Scoby: The Complete Guide | How To Make, Buy or Obtain A Kombucha Moth – Grow Your Pantry

Scoby: The Complete Guide | How To Make, Buy or Obtain A Kombucha Mother

by Susan Grey on November 27, 2019
scoby

 

When it comes to brewing ether kombucha or jun tea, one of the critical ingredients is the SCOBY.
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What Is A SCOBY?

scoby_and_kombucha

 

SCOBY or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast refers to a gelatinous biofilm comprising of insoluble cellulose that's formed by a mass of bacteria and yeast cells. SCOBY grows in a kombucha brew and can be noticeable after the first 10 to 14 days, during which it begins to take the distinctive mushroom-like shape but with a smooth surface, also known as the pellicle. 
During these early days, the SCOBY is so thin it's transparent, as the SCOBY continues to grow with each ferment, so does its size increase. A mature SCOBY can be up to 3 inches thick.
The culture is syntrophic, which means that the two species not only live symbiotically but also one species lives off the products of the other. In this case, the bacteria live off the byproduct of sugar breakdown by the yeast cells, which is ethanol. The bacteria then further breakdown ethanol, releasing carbon dioxide. 
Starter tea can be considered as part of the SCOBY as, without it, the brew wouldn't have the initial acidic environment, which is necessary for the culture to survive. The starter tea also contains bacteria and yeast culture from the previous brew, which is why it's possible to brew just using starter and eventually grow a SCOBY from it.

How Is It Formed?

As the culture feeds on the dissolved sugar and other components of the brew, the number of cells increases exponentially. This leads to the growth of a pellicle, which is a thin skin or film made of proteins. The skin can be found floating in the brew near the air-liquid interface or a few inches from the surface of the liquid. Around this region, the liquid is rich in oxygen, and the carbon dioxide produced can escape more easily. As the culture continues to grow, so does the size of this film, which eventually takes shape and becomes a baby SCOBY.
Is a SCOBY a pellicle? Yes, the pellicle becomes dense as the number of bacteria and yeast cells increases. As this happens, the mass of cellulose forms a distinctive shape depending on the shape of the fermenting jar into what is referred to as SCOBY.

Application Of SCOBY In Food Production

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Some of the most common food production systems require the implementation of a similar symbiotic culture, these include:
Ginger beer
This is a traditional naturally sweetened nonalcoholic beverage that's produced by the fermentation of ginger spice, sugar, and yeast culture.
Kefir
Kefir is a type of fermented drink that's prepared by fermenting milk. Kefir is almost similar to thin yogurt. The process relies on kefir grains, which is a mesophilic symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria.
Jun Tea
Jun tea refers to a fermented drink prepared using fresh green tea and raw honey. The honey is the source of sugar, which the culture feeds on during fermentation. Interested in learning more? Check out our article on Jun Tea
Kombucha
Kombucha is a fermented beverage prepared by the aerobic fermentation of regular sugar and brewed black tea. The fermentation process breaks down the sugar giving the drink a fizzy nature.
Sourdough
Sourdough refers to the dough that's been fermented naturally by naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast culture. During the fermentation process, the dough gains a sour taste and increased keeping qualities.
Vinegar
Vinegar is an aqueous solution containing acetic acid and other trace chemicals. Vinegar is prepared by fermenting ethanol or sugar using a culture of acetic acid bacteria.
Tibicos
Tibicos is a traditional fermented drink that's prepared using water and a SCOBY. The drink is used as an alternative to milk or tea-based probiotic drinks such as kombucha.

Difference Between Jun SCOBY and Kombucha SCOBY

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Apart from being used to prepare different drinks, these cultures are fundamentally different in the way they interact with other cultures. The kombucha SCOBY culture is adapted to breakdown processed sugar aerobically without coexisting with other cultures as they are deemed harmful and can, therefore, destroy the SCOBY.
On the other hand, a jun SCOBY is specially adapted to break down raw sugar (usually honey), which contains its own live culture of bacteria. 
If you introduced a kombucha SCOBY to raw honey drastically, the chances are that it will not ferment correctly as the two cultures will interfere with each other. This may even lead to the growth of molds, which are often held back by the acidic nature of an ongoing fermentation. However, it is possible to convert a kombucha SCOBY to a jun SCOBY.

Kombucha Mushrooms

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Although kombucha SCOBY is commonly referred to as kombucha mushroom, it's, in fact, not a fungi. The reference to mushrooms originates from the fact that as the SCOBY grows, its biofilm tends to take the shape of a mushroom, especially on the upper side. This plus the fact that fermentation introduces a mushroom-like flavor which is associated with the culture, especially the yeast leads to the popularization of the term kombucha mushroom.
Some of the other common names of a SCOBY are pellicle, tea fungus, the mother, the jellyfish, and teeschwam.

