Ever heard of The Mother? The Mushroom? Ginger Beer Plant? SCOBY? Kefir Grains? Sourdough starter? Ginger bug? Well, the first five are some of the world’s many SCOBYs, and the last are made up of SCOBYs and their foods, in a sense. SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast, which I think is pretty self-explanatory but those who don’t ferment food may not. So allow me to explain: Some foods ferment all by themselves when given the right conditions (think pickles, sauerkraut, clabber). Other foods and beverages need a culture to ferment. Of those that need a culture, many use a SCOBY of one kind or another. Then there is the other kind (the sourdoughs and ginger bugs of the world) that exist through the help of an independently formed and often very stable SCOBY.
SCOBYs have been around for millennia, eating sugars and making foods delicious and safer to eat, but it’s only in the past hundred years or so, thanks to the dawn of microbiology, that people have knowledge of how they do that, or even knowledge that those physical cultures were made up of yeast and bacteria. Those “Communities of Bacteria and Yeast” I mentioned above are actually extremely diverse and stable. Some have stronger yeast populations, others have more or stronger bacterial strains. Some eat lactose, others eat sucrose, but in the end, they all make fermented foods.
Like anyone who
was alive in the 90s drinks kombucha, I had long noted the weird, gelatinous dude floating around in my drink sometimes. I wasn’t a fan, and it would often make me not want to drink kombucha (yes, dear readers, I am serious about straining my kombucha, since I do not enjoy stray bits of SCOBY or yeast dangling in mouth and throat. I’m a texture person. All of my food preferences are informed by this. Creamy/fluffy/chewy/crunchy = good. Slimy/gelatinous = bad and you will never convince my palate otherwise.
Kombucha SCOBYs, however, are not the only SCOBYs. Kefir grains are misnamed, most likely after their granular appearance. The truth is that both milk and water kefir grains are also symbiotic communities of bacteria and yeast. You may have noticed that they guys don’t exactly look alike. They don’t have the same make-up, either. Each SCOBY has its own bacteria/yeast make up. Even within the different types, there are likely some differences in bacterial/yeast content since many people report their grains and SCOBYs behaving differently.
I recently talked to a guy who makes his milk kefir with skim, raw milk, lets it ferment for a week or more each time, and stores it in his fridge for a couple months between feedings. My own grains can not tolerate raw milk, prefer a fatty environment and reproduce much faster when stored in the fridge, where I would never leave them for longer than 10 days. I’ve done some at-home experiments on spare milk kefir grains to come to these conclusions, so I know them to be true for my grains, and I know other people who’ve had very different experiences in their own home environments. To me this is fascinating! Not only do different breeds of SCOBY have different preferences and microbes, but even within the same time of SCOBY, there are little differences that point to the likelihood of some different microbes as well.
For me, this is wonderful because it speaks, again, to the power of evolution, the ability of microbes to adapt and that micro-terroir that makes me so happy to be among the fermenty folks of the world. These bacteria and yeasts are various and distinct. They eat different food (some eat sucrose, some lactose, some tea, etc.) some need warmer temperatures to be happy, other thrive at room temperature.
Sourdough and ginger bugs are not exactly SCOBYs. They, of course, contain foodstuffs that you add. However, the living part of them is indeed a SCOBY.
One of my favorite tales in Sandor Katz’ wonderful The Art of Fermentation is the story of the study conducted on the microbial communities of bakeries that bake with sourdough. I’ll let you read it in Katz’ beautiful prose, but the short of it is that the home community of microbes always dominated those present in a new strain that was brought in, and pretty quickly, too. Not only that, but the communities of microbes present in each community differed from bakery to bakery. The yeasts present in the air actually favored certain bacteria present on the grains over others. (If that’s not a symbiotic relationship, what is?) For me, this was a revelation. It meant that I didn’t need to cry about the 7(?)-year-old desem starter that ran away, because starting a new one would mean ending up with the same microbes I’d had. The fact that that starter had lived in a few states and a couple countries didn’t impact the starter’s microbial makeup after even just a couple generations of feedings! In a way, this negates the need to buy a pricey, pre-made lactobacillus sanfrancicensis-based starters, but it also makes me a little sad that I haven’t, in fact, brought the microbes from my many homes around the world to live with me in Philly. Or worse yet, I did bring them, but then they were murdered by my vicious, Philadelphia-native microbes.
If you are interested in knowing which specific microbes make up your various SCOBYs, I highly recommend checking out Dom’s kefir site for info on both milk and water kefir grains (MKG and SKG for people who love to use acronyms to show they’re in the know). I also just read a book, kindly sent to me by the Book Publishing Co., that’s loaded with information about the microbial content (and health benefits) of kombucha. Find Klaus Kauffman’s Kombucha Rediscovered by clicking there.
If you are a Pennsy-dweller and you want to get a SCOBY of your own, you’ll have a chance to win one in a half-gallon of fermenting kombucha this Sunday, October 27th, at Lehigh Valley Harvest in Allentown, PA, when I partner with Fillmore Container to give one away! You could luck out doubly by entering here, today, to win two tickets to this event (a $50 value)!
To win the tickets, simply leave a comment telling me about your favorite culture or your favorite fall ferment! This event is coming up quick, so this contest will be a short one. Enter by 11:59pm EST, Thursday, October 24th. To double your chance to win tweet a link to purchase tickets, with the hashtag “phickleHarvest.” This event is bound to be pretty amazing! There is an extraordinary menu of local drinks and foods included in the ticket price, canning demos from the ALWAYS amazing Food in Jars, cooking demos using seasonal, local foods and a couple of fermentation demos (plus a giveaway of that SCOBY I mentioned) from yours truly, and so much more. Check out the line up for this festival of harvest. Please spread the words to your Lehigh Valley friends!