the giant kombucha mother that gobbled up the east side of madison

Soundtrack in my head: The Standells, “Dirty Water”

kombuchaI have a new hobby.  Or should I say, a new hobby has me. Kombucha is the hobby.

I have entered into a mutual cooperative working relationship with what biologists classify as a “zoogleal mat.”  (When I entered that term into Wikipedia, it redirected me to a page about “biofilm,” examples of which includes dental plaque and slime.)  It is also called a “SCOBY” which is an acronym for “Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast,” and is referred to most affectionately as a “kombucha mother.”

The arrangement is as follows:  I feed this aggregate of microorganisms tons of sugar and caffeine, and these microorganisms make kombucha for me, a delicious fizzy brew that tastes a bit like apple cider and which is reportedly full of antioxidants, probiotics and amino acids, while also helping  with the immune system and liver functions.

Living near the Willy Street Co-op, I found myself indulging in little $3 bottles of kombucha. I fell in love with its complex flavor.  It reminded me of a good glass of wine (which is nice because I haven’t consumed alcohol since becoming a Baha’i in 2007), and I loved the fact that I could indulge in a fizzy drink guilt-free.

I’ve been wanting to drink something other than coffee in the morning–for me, a good cold and fizzy beverage does a better job waking me up than something so hot that I have to drink it slowly. Also, I’ve always liked my coffee white, and the complex operation of adding cream and sugar is just a bit too much for someone who doesn’t have very many synapses firing in his brain early in the morning.  But a 64 oz bottle of kombucha costs about $8 and I could see that this could become an expensive habit quite quickly–maybe not quite like Starbucks, but then again, to me Starbucks tastes like a freshly brewed ashtray.

At the beginning of March, I saw a sign in the checkout lane at Willy Street that advertised a kombucha making workshop.  Thirty dollars would pay for a one-hour workshop and would also include a free kombucha starter kit with a one-gallon jar, some starter tea, and my very own scoby.  I couldn’t resist.  The workshop was put on by two women who own NesAlla, a local business brewing and selling their own kombucha.  They are located in an old commercial building on Winnebago Street within walking distance of my house.

The rest is history.  I’ve started brewing more and more of the stuff.  A few weeks ago, I stopped at a Boston Store (for you Chicagoans, this is what Carson Pirie Scott is called almost everywhere else) looking for a gallon jar to brew more of the stuff.  The attendant asked if she could help me, and when I told her about my kombucha brewing mission, she got quite excited and became eager to help me.  She explained that she was a microbiologist at the university (working at the Boston Store for extra cash) and as such, had quite the appreciation for kombucha.  She soon came up with a two-gallon jar with its own spigot, which you see housing the kombucha above.

I am now brewing three gallons of the stuff a week and consider myself an addict.  There is still a lot I need to learn about the art of brewing kombucha, but I’m pretty happy with the results so far.

I must confess that the act of fermentation has altered my thoughts about what is gross and what isn’t.  I have no qualms about touching or picking up the scoby.  After one week in the gallon and two-gallon jars, I transfer the brew to smaller jars for the anaerobic phase of the brewing and then refrigerate after 1-5 days.  Sometimes the process isn’t anaerobic enough and the beginnings of another scoby develop, and I might discover it I’m pouring or consuming the drink.  It greets me with a gelatinous texture somewhere between that of snot and a goldfish.  But it’s more pleasant to swallow than either. (Not that I’ve gotten in the habit of swallowing either.  At least not intentionally.)  The following video shows a toddler discovering the wonders of consuming the kombucha mother directly–a texture reportedly similar to that of calamari…


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