Friday, December 12, 2008

Kombucha, baby!

Weird? Certainly. Vegetable? Who knows. Kombucha is one strange brew, and a most divisive foodstuff. Some of my kindred food spirits (Katrina included) have been known to cringe, mime dry-heaving, and screech "Gross!" at the mere mention of the beverage. Even McSweeney's (a place where weirdness is usually warmly embraced) published this less-than-favorable report. But how can I blame folks when I freely admit that kombucha's snotty globules are something you have to get used to, and took the adjacent photo of my most recently acquired culture looking heart-like in its jar of juices?

In an effort to familiarize the skeptical, wary, and just plain averse, Kombucha is:

1) undeniably delicious (if you're like me and used to drink vinegar behind closed pantry doors as a child);

2) a mystical elixir of ancient origin that's now sold for close to $4 a bottle, its packaging often sporting claims that it may ward off cancer, keep migraines at bay, regulate digestion, and add gloss to hair;

3) sweetened green or black tea that's been fermented (meaning yeast has converted its sugars to carbonation and alcohol) and contains a low amount of sugar, live strands of bacterial culture, and a trace amount of booze.

So the culture – also called a mother, mushroom, or bladder (eew!) – that performs the fermentation is a yeast/bacteria hybrid (anyone out there want to explain the science behind this?), and resembles a gelatinous, whitish mushroom cap. The one in the photo above was folded into a jar for transport, but they're typically nearly-perfect circles with the circumference of the jar where they were birthed. Be not afraid, dear reader!

To brew the brew, you pour a large amount of tea with sugar dissolved in it into a large glass jar (mine's a 1 gallon cookie jar from IKEA). Add the culture, which will either float atop or hover in the midst of the liquid. This process can be referred to as "feeding the mother," and before you get all grossed out, note that this is also the name of a necessary step in the creation of yeasty sourdough bread–a markedly friendly, universally beloved food staple. When feeding my mother, I use mango-scented black tea and add slices of fresh ginger.

Then you cover your jar with cheesecloth or dry paper towels, secure the breathable lid with a rubber band, and let the culture devour those sugars for 7 to 12 days. During that time, the liquid will turn pleasantly sour and bubbly, and your mother will grow a new layer – about 1/8th of an inch thick – called a baby, scobie, or starter. This newly-generated culture will either be attached to the top of the matriarch or floating freely above it. If necessary, remove the mother from the jar and gently peel the progeny from her. (My friend Travis, a staunch anti-kombucha activist, deems this part "skinning the baby.")

At this point, you have a little culture to pass on to a friend, and a jar full of drinkable kombucha lorded over by your robust mother. Ladle most of the liquid into a serving vessel, blend with juice if desired, refrigerate, and quaff whenever the mood strikes. (Feeling down? Particularly toxic? Eager for a cleanse?) Meanwhile, your mother is ready to start all over again, so you best get a brewin' if you want to feed your newly-formed addiction to the acidic tincture.

Here's a link to a decent site explaining the brewing process in detail.

**For those of you still reading, I just delivered a baby, now sleeping soundly in my fridge, and will gladly give it – for free! – to the first inquiring adopter.**


kale daikon said...

I find your kombucha baby truly monstrous. . . and cannot wait to taste your disgusting brew. I am currently trapped in my room writing about Frankenstein and Brazil (they're tangentially related, I swear) and thank you for passing on this little culture to a friend in my hour of Internet need.

May you and all who "skin the baby" after its week-long gestation speak these words of Mary Shelley's from the 1831 introduction to her novel: "And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days . . ."

Dana said...

My boyfriend has always called this "fetus juice." I guess he actually wasn't too far off. Now if I could just get him to try it...

Anonymous said...

Did you know that Travis actually drank at least one, maybe two bottles of kombucha recently when he was sick? Someone told him it was supposed to help. He didn't hate it (I think). I still have trouble with the strands of gunk, although if I could filter those out without worrying that I was diminishing the kombucha's magical powers I would drink the delicious cranberry kind all the time.

P.S. Katrina, I love that book and I think your quote is well-chosen!

Anonymous said...

I like kombucha! It's just the jargon that disgusts me.

eek said...

I kind of knew that, but it pleases me greatly to see it in print. The jargon is off-putting, I agree.

Sorry I called you a "staunch anti-kombucha activist," because in any other city, you'd be a fervent supporter. Embrace the reproductive lexicon!

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note from a fellow brewer -- I've heard it's not healthy to brew with ginger! If you like it, save it for bottling time so it doesn't harm the mother.

Unknown said...

This sounds as bad as I always suspected it was. I'm all for fermented stuff but that globby mother culture, wheh. Sourdough bakes into a delightful loaf with no weird textures or surprise globules. I may steel myself and take a sip at some future date. I suspect the day may only come when I have been stripped bare of reservations by a killer hangover and need to test its purported curative properties.

Anonymous said...

Now I can't wait to give brewing another try. I am obsessed. So much that I often sabotage a customer's combustible bucha at the register by setting it down too hard so that it will spring a leak, followed by the polite question of, "Would you like me to get you another one?" therefore leaving the "leaky bu" as we call it, all to myself.
However this has backfired on me when the citrus leaker sprayed me in the eye!

tomsepe said...

Important advice for anyone who is going to make kombucha is: WASH YOUR HANDS! keep your jar clean and take care not to infect your culture with harmful bacterias or molds. I love the stuff and keep two 1-gallon jars brewing at all times so I have enough to share with friends... and it is WAY cheaper than purchasing the $4 bottles, not to mention I'm not using up all that glass everyday!

eek said...

Thanks, guys/readers/'buch hounds, for the input. I haven't otherwise heard about the harmful effects of ginger, but am now adding a few slivers to each bottle, rather than letting them marinate in the mother's bath.

And yes, I agree about vigilant sterilization of all culture-carrying jars and utensils: keep an eye out, and don't let anything moldy or speckly spread among lids or spoons. It's not that difficult to be careful.

Minime said...

Kombucha, a symbiosis between different yeasts and a vinegar producing bacteria.

The yeasts eat the sugar and the bacteria eats the resulting alcohol and is turning it to vinegar.

Together the yeasts and the bacteria are growing in a completly new form, normally flowing free they change into something resembling a mushroom...which you can also eat like one.

It is not untypical for primitive life forms to work together and change into something new.

Just like lichens are nothing else than a symbiosis between a fungus and simple algae. Only together they can thrive where others would have no chance to live.

One feeds the other, or protects it..the yeast feeds the bacteria and the bacteria is shielding the yeasts.
The produced acid will protect the yeast which is easily attacked and killed by other,more robust germs or fungie.

Only to a certain extent but normally it is enough for both lifeforms to survive.

Also the algae would not survive out of the water, on stones, high in the mountain or in freezing cold.

But the fungus is preserving water, has stronger cellmembrans and the algae is producing food through photosynthesis.

Also our bodycells have evolved from a symple symbiosis.

Our blood cells carry iron where plant cells carry magnesia...and our *power plants* inside the cell are still the same.

I think they evolved from bacteria and algae too, but i am not sure.

I once had to study it, but that was some years ago