Copyright 1995 By Michael Roussin
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So ... you think you want to have a Kombucha mushroom, frequently known as a Manchurian mushroom in your very own home. Perhaps you've read about it, seen it on television or a friend or family member has offered you one. It sounds like a great health supplement and you think you want to try it for yourself. Perhaps you have a few questions of your own, like what is it and what makes it a magic or mystical mushroom. There are other questions you should ask to insure that you are getting what you had heard about or hoped you were getting. Those are the questions that will come to mind for many Kombucha drinkers after a few successes or failures in their fermenting attempts. Before we get to the questions, lets cover some basics about the Kombucha culture and why it is supposed to be beneficial for health.
The Kombucha mushroom tea, (frequently called Manchurian Mushroom Tea, and widely known in parts of Europe as Red Tea) is not a mushroom at all. It has no spores and reproduces by vegetative sprouting. It is a yeast culture that has a symbiotic relationship with various bacteria. In short, it is kind of a mini- compost pile that thrives on saccharose (refined sugar) and tea. Its common name is Kombucha, which translates into English as Kombu Tea. It derived its name from the Korean physician Kombu, who introduced it to Japan in 414 A.D., to treat the emperor Inkyo. Cha is japanese for tea, hence the name Kombu Cha.
The Kombucha culture looks like a grayish-white pancake when it is young. An adult culture with several offspring may appear brown in color due to the dye effects of living in a black tea nutrient solution. An older adult (approaching retirement in your flower bed or garden) will look as though it has lived its life in a pot of strong Columbian coffee. Since this discussion is for the interest of the new (or would-be) Kombucha culture owner, we will focus on the grayish-white "baby" or lightly brown "parent" cultures.
The culture looks fragile, but when you hold it, it has a rubbery texture and the consistency of leather, it is not nearly as fragile as it appears. The culture should only be handled after you have washed your hands and removed your jewelry. Metals are the natural enemy of the Kombucha culture so removing your rings is a courtesy that your Kombucha culture will appreciate and respect. If you cannot remove your rings, don't worry, just be sure to limit the amount of time you spend handling your cultures. For the new (or would-be) Kombucha owner, it is sometimes hard to remember that this is a living creature and that the way you handle it could be fatal for it. Seasoned Kombucha owners have developed a great deal of respect for their cultures and can speak in detail about how they handle them and care for them.
The Kombucha culture survives in a nutrient solution of sugar and tea. If you are concerned with the consumption of white sugar and black tea, let's settle that discussion early on. You are not going to consume the sugar and tea, the Kombucha culture is. You're going to consume the culture's waste products from its digestion of the sugar and tea. I know how yummy that must sound, so let's take a peek at what the culture sheds as waste products. How about vitamin C and a variety of B vitamins? That's the easy stuff, it also discards for your consumption, glucuronic acid (about 3g per quart), dextrogyral (digestive l-lactic acid about 3g per quart), ethanoic acid (acetic acid about 3.25g per quart), hyaluronic acid, heparin, mucoitin-sulfate, and all in a fine cider flavored drink. If you are not familiar with these various elemental fabrications, let's just say they are all good for you. The discussion on these compounds will be found in the paper on Kombucha composition.
So what questions should you ask about the culture you are hoping (or just being asked) to receive?
Is it still alive?
How old is the culture?
Where did you get your water?
What kind of tea did you use?
Was it prepared in accordance with the WRITTEN instructions that come with it? Can you explain the changes from those instructions and why you made those changes?
How has the culture been stored?
So where do you go to get a Kombucha culture and how do you know it is genuine? You can look at it, touch it, feel it and smell it, but how do you know its not sick - contaminated with some toxic substance? If you bought one from a commercial grower, you are probably safe in assuming that it is genuine and healthy. If you obtained one from a friend or unknown source (like if I sent you one), you can get some peace of mind by asking the questions outlined above. You can also do some testing on your own, but that can be expensive and it's an entirely different topic, one I hope to be able to address here in the near future.
The Kombucha culture has a tenacious hold on life. Sunlight and scalding will kill it very quickly. There is still discussion on freezing, but unless you are going to "flash freeze" the Kombucha, there is the probability that it died during the freezing process. There is a lot of debate on freezing, but for the lay person, if it's not a gift, don't try it. If it is, it may take a couple of attempts to produce a viable new culture. The same is true for dried (dehydrated) cultures, if they are a gift, it will only cost you sugar and tea to revive them.
The Kombucha can sustain itself for long periods of time without nutrient; sometimes even for months. When it again is provided with nutrient, it becomes active and starts to grow again. Not withstanding its ability to survive long periods of time, you should ask how old the culture is that you are being offered. If you have to wait for it to finish growing, you know that it's fresh. If it is less than two weeks old, it should certainly be viable. If it is less than a month old, it is probably viable. If it is more than a month old, you are taking a chance and need to know how it was stored.
One caveat to age is if it is a parent culture instead of a baby culture. Assuming 3 quarts per fermentation cycle, a Kombucha culture should be viable for AT LEAST 10 batches of Kombucha, and probably more than 30 batches of Kombucha. Each batch makes the culture a darker brown, but that is just the dye effect from the tea tannin (which is also used commercially for tanning). If you are offered a parent that is 100 days old from someone who ferments their tea for 10 days, it may produce a stronger offspring than if you had received the baby Kombucha culture.
