

Katz has a similar sentiment, “At first this [getting rid of a SCOBY] was very hard for me, but at points I have had to, and I’m sure they are very good for my compost.”

I’ve been there too. One time I forgot to keep my kombucha jar covered and fruit flies started laying eggs in the top layer. A maggot-infested SCOBY is not what you want, and I had to throw it out. It was both absolutely disgusting and upsetting all at the same time.

To the non-brewer, this kind of attachment seems laughable. But why is it that we are so SCOBY obsessed? “SCOBYs are like pets,” says Katz.

That’s especially true when it comes to being away from a SCOBY. I have been told of people having “SCOBY sitters” while they are away. “People want to know that they will still be there, and still be healthy, when they get home from their trip,” says Katz. “I’ve had friends care for SCOBYs for me while I’ve been away.”

Of course, some kombucha brewers are much less attached to their SCOBYs, but that doesn’t make them any less amazed by the fermentation process. “I have never really felt an attachment to my SCOBY,” says Sarah Schomber of Buchi Kombucha, the first kombucha in the Southeast and now the largest brewer on the East Coast. “I think it’s partly that I’m not an overly sentimental person and also that I think about the science of it a lot and realize that the SCOBY itself is just cellulose and that the microbes floating around in the kombucha and shacking up in the SCOBY are the magical creatures that create the kombucha, we just can’t see them without the microscope.”

Whether you’re emotionally attached to your SCOBY or not, there’s no denying that there is something special about being able to brew a carbonated drink at home. And maybe that’s where our obsession lies. In our fast-paced world, there’s something comforting about something that can’t be made instantaneously. We have to nourish and take care of it, we have to invest in the process, and when we do, we are rewarded.

Brewing your own kombucha is a reminder that we can aim towards self-sufficiency, that in our modern world, we shouldn’t be so quick to throw out age-old traditions. Fermentation is after all the simplest, and most natural of ways, that we can preserve and process our food. And you’re just a few microorganisms away from doing it in your own kitchen.

Ask around, you never know what your SCOBY origin story will be.

Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break and runs Foodie Underground, a site about real food for real people. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.

Photo of kombucha in jar by iris CC BY-ND
Photo of giant SCOBY by Dorota Trupp CC BY-SA

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