Are You My Mother? Musings on SCOBY Reformulation

In light of the recent voluntary recall, I decided to check in with my good buddy and Kombucha expert, Ed Kasper, the Happy Herbalist.

I met him back in ’07 when he was residing in Santa Cruz.  These days he has been quite busy working on reformulation.  Here are some of his thoughts.  Take it away, Ed!

When the alcohol level exceeds 0.5%,  then I think it should be called Kombucha Beer. If it contained higher amounts of alcohol, it could be considered Kombucha Wine. However, we should consider Kombucha Tea (KT) as the traditional fermented non-alcohol brew.

The removal of alcohol, as in the production of non-alcohol wines, is considered expensive even for those in the beer and wine industry. There is a better option:  choose which yeasts to use in the fermentation process & eliminate other “foreign” yeasts that contribute to the increased alcohol production.

Those in the beer & wine industry are already aware of using yeast to their advantage.  These “innovations” will really kick kombucha out of the basement and into the realm of micro-brewer.

A box kit for creating your own microbrewery.

If we limit the kombucha yeasts to aerobic non-Saccharomyces yeasts, we can create the Custer effect. This is an  inhibition of alcoholic fermentation by the absence of oxygen.

Initially we want higher amounts of oxygen to produce some alcohol and lots of carbonation and in order for the bacteria to become over-achievers . Then, when the pH drops to the proper level, we bottle and cap – without an airspace.

The low pH and lack of oxygen diminishes both the bacteria and the yeasts; as will refrigeration. A raw, live, healthy probiotic ferment remains. Even with a temperature increase, the fermentation should not continue. However, the fermentation process will resume once the bottle is opened at room temperature.

A photograph of Brettanomyces Yeast shows their rodlike shape.
Brettanomyces Yeast

Fortunately kombucha has already been associated with several aerobic yeasts. We may already have these in our brews  (We would just have to eliminate the Saccharomyces). We should get to know our yeasts.  Some potential candidates include:  Brettanomyce Dekkera, Saccharomycodes ludwigii, Torulaspora delbrueckii, Zygosaccharomyce, Schizosaccharomyce, and Pichia spp.  My personal preferences would be Torulaspora delbrueckii and Brettanomyce,which are pretty common and readily available.
Nicely, each of these yeasts have special characteristics associated with them. Just as our brethren in the beer and wine world create special ferments by picking and choosing which yeast to use, so can those of us in the kombucha brewing world.

As we should know our yeasts, we should also not forget our bacteria. When we study other native folk ferments, we run across lactobacillus. These bacteria are extremely beneficial but not in bottled kombucha. The hetero-lactobacillus strains produce lactic acid, acetic acid, carbonation and alcohol which sounds exactly like kombucha, but its missing the glucronic acid.

A photograph of lactobacillus-brevis.

Lactobacillus ferments in lower and/or higher temperatures than our kombucha gluconbacteria. It feeds on sugar and tea, and the danger here for bottlers – is that LAB produces more alcohol when bottled, whereas the glucronbacteria decrease the alcohol.

a kid from the 50's plays with his chemistry set.
Probably not Ed Kasper, but anything is possible.

Whew!  Time to get out the chemistry set and start experimenting.  Here is the latest update from UNFI – the “leading independent national distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods and related products,” the organization that initiated the recall in the first place. [press release deleted]

UNFI says…

Are manufacturers planning to pasteurize reformulated product in order to meet labeling requirements?

This is a common concern of retailers. Although UNFI doesn’t have control over how manufacturers approach the reformulation process, we’ve not heard that pasteurization is a planned part of their reformulation strategy. The most common planned changes UNFI has been made aware of include:

1. Reducing sugar content – Sugar acts as a catalyst of the fermentation process, and the higher the sugar level, the higher the resulting alcohol level of the product.

2. Reducing shelf life – The fermentation process continues after the product is manufactured/bottled. By reducing the shelf life, suppliers reduce exposure to additional fermentation time during which the alcohol content continues to rise.

Anyone with half a Kombucha brain knows that pasteurization renders the beverage pointless.  With GT’s Synergy poised to hit shelves this month, I think we can all release a sigh of relief and know that Kombucha is here to stay!

Moreover, I think we may see more alcoholic Kombucha offerings such as Lambrucha in the near future.

The logo for Lambrucha, a Belgian-style Lambic (unblended) ale mixed with Kombucha Tea, made by Vanberg & DeWulf in Cooperstown, NY.
Lambrucha is a a Belgian-style ale mixed with Kombucha Tea

In lieu of Kombucha, what have you been drinking??

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