Guest Posting: Kombucha 101 – SCOBY, by Tadeusz Zagrabinski

In this Kombucha 101 series, Tadeusz writes about the importance of all of the individual ingredients that are traditionally used to make kombucha. The first part discussed tea. The second part described the varieties of sweeteners. The third part discussed water. In this part he discusses the SCOBY.

The fourth and final ingredient that helps transform the sweetened tea into kombucha – kombucha culture AKA kombucha SCOBY.

SCOBY is an acronym for kombucha culture. It comes from the first letters of Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast.  It is a relatively modern name that was created by an “avid kombucha brewer Len Porzio.”

It is actually a much better alternative to all other names used before. Some of those names were taken from drinks that had nothing to do with kombucha (see Kargasok Tea as one of the examples). Other names were simply incorrect, like “Tea Mushroom.”

So SCOBY (*) or kombucha culture seems to be widely accepted these days, and that’s what we will use in this blog entry.

So what exactly is this symbiotic colony?

“In its most common form, SCOBY is a gelatinous, cellulose-based biofilm  or microbial mat found floating at the container’s air-liquid interface.  This bacterial cellulose mat is sometimes called a pellicle.”

And also, this “SCOBY…is formed after the completion of a unique fermentation process of lactic acid bacteria (LAB), acetic acid bacteria (AAB), and yeast.”

Both quotes come from Wikipedia.

Those who are interested in SCOBY composition in detail can check out this published article on MDPI titled “Microbial Composition of SCOBY Starter Cultures Used by Commercial Kombucha Brewers in North America.”

For those who do not need all those details, SCOBY (Scoby) is a culture that helps transform freshly brewed and sweetened tea into a delicious and probiotic drink called kombucha.

Kombucha culture was synonymous with the kombucha drink for a long time. People were actually confusing those two by calling either one of them kombucha.

The culture was also treasured as it was the symbol of something special.

It was mysterious, it was alive, and it was thought to have originated somewhere in the Far East, either in China or Japan, which added even more mystery to this strange-looking thing.

At the beginning of the 20th century, kombucha culture was thought to be some kind of sea creature or something that came out of a river. 

At the same time, it was also something that could be shared or given to other people.

Almost like a mysterious plant or a pet.

In 1950s in Italy, kombucha culture reached such a cult status that it was considered to bring misfortune on a household if someone threw the culture away.

In other countries it was forbidden to sell the culture for profit. As it was only meant to be shared.

So, throughout many, many years, kombucha culture had a special status.

And it still does for all the kombucha home brewers and for many commercial brewers as well.

But times are changing, and there is an increasing number of commercial brewers that don’t use this cellulose pellicle. Many of them say that it is not needed to make kombucha, as they use a strong starter liquid which they call liquid Scoby.

This change came with the commercialization of kombucha. And when that happens, the underlying causes lie in ease of production, in time-saving, and obviously in cost-cutting.

Also, some other kombucha producers (probably a better word than kombucha brewers) use the so-called kombucha concentrate (or even kombucha powder). In such a case, they just dilute this concentrate and mix it with flavors. And within a couple of days, they have their product ready.

Obviously, there is no traditional brewing going on here.

Those who opted for the so-called liquid Scoby use that stronger starter liquid mixed with freshly brewed and sweetened tea. Then, they ferment this mixture to the desired parameters (like the right amount of sugar, right acidity, proper alcohol levels, etc.).

Next, their product is flavored, filtered, and force-carbonated.

There can actually be a few more processes involved, but we’ll not go into details about those methods of production. In the end, they end up with a product that resembles kombucha.

I wrote “resembles” as it is not the same kombucha that has been made at home for the past one hundred years. It is a changed product, like anything else that is commercially produced.

Especially when it’s mass-produced.

Obviously, there are many smaller commercial kombucha brewers who still use Scobies, and they still try to preserve the true essence of this drink.

If you want to find out more about small-scale and large-scale produced kombucha, go check out our blog entry: Real Kombucha

We, on the other hand, LOVE using the Scoby. We find using it very rewarding and even sexy.

One more thing to keep in mind – in many countries, the culture is also called the Mother (or even Mommy). That also shows how special this culture is for those who use it.

For us, kombucha produced without the Scoby is like a child from a test tube produced in a lab.

No love making, no real mother, just something from a sterile and cold environment.

But it is not our place to judge those other methods.

We like the traditional ones, and these traditional methods include the use of this cellulose pellicle. Just like it was done for centuries.

At least the last two centuries.

If this solid culture/pellicle was not needed, it would not form on top of the fermenting kombucha liquid. And since it does, there must be good reasons why it is forming there.

So what is the purpose for this solid cellulose structure called Scoby?

It obviously helps with the transformation of the sweetened tea into a sweet and sour liquid called kombucha. And that happens thanks to the various yeasts and bacteria present inside that Scoby. It is like an intelligent engine that protects the surface of the liquid from unwanted and unneeded particles, debris, bacteria, microbes, etc.

That is why the Scoby always tries to close the surface of the container that it sits in. Even in such cases where the original Scoby sinks to the bottom, the first thing that happens is an effort to build up a new layer on top of the liquid.

Only after that new layer is strong and big enough the proper fermentation process can proceed.

As can be seen in the pic below.

Surface protection is one of culture’s tasks. Creating a seal to stop the oxygen flow for further fermentation can be the other purpose of the culture.

For us, the health of this culture will represent the health and the potency of the fermented kombucha. When the culture is strong and healthy, we know that the kombucha will be properly fermented.

