Growing A Kombucha Culture: Pitfalls and Problems Since the Reformulation

Not every Kombucha SCOBY is this thick and creamy white, but they don't have to be to produce delicious  homemade Kombucha.The Kombucha SCOBY culture is a hardy organism and, when cared for correctly, can provide a lifetime of Kombucha through the generations of babies it will produce.

Kombucha’s natural abundance is a blessing that has driven Kombucha’s popularity over the centuries and especially the last few decades here in the West.

In order to survive along with us dirty, messy humans, Kombucha exists at a naturally antiseptic pH (3.0 and lower is ideal – pH post coming soon) to fight off foreign invaders and then replicates itself within a convenient, portable disc shaped culture that can easily be passed on to others or saved for making later batches (or for tossing around at the beach! jk), a brilliant piece of evolution that makes it possible for anyone to get a culture and start brewing delicious homemade Kombucha Tea.

Of course, here come the humans to mess it up again!

See, Kombucha is a living thing, and we know that all living things have 3 basic needs: food/water, clothing and hospitable shelter (home). Yet much of the time, the SCOBYs people receive from well-meaning friends (or sadly, many commercial sites) have been deprived of one or more of these necessities.

When the brewing experience goes badly, those who are trying to make Kombucha for the first time take the blame on themselves, assume Kombucha is just too difficult or dangerous and sometimes never try to brew again or even abandon drinking Kombucha altogether.

This is the opposite result from the intention of homebrewing Kombucha, which is to empower you and open the door to other fermented foods and other traditional foods with which we have lost dietary touch.

Kombucha SCOBYs:
The Golden Rules

Never

  1. …use a refrigerator stored SCOBY to make Kombucha.
  2. …use a dehydrated SCOBY to make Kombucha.
  3. …attempt to grow a SCOBY from a commercial bottle of Kombucha that:
    • has been pasteurized
    • has been flavored
    • has been filtered or reformulated
    • says anything less than “100% Kombucha” on the label

Always

  1. …use a fresh, full-size Kombucha SCOBY to begin brewing.
  2. …store your SCOBYs in a SCOBY Hotel in a dry and dark place.
  3. …pass along healthy, fresh SCOBYs with at least 1-2 cups of mature Kombucha Tea and complete, clear instructions to ensure success. If you cannot, recommend a reputable source instead.

We’re going to focus on Never Golden Rule #3 today, then talk about rules #1 & #2 tomorrow. Yeah it’s backwards, but I’m feeling inverted today, so let’s go with it.

When Did Growing Your Own
Kombucha SCOBY Go Wrong?

It used to be the only way you could get a SCOBY was from a friend who was already making their own Kombucha. It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that store bought Kombucha even existed. For the last 15 years, Kombucha as a bottled beverage has slowly grown in popularity, though recently the explosion of brands has been dramatic.

More brands brings more drinkers, and more drinkers brings more people to brewing their own. One way people have heard to start brewing is by growing their own SCOBY from a commercial brand of Kombucha. This is appealing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it sounds fun to some people. And it can be!

However, since the Kombucha Withdrawal of 2010, and the subsequent reformulation by most brands, it is NOT a recommended way to start your first batch for reasons I will detail below. Instead, get a Kombucha SCOBY from a trusted friend or reliable seller.

(In tomorrow’s post I will talk about a few things to watch out for regarding buying a SCOBY – it is amazing how many sellers violate one of the golden rules.)

What’s In A Store Bought Kombucha Exactly?

That explosion of Kombucha brands I mentioned before is very exciting, as I believe that, far from being competition, the expansion of the Kombucha beverage market means more homebrewers and more homebrewers means more drinkers and therefore more brands on the shelf, a self perpetuating cycle not unlike Kombucha itself.

Many of these brands were started by interesting entrepreneurs from around the country, and their Kombuchas reflect their personalities, taking all shapes and forms. These products, all of which are labeled as Kombucha, are as different as the products you might find labeled as “juice” on any store shelves. These Kombucha variations include pasteurization, juice added, sugar and/or flavorings added, short versus long fermentation times, wild variations in tea and sugar recipes, just to name a few.