Healthy SCOBY

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As we have already seen, a SCOBY can be quite sensitive, especially when introduced to foreign cultures, which might be harmful to the symbiotic balance between the yeast and bacteria species in the SCOBY.

What does a healthy SCOBY look like?

Color - A healthy SCOBY should have a whitish color that will change according to the color of the brew being fermented. As the SCOBY gets older, the chances are that it will start turning greyish.
Location - A SCOBY normally floats near the top of the fermentation jar, however, it's not unusual to find it floating near the bottom as well. This is not an indication of anything going wrong with your culture; instead, just let it float on its own, and sooner or later, it will float back upwards.
Shape - A healthy SCOBY also has no definite shape. Instead, it takes on the shape of the fermentation jar as it extends towards the edges of the jar. 

Buying A SCOBY

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Online
This is probably the easiest way to obtain a SCOBY that's specifically adapted to the brew you want to set up. Most online SCOBY sellers will either ship it in a container suspended in starter liquid, which you can then use to get your first brew going. Another option is to wrap the dehydrated SCOBY in airtight plastic and freeze it. For such SCOBYs, you will have to activate it before using it to brew. To do so, place the SCOBY in a cup of starter tea and leave it at room temperature for the next 24 hours.
When buying a SCOBY online, its recommended to opt for organic and full-sized cultures with real starter liquid, and they should be shipped fresh. Dehydrated SCOBYs might be easier to buy and ship online, but they are also highly susceptible to mold growth.
Health Food Store
Health food stores will typically stock up on SCOBYs, which they then keep in specialized SCOBY hotels so that they can continue to grow and multiply over time. These stores mostly sell the SCOBY in sizeable containers, which are then topped off with starter tea from the SCOBY hotel. As a result, you get not only a healthy growing SCOBY but also adequate starter to get your brew set up.
Another key benefit of buying a SCOBY from a health food store is the presence of on-hand support in case you have any questions or concerns while buying the culture. These stores may also stock up on other equipment that you might require for your brewing set up such as continuous brewing systems and the technical expertise needed to troubleshoot a brewing system.
Social Media
If your area doesn't have a health food store and the online buying options aren't available, then it's time to hit social media. Post on Facebook groups and other social media channels and groups that deal with fermentation. The chances are that such a post will elicit local brewers who might even be open to sending you one of their young SCOBYs for free.
Such groups and platforms can also be a great place to learn about the best shops and online stores to obtain cultures and other brewing related equipment. These groups are also full of firsthand knowledge of the best fermenting practices and how to take care of each type of SCOBY.

Considerations When Buying A SCOBY

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Avoid buying poorly packaged SCOBY
SCOBYs happen to be quite delicate and will be harmed by exposure to direct sunlight, extreme temperatures, and foreign microbial elements. As a result, it's imperative to ensure that you only get the best-packed SCOBY cultures. Look for airtight packed cultures, and the packaging should be able to block direct sunlight. This prevents the growth of mold, which is a common sign that the SCOBY is no longer symbiotically balanced, and the chances are that it will contaminate the brew.
Opt for SCOBY specimens that are sold submerged in strong starter tea
The strong starter usually included in the container shipping the SCOBY serves numerous purposes. The main being that it keeps the SCOBY hydrated during shipping, ensuring that it remains fresh even for weeks. The liquid also acts as a natural seal protecting the SCOBY from physical harm and the growth of harmful bacteria. The starter tea will also come in handy when setting up your initial brew as it can be used as a starter culture.
The size doesn't matter
While a young SCOBY will take a little longer to ferment a brew compared to a large one, it will still get the job done. It, therefore, makes no sense why you would need to pay more for a larger SCOBY while a small-sized one will equally accomplish the job. A younger SCOBY is also much easier to handle as it doesn't require sizeable containers or a SCOBY hotel to store it during the offseason.
Avoid sites that sell only dehydrated SCOBYs
Dehydrated SCOBYs are less adapted to protect themselves from harmful bacteria and fungi. As a result, they are more likely to grow mold and turn blackish, leading to loss both in terms of the SCOBY and any subsequent brew that may be exposed to the infected SCOBY culture. Some sellers may recommend using vinegar as a starter instead of sending tea, avoid such as vinegar is not as effective.

Where Does SCOBY Come From?

