Culture shock

January 7, 2010 · 14 comments

kombucha

Of all the ways I’ve been venturing into new and personally uncharted dietary territory, this one has, by far, been the most difficult to explain. Here’s a sample conversation:

Hey, Katy — what’s in that jar?

Oh, that? It’s kombucha.

What did you call me?

K-O-M-B-U-C-H-A.

Never heard of it.

It’s a fermented tea.

What’s that thing floating in it?

That’s the scoby.

Come again?

It’s kind of like a mushroom.

That’s a weird-looking mushroom. So… you’re drinking mushroom juice?

Sort of.

Hmmm. Had any hallucinations?

Not yet, but here’s hoping.

Actually, no — I don’t hope for hallucinations, nor do I expect to ever have any. This drink is one that has been around for a couple thousand years in various cultures, recorded especially in Russian history. It is, quite simply, brewed sweetened tea that is fermented with a scoby, or symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast — not a true mushroom at all, but called so because of its appearance. The drink has a broad anecdotal and scientific history of being an all-around beneficial drink: it is full of B-vitamins, anti-oxidants, and glucaric acids. A detoxifying drink, it is also high in glucosamines, and gives a probiotic boost to your immune system.

Most articles I read about the drink admit that there is little Western scientific study to back up its claims: there’s just not a lot of money out there to fund studies determining the effectiveness of a drink that can be made at home for about $1 a gallon. But I have yet to read an account of someone who drinks it regularly who does not sing its praises. Since I’m a probiotic junkie, and since I looked up one morning and figured I needed just one more jar of fermenting foodstuff on my kitchen counter, I gave it a whirl.

I ordered my scoby online, but you can get one for free if you know someone who makes their own kombucha (the culture will make a baby scoby… though this is not as creepy as it sounds). I’ve read accounts, too, of people growing their own from a store-bought bottle (they are sold at most health food stores), but figured it was easiest to drop the $12 on a mail-order sure-thing. Once you get your little guy (I’m not sure why it’s a male pronoun in my head, especially since it’s referred to as the “mother”) in the mail, you need to make your first batch pretty quickly. So don’t order it unless you’re ready to roll. Other than the k-shroom, you’ll need some quart or larger glass jars, some organic tea, sugar, and time to wait.

When I made my first batch, I made one quart. After it fermented for 7 days, I took a bit from that batch and made a gallon. I’m not in a good groove yet; ideally I will always have kombucha fermenting at various stages, and will always have some that’s ready to drink. You can find good directions of how to do it here and here; but if you start looking around, you’ll find there are infinite variations on the process — I just follow the directions that came with my culture.

I’ve been drinking it daily for about a week now — and am really enjoying it — it’s like a slightly sweet, slightly sour tea with a bit of fizz and flavor of fermentation. Some people feel lightheaded when they drink it at first; I didn’t really, but I have felt a small burst of energy. I think it will take long-term drinking for me to really tell if it makes a difference in how I feel. As a person with cancerous and arthritic genes lurking at my every corner, I’m mostly interested in how kombucha can help prevent those degenerative diseases, rather than how it might make me feel on a daily basis.

My almost-four-year old, now seen as the dietary adventurer in our family since he absolutely LOVES my liver paté (and is the only one who eats it), has sipped a bit here and there, and likes it. I think he likes it because he says it “smells like beer.” You would think that if I could get the preschooler to drink it, I could get my husband on the bandwagon, too. But, no. So far, he’s still way back, hovering at the crevasse of lacto-fermented grains. I’m working on a rope bridge to get him across.

So, is this it? Is this, reader, where I lose you?

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{ 12 comments }

Christine O. Taylor January 7, 2010 at 6:30 pm

You have not lost me, but I have to admit my eyebrows did raise up about half way while I was reading. You are more adventurous and less lazy than I am.

katy January 7, 2010 at 8:01 pm

Well, Christine, that makes two so far: you and my husband, whose patience I’ve apparently maxed. The nail in the coffin was a conversation with a coworker today — a mycologist — who said he thought the risks of drinking kombucha outweighed the potential for benefit. I’ve got an uphill battle here…

Monica January 9, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Lose me? Not hardly. For one thing, I’m quite tenacious and hard to shake. For another, I *love* kombucha. I’ve made several batches and experiment with flavors and how to keep that fizz. My husband will even drink it. I understand the battle with the hubby. Mine is very resistant to change. It has to be gradual.

