SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. The bacteria and yeasts work together to ferment sweet tea, resulting in a delicious, probiotic beverage called kombucha. Learn how to brew it here.
Technically, you can’t see the SCOBY with the naked eye, the colony of bacteria and yeast are microscopic. What you can see is a nonliving cellulose by-product of the kombucha fermentation – the pellicle, which is commonly called the SCOBY. The SCOBY pellicle looks like a cream-colored, silicon pancake. The size and shape depend on the brewing container as they grow on the entire surface of the sweet tea.
What has become the “face” of the SCOBY is actually just layers of cellulose formed by bacteria during fermentation. Within those cellulose layers (and starter tea) are the billions of microscopic organisms that actually make up the SCOBY.
A good starting ratio is 1 cup starter tea for a 1-gallon batch of kombucha. Various factors can affect the pH so you should test to be sure the starting pH is below 4.5. If it isn’t, simply add more starter tea (or 1 tbsp distilled vinegar) until it reaches that point.
Traditional kombucha is brewed with black/green tea and cane sugar while jun tea is brewed with green tea and honey. The starter cultures contain different microbes that thrive on the different substrates.
The sugar in the kombucha is not for you, it is for the yeast! They eat the sugar and create alcohol and CO2, which the bacteria then eat. Depriving them of that sugar would mean a less productive brew. The good news is that given proper fermenting temperatures, within about a week, most of that sugar is eaten up! The longer you let it go, the less sugar will be left.
For a traditional kombucha SCOBY, you should stick to plain, organic cane sugar as it is the easiest for it to digest. If you want to use honey, you’ll need to obtain a separate culture, called a Jun Tea culture, that specifically thrives off honey.
Artificial sweeteners are considered non-fermentable sugars and should not be used for the primary fermentation. The yeast cannot digest those chemical compounds so no fermentation will take place and the yeast will go dormant. Artificial sweeteners can be used, however, to “back sweeten” during the bottling stage without producing any further fermentation and just add sweetness.
Providing the proper pH for your kombucha gives your SCOBY an upper hand against mold and harmful bacteria. The microbes in the SCOBY prefer an acidic environment, where mold and harmful bacteria cannot survive. Once the fermentation gets underway, the bacteria produce lactic and gluconic acids, lowering the pH even more.
Nope! A healthy SCOBY may float or sink. It may float if there are air pockets in between the layers but will most likely sink. Either way, a new SCOBY will grow on the surface and the fermentation will go on.
More than likely, the “brown stuff” is yeast buildup. This is a healthy sign of fermentation that is often mistaken for mold. Below are a few examples of healthy yeast colonies. They create string-like globs that float around.
If you’re house is typically below 75°F, there are a couple things you can do to jump start your brew.
Use more starter tea. The more starter tea you use, the faster your tea will ferment. If you have a cold house, try using 2-3 cups of starter tea per gallon.
Use your oven with the light on. Turn the oven light on for 30-45 mins to preheat before you go to bed. Turn the light off and store the brew in the oven overnight. Turning the light off is important because you don’t want it to get too hot. Monitor with a thermometer if need be.
Purchasing a Fermentaholics SCOBY guarantees quality. Each SCOBY we send out is carefully grown and packed with long-fermented starter tea that is guaranteed to do its part. The SCOBY is only one piece of the puzzle to create a successful brew. More often then not, the brewing temperature zone is off. The SCOBYs need a proper fermenting temperature of 75-85°F or it will ferment extra slow and it will appear nothing is happening.
So what can you do at this point?
Take a clean wooden spoon and give the brew a vigorous stir. This will wake up the yeast, providing them with an oxygen burst and get them ready to perform. Don’t worry about harming your SCOBY–it will be fine!
Find a warmer spot in your house. See the question above for tips on brewing in a cold environment.
Check the pH. It should be below 4.
Wait a few more days to see what happens. It should begin to taste a little sour and have a slight vinegary smell.
Kombucha requires you to use your senses! Smell it. It should begin to give off a vinegary scent, one of the first indicators that it is working. Taste it. As long as the pH is below 4 (test it!) it is safe to begin tasting. The taste should be lightly sour/vinegary and get less sweet with each passing day. Another sign of fermentation is new SCOBY growth. This will occur on the surface of the tea and form to the size of the container it is in. (see photo below–it’s not pretty but that is fresh SCOBY growth occurring on the surface. If left alone, eventually it will grow into a thick pancake-like mass).
If you’re sure that it is mold and not yeast growth on your brew, throw it out. Mold will look like your typical fuzzy bread mold and will be either green or black and grow on the surface. Mold pretty much ruins the brew and you just don’t want to risk it. If you’ve purchased a Fermentaholics SCOBY, they’re guaranteed so shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Leave it for a few more days. Check the pH to make sure it has lowered to below 4. You may need to place the brew in a warmer spot in your house–temperature is the most commonly overlooked problem for homebrewers. See: Brewing Kombucha In the Wintertime for some tips.
This just means that is has over fermented a little. This can be solved by closely monitoring your next batch, and bottling when it tastes just right. If it is over fermented, it is perfectly safe to consume–try using it in a salad dressing or mask it with a strong flavor during secondary fermentation (try Lemonberry Mint Kombucha!)