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While there's no exact record of the origins of SCOBY, folklore and popular legends, point to China dating as far back as 221 to 206 BC during the rule of Emperor Qin She Huang. Russian folklore also tells of a monk with health healing powers who beckoned the popularization of fermented tea.
In as much as it's impossible to pinpoint the exact origin of SCOBY growing culture, the truth is that SCOBY will form naturally if given the right conditions. The naturally present bacteria and yeast culture in any sweet product will eventually trigger fermentation if kept in the right environment. This then invalidates the need to look for a single occurrence that can be termed as the origin of SCOBY.

Can You Eat The Kombucha Mother?

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Yes, SCOBYs are perfectly edible with a smooth, chewy texture, vinegary smell, and a taste profile depending on the last tea it was used to ferment. The SCOBY will naturally take on the flavor profile of the tea used to ferment and can even have a hint of sweetness, although the culture is overall tart. It's popular for brewers to eat their excess SCOBY instead of throwing it away. The culture is also rich in probiotics and vitamins, which are released during digestion.

How To Make A SCOBY

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Can you grow a SCOBY from nothing?
Technically you cannot grow a SCOBY from nothing, but you can grow it from a few cups of starter tea. This is because it contains a live culture of bacteria and yeast cells from the previous batch.
What is starter tea?
Starter tea refers to mature kombucha from a previous brew, which is used to provide an acidic environment in the new batch and also introduced the bacteria and yeast culture. Sometimes starter tea is also referred to as SCOBY due to the presence of living bacteria and yeast culture in the mature brew.
When introduced to sugar, the culture will feed on it and grow in size leading to the growth of a young biofilm near the top of the starter tea. After feeding for a few more batches, the SCOBY will have grown in size and thus giving you a mother SCOBY.
Is it safe to grow your SCOBY?
Yes, it's safe to grow your own SCOBY, but you will have to be extra vigilant, and look out for any signs that the set up isn't going on as expected, such as the growth of mold or rotten smell. If you notice any of these signs, you should terminate the setup and start over. This is because a SCOBY culture acts as a natural defense mechanism to prevent foreign and harmful bacteria and fungi from growing on in the brew. As a result, during the early stages of a SCOBY forming, it doesn't produce enough lactic acid to give the brew an acidic environment that would prevent harmful bacteria from growing on it.
One way to ensure that the growing SCOBY remains safe is by using more starter tea. Naturally, fermented starter will have an acidic environment that will protect the young SCOBY.
How long does it take to grow a new SCOBY?
It will take around 2 to 4 weeks for a SCOBY to form fully and become sizeable enough that you can transfer it to another fermentation, and it not be affected. The speed of this process can vary wildly depending on a few factors such as temperature, presence of sunlight, amount of starter tea used, and amount of freshly brewed tea added to the growing SCOBY setup.
For the most optimal growth rate it’s recommended to keep the SCOBY at a constant 70 degrees F (21 degrees C) at all times. Ensure that it's in a dark environment away from direct sunlight as the UV rays are harmful to the bacteria and yeast spores.
Adding sweetened freshly brewed tea will ensure that the culture has enough food to feed on, thus spurring its growth rate. After ten days, a thin film should be noticeable near the top of the jar, indicating the growth of the new SCOBY.

How To Grow A SCOBY From Scratch

Equipment:
  • 2-quart mason glass jar
  • Large pan or pot
  • Long-handled spoon
  • Rubber band
  • Tightly woven cloth or paper towels
  • Strainer
Ingredients:
  • 6 cups water
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups raw kombucha
  • 4 black tea bags or 4 tsp loose-leaf black tea
 
