What is a SCOBY and why should you care?

My education on kombucha began three weeks ago at Harvest Handouts when I asked Micah how the recent workshop went.  She proceeded to tell me how simple fermenting tea was and that if I needed a SCOBY to get started, she could give me one of hers.

Instantly, I realized how little I knew.

Aside from the occasional weekly e-mail reminding F.H. Kingers of the then upcoming Kombucha workshop, I had never heard of the stuff.  Living only a half mile from Willy Street Co-op, I do the majority of my shopping there, but had never paused near the eggs and butter to read what those beautiful, colorful bottles contained.

Kombucha, I learned shortly thereafter, is sweetened tea that has been fermented using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (also known as a SCOBY).  It is then separated from the SCOBY and resealed to become carbonated.  Full of good bacteria, Kombucha is said to be good for digestion and enhancing immunity.

Finally, I bought two bottles to see what all the talk was about and though the drinks were cold, sweet and fizzy, I was not altogether impressed.  It seemed kombucha’s flavor was one that needed acquiring and I couldn’t help but wonder: if it’s just another added expense that doesn’t do anything for me, what’s the point?  As someone who makes next to nothing yet keeps racking up tuition bills, I like my drinks to be either caffeinated or alcoholic.

Then two weeks later, I was offered yet another SCOBY and began to realize that though the product can be purchased, it doesn’t need to be: in many ways, kombucha is our generation’s Amish Friendship Bread.

Throughout my childhood, Amish Friendship bread was something that came in and out of my mother’s kitchen on our farm in southern Wisconsin.  The bread takes ten days to make and requires a starter passed on from a friend.  The bread is similar to sourdough, in the sense that it requires a starter more complex than standard yeast.  Not only is a bread starter used to create bread, but it is also leftover at the end of the process.   The magic to Amish Friendship bread (before the rise of the internet) was that it could not be purchased and no one knew how to make it from scratch.  If you wanted to make the bread, a starter had to be passed on to you.

Amish Friendship bread, as I’ve been told, is more than a recipe.  It symbolizes a different way of thinking.  In a fast-paced, prepackaged world, this bread has been a way for people to connect to their food through both friendship and patience.

As I returned back to my experience with the pre-packaged Kombucha, which was certainly of superior quality, I realized why it didn’t taste as incredible as I had expected: it wasn’t made by me with a SCOBY I had received from a friend.

With no significant alcohol content, equally minimal caffeine and health benefits that are still being debated, people love Kombucha because it’s something tasty that they can make for themselves.  A friend passes on a SCOBY from their own experiments with fermented tea, and a tradition begins.  Just as we share recipes, we can share tips on which teas, containers and strategies lead to the greatest-tasting Kombucha.  Kombucha, to me, is exciting because it provides an alternative to things that come from a package.  The healthy bacterias present are simply an added bonus.

So if you’re intrigued, here’s the basics on how to make Kombucha.  And if you, like me, still need a SCOBY, just mention the word at Harvest Handouts.

1.  Bring 1 quart of water and 1 cup sugar to a boil in a saucepan.  Add 6 Tablespoons tea (you can put it in a tea ball or bag if you don’t want to strain) and let it seep 15-20 minutes until you have a dark, pretty strong tea.  Tea must be caffeinated.
2.  Strain out the leaves if necessary and put your tea in a wide-mouth gallon jar.  Olive or pickle jars (easy to get from restaurants or bars) work great for this!

3. Add filtered or distilled water almost up to the rim and let it cool to body tempurature or a bit cooler (85-95 degrees or so).
4. Add your scoby to the jar and cover with a thin cloth.  This will keep things out of your Kombucha but still allow gas exchange for the good bacterias.  Micah cut up an old t-shirt and used that to cover her Kombucha jar.

5.  Leave the mixture sit for 6 or 7 days to ferment.  There seems to be a little wiggle room in this stage.  I’ve heard that too long will turn the mixture to vinegar, but that definitely seems to take a while.  I’ve heard that 10 days is the absolute maximum while a week is ideal.

6. Remove SCOBY.

7. Put mixture into bottle(s) that can be sealed.  Seal them and let it sit for 2 or 3 days.  This is how the Kombucha gets fizzy.  You can also add fruit at this stage to alter tea flavors.

Again, I am no expert.  If you have tips that have worked for you (or if I got anything wrong), please comment below!