Kombucha Brewing Problems: Dehydrated and Refrigerated SCOBYs

If you missed yesterday’s post on why growing your own SCOBY from a
bottle of Kombucha is not a recommended practice anymore, please click here.
Dehydrated is not best for water, humans, or a SCOBY
Dehydrated is not best for water...or SCOBY

I love what Kombucha does for my daily life, as a living food, a message to spread and a path to empowerment.

One of the critical tenets we hold here at Kombucha Kamp is that ALL Kombucha is good. With the uphill battle we face in so many areas of nutrition and public policy, all of us must be united in delivering this hopeful message that change is possible, one diet and one healthy, repopulated gut at a time.

Still, there are basic truths regarding any food preparation that apply in the extreme to Kombucha and particularly the SCOBY.

Because you are dealing with a LIVING ingredient, it will require certain conditions to produce the kind of quality beverage any homebrewer wants when they make their own Kombucha.

After all, you are making Kombucha at home because you are conscious about your health and want to have access to a better alternative to sodas, coffee and other sugary drinks. So then it only makes sense to use the best possible ingredients to make your Kombucha.

We’ve covered Tea, Sugar (twice!) and even Water. But what about the SCOBY?

We discussed in yesterday’s post why growing your own Kombucha SCOBY can be difficult and even deceptive following the reformulation.

However, there are two other Golden Rules we are yet to cover. Let’s review.

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.

Kombucha SCOBYs From The Refrigerator

Never store Kombucha SCOBY cultures in the refrigerator
No SCOBYs in the Fridge!

The most harmful widespread piece of misinformation that exists about Kombucha today is that SCOBYs can or even should be stored in the refrigerator.

Perhaps rooted in our society’s deep disconnection from the concept of fermentation, this nasty nugget of unwisdom is passed around from well-meaning brewer to brewer as a tip for storing cultures, often with the caveat of “So they won’t rot,” or “It puts them to sleep.”

People mean to be helpful, but really this is terrible for the cultures. Kombucha never “goes bad.” In fact, storing them at such cold temperatures may cause more harm than good.

Instead, they should be stored at room temperature in a SCOBY Hotel, in a dark dry place out of the way. They will “sleep” in the jar and only “wake up” when you add sweet tea to keep them wet or decide to use one of them to brew.

What is so bad about the fridge? In one word: mold. The cultures do not like the cold temperatures of the fridge and all the living things that protect the brew from invasion go into a deep sleep.

Sometimes, if they haven’t been stored for too long, the cultures will brew alright. However experienced brewers report the first few batches are flat and not particularly great tasting. After a few batches, the culture may regain it’s strength.

Dehydrated Kombucha SCOBYs and Kombucha Cultures that have been stored in the refrigerator most often create mold during brewing.
Brazil shows how badly it goes from the fridge.

Just as common however, the brewer encounters mold. A strange, as yet unexplained, fact: mold often occurs during the second batch brew, not the first, after removing the culture from the fridge.

Why it skips a batch before molding is unclear, but it happens regularly. While it may be possible to have success with a culture that has been in the fridge, more people report that they have problems getting it to ferment properly.

Here is a recent post from a Brazilian Kombucha blog showing their experiments using cultures that had been stored in the fridge (the page has been translated by Google).

After a period of almost 600 days, the colonies had a darker aspect. Some were very thick and a few still remained with the light color. All without exception had a look healthy, although they apparently were not producing gases which concluded on the basis of the cover will not even be stuffed, as it normally would.

So they looked okay, or had been mostly preserved in appearance, yet they were inactive. That sounds like they would brew up just fine, or at least appear as though they would to an inexperienced brewer.

The results? One culture did nothing, the other two got mold. Three tries, all failures. The cultures produced mold because they lacked their innate ability to protect themselves from invading micro-organisms.

Dehydrated Kombucha SCOBYs – Life Without Water?

Less common but just as ineffective are dehydrated Kombucha cultures. The issues are the same only this time, the living things that protect from mold are too weak from dehydration, rather than cold, to protect the Kombucha.

Dehydrated Kombucha SCOBYs and Kombucha Cultures that have been stored in the refrigerator most often create mold during brewing.
#2 has more action...and more disastrous mold too.

The additional problem with dehydrated Kombucha cultures is that they require a process of rehydration that can take up to 6 weeks to complete, and that’s before even attempting the first batch.

Once rehydrated, they follow a similar pattern as those stored in the fridge, exhibiting mold after either the first or second batches in many cases, and producing a less “vibrant tasting” Kombucha that is sour and flat.

It makes sense right? If water is the basis of all life, and we want to make a living beverage, why would we start with something that’s supposed to be alive, but has no water in it? Again, we only need to use common sense here to understand that hydrated cultures are better for starting Kombucha, and when the experience of brewers worldwide is factored in, the case is clear.