Even without conducting vigorous lab testing, I hope I am not being controversial when I say there is no way these products all have the same beneficial bacteria content or concentration, no way that they can all have the same yeast content or concentration, no way they can have the same sugar content or whatever other ingredients each producer has chosen. It is fair to say that one should not expect each beverage to provide the same probiotic punch or, therefore, intended health benefits, as others.

Hannah Crum, The Kombucha Mamma, with Joan Turner and Paul Sposato of Wonder Drink Kombucha at Natural Products Expo West 2011

Wonder Drink is "proudly pasteurized" as I learned from Joan Turner and Paul Sposato at the Natural Products Expo in March.

Here is where the argument gets messy.

Those who produce pasteurized beverages might say that the bacteria don’t survive your gut anyway, so pasteurization has no effect.

Those who produce a smoother tasting Kombucha may claim that the acetic bite of many traditional Kombuchas is not required for a healthy beverage and may even be less healthy due to too much acetic acid.

Those who may have changed their Kombucha since the reformulation in Summer 2010 (to remain compliant with alcohol labeling laws) may claim that they have managed their beverage through scientific means to produce a superior delivery system for their own cultivated probiotics.

As might be expected, everyone has a reason their beverage is superior.

Without millions of dollars in double blind testing, there is no good way to determine who might be right or wrong on these types of issues.

Do you have a few million to spend on this? Neither do I.

Why Growing Your Own
Kombucha SCOBY is No Longer Recommended

Let’s be clear: ANY KOMBUCHA is a good Kombucha, in my opinion, especially when compared to the beverage it replaces such as soda, 100% fruit juice (sugar bomb!), energy drinks or coffee.

Kombucha is a functional beverage and that alone makes it a better choice no matter the brand. However, it only takes common sense to realize that some of these brands would be a bad choice for attempting to grow a Kombucha SCOBY from scratch.

Growing a Kombucha SCOBY from a bottle of store bought Kombucha is not as easy as it used to be and can lead to problems.

A recently submitted reader example of growing from store bought gone wrong. Notice the dry chalky texture. This "culture" broke up when touched.

Most people can discern that a pasteurized beverage is not going to grow a SCOBY. If everything has been killed by heat up to 180 degrees, not much is likely to happen besides a bad case of mold.

Similarly, if your store bought Kombucha is mixed with a lot of fruit juice, it stands to reason that the process of making a SCOBY from that Kombucha would be compromised by sugars, oils and who knows what else, not a good environment for our SCOBY.

These attempts often grow mold or just create a funky looking thing that is clearly not a SCOBY. These are easy to identify.

(Why do they mold? Not enough bacteria and yeast to protect the brew in the critical stage before the pH drops to 3.5 or so. More mold info here.)

SCOBY Illusion?

Where it gets tricky is when the process of growing a culture LOOKS like success but is instead missing the full power of a Kombucha SCOBY, and new brewers have a very tough time telling the difference.

Since the reformulation, experienced Kombucha brewers are reporting a very different kind of Kombucha beverage resulting from “SCOBYs” they’ve grown from bottled Kombucha. The flavor is weaker, there is a greater yeast flavor and not as much “power” to the brew. In short, the cultures grown from these commercial bottles of Kombucha are not true SCOBYs. They are compromised and weaker.

As just one example, the Kombucha Kamp Facebook group recently engaged in a lively discussion about this topic.

*Note “pre-change” SCOBY means before reformulation.

Connie D’Angelo: I started my kombucha and it’s making lots of foamy stuff is it normal?? started with a bottle of kombucha rather than a scoby

Louis Small: I had a ‘pre-changed’ SCOBY and one I formed from a ‘post change’ bottle of GT’s ‘enlightened’. They brewed side by side in 2.5 gal continuous brewers. There was a noticeable difference between the two. The ‘post change’ did not seem to ferment as fast, left a sweeter brew, and had a less strong taste. So I scrapped the ‘post change’ Scoby and updated all three of my brewers to the ‘pre change’ Scoby’s.

