We receive quite a few emails regarding SCOBY health, and as a result an immense number of images and stories about home brews all over the world. The most common message we receive is on the topic of mold speculation and brew failure.
After digging a little deeper, it's frequently revealed that the brewer has started their brew with a dehydrated SCOBY. We did some of our own investigating using a very commonly procured dehydrated SCOBY and wrote about our results here.
Our customers have made some adjustments after realizing the difficulty of brewing with a dehydrated culture, much like our customer Jonny:
Just wanted to say thank you. Wow the batch of buch that you gave me is exponentially better than the dehydrated scoby I got from the other company! Its even a little fizzy just like the stuff off the shelves and looks like its coming along fantastically . Thanks a million. -Jonny
After starting a brew with a freshly-grown SCOBY, things will move along swimmingly.
Photos of brews from a dehydrated SCOBY
Content below may not be suitable for some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.
So, start your kombucha brews with fresh SCOBY every time and save yourself the ignominy of a moldy brew and the pain of losing what once was a mother with a bright, wet future!
Sinking, Floating, and Fusing
To the un-initiated, the orientation of the kombucha SCOBY can be a mystifying ponderance. Shouldn't it float at the top? If it sinks, will the brew fail? The answers really are much more of an indifference to chaos than a culture control regimen.
The mother SCOBY you used to start your new brew should be considered different from the resulting, new SCOBY that grows on the surface of your new brew. Let's call that original the mother, and the new one (that will begin to form on the surface) the baby. When you start your brew, adding the mother to the sweet tea, that original culture may float, at the surface, it may sink, or it may just hover in the middle. Any of these orientations is 100% okay and should not be considered indicative of viability. The mother will potentially fuse together with the baby, too, and that's fine. The SCOBY doesn't have a mind of its own, it's not drowning if it sinks and it's not dangerous if it floats before the baby has a chance to start growing. Much more indicative of brew health is the level of sweetness, which should decrease with time, and acidity, which should increase.
Most of the time, when I hear that someone's SCOBY has disappeared, the issue is very simple. Just bumping your fermentation vessel while it is brewing is enough to cause the SCOBY to sink below the surface of the tea. So, whereas previously there was a thin baby growing on the surface, it will now have "disappeared." It's very often likely that a little disturbance caused the culture to sink, potentially not being visible in the tea below. But remember, taste your brew throughout the fermentation process so you can tell if it is progressing or not. Nearly 100% of the time it is, and any speculation or fear of failure is unfounded.
Your SCOBY after the First Brew
After your first brew, you'll likely have 2 types of culture you will deal with. One will be the original, or mother, culture - this will obviously not always be a single, coherent piece - maybe you picked up 2 pieces of culture from a friend, or got one of our 3-gallon ceramic deluxe kits with 3 SCOBYs, or just used shards of SCOBY from another brew - this culture can all be considered the mother.
So, you will have the mother and the baby, which will be the new culture that will have formed. Please note as well - new culture will always grow on the surface, and you can't grow kombucha SCOBY underneath the surface of the tea. Yeast tendrils may form in the liquid, but you won't see new SCOBY forming in the liquid.
Tendrils, Dark Spots, Bubbles, Oh My!
These are all things that cause trepidation on the part of new brewers, but once you get used to the strange things you'll see, that initial skepticism will turn to awe every time you brew!
And below, the classic and spine-tingling Brown Visitor. Be careful when peeking at your brew before bedtime.
Below, also, are some common brown visitors. The specks on the surface (left) are often yeast granules that are at times tough and grainy, but are totally normal. On the right are just bits of tea that didn't get strained out during steeping.
And finally, the giant SCOBY. Simply the result of a long fermentation time, there's nothing to fear here. The kombucha below this one will likely be pretty sour, but both parts can be used as normal. The kombucha as vinegar or starter, and the culture as a mother, backup or foodstuff.
Don't Freak Out!
So, next time your brew is weirding you out, remember that SCOBY lead lives of their own and don't bow to our expectations of understanding. If any of the above troubles you, let it be laid to rest. Remember that the ultimate test of a successful brew is good fun and great taste. Happy brewing!
Check out this blog post if you think your kombucha SCOBY may be performing in less savory fashions, i.e. growing mold
We're always trying to see just how far we can go in playing with our primary ferments. This recipe is a great example of treading in unknown territory and coming out with a positive result.
