Brewing kombucha

For most of human history, bread has been made with sourdough. Archeologists have excavated breadth dates from 3700 BCE, but the origin of sourdough fermentation likely relates to the origin of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent several thousand years earlier. The use of modern baker’s yeast has only been around for about 150 years. Sourdough starters have been passed on from generation to generation and kept alive through multiple bakers in many different settings.

Modern baker’s yeast is a byproduct of the process of brewing beer and is very consistent in its makeup and in the results for baking. It works best with wheat breads and other recipes with plenty of gluten. A bread made of pure rye doesn’t have enough gluten to rise with baker’s yeast. Sourdough is the solution for an authentic heavy dark rye bread.

I used to keep an active sourdough starter going and used it for pancakes and biscuits as well as bread baking. But somewhere along the line, the need to regularly tend the sourdough led me to give up on it. It is simply easier to grab a packet of yeast from the store shelves when I want to bake bread. These days I don’t bake most of the4 bread that we consume, but rather purchase bread from the bakery most of the time.

I do, however, have a couple of cultures of living bacteria and yeast growing in my home. My on again/off again practice of making yogurt is on again. It really is a very simple process to make yogurt and I’m fairly proficient at producing batches that match our consumption.

I also returned from our sabbatical with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) for making kombucha. I’d tasted kombucha before, but this summer, our daughter-in-law was experimenting with the tea beverage and I found it to be refreshing at the end of a hot summer day. She equipped me with my own jar of SCOBY and I’ve got a batch that is just about ready for a short second fermentation. I may only produce vinegar, but the goal is a fermented tea. You start with sweet tea and the yeast and bacteria turn the sugars into alcohol and carbonation. The goal is to produce a beverage that is only slightly alcoholic, but is effervescent. The instructions make it sound easy, but I don’t have enough experience to know yet how much nuance is required.

Some claim that kombucha has health benefits, but not many of those claims have been verified. It appears that the practice of making kombucha originated a couple of hundred years ago in eastern Russia, although its roots may be much older than that. It has become popular in the United States in the past few years.

To make matters more confusing, the kombucha that I am brewing in my basement is a different beverage than the Japanese drink konbu-cha, which is mead from dried seaweed and sometimes known as kelp tea.

The kombucha sold commercially is less than 5% alcohol, the threshold at which a beverage falls under federal regulation in the United States. Commercial brewers regularly test the alcohol content of their beverages to make sure that they comply with this requirement. I’m nowhere near that sophisticated with my gallon jar of sweet tea that has a mushroom of SCOBY floating at the top. It smells like vinegar to me. According to the instructions I received, I’ll remove the liquid tea in a couple of days and bottle it for a week’s second fermentation before drinking it.

I’m only mildly frightened of the possibility of some kind of disaster such as occurred to one of my friends who, when brewing his own beer, capped bottles that built up too much pressure and burst creating a substantial mess to clean up.

I really don’t need a new hobby and I’m not sure how I let myself get talked into taking possession of the SCOBY, but now that I’ve transported it from Washington to South Dakota I do feel some obligation to give it a try.

We like to think of ourselves as independent individuals, but a human body really is a community of many different living organisms. We rely on cultures of bacteria to keep our digestion functioning properly. Even some parasites render benefits to us while others live within us without causing any apparent effects. Life emerges in the context of other life and complex forms of life such as we are are always surrounded by other forms of life.

In the second chapter of Genesis there is the story of the Garden of Eden and of God’s creation of Adam. In that story, God observed, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” What follows is a flurry of creation of animals and birds. There is no suitable partner for the man among all of the creatures that are made, however. Finally God causes the man to sleep and takes one side of the man to create a woman. The ancients understood that a human living alone and in isolation is not healthy or desirable. We are, from the beginning of time, created for relationship with others. Our relationships with other creatures many be significant, but they are, in a sense, insufficient. We need other humans to complete our identity and to give meaning to our lives.

I don’t intend to be the custodian of the SCOBY for the rest of my life. I’m already thinking of others to whom I can pass on the culture so that I won’t feel too guilty when I allow my portion to move out into the compost pile and reclaim my basement for other activities than brewing. I can go to the store and purchase beverages when I need them and there truly is nothing that is more refreshing than water when one is really hot and tired.

For a while, however, I’m trying to care for the SCOBY and hoping to taste some palatable results from the process. Who knows? I may even produce something worth sharing with family and friends.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!