Kombucha mama

Katie Mather shares her experience of growing a living blob


"You should have told me you were going to start making ‘booch,” said a friend of a friend when I mentioned buying a SCOBY from the internet. “You could have had some of mine.”

I found it strange they’d say this — we’re not really close enough to chat regularly, and I couldn’t see me opening our first ever non-mutual-mediated convo with “So, I’m thinking of buying a living blob off the internet...”

My SCOBY, or Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast — snappy, I know — arrived in a sealed baggy of its own juices, like a sous-vide jellyfish. I held it in my hands and tried not to feel disgusted by it. Instructions, written in a bright, encouraging manner, told me how to care for this living membrane and what I could do to essentially not make it die.

I haven’t had a pet since 2012. That’s seven petless years. Now here I am with a bacterial splat gazing up at me expectantly with its pale, faceless face.

“Don’t be daft,” says my husband. “It’s not one faceless face. It’s millions of faceless faces, all squashed together in a big faceless mass.”

I’m not sure I want to open the package. It seems happy enough in there, swishing about in something called “starter” like a behemoth scallop in brine. I read the package again and take a big, brave sigh. I can’t think of a jar I own that will be big enough for the SCOBY baby, so I swing my coat on and head out to the shops to find something suitable for a kombucha nursery.

Making kombucha seems easy enough. It basically does all the work for you. All you need to do is create the perfect conditions for it to thrive. You have to understand that with all my projects, I absolutely mean well. I have all the best intentions in the world. Nobody has more enthusiasm than me when it comes to getting things off the ground. It’s keeping things ticking over I have an issue with. So, after I made up the sugary tea that would be my SCOBY’s world and set it floating on top, my fingerprints leaving unsettling dints in its surface, the countdown until my inevitable over-it-ness began.

Kombucha doesn’t need love and attention; nevertheless I sat at my desk every day for the first week with it in my direct eyeline, watching for anomalies. It doesn’t need an airlock like homebrew (instead of being sealed, my instructions told me to let the bacteria-yeast soup “breathe” through a double layer of gauze) so there’s nothing to watch. No pleasing bubbling noises to comfort me. No occasional need to re-adjust anything. I’ll admit, I got bored very quickly. My baby was a rubbery white ice shelf floating on a dark ocean of sugary tea.

After a week, I was supposed to test it. I had imagined, when I bought the SCOBY, that this would be an exciting bookmark in my life. A moment I’d cherish forever. Instead, I re-read information on the internet about how low pH has to be to deter botchellism and talked myself out of wanting to drink the thing that I had encouraged to live. 

Making kombucha seems easy enough. It basically does all the work for you.

“It’s fine!” said my husband, extremely disappointed in my lack of enthusiasm. He’d already tried it. “You won’t get food poisoning.” 

How does he always know that I’m thinking about food poisoning?

I tried it. Hmm. Not bad! A little on the plain and watery side. I decided to leave it for a little while longer to ramp up the sourness.

I’ll admit, after that I totally forgot about it. Apart from the occasional whiff of balsamic vinegar heading my way I assume, to catch my attention, I completely lost sight of my kombucha plans. All those label designs, all the flavour ideas — lost forever in the rotavator of my hyperactive mind. By the time I was guilt-tripped into trying my kombucha again it was two weeks later, the SCOBY had doubled in thickness, and I swear it was feeling more sulky towards me.

Now the batch tasted like malt vinegar. I like malt vinegar. However I didn’t see how it could be drank in great quantities, and I felt terrible about this. My poor SCOBY. I let it down. A gap had opened in the side of the now 8cm thick SCOBY reef where it had expanded like a wide, sad mouth. I looked at it and tried to imagine all the furiously feeding microbuddies inside. They didn’t know they were making it worse! That was my fault! I should have been a better parent! I racked some of the vinegar juice off, added more sugary tea and tried again.

No matter how you feel about my kombucha-making abilities after reading the next bit, I want you to promise you’ll never hold it against the poor SCOBY that lives in the corner of my kitchen. It is only doing its best. 

The kombucha has now been fermenting for a month. It is face puckeringly sour. I’m considering letting it continue to sour and sour and sour until my SCOBY fills the whole jar and I can tip it out in a neat, white cylinder like a roll of egg tofu. My husband says we should do right by the SCOBY and start again. We should go and buy some nice green tea and plan some recipes, and bottle it in time, and make attempts at carbonation. I think we will. I think I’m ready this time.

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