Generally we don't advise using non-tea or whole spices in primary fermentation, as this can interfere with the metabolism of the culture and won't guarantee a successful brew. But with plenty of culture to go around, and some ambitious spirit, we've found we can take our brews to places unfathomed. Enter Melange, the ultimate holiday kombucha.
Some of our favorite spices are prevalent around the holiday season, so we decided to take two of the tastiest - clove and cinnamon - for a ride in this brew. This recipe gets bonus points for its simplicity!
Makes 1 gallon
- 4 grams each black, green, and white tea (or 1 bag KBBK Signature Tea Blend)
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 8 whole cloves
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup brewed kombucha (for starter)
Boil water as you would normally, and steep the tea blend along with the cloves and cinnamon. Once you've allowed this mix to steep for at least 20 minutes, just remove the tea bag (leave the clove and cinnamon in!), add sugar, top off with cool water, and add your SCOBY and starter. Unique to this brew, we're leaving the cloves and cinnamon in with the culture for the primary fermentation process - we didn't notice any adverse effects to the SCOBY at all!
As with any brew, allow to ferment until a balance of sweetness and acidity is achieved. Let sit at room temperature for 2-3 weeks to allow carbonation to develop, if you want effervescence. Serve this on cold winter mornings with breakfast for a warming pick-me-up!
We are not responsible for any inadvertent prescience or trance-like states imparted by the consumption of Melange.
Heat mats are back, and better than ever!
As many of our customers know, heat mats have been out of stock for a while. Our original 1-gallon heat mats were made in China, one of the last of our items made outside the US. As practical and affordable as they were, they very often did not last long. In our search for quality American-made heat mats, we found a small company in West Wareham, MA. They not only produce exactly what we are looking for, but do so at a very reasonable price.
Let us introduce you to the new mats:
Kombucha Heat Mat, Small - This 12 by 4 inch mat is designed for a 1/2- or 1-gallon glass jar. With the option to add another foot of length to the mat, you can heat an additional vessel when you place the jars on top. Pictured above.
Kombucha Heat Mat, Large - This 12 by 6 inch mat is designed for a larger brewing vessel, perfect for a 1-gallon crock. With the option to add 1 foot of length, it is perfect for a 2-gallon or 3-gallon crock; with 2 extra feet, it is perfect for a 5-gallon crock.
Each mat can effectively raise the temperature of your brew by 10°F. By insulating the outside of the mat with a towel, you can increase the temperature by 5-10°F.
Heating will be essential to your brews this winter, so make sure you've got a heat mat to keep your brew warm!
Making kombucha can be a beautiful endeavor. Once you get past the newness of the operation, a new SCOBY forming on the surface is a beautiful sight. There are a few things, unfortunately, that can ruin that sight. One is mold - it's something we have covered quite a bit. The other is fruit flies.
The number one enemy in the world of unwanted invaders, the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) is everywhere. In every brew space I’ve ever been I’ve seen these little buggers buzzing around. Even in tightly controlled environments like our SCOBY Lab we see them fly up seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes it seems like they appear out of thin air (I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case). There are tricks to getting rid of them, but even more important is keeping them out of your brew jar.
What should one use to cover a brew vessel during fermentation? Your kombucha wants to breathe fresh oxygen during fermentation - so sealing your jar with a hard lid is out of the question. Therefore we turn to material that is porous enough to let air in, but not porous enough to allow fruit flies inside. Our material of choice is organic cotton. It has a tight weave, that if correctly secured to the jar, will not allow fruit flies to get inside. Other materials with the same weave will also work well. A paper towel, an old t-shirt, or even a coffee filter will work great.
One material that is commonly used, but should not be, is cheese cloth. Although it is designed for food production, it is too porous. Even if it is layered multiple times. We get emails all the time from new brewers using cheese cloth that have a family of fruit flies hanging out on their culture. When this happens the brew must be scrapped.
It only takes one
Once one fruit fly gets in, it's all over
First, it will quickly lay its eggs which then turn in to maggots
After a few days, they will turn into full-grown fruit flies
The process is quick and before you know it, you have a many flies buzzing around your jar
But don’t be afraid. With a simple piece of cloth and rubber band, you will be safe from these unwanted but familiar pests!
Knowing your brew is doing well is vital. That’s why we are here to diagnose any concern you might have. We see hundreds of pictures every week from home brewers all over the world. In order for us to make a sound diagnosis there is a certain set of questions and pictures that will tell us what is going on. Here is a brew diagnosis checklist for you to complete before submitting a query.
