The Road to SCOBY

It all started with an idea...

A SCOBY is a beautiful example of microbes working together to make something awesome, and in this case delicious. SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture of Yeast and Bacteria and is used to make a delicious, bubbly, non-alcoholic, fermented drink called kombucha that has a ton of beneficial microbes for your gut health. 

My fascination for SCOBYs started with the question  “How do I make a SCOBY from scratch?”.  Traditionally, SCOBY's are made by adding some previously fermented kombucha to some sweet tea - a process commonly known as “backslopping”. I couldn’t stop thinking “Kombucha didn’t just come out of nowhere, there must be a method to make kombucha without a previous batch”. This started my journey to try and make a SCOBY from scratch without a previous batch of kombucha. 

JAN 2021-APR 2021: Start of Many Fails and Small Successes  

In the beginning of 2021, I started my deep dive into the world of SCOBY. Surprisingly, even with the rise in popularity of SCOBY and Kombucha, there is very little written about how to make a SCOBY that does not involve backslopping. With some research, I came up with four different wacky methods that would make a good starting point.

The common similarity of the first four methods is that they all start with a live vinegar. Live vinegars produce a “Mother of Vinegar” (MOV) that is very similar to a SCOBY and also acidifies a liquid. The main difference between SCOBYs and MOVs is that SCOBYs ferments unfermented sweet tea, and MOV ferments previously fermented and alcoholic liquids (eg beer, wine, cider). These trials focused on exploring if MOVs could be changed to SCOBYs over several generations.


This first trial included vacuum sealed apples. In my opinion, this trial was the most outrageous. The apples were first cleaned of any dirt, quartered, and gently covered in sugar before they were placed in a vacuum sealed bag with all of the air removed. In the first week, the apples let off so much gas that the bag turned turgid and looked ready to explode, yet the apples appeared to stay the same. According to my research, the apples were supposed to eventually start creating a liquid - but over the next four months, no change was seen while other experiments were producing results. At the end of six months, the apples in the bag were still whole and practically unchanged so I scrapped the first trial and moved onto the next idea. This marked the death of my first trial.

 

Unfortunately, Trial 2 where apples were submerged in water, also did not work. The idea for this method is similar to the first, with the goal being that the natural microbes on the apples release into the water and naturally form a SCOBY. Even though I initially dropped the pH using white vinegar to prevent unwanted growth, the apples grew moldy pretty early on. I tried to remove some of the mold as it didn’t seem to be touching any liquid, which seemed to work as no mold grew back several weeks later and the pH dropped drastically. Admittedly, as it grew each week I was excited and thought that the SCOBY was going to be a winner (Figure 1). By the time this SCOBY was around two inches thick, I thought it best to transfer it to some new sweet tea. To my disappointment, as soon as the SCOBY was repitched into a less acidic condition, the mold reappeared. This marked the death of my second trial. 

 
Figure 1: Second trial containing apples, water, and vinegar. SCOBY can be seen at the top of the jar.


The third and and fourth trials were very similar and the most successful.The third trial used unfiltered, unpasteurized beer. We let it sit and turn in vinegar, which was then pitched into some sweet tea. The fourth trail was identical except it used unpasteurized apple cider vinegar to pitch into the sweet tea. The theory was that over time you could train the live vinegar or MOV to perform as a kombucha SCOBY. The idea was sound but at the end of the day, over several different generations of SCOBYs, the taste did not hit the desired flavor. Hence marking the death of the final two trials. So, now what?

                                      Figure 2: Trial 4                                                Figure 3: Trial 3 (healthy SCOBY)                                                                               

MAR 2021-JUL 2021: Back to the Drawing Board & Big Decisions

Close to the end of the previous trials I started testing some other options. At one point I had around 20 batches of kombucha on the go! I realized that I was going to have to start culling my collection and focussing on my favourites. Contenders got eliminated for various reasons including taste, sugar consumption flavour, balance and overall appearance. In the end, I ended up with 2 top contenders; one of the variations of trial 3 mentioned earlier, and one of the new options developed with insights after the initial trials called “Trial 5”. Choosing between the two new cultures was not easy (they actually tasted good this time!) but we ultimately needed to come to a decision. 