Weak-looking, almost disintegrating cultures will not be able to ferment the liquid well enough and will not be able to protect kombucha from unwanted wild yeasts or other microbes.

That will result in the specific flavor of not fully fermented tea and also with additional off- flavors and off-smells.

During our travels to various kombucha breweries, we have seen such cases of weak Scobies that were disintegrating when people were trying to lift them up.

Kombucha fermented with such week cultures was simply not that good, to put it mildly.

But one should also keep in mind that there are two types of Scoby out there.

One is the working Scoby. This one might not always look pretty, but it can still be strong and will still do the right job.

Those Scobies will look tattered, they will be discolored, they will have yeasts trapped inside, and their shape and thickness will not be uniform.

Then, there are those perfectly shaped, light-colored, beautiful Scobies that are specifically grown for retail purchase. Just like the ones below.

Those Scobies never worked a day in their lives. That is why they look so perfect.

Once they start working, they will not look that perfect any more.

There’s still one more category which we call fun Scobies. Those are the Mother Nature’s creations, and they come unexpected. Still, they can bring a lot of joy.

Here’s one of them, when two separate cultures stuck together and one of them had oxygen trapped inside.

The carrot and the eyes were obviously added for a more realistic look.

We called this one an “egg-head.”

The one below was also a natural and unintended creation. This was our visual help to explain where really the baby Scobies came from.

Kombucha culture can also be of a quite different colors, depending on what other additional substances are used during the fermentation process. Here, the hibiscus flowers were used, and the Scoby got this beautiful color from their pigments.

When writing about Scobies, we cannot forget about one more specific Scoby. The Jun kombucha Scoby.

They are usually lighter in color, and they have the ability to break down with raw honey and lighter teas (like white and green teas plus some green oolongs).

They ferment the tea and honey mixture much faster than the regular kombucha, and the end result is lighter, less acidic, and more effervescent.

There’s some confusion about how to use Scobies. One of them is this:

“Do I need a different Scoby for black tea and a different one for green tea?”

In our extensive experience, we never had a problem switching Scobies between different teas.

We do it all the time. As a matter of fact, those Scobies ferment better when they are not restricted to one type of tea only.

That brings us to those different types of Scobies that some people swear by, like Heirloom, Tibetan, or Big Island Scoby. In our opinion, they are more like a sales gimmick than a real thing.

Yes, originally, they can seem different, and with their first brews, they can yield some different results (as they are used for specific types of tea, like Puerh in Tibetan Scoby), but when their environment is changed, their composition will also change and with time they will become regular Scobies.

We experienced that with a Scoby that we received from Ireland. Those Irish Scobies, due to specific conditions out there, have a higher amount of Lactobacillus bacteria.

It did get a bit different results the first few times when we used that Scoby compared to our regular Scobies. But later, with time, it started to give exactly the same way as our other Scobies. 

Before we move to other ways that Scobies can be used, we should also explain one name that is used in association with Scobies: Scoby Hotel.

Scoby Hotel is an additional container in which extra Scobies are stored or Scobies that are on a break from fermenting. For instance, when someone goes on vacation or when someone is taking a break from kombucha brewing.

Here’s a vintage pic of our Hotels from around six years ago.

So in such a hotel, Scobies will sit in a liquid. This liquid could be some of the unused kombucha or (preferably) some darker tea and sugar. The liquid will provide the nourishment for the culture, so it can survive the idle time.

Scoby Hotel, that is kept well covered, with enough liquid, is the best method of keeping Scobies.

It should be kept at room temperature, and it should not be refrigerated as  was wrongly recommended in many books written in the nineties.

Refrigeration can lead to deactivation of some yeasts and even to some yeast die-offs. That will change the composition, and the vitality of the Scoby, and that Scoby might not be able to properly ferment future Kombucha.

Obviously, as mentioned before, Scoby alone is not enough to start the proper fermentation process. Scobies are sold with a starter liquid. This liquid is of equal importance as the cellulose culture itself.

The purpose of that starter is to bring down the pH level of the freshly brewed and sweetened tea. It also provides additional yeast and bacteria.

That is why, when people do not use the right amount of starter liquid or when that liquid is too weak, the proper process of fermentation does not start as it should. That usually leads to other problems like Kahm yeast formation or even mold.

Scobies can also be used in things other than kombucha.

Some people cut them up in pieces and make candies out of them. Some make fruit leather with pureed Scobies. Still, other people use them as feed for chickens and other animals.

They also make great garden compost.

That’s how we use them. Old Scobies enrich the soil in our backyard herb and flower garden.

And so do the spent tea leaves.

We make a face mask out of our Chaga Scobies.

Those Scobies pick up melanin that is naturally present in Chaga, and we used them pureed and mixed with Bentonite clay for an exquisite spa experience.

Scobies are also used to produce Vegan leather and some gorgeous jewelry.

Here are just one of the wonderful creations of Sacha Laurin from the US.

A dress made out of Scoby.

And here’s a sign that we made with a dehydrated Scoby a while back.

So, the use of Scobies will only be limited by one’s imagination.

As a summary, here’s our favorite saying about Scobies that we use:

“Big or small, we LOVE them all.”

Fermentation processes and fermentation vessels will be next!

(*) by SCOBY or kombucha culture, I obviously mean both, the cellulose pellicle and the starter liquid, as both are equally important for the fermentation process.

This article is from Tadeusz’s Bärbucha Kombucha blog and appears here with his express permission.

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