In making sure there is not a problem with a brew we need to see pictures. Luckily, taking and sending pictures is an easy every day activity. The ideal set consists of three images:
3. Profile shot of entire brew
The more pictures the merrier. Don’t feel like these are the only shots you should send if you have the will to send more. In the event that there are still questions after viewing the photos we may request a couple more shots of any area of concern.
With most inquiries we will ask the same set of questions. The answers will give us a reason for an issue if there is one and will help us guide you to make the necessary changes to your brew set up.
- What is the average temperature of the brew while it is fermenting?
- How long has it been fermenting?
- Where did the original SCOBY (mother, mushroom, culture) come from?
- How much starter liquid was used?
- What tea/blend and sweetener was used, and what quantity?
We can almost know everything we need to know just from these five questions. As with pictures though, if there is something specific we need more information on, we will ask.
As you can see diagnosing a brew is just as easy as brewing. With only a few simple steps we will gladly tell you what’s going on. In 95% of the cases we see, when using a proper set up there is nothing actually going on, just a new brewer needing some confirmation on their brew.
In making kombucha, starting from a commercial bottle of kombucha was not a bad idea 5 years ago but the industry has changed. The day of the small micro-kombucha brewery making unfiltered, raw kombucha is coming to an end.
These days, many breweries are using additives and filtration processes to help control the fermentation process - a standard practice in the commercial brewing world for established industries like beer and wine. Sure, it can be a relatively inexpensive way to get going, but you may be propagating something you didn't intend. For this reason, it is best to start a batch of kombucha using a fresh, straight-from-the-fermenter SCOBY.
Think about it like this. A town of 5,000 trying to build a new meeting hall will have a hard time not building more than a room with four walls.
A town of 5,000,000 will be able to not just build a room with four walls but a whole structure full of rooms, passageways and fun things to do (definitely an amazing kitchen).
The same can be said for a colony of kombucha microbes coming from a commercial bottle of kombucha (town of 5,000) and a fresh kombucha SCOBY and starter (town of 5,000,000). There is really no comparison. The fresh SCOBY will brew a potent delicious kombucha the first round, in the normal 10-14 days, where as the commercial brew starter may not even form a new SCOBY let alone ferment a perfect batch in 10 days.
We get photos all the time of peoples brews that have molded after trying to start a batch with a bottle of the popular brands of kombucha.
Don’t waste your time or ingredients trying to build a colony from a subpar SCOBY. Start with a lab-grown, fermenter-fresh SCOBY and get perfect brews right away. Because let's get real, who wants to wait more than 10 days for their ‘buch?
Stay tuned for Starting from a Commercial Bottle, pt. 2!
For brewers new and experienced, use this kombucha tea and herb guide to jump off the tea bag bandwagon and into the world of loose leaf! Loose leaf teas are, across the board, of a much higher quality than those that come in tea bags. And be sure to visit our website to check out our selection of premium brewing teas.
Warmth is essential to the kombucha process, and there are many simple ways to keep your kombucha brew warm. It will ensure that your brew stays healthy, producing acids that lower the pH to fend off mold. But it will also ensure that you're able to harvest your 'buch without waiting forever.
The ideal brewing temperature for kombucha is between 70 and 80 degrees. Lower than that range, you are running the risk of allowing mold to form. Higher than that range, you might get finished 'buch more quickly but it will also potentially become vinegar more quickly.
It's best to find places in your home that are naturally producing or retaining heat. Beyond that, you can dress up your brew with heat mats, cooler-incubators and clothes to your heart's content. You could even build a box special for fermenting. Any combination of these methods will do wonders for your 'buch and keep you from pulling your hair out in these cool winter months.
These are just a few suggestions and you are encouraged to branch out and think for yourself based on your home environment. If all else fails, just take it to bed. I won't judge you.
For heat mats and other kombucha brewing accessories, click here.
Think back to the first time you tasted kombucha. I remember my first bottle, back in 2004. I was visiting a food co-op with a good friend of mine (who I can credit with many of my bizarre but healthy eating habits). He had purchased a bottle and gave me a taste; it was a berry and ginger brew, and it truly was love at first sip. The stuff was effervescent, packed full of ginger intensity and luscious fruitiness. Immediately, I wanted to know more. Many questions arose in my head - What the heck is this stuff? What's this strange mass floating around in the bottle? Why does it smell like vinegar? It says it's probiotic, that's nice, but how is it made? Little did I know at the time that the next decade of my life would be spent in intimate collaboration with this, my new favorite "fizzy lifting drink."