Method 1: Store-bought kombucha
This method relies on store-bought unflavored raw kombucha in case you can't get your hands on a previous batch of kombucha. The results will be all the same, but the growth time may vary depending on the specific store-bought brew you decide to use. However, do not use pasteurized kombucha as this process usually denatures the culture required to grow the new SCOBY.
Directions:
1. Bring the water to boil in a large pot and add the tea leaves, steep for 15 minutes.
2. Add the sugar to the brewed tea and stir until its completely dissolved.
3. Strain out the tea and set aside to cool down to room temperature.
4. Pour the starter tea into the mason jar and add the now cooled sweetened tea and use a long-handled spoon to mix it thoroughly.
5. Use the tightly woven cloth or paper towels to cover the jar's mouth to keep out contaminants, use the rubber band to hold it in place firmly.
6. Transfer the mason jar to the storage area. Ideally, a pantry will do just fine as long as the temperatures don't exceed or fluctuate too much from the average room temperature of 70 degrees F (21 degrees C) and away from direct sunlight.
7. Keep track of the progress for the next 2 to 4 weeks and if the pH of the fluid drops below 2.7 then it’s time to add more freshly brewed and sweetened tea to provide more nutrients for the growing SCOBY.
Method 2: Growing from another SCOBY
Unlike the previous method, which relies on a starter tea as the only source of culture, this method will also include an older SCOBY as another source of the culture.
Directions:
1. Bring the water to boil in a large pot and add the tea leaves, steep for 15 minutes.
2. Add the sugar to the brewed tea and stir until its completely dissolved.
3. Strain out the tea and set aside to cool down to room temperature.
4. Pour the starter tea into the mason jar and add the now cooled sweetened tea and use a long-handled spoon to mix it thoroughly.
5. Gently place the older SCOBY into the mason jar and allow it to settle on its own; it can either float or sink to the bottom or anywhere between the two.
6. Use the tightly woven cloth or paper towels to cover the jar's mouth to keep out contaminants, use the rubber band to hold it in place firmly.
7. Transfer the mason jar to the storage area. Ideally, a pantry will do just fine as long as the temperatures don't exceed or fluctuate too much from the average room temperature of 70 degrees F (21 degrees C) and away from direct sunlight.
8. As the younger SCOBY begins to grow it might still be attached to the older SCOBY don't worry about this you can separate them later on.

Kombucha SCOBY Growth Stages From Just Starter Tea

Bubbling stage
This stage takes place after the first few days when the amount of carbon dioxide generated by the culture begins to bubble upwards.
Film growth stage
As the tiny bubbles collect on the surface, a thin transparent film will start growing near the surface of the tea just below the numerous bubbles. This transparent jelly-like film is the baby SCOBY beginning to grow.
Film thickening stage
This stage takes place from around the 10th day and may go up to 3 weeks. During this stage, the thin jelly-like film thickens into a solid opaque layer and can be used to brew kombucha tea.
Finished SCOBY stage
During this stage, the SCOBY will have grown to more than 1/4 inch thick, and it's considered fully grown and can even be used to grow another SCOBY.

SCOBY Mold

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Mold is probably the most common fear among homebrewers. This is because SCOBYs are delicate, and any exposure to harmful conditions will result in the growth of mold. The mold is an indication that the culture is no longer healthy. SCOBY mold has a darkish hue with a mushroomy smell and a surface riddled with mold hyphae, which are tiny smooth hairy like structures growing upwards.

Troubleshooting

If you notice mold growing on your SCOBY, then your next step will be dictated by the severity of the situation. If it's just a few spots near the outer edge, you can cut out the infected area, and the rest of the SCOBY will remain healthy.
On the other hand, when the mold growth is quite uncontrollable, the infected SCOBY, as well as the brew in which it was submerged, should be thrown out. Remember to clean the vessel thoroughly and use concentrated vinegar to rinse it before setting up another ferment.
SCOBY sinks to the bottom, what could be the problem?
While the SCOBY usually floats near the upper surface of the container, it does, at times, sink to the bottom. In as much as this can reduce the amount of oxygen readily available for the SCOBY, it shouldn't concern you. In fact, due to the reduce fermentation rate with the reduced oxygen supply, the brew might even turn out much more flavorful after the fermentation is finally over.

Dehydrated SCOBY

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Dehydrating a SCOBY is considered as a preservation method whereby the SCOBY is drained of most of its water content before storage or transportation.
Why would you dehydrate a SCOBY?
The only reason why SCOBY is dehydrated is to ease the shipping and storage of the SCOBY. After dehydration, the SCOBY not only takes much less space but can also be conveniently packed into much smaller packages.

How To Dehydrate A SCOBY:

Directions:
1. Place it on top of unbleached parchment paper and allow it to dry. The parchment paper will absorb the water from the SCOBY until it has the consistency of jerky.
2. While drying the SCOBY, it's recommended to do it in a warm place around 80 to 90 degrees F (26 - 32 degrees C). 
3. Ensure that the SCOBY is covered with another parchment paper to keep off fruit flies and pests, which might introduce unwanted bacteria and fungi to the SCOBY. The entire process can take up to 45 minutes.
4. Once the SCOBY is dehydrated, it can then be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 months, after which you will have to rehydrate it before using it to brew.

