What is a SCOBY?

Browsing in a health food store or scrolling online in the past few years, you may have seen the word “SCOBY”. By now, most people have worked out that it has something to do with kombucha, but few people know what it’s made of and how it works. If you’re one of those in the dark, fear no more! We’re about to break down everything you need to know about the power of the mysterious SCOBY. 

Despite the way it sounds, SCOBY isn’t a random made-up word. It’s an acronym that stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”, and it’s needed to kickstart the fermentation of each new batch of kombucha. It works in a similar way to the “starter” used to make sourdough bread. The difference here is that the SCOBY is fed with tea and sugar as opposed to flour and water. Similar to the “mother” dough for sourdough baking, the SCOBY is the “mother” culture for kombucha production. Unsurprisingly, this is why a SCOBY is often also referred to as “the mother”, with slightly less common names being “the pellicle” and “the pancake”. 

The SCOBY is essentially a cellulose mat which contains the bacteria and yeast needed for the fermentation process. You can skip a few steps and buy/acquire one from someone else, or grow your own from scratch over a few weeks. If you grow your own (see details below), you’ll see it start to form as a film on the top of the liquid. It’s usually cream to light tan in colour and tends to get darker over time. Properly looked after, a healthy SCOBY can be used over and over again for years.

The main purpose of the SCOBY is to ferment the sweet tea in your brewing vessel and turn it into kombucha. Over a week or so, the bacteria and yeast will convert the sugars in the tea into beneficial organic acids, enzymes and vitamins. The end product is a delicious and refreshing drink with numerous health benefits. The main selling point of this fermented beverage is its ability to help solve digestive and gastrointestinal issues. This is because kombucha is a source of probiotics, or healthy bacteria which can help to balance the gut and stabilise the digestive tract. 

Another reason lots of kombucha enthusiasts enjoy using a SCOBY is because it acts as a kind of seal, creating a barrier between the liquid and the air above it. This can be helpful to prevent harmful bacteria or dust and dirt from coming into contact with the kombucha and ruining the fermentation process. It also means the kombucha produced from your first fermentation (see our previous blog on the different fermentation steps in making kombucha) will already have some carbonation to it from the carbon dioxide that builds up in the liquid and which cannot get past the SCOBY “lid”. To achieve a properly fizzy kombucha, however, a second fermentation in a bottle with an airtight seal is required – this is when you can also experiment with adding different flavours to your kombucha.

While using a SCOBY is often beneficial, it is possible to produce kombucha without one. If you use a good amount of starter tea to begin with, this should provide enough yeast and bacteria to ferment your sweet tea. And chances are that a “baby” SCOBY will end up growing across the surface of your liquid anyway, and this can then be used to produce more kombucha. So it really is up to you whether or not to use a SCOBY – it’s a matter of trial and error and finding out what method works best to produce the kind of kombucha you’re after. Keep in mind that using a SCOBY tends to ferment the sweet tea faster. So if you’re looking to save a few days, the SCOBY route may be the best call. It’s also possible that the additional bacteria provided by the SCOBY strengthen kombucha’s health benefits.

How to make your own SCOBY

You can buy a SCOBY or get one from a friend who’s a kombucha-making veteran. But there’s incredible satisfaction to be had in saying you made something from scratch. So, if you’re keen to start making your own kombucha, why not go the extra mile and try to make your own SCOBY too? Read on for all the details…

Did you know? Because our kombucha is fully alive (non-pasteurised), each bottle contains a generous serving of the live cultures created by our mother culture. This means you can use our ready-to-drink kombucha as a starter liquid for your home brew. 

What you’ll need:

7 cups water

½ cup white/brown sugar*

4 teabags**

1 cup Happy Culture kombucha 

*White or brown sugar are the best choices and produce the most consistent results. Other sweeteners such as honey and sugar substitutes should be avoided. 

**Green, black or oolong tea from the Camellia sinensis plant are traditionally used and yield the best results. It’s best to stay away from herbal teas or those with added flavour as these can react with the kombucha and ruin the fermentation.

Make your sweet tea by boiling the water, dissolving the sugar in it and allowing the tea bags to steep until the tea has cooled. Next, transfer the tea to a large glass jar and add your Happy Culture kombucha – this will act as your starter and kick off the fermentation process. Cover the jar with cheesecloth and secure it in place, then leave your brew in a dark place at room temperature for up to 4 weeks. Keep an eye on it and watch for the formation of your SCOBY.