A few days later, I bought my own bottle, loved it again, and started talking to friends about this strange new beverage. A chef pal of mine mentioned that some coworkers of his had stashed culture to make kombucha in a refrigerator at his restaurant. I jumped at the opportunity to start making it. When he brought the cultures home, they were pretty off-putting - stored in a plastic container, looking like some sort of decaying aquatic animal; smelling like apple cider vinegar, I was skeptical of the possibility of ending up with something safe and palatable.
The thing that turns most people off about kombucha, if they can get used to the vinegary taste, is its appearance. There are inevitably going to be stringy bits of yeast and clumps of SCOBY in a store-bought bottle. In a raw, living beverage that's completely normal. One of the reasons kombucha is so good for us is due to the probiotic qualities that must be preserved; as a result of not being pasteurized, the culture will continue to proliferate, given the right conditions (warmth), inside a closed bottle. It is this aspect of bottling that caused issues in 2010 when kombucha everywhere was pulled off the shelves. As a result of FDA tests, it was discovered that bottled kombucha from many producers had exceeded the 0.5% ABV limit.
And during brewing there's a whole other aesthetic that is the growth and proliferation of the SCOBY in the brew jar, on top of the tea. Once you've seen kombucha brewing, you can understand that there's definitely a reason that grandmothers of old were said to keep the culture out of sight of children, lest they be reticent to drink the healthful beverage. I always describe it lovingly - imagine a jellyfish crossed with a mudskipper. Awwww.
Things you'll see
You'll be seeing some anomalous things and inevitably start to wonder what's going on. Most shock that new brewers have is at the brown blobs that form in a kombucha brew, which are simply coagulated yeast cells. Often, you'll notice one of these blobs forming just under the surface of your brew, at the edge of the jar. Just think of it as your resident blob!
Your SCOBY might grow tendrils (Cthulu fhtagn!), which are also yeast, that will hang down into your brewing liquid. Don't be troubled either if you see a big brown spot in the middle of your SCOBY, sometimes cellulose (which makes up the SCOBY) will be thinner in some places, especially when your mother SCOBY floats at the top of the brew jar, and new SCOBY grows around her.
If your brew is moldy, it is easy to tell. There will be dry, fuzzy spots that will usually grow in concentric rings. There is a wide possibility for the color of the mold, generally, it could be white, blue, black, green etc.
Ways to steer clear of mold
There are very simple ways to keep kombucha and mold separate:
- Don't skimp on ingredients. Use at least 1 cup of sugar per gallon and 12 grams of actual tea per gallon (white, green, black, oolong or puerh).
- Don't brew oily herbs with your tea - the volatile oil content of herbs will affect your brew and can lead to mold. Since oil floats in water, and your SCOBY wants to float as well, this can effectively keep your brew from breathing and producing beneficial acids that lower pH and thus keep mold at bay. If you want to use herbs in your kombucha, use actual tea along with it - about 12 grams per gallon.
- Keep your brew in a warm place. Warm brewing temperatures not only result in your kombucha brewing more quickly, but will make sure your culture can respire and create the acids that keep mold at bay. Cold temperatures are often the culprit with many mold issues.
- Keep your brew away from cigarette smoke.
- Always use already-brewed kombucha or vinegar for your starter (required for every brew). For a gallon, 12 ounces of kombucha or 3 TBSP of distilled vinegar are two easy starters you can use.
- A dry SCOBY will become a moldy SCOBY. Keep your culture in a sealed container if you aren't going to be brewing for awhile, rather than just leaving it in the brew jar to starve - doesn't your mother deserve better?
If you have mold
- Don't drink it, discard the culture. Weep and plead with another friendly brewer to give you another culture or to give you some 'buch to drink while you are restarting.
- Add strange items and take photographs, share with friends or with us on our Facebook 'Buch Brewer's Group.
- Remember that it's always important to keep a backup SCOBY for just such an occasion. Once you start brewing, put some of the culture in the fridge, submerged in kombucha, to save you from having to order another one if your brew goes south.
- Don't freak out. Don't stop brewing.
If you have any questions or want to send photos of your possibly moldy brew, post them to our Facebook page or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy brewing!