How To Rehydrate A SCOBY:

Equipment:
  • Mason glass jar quart size
  • Tightly woven cloth or coffee filter
  • Rubber band
  • Wooden stirring spoon
Ingredients:
  • The dehydrated SCOBY
  • 1/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1/2 cup distilled vinegar
  • 2 cups unchlorinated water
  • 2 tea bags or 2 teaspoons loose tealeaves
Directions:
1. Mix the 2 cups of boiling water and sugar in a container, stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
2. Add the tea leaves and steep for 15 minutes.
3. Allow the freshly brewed tea to cool to around 70 degrees F (21 degrees C) and strain out the tea leaves.
4. Add vinegar to the tea and stir well.
5. Place the dehydrated kombucha SCOBY into the mixture.
6. Dampen the thickly woven cloth with distilled vinegar and use it to cover the mouth of the jar.
7. Use the rubber band to hold the cloth into place firmly.
8. Transfer the jar into dark storage away from direct sunlight and within room temperature and leave it undisturbed for the next 30 days.
9. After the 30 days, the liquid should taste vinegary with a hint of creamy sweetness; this means the SCOBY is fully activated and can now be removed.

Is My SCOBY Dead?

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A dead SCOBY is quite easy to identify due to its distinctive blackish color and mold growing on it. This can give it a fuzzy dry whitish color. As the SCOBY dies, it also loses its shape and starts to break apart as it rots away. A SCOBY can die from lack of water, nutrients (sugar), and as a result of mold infection.

How To Store And Care For A SCOBY

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Your SOCBY will require detailed attention every once in a while. When it grows too large for your brewing jars, then it's time to transfer it to a SCOBY hotel. This long-term storage allows the SCOBY to remain unattended for up to 3 months as long as you keep on feeding the SCOBY with freshly brewed sweetened tea every few weeks. A SCOBY hotel is a specialized storage container that can be used to store the SCOBYs for longer periods without the need to check on the set regularly. Often you can leave the set up for 2 to 4 weeks unattended. Learn more about SCOBY Hotels here

How To Care For Your SCOBY

Apart from maintaining a regular feeding schedule (topping up the amount of freshly brewed sweetened tea regularly especially when in a SCOBY hotel) for your SCOBY and keeping it out of direct sunlight. We also recommend cutting and trimming your SCOBY when it grows too large. This will ensure that it remains productive while still fitting in your fermenting jars. Cutting the SCOBY in 2 will give you 2 SCOBYs, which can then be grown then be used to brew even more batches.

How To Trim A SCOBY:

The practice of SCOBY trimming can be done using a clean stainless-steel knife. The knife should be rinsed with distilled vinegar before cutting.
  • To accomplish this, take the SCOBY out of the hotel and gently spread it out on a clean flat surface. Use the knife to cut the SCOBY into the required sizes gently.
  • Transfer the halves into different jars or back into the SCOBY hotel for storage.

What To Do With SCOBY:

If you have too many SCOBYs and your hotel can't hold any more, there are a few alternative ways to utilize the culture instead of throwing it away.

Eat It:

SCOBY is perfectly edible. You can spread it on bread to give it an earthy, tart flavor. SCOBY consumed raw is rich in probiotics, which have a significant effect on overall health (link). 
SCOBY Candy - Recipe 
If you are an avid brewer, then extra kombucha SCOBY is more likely to pile up quick. With this recipe, you can cook the extra SCOBY to a syrup, which can then be evaporated on a parchment paper and cools down to form SCOBY candy.
SCOBY Jerky - Recipe
SCOBY can be marinated with various ingredients and dehydrated turning it to SCOBY jerky. The jerky is not only rich in vitamins, but it also has quite a flavorful taste.
 

Alternative Uses For SCOBY:

Beyond making kombucha tea, the SCOBY can also be grown for other commercial applications. These include:
SCOBY Leather
Kombucha SCOBY can be dehydrated and processed to form SCOBY leather. The material is quite soft and can be used to make many things, such as wallets. SCOBY leather is also environmentally sustainable as it doesn't produce any harmful raw waste.
Zero-Waste Packaging
SCOBY can be used to make edible packaging for seeds, herbs, and instant meals, whereby the packaging could just be heated together with the packaged meal (link).

FAQs

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Can you eat a SCOBY?
Yes, SCOBY is perfectly edible and can be consumed either raw or cooked.
Is SCOBY alive?
A SCOBY is alive as it's full of active bacteria and yeast cells that are continuously reproducing and growing.
Can kombucha kill you?
While kombucha is harmless to most people if not prepared well, there's a possibility that lethal bacteria may grow in it especially if the acidity fails to stop such harmful bacteria from growing in the brew.

 

 

Interested in learning more about kombucha?
Check out these articles:
Kombucha and pH
Kombucha Bottles
Does Kombucha Go Bad?
How to Pronounce Kombucha
How Much Caffeine Is In Kombucha?
Vinegar Eels
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