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Continuous brew! the way of the ancients!

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.

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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.

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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 +