Louis’ experience is echoed by another member of the Facebook page:

Faithful To Jesus: I have a SCOBY from a friend that is pre-change. Scoby has been in a hotel for a few years til it was sent to me. The KT it makes is different from the KT my post-SCOBY makes. I have put all of the post-change in an Rx Hotel & only use the pre-change SCOBY NOW!

These stories are coming in by e-mail and more and more I am hearing from people who are are confused as to why they are getting mold or just have a less than delicious brew with “something missing” from their Kombucha that is made from cultures they grew from a bottle.

Let me be clear once again: I am NOT saying that store bought Kombucha is no longer good for you. I buy and drink various brands regularly. All you have to do is listen to those who enthusiastically buy it by the case to know that people are still getting the Kombucha effects they are looking for.

However, in terms of growing a SCOBY from scratch, a process which has always been more difficult than brewing with a culture, these reformulated brews are not appropriately powered to start and even when they appear to be working are generally producing an inferior quality of Kombucha.

The exception: if you can find a brand of Kombucha that has the government warning label on the side and therefore contains more than .5% alcohol, you may be able to successfully grow a culture. However, most people do not have access to these bottles of Kombucha at the store and moreover, the quality of the culture and the other ingredients present in that Kombucha are unknown and vary greatly from brand to brand and even flavor to flavor. It can be very hit and miss. Instead, ask around for a starter or get a fresh, full-size Kombucha culture here.

********

Special Note: I am quite aware that someone, perhaps many people, may leave a comment saying they have grown a SCOBY successfully since the reformulation. If you are positive, that is wonderful! I am not saying it is impossible. What I am saying is the current Kombuchas readily available to people dramatically increase the risk of failure, and that even worse those who are new to brewing won’t really know if they have a full powered culture at the end of the process. Of course success is possible, but my mission is to make success easy, and in my opinion the current methods of growing your own SCOBY are not reliable.

********

Tomorrow: Golden Rules #1 & #2 explained.

 

Hannah Crum, the Kombucha Mamma!Hannah Crum is The Kombucha Mamma, founder of Kombucha Kamp, Industry Journalist & Master Brewer, educating others about Kombucha since 2004. Connect with her on Google +
Kombucha Mamma SCOBYs & Kits ship free in the US!
23 Responses to Growing A Kombucha Culture: Pitfalls and Problems Since the Reformulation
  1. Jeannie Lin via Facebook

    uh oh….i started a batch on refrigerated SCOBY….although I let it sit out for a while and combined it with a room temp scoby (a small one from another batch) to give it a boost and finally put it in very warm sweet tea. Will see if it goes as well as the other brew!

  2. Louis Small

    The SCOBY I formed from the GT’s ‘enlightened’ I noticed did taste very much like their product, but it lacked the full flavor of the ‘pre-change’ SCOBY. The SCOBY formed just fine from the GT’s and appeared healthy, but the formulation intended to minimize alcohol production is much different from the true, classic SCOBY.

  3. Jessie Wicker

    Hannah, does this mean that even if a scoby made from post-change,store-bought GT’s seems to develop normally, that the resultant KT will (possibly)NEVER have the optimal level of nutrients?

    • Never say never Jessie. It just seems from the feedback I’ve heard from other homebrewers that it doesn’t quite have the same flavor or “Kombucha feeling.” But you have to trust YOUR gut. Let it tell you if your KT is working for you.

  4. georgia

    I loved kombucha, and loved the “mama” mushroom, and the little babies, many years ago soon after the hippy generation started breaking up. I received mine from a student in my Bachelors level class in Hispanic American Culture, when a classmate gave her report on them, and shared mushrooms with anyone who was interested. After years of growing a family of kombachu, I got to busy to tend them regularly; and lost them. Picked them back up later when I saw a local ad for them; and now, after finding raw organic bottled Kombucha, and beginning cultures growing on the top; got excited and started a brew with one of them which I had babied until it was about 1/4th inch thick. I knew I couldnt get it out of the bottle if it got thicker, and put it in a cold brew of sweet tea. It makes great tasting Kombucha, yet, it is not covering the top of the jar like it should; the brew is opaque and not clear like mine was before; so I contacted a friend who grows them in a sterile atmosphere, and has them tested, and I am waiting for one to arrive now. My own culture has lost in width, and is now the thickness of one or two cultures, when it was about 5 or 6 thick. I will keep it a while, and begin again with a great scoby.

