Live and Let Die – Culture Edition
For a very long time I would read the part in “The Art of Fermentation” where quantity moderation and quality specialization are recommended over lots and lots (and lots) of ferments and scoff, just the tiniest bit. I’d been fermenting stuff daily for a good long time when I first read that part and I felt no signs of waning attention for any of my many cultures and projects. The competitive part of me was proud of the 20+ ferments I had going on a slow day and of the extraordinary cultures I kept alive with daily or weekly feedings that sometimes came at the expense of an hour or so of sleep. I couldn’t really foresee a future in which the health of any one of my cultures would be in question due to neglect, nor a time when I would simply not feel like managing the daily care of so many little beasts.
I had (and have) a reminder system on my phone as well as a pretty kickass spreadsheet, detailing the times ferments were started, refrigerated, need to be changed and any odd variations I might have done with that batch. I’m not that kind of engineering-brained person normally, but it felt necessary at times when my sourdough starters would all start to look the same and I couldn’t remember if it was my milk or water kefir that had already completed secondary fermentation. The fact that I created those systems would definitely be impressive to anyone who knows my propensity to fly by the seat of my pants. I used to think that it was a sign of my growing maturity, or perhaps just my extreme love for the fermentation process. In retrospect, I think they are signs that I was getting overwhelmed.
Last year, I suffered some serious guilt when I lost a yogurt culture and a sourdough culture in the space of one week. I felt guilty, and a little frantic, but it didn’t convince me to slow down or make changes. In fact, it was only very recently that I reached a breaking point. Or maybe it was a revelation. In any case, I let a culture die. On purpose. It was my ginger beer plant. While it makes (made) the world’s best ginger beer, I just couldn’t keep up its every-second-day feedings when I had SO many other cultures to care for that produced foods and drinks that I drink on a daily basis. 3 gallons of ginger beer on standby when you’re hosting large, drunken dinner parties (or better yet, ragers) every week is a gift. Three gallons of ginger beer on standby when you have two people in your household and are trying to down three kinds of kombucha, two kinds of kvass, water kefir, milk kefir, and a whole host of other limited edition fermented foods and drinks is a nightmare of undesired sugar.
So I said to myself, “Two tears in a bucket. I’ll culture this batch until I have the energy to make a new one. If the little guys are still alive when that time comes, more power to them. If they’re not, I’ll sing them a song of RIP.” And I did. Turns out those little suckers are hardy! The batch, at 3 weeks, was undrinkable sour and had an odd, creamy aftertaste, but after a brief stay in a recovery bath, they completely bounced back and have made me many lightly foamy batches since then.
Long before I knew they would recover, though, I decided not to feel guilty, and I decided to take stock. As it turns out, unsurprisingly, Mr. Katz was correct. I can’t do everything, especially when I’m frequently growing cultures for classes. While getting rid of SCOBYs might be a hassle for most kombucha-makers, my problem is storing SCOBYs so that they don’t connect to each other and stay alive and happy while I’m growing 20 more of their friends for my next kombucha class.
Doing fewer things gives me a bit more time to commit to getting better at the things I continue to do. It also gives me time to experiment with new things (lots of that coming to a blog near you soon) and that is very important to me.
Have you ever had to voluntarily give up a culture? How did you cope?