As for that mycologist, I understand there are varieties of fungi that are, indeed, poisonous. However, you are not using a wild caught, unknown fungus and are using a culture. It is much like using yeast in bread. Saying you shouldn’t culture kombucha because some fungi are poisonous is like saying you shouldn’t eat tomatoes because some nightshades are poisonous. It’s just another mushroom. And one that makes a darn tasty beverage.

My dad works for the health department so I have constant battles regarding raw milk consumption. Luckily, there are no mycologists in my family or at work :)

katy January 10, 2010 at 12:16 am

Monica — I’m glad you’re tenacious ; ) And also glad you like kombucha and have encouraged my venture/battle (more on the battle to come). The mycologist — it was tricky, because he knows it’s not a mushroom; he even called it a “mat,” which is (I think) it’s scientific name. He was all about other bacteria, and contamination, blah, blah, blah. But the funny part was that he said he thought it was fine to make your own yogurt — which seemed like another side of the same coin. If your kombucha can “catch” bad stuff while culturing, can’t your yogurt? Why one, and not the other?

Monica January 10, 2010 at 10:32 am

Here’s my understanding on the culturing of both yogurt and kombucha. When using a proper culture, the acidity is such that pathogens cannot survive. Here is what I read concerning kombucha, “When prepared as directed, the pH of the tea decreases to 1.8 in 24 hours. Although this level of acidity should prevent the survival of most potentially contaminating organisms, tea drinkers have reported molds growing on the Kombucha (CDC, unpublished data).” from this site: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00039742.htm.

Mold on the scoby is easy to identify. It appears on the top, where the ph is probably not as low and usually occurs on stale or old scobys (scobies?). I also believe that your nose knows when a culture has gone bad. I tried catching my own sourdough starter, and trust me, it was stinky. I did not use it. My rule of thumb is when in doubt, throw it out.

One thing to keep in mind is that eating is inherently risky, no matter what you are eating. Non-sterile food might kill you; sterile food might kill you, too, just in a different way.

katy January 10, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Thanks for the link — I had skimmed that article, but had not read the bit about pH, so that’s good to know. I tried to catch my own sourdough starter, too, and it was a total disaster! I recently ordered one, but have yet to begin baking.

Stephanie January 11, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Yay for Townes loving liver paté! I knew he was a cool kid. Now, this fermented tea stuff. In the low country, they call it Firefly. It’s really good mixed with lemonade. :)

katy January 11, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Hahahahahaha!! Stephanie!!!!!

Jen January 13, 2010 at 9:30 am

love love looove kombucha!! My kids and spousal do too…great post.

katy January 13, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Jen — ok, I have questions for you:
1) How long did it take your mother to make a baby scoby?
2) If you have a baby scoby, have you used it to ferment another batch?
3) How long have you been using the mother? Is it still brewing well?
4) Any qualms about giving it to the boys?

Jen January 18, 2010 at 7:16 pm

phew, I’ll be no help here!

I’m just now growing my scoby (from “scratch”)…trying to avoid ordering one. Wish I had a friend here to share their baby scoby with me.

My boys really love the taste, but so far we’ve given it to them in small cups. They are always asking for more, but don’t get it. That’s mainly b/c I’m buying it from the store right now (RIP OFF) and just can’t afford to give them till their hearts delight. I’m not concerned for them to drink more–they take healthy doses of kefir each day as well as fermented foods I’ve made like kraut and mustard. Hmmm, should I be concerned about too much boocha for them? What started as “sips” of beer from us (hoping they would say yuk) turned into asking for beer in the sippy cups. I should prob be more worried about that than the boocha right now :)

But seriously, do you have hesitation about it for your own kideos? I’m interested…

katy January 18, 2010 at 9:41 pm

No real hesitation. When Tim had the fateful conversation with the mycologist, he had him pretty freaked out about possible contamination by other microbes, so he initially said he didn’t want the kids drinking it (this was after T-dog had fallen in love with it). But, after reading a little more, he’s drinking it now himself, and is ok with the kids having it in small amounts.

I think the detox effects can be pretty strong — so, even though it’s cheap when it’s homemade, I’m only letting the almost-4-year old have about 4 oz a day (so far he’s the only one who will drink it).

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