Friday, September 2, 2011

Hooked on the 'Buch

That would be 'buch as in "kombucha." Which is a fizzy, tart, mildly-fermented tea that was all the rage in China and Eastern Europe for centuries before landing squarely with the natural foodists and hipsters in the last few decades. What, you haven't heard of it? Trust me, you will.

People can get pretty evangelical about kombucha. They'll tell you that it strengthens your immune system, aids digestion, cures the common cold, makes your hair shinier, and graces you with feelings of bliss and tenderness toward your fellow human beings. They'll encourage you to drink it at least once a day for maximum benefit, and then they'll pour you a glass right then and there.

That may all very well be true, but I just think it tastes good. To me, it has the tart freshness of good apple cider with an edge of mild sweetness and an underbelly of earthier spice flavors. The actual tea-flavor fades into the background, and the fizziness makes it seem more like drinking very tasty soda or mild-flavored beer. It actually reminds me a lot of a Belgian lambic or gueuze, minus the alcohol. (Though, yes, kombucha does have a wee drop of alcohol after it's done fermenting. Shhh!)

My market research for the kombucha chapter in my brewing book has rapidly taken on a life of its own, such that I have moved up the schedule on developing those recipes so as to curb the constant flow of pennies from my pocket to GT's Synergy Kombucha HQ.
Kombucha Mothering
Step #1 has been to grow my kombucha mother, or SCOBY (short for "Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast." Poetic, right?). The mother is responsible for making the magic happen in that bottle of kombucha, kind of a like a sourdough starter for sourdough bread. It looks like a wobbly flat pancake and has the consistency of fresh squid. Yum!

You can order fully-formed kombucha mothers online or beg them from a kombucha-brewing friend, but it's also pretty straight-forward to grow your own. You just need one last $3.50 bottle of GT's Synergy Kombucha and a batch of extra-sweet tea. GT's is a raw kombucha, which means that it still contains the live bacteria and yeasts used for brewing the kombucha (you can actually see them in the form of that little blobby thing awkwardly hanging out in the bottom of the bottle). With new food in the form of sugar, those bacteria and yeasts will gradually come together in a new SCOBY.
For the first few days, nothing happened. The jars of sweet tea sitting on my counter looked like...jars of sweet tea. Because I am a worrier, I worried. I fretted. I hovered. I had the following conversation with a kombucha-brewing friend over Facebook:
Me: So I'm in the middle of Day 3 of starting my own kombucha mother and don't see anything happening yet. Do you think I did something wrong? Or should I just sit tight and stop being so impatient?
Her: You need to give it somewhere between 7-14 days for the scoby to form. Cover it with a breathable cloth and put it out of your sight (and the light :).
Me: Yup, it's covered with a cloth and out of the light. So...I guess what you're saying is....I just need to sit tight and stop hovering.
And then, right around Day #6, it started doing stuff! And y'all....I'm not going to's "stuff" looks pretty gross. Like a primordial swamp in my Mason jar. Take a look at this thing around Day #8:
Who would ever think this could make delicious brews? Not me.

But I have faith. Faith that this swamp of bacteria and yeast will come together into a squid-textured pancake that will mother my sweet tea into tasty bliss-gracing kombucha. Will it work? Will Emma finally kick the GT habit and successfully complete a chapter of her book? Who knows what evil lurks in the jars of brewed teas? The Shadow knows... [cue music...fade to black...and end scene.]


  1. I heard about this stuff on NPA a few years back. You brew beer too? You could use one of your air locks to prevent infection. Id be scared to drink something that has been fermenting under a sheet.

    1. Hope you learned by now that the SCOBY needs air circulation to grow otherwise no fermentation will happen. Hence the "sheet"

  2. Huh! Now there's an idea! I'll give it a try and see how it goes. Thanks, dp!

  3. haha, wait, having scum in your tea turn in to a fresh squid in your tea is progress??

    I've heard lots of people mention kombucha, but didn't really know what it was, I might have to give it a try. Think they have some at Trader Joes? And shouldn't GT's not give away their secret ingrediant... suckers.

  4. After reading your post and viewing your graphic photos my desire to try this have greatly diminished. By the time I come out to CA for a visit, perhaps the memories will have faded and you will be able to get me to lie back, relax, and drink kombucha. An advantage of being of the older age category is one forgets easily. So,brew it up and I'll be out!

  5. I'm not a big fan of kombucha but not because of the scoby or scum or bacteria which is perfectly safe. I've made it myself and had it from others and it just tastes like cider vinegar which I'm not a fan of. I'm totally fascinated by the formation of the scoby though. It's absolutely fantastic how hard bacteria and yeast work for us in our food.