    I like to make Kombucha with black tea, and with green tea, and another with black and Rooibos for lowering blood sugars. I used to do all this in a 24′ travel trailer, and now it seems a regular house is too small for 3 independant jars; but I’m going to try. I love the taste of the “old” Kombucha that I am familiar with. The tea from the bottled organic and raw Kombucha makes a weaker taste, lots of bubbles, but not the vinegary “bite” I admire and miss so much.

    I used to put washed fresh mint in my bottles after they were finished brewing, but I still like the plain old Kombucha better.

    I had no idea there was a reformulation, and I have gotten a nice “buzz” from some of the bottles I have had recently. I do not believe I ever got a buzz in the 90′s from my own teas, even when using the third culture bought from another well known Kombucha enthusiast, which I grew and brewed with for many years. Thanks Hannah, for all the interesting information. I like my Kombucha so much, I might as well give them names when I set up each system:) I have enjoyed your information and your followers comments immensely(sp). I am still awed with your emails. I love it! georgia

  5. Hi Hannah,
    I live in a very hot humid climate. My house definitely can go above 30c 85 f in the very hot months. can I still brew during this time?
    I read that adding vinegar can help slow down the formation of yeast to give a chance for the bacteria to grow.
    Do you agree?
    Thanks for all the rich information on this website!
    Lisa (israel)

    • The KT will ferment very quickly at these temps. Monitor it closely and pull it when it starts to get sour. It may take only a couple of days! Air flow and pulling your starter from the top are the best ways to encourage the bacteria. Vinegar can help set the pH of your brewing vessel and can be used as substitute starter in a pinch. Use a distilled or pasteurized vinegar to prevent the naturally occurring bacteria from competing with your Kombucha bacteria. I’ve not observed that adding vinegar aids the bacteria in a particular way (and yes, we’ve done a lot of experiments!)

  6. angie h

    Hi, I recently obtained a scoby from a trading group. I am new and didn’t know better and stored my scoby in its juice in the refridgerator for a few days. It seems okay and I have some brewing…. Does this mean it won’t work at all? It is actually Jun not Kombucha but I know the methods are similar….Thanks!

  7. Liz

    No wonder my kombucha was taking 3 weeks in the AZ summer to ferment!
    I will be ordering!

  8. Celia

    I am moving and need to save my scoby how can I do that? Will it be safe to dehydrate them then rehydrate once settled? Please I need to know quickly. Thank you

    • No. Dehydrated SCOBYS lose too much of their defense mechanism and often go to mold. Best to store it in a SCOBY Hotel with a tight fitting lid. It may still slosh, so package it carefully so it will stay upright to minimize the mess.

  9. Lisa

    This is just a general question…I started making kombucha recently. I am making my second batch and for some reason the new scoby (about 1/4 inch thick) is about 3/4 inch above the tea line on one side. It has been about 1 week since it started brewing and I had hoped to leave it for longer (to not have it so sweet). I notice dark brown stringy stuff underneath of it. I don’t particularly remember bumping it, but can’t think of why else the mother would not be resting on the tea. Would it be dangerous for me to use this tea? I appreciate someone’s experience to help me know what to do. Thanks.

  10. leslie

    I have a scoby that was set up in a plastic container 6 months ago. It was never transferred to glass or dealt with in any way. There is a 3/8″ disk on top of the liquid. How can I know if this is still viable/salvageable or because of the conditions/neglect should be tossed?

    • leslie

      It is brown not white like the scobies you advertise.
      thanks in advance

      • Brown means that it has been in the tea for a long time. The SCOBYs will darken due to the tannins in the tea.

    • Only one way to find out if it will work – brew it up! If it goes to mold or doesn’t reproduce, then you have your answer. If you want to guarantee you will have Kombucha, then consider purchasing a fresh, live culture –> http://store.kombuchakamp.com/

  11. Judy F

    I started my continuous brew with one of your cultures, but added a bottle of the GT original (post-change) so I would have enough starter to brew 2 gallons in my container. Did I unknowingly sentence myself and husband to a lifetime of inferior kombucha?

