The mother in my kitchen

Words: Nena Foster   Illustration by Tom Camp

The mother in my kitchen

A look at kombucha

It’s been a few years since she moved in—sat in her usual spot, jelly-like, enjoying her tea and frankly not smelling of roses. Of course, I don’t mean my own mother; she’d never allow me to live if I described her this way publicly.

But for those of you clued in to food trends, and more specifically, the health food trend that is kombucha, you’ll know that a ‘Mother’ is another name for a SCOBY, the gelatinous powerhouse responsible for imparting the distinctive vinegary flavour and fizziness to an otherwise ordinary brew of sugary tea.

A SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, looks essentially like a beige-ish, rubbery pancake and some are distinctively lumpier and more alien in appearance than others. A SCOBY or Mother can turn a batch of tea into a fermented drink, renowned for centuries for its health-promoting properties, that tastes close to a sparkling apple cider. Kombucha, thanks to the process of secondary fermentation, can also take on a variety of complex flavours with any range of ingredients, simple or sophisticated. The avid experimenter in me enjoys this part of the process the most. But what IS a SCOBY? And what exactly is my Mother getting up to in the corner of my kitchen?

Kombucha is thought to have originated in China, with its first recorded use in 221 BBC, but the term ‘kombucha’ is Japanese, said to have been given to the drink after it was used by a Korean physician to treat an ailing Japanese emperor. Its use spread from Russia to Europe, dying out during WWII, before finding revival in post-war Germany where it was used to treat cancer, metabolic disorders, high blood pressure and diabetes. This is one narrative; ask another kombucha historian (if such a person exists), and you’re likely to hear something different. Only recently did I learn about kombucha’s popularity in the 80s amongst the U.S gay community, which widely used it as a last resort option for relief from AIDS-related symptoms. Sadly, it didn’t turn out to be the mysterious cure many were hoping for.

Even more mysterious than its origins and its medicinal properties are the actual inter-workings of the bacterial and yeast cultures housed in the SCOBY. The microbial populations of the SCOBY tend to vary depending on the origins of the culture and how it is brewed. Fermenting in the ‘wild’, i.e. at home, or quite literally in an outdoor vat (à la Sandor Katz, the proclaimed father of modern fermentation) means that the bacterial profile in each brew can vary. A SCOBY’s composition is influenced by the bacteria and yeast in its environment via the air (kombucha is traditionally fermented in an open container), as well as the duration for which it’s fermented, whereas there is much less variability with commercially fermented kombucha.

Generally, you can find the acetic acid-producing bacteria, Acetobacter, the gluconic acid bacteria Gluconobacter and the lactic acid producing bacteria, Lactobacillius in SCOBY coexisting amicably. In addition to the bacteria, there are several species of yeasts that have been shown to vary quite widely, depending on where, geographically, the kombucha is brewed. Scientists have analysed kombucha samples from varying parts of the world to demonstrate and document these variations.

So, what happens when you add this bacterial yeasty wonder into a batch of sugary tea? Essentially, the bacteria and yeasts get to work, feeding on and metabolising the sugar in the sugary tea, fermenting the tea and imbuing the tea with a range of organic acids and nutrients. This process produces a range of organic acids, some of which are mentioned above, as well as carbonic acid, which causes carbonation or the bubbles to appear, giving kombucha its slight fizziness. The metabolic process also produces vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12 and C, over 14 different amino acids, enzyme proteins, ethanol, phenols, polyphenols and some residual sugars (the amount of which varies depending on how long the tea is fermented), as well as bacteria and yeast. It is the organic acids and enzymes linked to aided digestion, the ‘good’ bacteria and the additional nutrients that give kombucha its health-boosting credentials.

The process of bacterial and yeast replication and/or reproduction that occurs as part of the fermentation process imparts a maternalistic function on the SCOBY, hence the reference. Think of the parallels — she is busy supporting a colony, providing a nurturing environment for more bacterial and yeast growth, as well as spawning babies, which can often be found hanging off the Mother; an uncanny resemblance to real-life motherhood.

My Mother, despite appearances, is quite busy and up to some pretty clever, science-y stuff. She may resemble your Mother and much like yours, make a mean fizzy tea. But despite performing the same functions, no two Mothers, just like in real life, are quite the same.