The word for the thing that makes kombucha tea is not an appetizing one: It’s alternately been called a scoby, a mushroom, or a “mother” by the ultra-polite. And the first time I had one sitting in my kitchen, floating atop a massive jar of brine-colored tea, it looked about as appetizing as it sounds.
“Scoby” is actually an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” and mine looked like a pale, flabby pancake. The amber brew it created underneath, though, was the real reason I kept it around. This kombucha tea, with its sweet-sour-tart flavor, has always been a better pick-me-up than that afternoon cup of coffee. It retains just a small portion of the caffeine from the tea it’s brewed in, and packs in a lot more goodies from fermentation: B vitamins, organic acids, and gut-friendly enzymes.
The use of kombucha as a tonic and medicine goes back at least 2,000 years to ancient Russia and China. “It’s known as a cure-all,” explains Rani Olson, the chef at Food for Ascension Café, where she keeps house-brewed kombucha on tap—the first restaurant in Arizona to legally do so. “Obviously in Western medicine the idea of a cure-all has problems,” she adds, laughing. “It will not cure all of your problems. But for the people who have been introduced to it, it’s nice to be able to have that as part of their meal.”
That’s partly why Food for Ascension has made it the house drink. Sitting in the sunlit courtyard with a glass of their slightly fizzy refreshment, it’s easy to substitute this lovely drink for the beer or soda that would typically be in its place. “It creates a ceremony in the dining experience to have something that’s a little bit special,” says Olson.
The kombucha at Food for Ascension Café certainly is that. With a soft lemony tartness and a light carbonation, I was surprised to hear that Olson’s brew is unflavored. She attributes its complexity to the high quality tea it’s brewed with. She uses a strong black tea called dian hong gong fu that she procures from Tucson’s own Seven Cups. It’s a tea she admits she doesn’t like by itself, but its strong bitterness adds a sophisticated balance to the acidic tartness of traditional kombucha.
Even for the high volume at the cafe, the process to make the tea is simple. She steeps the Seven Cups tea in a giant stainless steel vat, sweetening it with vegan sugar. After the mixture cools overnight, she transfers it to food-grade plastic buckets, each with a scoby floating on top, and covers them with a light cloth. After a couple of weeks, the naturally carbonated brew is ready for the torpedo keg where it will become the headliner on tap.
Fervent kombucha drinkers like Dave Woodruff imbibe the benefits daily. Woodruff is an endurance athlete, and after hard training—which sometimes includes two workouts a day—he puts a high priority on recovery. To bolster a clean diet, he started drinking store-bought kombucha for its probiotics and professed cleansing properties. After acquiring a scoby, he now brews it at home, where he and his wife and daughter drink it every day. “I have more energy,” he says simply. “The cleaner your body, the faster you recover.” And after a few months of drinking kombucha, he says, “It seems like I can hold a higher heart rate and maintain a higher lactic threshold. I attribute that to having a clear body.”
As adventurous as Woodruff is in the sports arena, he’s proven equally creative in the kitchen, elaborating on the simple process of making kombucha to experiment with new flavors. After the initial fermentation, which is the same as Olson’s on a smaller scale, he adds fruit juices before bottling to flavor the brew and add more natural carbonation. His favorites: black cherry and what he calls “passion tea lemonade.”
Scientific studies are yet to be done to see if the drink’s benefits stack up to its claims, which range from improving digestion to curing cancer. But there’s one thing all kombucha devotees will agree on, it’s that you’ll have to try the tea for yourself to see why history has kept this weird little brew around. ✜
There are a few ways to procure a scoby for home brewing. The first is to get a piece from someone already making kombucha; the culture constantly multiplies and layers can easily be peeled off to share. The second is to create one, using raw unflavored store-bought kombucha. Pour out a bottle into a wide-mouth jar, cover with a cloth, and leave at room temperature for a week until a white film forms on top; this is a baby scoby. If that fails, you can order kombucha starter cultures at CulturesForHealth.com.
To make your own home-brewed kombucha, start by heating 1 gallon of water in a large pot. Dissolve 1 cup of sugar into the water and steep tea when hot—use 2 teaspoons of high quality loose tea or 8 tea bags. Avoid teas with added oils, like Earl Grey, which can cause the scoby to wilt. Allow tea to brew strong, 25 minutes or more.
Cool overnight. Transfer into a large glass jar and float the scoby on top. Cover the brew with a light cloth secured with a rubber band and let sit in “a nice bakery-warm temperature,” as Olson recommends, for about one week until the brew tastes to your liking. When you’re ready to bottle, transfer the scoby to another container with some of the liquid as you ready another batch of tea. The reserved liquid helps to acidify the new brew, protecting the scoby from mold.
A note on scoby health: It’s easy to tell how your scoby is doing. If it’s floating and consistently colored, all is well. If your scoby starts to sink, it’s not well nourished and needs more sugar. Though a tea-tinted coloring is normal as the culture ages, spots and uneven coloring are signs of mold and the scoby should be thrown out.
Bottle and chill the fermented tea to drink plain, or create a second fermentation by placing a little sugar and juice in the bottom of each bottle before capping. Leave at room temperature for 4 days or so before chilling.
Use 10 passion tea bags to make the mother brew. When bottling, add 1 ounce lemon juice, 1 ounce strong ginger tea from fresh root, and 1 tablespoon sugar to each 16-ounce bottle.
Use a strong black tea to brew, and add 1 ounce cherry juice and 1 tablespoon sugar to each 16-ounce bottle.
Food for Ascension. 330 E. Seventh St.
Seven Cups. 2516 E. Sixth St. 520.881.4072. SevenCups.com.
Emily Gindlesparger traded the forested Southern Illinois hills for the mountains of Tucson, where she teaches yoga and writes about adventures on bicycles, cliff sides, and wine trails.