What to do with extra SCOBYs?

Sometimes, a “baby” SCOBY forms when you brew a batch of kombucha. If you make kombucha regularly, you may accumulate quite a few and struggle to know what to do with them. While it’s perfectly all right to ditch them, we like to avoid waste where possible so we’ve put together a few ideas. There are tons more out there, so Google is your best friend. 

  • If you’re keen to keep brewing kombucha,  save some of your extra SCOBYs in case something goes wrong with a future batch. Proper SCOBY storage is key here. You’ll need to house them in a “SCOBY hotel”, which is essentially a covered container with kombucha in it that keeps them moist. You can leave this at room temperature for months, checking on it from time to time, adding new SCOBYs as you produce them, and adding more kombucha if need be. 
  • Share your extra SCOBYs with friends so they can also try brewing kombucha. Once again, you’ll need to handle and store the SCOBY with care. Do some research on the internet for tips on SCOBY transport. 
  • Use them to boost your compost heap. 
  • Eat them. You can use SCOBYs to make jellies, or add them to smoothies. Try experimenting and see what you can use them for!
  • Try out some DIY skin care. There are plenty of recipes for face masks, soaps etc. online.

Importance of the gut microbiome and gut health

We’ve mentioned that kombucha can be beneficial to your gut health, but how exactly does this work and why is the gut so important? 

We all know that the gut and its various components, from the oesophagus down to the bowel, are important for digestion. But gut health isn’t just about having a healthy functioning digestive system. The health of the gut can have a major effect on other important bodily systems and functions. The key to its influence over the body is the gut microbiome. 

A microbiome is defined as “the collection of all microbes such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and their genes, that naturally live on our bodies and inside us”. Our gut microbiome is simply the collection of microbes specific to our gut. It’s incredibly important for our health and is often referred to as an additional organ. 

The way it works is rather complex but it comes down to the composition and distribution of the microbes in the gut. There are “good” and “bad” bacteria, and having a high microbiome diversity is generally considered to be good for your health. However, factors such as diet, stress, antibiotic use and exercise can affect the levels of these different kinds of bacteria and sometimes result in an imbalance, or what we call a “dysbiosis”. This is when the bacteria are no longer in homeostasis, either due to a loss of beneficial bacteria or a rise in pathogenic microbes. Because the gut and its microbiome are so important, this can affect our health in a number of ways:

  • Digestion
    Unsurprisingly, when the gut microbiome is in dysbiosis, it can alter the functioning of the digestive system. Micro-organisms in the gut are partly responsible for breaking down food and making it more digestible. Therefore, the make-up of our gut microbiome is important for determining the foods we can tolerate. Everyone’s gut microbiome is unique, so foods that help one person to thrive may cause irritation in others.

    An example of the role of bacteria is in the case of lactose intolerance, which is due to the body’s inability to produce enough lactase to break down lactose. The uncomfortable symptoms of lactose intolerance are due to bacteria in the colon breaking down and fermenting the lactose to produce gases such as carbon dioxide. 
  • Immune system
    Approximately 70% of the immune system is housed in the gut, where immune cells that line the intestines interact with bacteria and train the immune system to recognise foreign entities. The gut wall is essentially a barrier between the gut and the bloodstream, preventing bad microbes from entering the body and causing disease. When the gut and gut wall are compromised, however, it is possible for bacteria to pass through this barrier and make us sick. 
  • Mental health
    The gut is sometimes called the “second brain” due to its connection with and influence over the brain. The communication between the gut and the brain is called the gut-brain axis and has a lot to do with the gut microbiome. Bacteria in the gut are able to stimulate the nervous system and send messages to the brain, as well as release hormones identical to those made by our own body. These bacteria are therefore able to affect the functioning of our brains and our mental health.

And there you have it – all you need to know about SCOBYs, your gut and the sneaky little bacteria that have a big role to play in your health. Kombucha is great as a probiotic, as well as for an energy boost and to make you feel good. So what do you say? Are you going to try making your own SCOBY so you can enjoy all the benefits kombucha has to offer? We think you should! 

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