Whenever I receive an e-mail (from non-clients) that someone has gotten mold, the first question I ask is “Was your culture dehydrated or stored in the refrigerator?” At least 9 times out of 10, the answer is, “Yes.”

Moreover, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, new brewers blame themselves for the failure, with no idea that they have received bad advice and a bad culture. (I confess that part of the reason for writing this post is to have a place to send these poor folks who don’t understand why their brew didn’t work out and I won’t have to type as much everytime! :) )

Mold is one of the incurable problems of Kombucha – which is why we keep a SCOBY Hotel in the first place, for just in case. When embarking on the rewarding journey of brewing Kombucha at home, I recommend that you obtain a quality culture from a trusted source, be it a friend or seller.

A dehydrated Kombucha SCOBY makes a great doggy chew toy, but a terrible brewing culture
A dehydrated SCOBY makes a great doggy chew toy, but a terrible brewing culture

But first, ask them where they got their culture, how it’s been stored and how long it’s been since they used that culture. Never assume anything when purchasing a culture.

There are sellers who offer silver dollar sized or even test tube sized cultures, and rarely does a day go by that I don’t hear from someone new who was disappointed with a sub-par culture they received from an online seller.

However, it’s not just online that you must be careful. A client (he became a client) wrote in last month with mold problems after getting his SCOBY at a farmer’s market. When I questioned, he remarked that they had stored the SCOBYs in a cooler packed with ice as they “didn’t want them to go bad” while at the market!

These are not bad people. I don’t believe they have bad intentions, but the customer pays the price anyway.

Ask before you buy or even accept as a gift an inferior culture. Make sure you are receiving at least 1 cup of starter liquid to fully protect your brew. If the answers you get don’t satisfy you, keep looking!

Start with a full size Kombucha culture that has never been compromised and you will have much greater brewing success and more delicious Kombucha than you ever imagined.

The right culture makes all the difference.

“Know before you Grow!”

 

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Responses to Kombucha Brewing Problems: Dehydrated and Refrigerated SCOBYs

  1. okay are you going to tell us what a scoby hotel is?? Is it just a jar?? I just got a scoby and put it in the fridge cuz I thought that was what you’re supposed to do and cuz I dont have a brew vessel at this moment.. Darn it I am getting frustrated already… I have even brewed any… I wanted to try home brew cuz the stuff from the store was way sour and my kids wouldnt touch it.

    • I just read, on another website that you can use white or apple cider vinegar to replace the actual kombucha, if you don’t have enough from your previous batch, or this is your first batch. 1/2 cup per quart, I think she said.

      • While distilled or pasteurized vinegar may be used IN A PINCH, it does not contain any living bacteria to support the culture – it simply acidifies the liquid to help prevent mold. Many find when they use vinegar that it doesn’t taste as good as when they use Kombucha for the starter liquid.

        RAW vinegar has its own colony of bacteria and yeast that could compete with the organisms in your SCOBY. For that reason, we do not advise using raw vinegar as starter. It may also lead vinegar eels.

  2. […] Since Kombucha is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (aka SCOBY), both the health of the yeast and bacteria must be considered. Yeast are more temperature sensitive than the bacteria which means maintaining the proper range is important. If you have ever baked bread, then you would have noticed that on the back of the yeast package, it recommends using lukewarm water. If the temperature is too hot, then you could kill your yeast. If the temperature is too cold, then the culture is inhibited from using its natural defenses which is why storing extra cultures in the fridge is not recommended. […]

  3. I opened this page and read info 100% contrary to what I have learned. Hopefully my extra scobys that have been in the refrigerator a month + will survive. They look ok; do I feed them sweet tea, then try a batch? I live in Costa Rica with temps mostly 80 – 95 — still best to store scoby out of the fridg? Thanks

    • They may revive, especially in that heat. Many inexperienced brewers simply don’t have the patience to see if they will come back. Sometimes it may take a few batch cycles before they do (sometimes only 1!) and other times, they simply do not revive or may molder. Best to store them at room temp and feed sweet tea from time to time so they don’t lose all of their liquid.

  4. I was told that it will pickle itself over time from the vinegar and that is why we should refrigerate so that the process is slowed. 2 chefs taught this probiotics class and used molasses with white sugar boiled with loose tea cut from bags. I refrigerated the sample for 5 days before making sweet tea. I let the sample get to room temp first for a few hours. Its been 3 days now and the sunk culture moved everyday and is partly on top now. Should I add distilled vinegar to be safe? I don’t have a pH meter or 80° temp. It’s about 60°. There’s growth but no bubbling. Unsure?

