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.**