    I’ve never had a batch go to mold, and I draw off all but a half gallon once a week, and my tea is nicely carbonated and sour within about a week at ~70F.

    How might I tell if there’s room for improvement? How should it taste in comparison to something like the GT original?

    • Sounds like everything is all good! Provided you have healthy culture growth and tasty booch, that is the most important thing!

  12. Margaret

    Hi Hannah!

    I am so excited to start brewing my own kombucha and received my SCOBY from you today. I also wanted to try to grow my own mainly out of curiosity and as a “science” project for the kids.

    Today I bought 2 bottles of GT’s Classic Original Kombucha to use. The first bottle popped when I opened it, the second however did not and as I started to pour it into the jar 4 baby scobys came out! There was no mold and they look like all the pictures I’ve seen on the internet. Do you think they are safe to use?

    Thanks!

    • It not a question of “safe to use” rather a question of what type of Kombucha do you wish to brew? Yes, you may use those SCOBYs and yes they will brew up a batch of Kombucha. However, many folks have found that for long term brewing success, Kombucha brewed from an authentic mother taste better and reproduce better over time. Of course, feel free to experiment as that is one of the fun parts of brewing Kombucha.

  13. Margaret

    Hi!

    I contacted GT and they said it was fine to use to SCOBYs I found on the Classic Komucha.

    What are your thoughts?

    Also, I started my first batch with the SCOBY I received from you 4 days ago. I checked it today and there is a thin film across the top of the vessel. Is this normal? I followed your directed you provided from brewing and cooling my sweet tea. The vessel is covered with a cotton t-shirt and secured with a rubber band. The average temp in my house is about 73.

    Thank you!

    • Our thoughts are that lactobacillus is not native to the Kombucha culture. If you want an authentic Kombucha brew, then find a culture that is acetobacter dominant.

      As for the film that grew, that is likely new culture growth. Many folks who have brewed Kombucha from GTs have found that they prefer the flavor of an authentically brewed booch more than what they can brew up from a commercial bottle, especially when it comes to successive batches. The Classic GTs hasn’t been reformulated like the Enlightened so it works a bit better than the SCOBYs from those bottles but if you read the label, you will see that other probiotics have been added which are not necessary and change the culture.

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Continuous Brew mini-FAQ

How does it work?

By changing the starting ratio from…
1 Part KT:9 Parts Starter (orignial method)
to
3 Parts KT:1 PART Starter Liquid (CB method)
…the brewing cycle is dramatically reduced (just 1-2 days to complete).

Posted in: Continuous Brew mini-FAQ

What about the Sugar?

Your colony of bacteria and yeast will be hungry and will very quickly process the small amount of sugar into mature KT.

Posted in: Continuous Brew mini-FAQ

I don’t want to take on more work.

Actually, CB results in less work.  One example: a more streamlined bottling experience, without the need to lift your brewing vessel, clean it every week or deal with the mess afterwards.

Posted in: Continuous Brew mini-FAQ

I can customize the flavor?

Sure, just drain mature KT and add starter liquid to taste.  Or for bottles, flavor as desired – no funnel, no mess!

Posted in: Continuous Brew mini-FAQ

It’s actually healthier?

So says Michael Roussin and experts worldwide.

Posted in: Continuous Brew mini-FAQ

Will I have too much Kombucha?

Not at all.  Having it on tap will change your perspective.  Plus, you’ll find friends, family and neighbors eyeing your Kombucha set-up with envy and maybe even helping themselves to a fresh glass.

Posted in: Continuous Brew mini-FAQ

Really? You’re telling me it’s fun?

Yes.  With a straight face.  It is.

Posted in: Continuous Brew mini-FAQ

I’m nervous. Is it hard?

Don’t be nervous.  You have the experience of hundreds of homebrewers backing you up in the form of my detailed instructions and maintenance plan.  You will be guided along the way.  You will save time and effort.

Posted in: Continuous Brew mini-FAQ