Saturday, March 24, 2018

Getting Started: What is a SCOBY and How to Make Your Own

There's a lot of people out there who either don't understand or don't want you to understand how easy Kombucha is to start brewing.  I saw a 30 dollar kit in a refrigerator at the Albany Co-op the other day, ironically across the isle from a series of Kombucha taps and bottles that could give you the same exact product with the exact same (or less) work for as little as 4 bucks (also, the bottle method is generally more reliable).  So how do they get away with this?  Well a lot of it stems from an incomplete understanding of and propagation of internet mythology regarding SCOBY.

SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) is often stated to be the mat that grows over a fermenting batch of Kombucha, which is an incomplete statement.  While the mat contains yeast and bacteria that contribute to the fermentation process it is mostly made up of a collagenous byproduct of the process that forms a protective seal over the top of the liquid (to keep foreign contaminants out).  The truth is any mature, non pasteurized kombucha tea can qualify as a SCOBY and serve as a starter for your brewing process.  All we need to do to make it usable is crank the microbial inhabitants into overdrive by feeding and finding them the best environment.

The recipe is pretty simple.  Take half a cup of sugar and a pint of black tea that was allowed to steep until the water goes from boiling to room temp.  Combine them with a bottle of (ideally) plain tea kombucha.  In this case plain simply refers to anything whose primary ingredient is tea.  Kombucha brewed from jasmine flowers or black tea and rose petals, for example, would still work fine but may be a bit expensive to use for this kind of purpose.

At this point you have a sugary and acidic starter.  If you have pH strips it's a good idea to make sure it's under 4.0 so you can be assured it's protected from foreign bacteria and molds.  Either way, cover it with a thin, rubber banded cloth and put it somewhere dark, well ventilated, and between 70-80 degrees.  It should be ready to use within 2-3 weeks and you should also see a healthy mat about a centimeter to an inch thick on the surface (There is a lot of variation in SCOBY mat thickness and a lot of reasons for that variation.  It almost never indicates the health of the culture itself).  All cleaning should be done with warm soapy water or distilled (NOT raw) vinegar and thoroughly rinsed and dried, all stirring is best done with stainless steel as plastic or wood usually has higher bacteria concentrations (if you don't have steel or aluminum plastic or wood is fine, it just raises your chances of mold forming a bit).

Now the reason this method is generally more reliable than buying a purpose built kit is both price, viability, and acidity.  As I mentioned before a SCOBY as part of a kit can run anywhere from 20-70 dollars depending on what it includes.  To contrast a bottle of plain kombucha will be somewhere between 2.50 and 4 dollars and a 1 gallon glass fermenting vessel along with some mason jars is another 15 or so.  That makes this a lot more accessible to people without a lot of extra money.

There are also practical concerns with bought SCOBY mats (or mushrooms).  Refrigerating a SCOBY tends to put the bacteria into stasis, so when it is put in a bacteria friendly environment foreign contaminants basically get a free day or two to take over before the SCOBY can get to work.  With the bottle method the pH is low enough to keep most contaminants from ever getting a foothold, and there's enough SCOBY to actively compete once they do wake up.  It's a lot easier for the lesser amounts in a store bought mat to get overwhelmed because they usually don't include a lot of starter tea.

In any case, now that you have some good starter it's time to scale up.  You have some options about how and I'm going to get into all the different brewing methods at a later date, but the two main options right now are whether or not you want to keep a SCOBY hotel or just get right into brewing.  For background a hotel is a jar of very strong kombucha starter (basically vinegar) that is built to provide starter for batches as well as a place for overgrown or inactive SCOBY mats to remain in storage until you want to use them.
Black tea SCOBY hotel covered with a loose cloth that is porous to air

This is a harder choice than it sounds like.  I actually opted to go without and just get started, mainly because there's an excitement factor with brewing and drinking the product that was motivating to me and a hotel would've delayed that gratification.  It also meant I wouldn't have to buy extra jars or spend money on store bought booch while I waited for the hotel to become viable, and for someone brewing and drinking on a budget that can be a big deal.  Finally, you can make a hotel at any point in the brewing process and I wanted to see if I could make something tasty enough that it was worth the time and effort before getting into all the side stuff.  In my thought process it was easier to grow and expand over time than to lay out infrastructure I didn't necessarily need.  On the other hand now that I have hotels (I keep one for every flavor profile I use), it gives me that fine tuning control over the process and extra room to fix mistakes as needed.  Your mileage and needs may vary.

In either case the process is the same.  If building a hotel just use the same extra strong tea/water ratio you used for the starter (1-1.5 ounces or 10ish bags per gallon) and a cup of plain white table sugar and let ferment in a wide mouthed glass jar with your starter for 3 weeks.  At that point you'll have a gallon of kombucha SCOBY as well as a storage space for SCOBY mushrooms that you can split or use to cook with at your leisure.

If you want to make something now and damn the torpedoes, this is when we start getting a little more technical.  What you brew and how is entirely a matter of taste and personal needs.  Personally I brew in batches because I like the flexibility to try new flavors and methods and I don't trust most spouts in such a high acid environment, but continuous brewing can be a godsend when you have limited time or you don't like waiting.  Since it's a big topic and this post is getting a bit long in the tooth, I'm going to more thoroughly explain both methods at a later date.

Hopefully this was helpful to anyone looking to get into brewing but worried about the high costs.  As always critical feedback or comments are welcomed and will be responded to in as timely a fashion as I can.

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