  5. Interesting info, although I wanted to share that I have had excellent experience w SOCBYS that have been refrigerated (one I revived after almost 2 years of refrigeration) and it revived beautifully, no mold. The only time I go mold was when I got a little greedy and drew off more than my share of my continuous brew and since there was not enough KT left when I added in the tea it grew mold :/ rookie mistake after too much confidence brewing delicious KT for 3 years! Gotta stay humble ;)

    I will store an additional SCOBY in your suggested “hotel” and see how it compares to my refrigerated ones :)

    • Glad to hear yours brewed up successfully. Some SCOBYs will revive after being stored in the fridge, but it can be hit or miss so we generally recommend against it as the culture prefers warmer temps.

    • I have refrigerated skobies from the start. Of course they don’t “like” cold temps and will go dormant. They have less self protecting capability at these temps but also are inherently more protected at the low temp because competing organisms also don’t like the cold. Yeast also does not like low temp but yeast cultures for brewing have to be refrigerated. OK what I just indicated does not mean I’m right. I bring out the skobie from refrigeration well ahead of using it to reduce temperature shock the same as I would do will a yeast culture for beer. I have never had mold. I will (unless convinced otherwise) continue to refrigerate with some of the current batch starter which gives it a good nutrient rich environment. I do need to improve some aspects of my skobie maintenance and may need to allow some addition reduction in pH prior to refrigeration to make sure the starter is potent enough (depending on how long I let the batch ferment). Bob

      • The information on this site is intended for use by everyone. Most folks are novice brewers and may not have the patience to endure moldy batches or the experience to know what to do if the culture doesn’t behave as intended. If your experience is different and successful, then Happy Brewing Bob!

    • Jun is a lacto cousin of Kombucha. Though the pellicle looks the same, it feeds on green tea and raw honey. We will have them up soon. If you want one, pls order a kefir grain and write “jun” in the notes.

  6. Ms Hannah, Is there a time-limit for SCOBY hotels? How long can they stay in the hotel? I have a large amount of SCOBYs in a large hotel. The kt they’re sleeping in has become a strong vinegar. Is there a point that they will suffer without fresh caffeine/sugar? Thanks!

    • Terrific question Cyndi! I need to make a SCOBY Hotel Maintenance Video. Basically, every few months, as you notice the yeast build up on the bottom of the jar, that means its time to clean out the SCOBY Hotel. To do that, remove the cultures to a new jar/bowl and keep them covered. Then strain the liquid in the jar to remove the excess yeast. You may want to run that jar through the dishwasher or give it a thorough cleaning. Then re-set up the hotel with some fresh sweet tea to keep the SCOBYs happy!

  7. Thank you for the article! I made my own SCOBY a year ago, no bad batches and lots of babies. It’s been going great. Now, my family and I will be moving to Botswana, Africa in 6 weeks to stay for two years. I don’t want to leave my beloved babies behind. How do I travel with them safely on the airplane?

  8. When I made my last brew of kombucha I forgot to add the sugar. I used green tea. But of course after a whole week when I checked it, the mother was still on the bottom and there was no fermentation. Is my scobie still alive? I think I will make another batch with fresh tea and see what happens. Would appreciate some feedback on this? Will the “tea be safe?”

    • You can go ahead and add sugar to this batch to see if it will ferment or simply reuse the SCOBY in a fresh batch of sweet tea. If you have no starter liquid, you may use 1 cup of DISTILLED vinegar (no raw vinegar) as starter for the first batch. It isn’t ideal but it will protect the brew from mold in the early, vulnerable stage.

  9. Hi * I wish I would have read your article BEFORE storing my scoby in the refrigerator : | I had read somewhere that it would be ok to store in refrigerator as I was going through the process of moving…after getting settled into my new home i tried to revive. My first batch did not reproduce…I am trying again….about 5 days in and see no new growth…..
    What would you suggest?
    Did I kill my scoby? :(

    Thanks much *

  10. My friend just gave me a kombucha that was frozen for 3 days. I want to try it out. What are the steps. Un freeze the kombucha in water or alone in glass?

    I know the Article said the first 3 batches will be bad. But I want to try it out

    • We don’t recommend long term cold storage of Kombucha as it may be difficult to revive. To give it a try, let the SCOBY come back to room temp, then give it another 12-24 hours at room temp. Then brew as normal. If you get mold in the first batch, just throw everything away. If you don’t get mold, but don’t get Kombucha, then throw the contents of the batch out (except for 1-2cups of starter liquid) and give it another try. If it doesn’t revive within 3 batches, then start with a fresh culture.

  11. I took a baby SCOBY out and placed it in a glass jar with mature kombucha to give to a friend. My well-intentioned husband saw it and assumed it was something that needed to be refrigerated.

    It was in there for an hour before I noticed it and pulled it back out. It was definitely chilled. Do you think it will still be ok to give to my friend?

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