Sunday, December 8, 2013

Creating Kombucha, or My Mother the SCOBY

I have your mother in the car.

This is a pretty ominous text message, and it took me a minute to register the threat.  Luckily I had no bandits to battle or ransoms to pay.  My friend Emily was driving home from her parents’ house in New Hampshire, where her dad brews kombucha tea.  She was bringing me a mother kombucha, so that I could try brewing my own.

Pictured here: all the ingredients you need.

Kombucha is a special type of fermented tea that’s grown from a “mother” culture called a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast (yummy!), or SCOBY.  I hate acronyms (they always look like yelling) so I’m going to just keep calling it the mother.  When the mother is allowed to feed on tea and sugar for an extended period of time, it evolves into kombucha, a special type of tea that does something. 

But what does it do?  That question has no easy answer.  You can search and search the Internet, but information about kombucha is conflicting, and there is very little in the way of citations.  Kristen at Food Renegade is a staunch promoter of kombucha, but right off the bat she refers to its “rich anecdotal history” (emphasis mine).  Kristen also claims that the reason kombucha isn't being held up for scientific scrutiny is because it’s too easy to brew at home, and therefore not profitable for the pharmaceutical industry.

That’s certainly a compelling argument, and I do love to side with renegades, but Kristen’s listed sources are somewhat less than reputable. One of them is a weird, rambling essay written in 1993, and another is a website written entirely in Comic Sans.  A third appears to have been run one too many times through Google Translator.  Its comprehensive, but a little bit goofy.

The opposing side is no more scientific in its arguments.  The Mayo Clinic seems content to rest on its laurels for this debate, issuing a terse warning to avoid the brew altogether.  For its part, the American Cancer Society appears equally unconvinced, albeit with a bit more of an explanation.  

Meanwhile, Synergy, one of the most recognizable names in kombucha commerce, makes no claims whatsoever on its website, scientific or otherwise, choosing instead to let the product speak for itself.

Although this photo of the CEO suggests benefits include white teeth and perpetual radiance.

So that’s a lot of opposing information, and nobody is offering up viable, traceable sources to prove a point one way or another.  I was able to locate one study from Latvia that was published this year and which states, unequivocally, the following:

“It is shown that [kombucha tea] can efficiently act in health prophylaxis and recovery due to four main properties: detoxification, antioxidation, energizing potencies, and promotion of depressed immunity. The recent experimental studies on the consumption of [kombucha tea] suggest that it is suitable for prevention against broad-spectrum metabolic and infective disorders.”

In this instance I’m going to defer to Latvia.  If you’re the type of person who doesn’t approve of brewing unscientifically supported yeast pancakes, then this project is probably not for you.  For my part, I’m going to respect kombucha as the medical marvel it claims to be, helping to improve digestion, immunity, joint health, and liver function (you can test that last one by sipping some the next time you have a hangover).  I can buy kombucha at $4 a bottle from the white-toothed man pictured above, or else I can brew my own, with the help of Emily’s father’s mother.

This is the mother.

Those bubbles in the photo are the way she shows she’s happy, living a sloppy wet life and feeding off the last bits of sugar and tea that she’s wallowing in.  Emily’s dad sent along some directions as well, and for the cultivation of a wonder drink, they seemed awfully simple.

That last line reads, 2-4 weeks til brewed, likes warmth.

I didn’t have 6 tablespoons of loose tea, so instead I used 20 tea bags in 1 quart of water.  I mixed in the sugar and let it cool, and then I made two great tastes...

... Better together.


By the way, that paper towel covering the top is because the mixture needs oxygen in order to properly ferment.  Emily mentioned that a cheese cloth would be ideal, to which I was like, WTF is a cheese cloth, so I used a paper towel.

Now the only thing to do is sit back and wait for nature to take over.  The mixture “likes warmth,” which is convenient, as my landlord keeps my Brooklyn apartment steadily tropical through the winter.  Those bubbles you see on top of the final brew disappeared by the second day, and I worried that I had inadvertently killed the mother.  But they reappeared a few days later, and little by little they effervesced into a new layer of SCOBY, a baby layer I guess, which can be peeled off and used as the mother in the next batch that I brew.

Finally, since this is a wellness blog, I would be remiss in not mentioning this: since kombucha comes about a result of fermentation, there is a very small amount of alcohol in the final product.  If you’re looking to cut alcohol out of your life entirely, home-brewing kombucha may not be for you, although you could probably find an alcohol-free brand in health food stores.  You can read more about the alcohol content in kombucha (and how to limit it) here.

And that’s it.  That is literally everything I know about kombucha.  I shall check back in a week or so to report how my first brew came out.  In the meantime, I’m off to go watch my mother bubble.

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