Trial #

Trial Description

3

Unfiltered, unpasteurized beer with vinegar, and pitched into sweet tea

5 (NEW)

Developed based on insights from trials 1-4


The first thing I looked for was SCOBY health - it is very easy to see if a SCOBY is healthy by some simple visual check. A mature and healthy SCOBY will have a uniform colour and thickness. Some indications of unhealthy SCOBY include holes and weak points in the SCOBY, or an inability to grow and get thicker. This was exactly what was different between the “Trial 3” SCOBY and the “Trial 5” SCOBY. “Trial 3” never grew a healthy SCOBY and was always dead looking, while “Trial 5” was able to produce a very healthy looking SCOBY of uniform consistency. 

Another factor aiding in my decision was taste. With kombucha, it is all about balance, especially when it comes to the balance of acidity. Most kombucha consumers want something that is acidic and tangy but not overpowering, and too much of one type of acid can throw the whole drink off balance. While both SCOBY made acidic kombucha, “Trial 3” tasted too acidic, almost like vinegar. “Trial 5” on the other hand was much more balanced and has only gotten better since. 

With the gathered information and help from the whole Escarpment team, we picked “Trial 5” as our favourite SCOBY (which we then referred to as codename “Triple Threat” due to its superior consistency, balanced acidity, and flavour).

JUL 2021 – AUG 2021: Kombucha on a Big Scale & Troubles with the Details 

Due to the busy summer season, there wasn’t a lot of movement that was made during the spring and early summer. That is, until Sonnen Hill Brewery reached out and inquired about a SCOBY culture, and we decided to ramp up the project to get them to test the SCOBY out. In the next few months, we had a lot to cover.  We needed to establish and set up a QC plan that included external and internal testing, and we needed to calculate a pitch rate. pH is super important to the success of the final kombucha, but there are a ton of variables that impact it, including water and tea. Once we were happy with the trial product and its quality, I traveled to make our first professional kombucha batch with Calum from Sonnen Hill. It was an awesome success!

SEP 2021 – NOV 2021: Optimization to Sell

With the success at Sonnen Hill we knew we wanted to get the SCOBY out to the public. The next chapter was trying to figure out how to optimize our SCOBY to make it better and get it out to homebrew/home fermentation customers. To do this, we recruited some extra help from (another co-op student) Hana Knill. 

Together we brainstormed and came to the conclusion that we could make our SCOBY and kombucha-making process even better by focusing on water chemistry, sugar concentration and pitch rate. During the following trials, we figured out that the water chemistry can greatly impact the health of the finished SCOBY and kombucha, and actually helped us be more accurate with our pitch rate. 

With distilled water we found that we would consistently over pitch, and could not achieve an accurate pitch rate. The pH would always start too low, averaging around 3.2, and end at a pH of around 2.7. This made a very acidic kombucha that was not pleasant to drink. As soon as we switch to boiled tap water we notice a difference in pH and SCOBY health right away. This meant that we could  immediately hit the desired pH range every time, and the SCOBY started produce healthy looking SCOBY after only two generations. 

Our next challenge to face was how to sell our SCOBY to people who wanted to use it for personal use. I knew it wouldn’t be practical to grow small physical SCOBY’s for homebrew size pouches. Any idea that included a physical SCOBY had various problems that I wasn’t ready to settle for, but I still wanted the benefits of a physical SCOBY. After some more research and trial & error, we figured out how to make a super concentrated but still pourable SCOBY solution. This SCOBY super liquid can make a small SCOBY in your kombucha within 1 week. After 1 week you can go straight into your second ferment. However, I suggest stepping the SCOBY up one more time to allow the SCOBY to mature and to get more kombucha liquid.

Want to learn more? Check out our SCOBY Brewing Guide.

NOV 2021- DEC 2021: The Final Push

With the final SCOBY process and formulation ready, we went into sprint mode to get it out before Christmas. We had a whole team working on all the online resources, website, photos, videos and Kombucha Kit assembly. It is always super exciting to see something you work hard on finally get in the hands of customers. As I write this in January, we have sold over 750 litres of SCOBY and are only getting started.

If you are interested in a SCOBY Homebrew pitch or a Kombucha Kit, click here. If you are interested in a Pro pitch for commercial production, need help troubleshooting your SCOBY, or are interested in becoming a wholesaler, please contact Ferment@escarpmentlabs.com.

Our goal for all of this is to demystify kombucha production, and use science to make it easy for you to make great kombucha every single time.