Another thing you will want to know about the Kombucha culture is how it was stored. Again, this will reflect on its probable viability based on how long it has been stored. Originally I stored mine in zip-lock bags in the fridge with a small amount of nutrient. When I discovered that you could suffocate them, I started storing mine on a plate in the fridge. My experience has been that a culture that has been stored in the fridge is slow to come back after about four weeks of storage. Sometimes the first batch had to be thrown out. The next batch, however, would produce a fine new culture. This substantiates the research that the Kombucha does not die off when it is away from nutrient for a period of time, but simply stops growing. When it is again introduced to the sugar and tea nutrient, it again becomes active. I now store them in a weak nutrient solution in the fridge and have successfully restored them after 4 months.
So if you receive a culture that has been stored in the fridge, and after a week to 10 days you end up with a new culture that seems to be nothing more than a thin, slimy piece of jelly, don't despair. Simply make some new nutrient and try again with the Kombucha culture you received. After a week to 10 days, you should have a healthy new Kombucha culture, which you can use to start growing more new cultures for friends and family (and you don't have to subscribe to MCI to do it). If after the third attempt you do not produce a healthy offspring, it is probably time to put that culture to rest in the flower bed and go searching for a more viable culture.
If the culture has been stored in a zip-lock bag for more than a few weeks, the outlook is not good. The yeast culture requires oxygen for respiration. There is no photosynthesis associated the Kombucha, and the yeast will suffocate without oxygen. Whether or not the bacteria suffocate becomes irrelevant if the yeast culture is not alive to reproduce itself.
If the Kombucha has been stored at room temperature, you will want to know how and where. Remember, sunlight will kill the Kombucha culture. Sunlight has long been known to be a natural way to kill many types of bacteria. Tobacco smoke will almost always guarantee mold (even in cold climates) on your attempts to propagate the culture. Proper storage at room temperature is to place the culture on a clean glass plate, give it a small amount of Kombucha (tea) to keep it moist, and cover it with another glass plate. This works particularly well during cold weather where the Kombucha culture is stored in a room at 60 degrees f. or less and airborne spore counts are low. During the summer when efforts are made to cool the room to 70 degrees f., and spore counts are high, this method provides some particular perils. The natural enemy of the Kombucha culture is common mold (aspergillus for those of you following the FDA reports). The Kombucha has many natural defenses against mold, but left without nutrient to produce acids in a warm environment, it may become too exhausted to protect itself. Mold is usually not difficult to spot. In fact, it is about as difficult to spot mold on a Kombucha culture as it is to spot mold on a piece of white bread. If it looks like mold (you know, green and fuzzy), it is.
Researchers claim that mold can be removed with common vinegar and that the culture is fine. The first culture I saw with mold (a culture growing in a cupboard above a kitchen stove where grease and other cooking steams create a comfortable environment for molds) was promptly put to rest in the garden. The next one took me a great deal of effort to INTENTIONALLY grow. It stood side by side with two other batches of Kombucha that were never contaminated (well, we'll actually know that for sure when they come back from the chemist). It is my personal opinion that if the culture has weakened to the point of succumbing to mold, it has probably done all it can and should be retired. Still, researchers claim common vinegar will destroy the mold and leave your culture viable. That is a decision you will have to make for yourself.
What does it look like when it is growing a new culture. Many people would confuse a bubbly surface to be mold. Not so. Mold looks like mold. Bubbles caught under the surface of a new Kombucha skin on the surface of a Kombucha batch look ugly. They look like a foam caught under the clear Kombucha skin, and it is not the smooth surface you may have expected (or previously had). This is just carbonic acid bubbles that have become trapped, and the culture will be a "floater" when it is harvested. In a couple of days, the yeast umbrella will begin to form beneath the bubbles and trap them in the new culture.
If you do not find mold on the surface, let it grow, and if you do nothing else for your Kombucha culture, let it grow in the dark. Find a cupboard, closet, some place where it won't be disturbed and it can grow quietly and quickly IN THE DARK!
So having satisfied yourself on how old the culture is and how it has been stored, now you want to know how it was grown. One of the first questions you should ask is if the culture was grown in accordance with the WRITTEN instructions you are going to get with it. Since we brew a new batch every 2 or 3 days, I have memorized the instructions that I use and can easily recite them or write them out. Instead, I give a copy of the instructions I received with our first culture and a note on how I have modified those instructions. I will expand my notes on modifications to explain why.
The instructions we received with our first Kombucha culture called for light brown sugar and a cheesecloth covering for the fermenting container, and a consumption of 4 ounces each morning on an empty stomach. I now use white sugar because it is a better nutrient for the culture. Light brown sugar is refined sugar with molasses added for color and flavor. The Kombucha tastes better to me with white sugar (I think it is less bitter). For my parents, my mother prefers to ferment with white sugar, while my father prefers brown. Based on the research I have been able to review, I think the choice between white sugar and brown sugar is a matter of taste.
Remember that the sugar is going to be eaten by the Kombucha culture and not by you. Raw sugars do not provide sufficient nutrient, so only white or light brown sugar should be used. After fermentation, the resulting sugar will be in the simple form of glucose and fructose, and not the complex saccharose (white sugar) with which you started the fermentation process. In lay terms, the Kombucha culture will eat the sugar and leave in its wake as waste products, the vitamins and acids that were mentioned at the beginning of this paper.
As for cheesecloth v. white linen, I now use a piece of tee- shirt to cover my fermenting cultures. Cheesecloth is too porous and allows molds and insects to attack my Kombucha. As to 4 ounces per day, I started there and would suggest that you do too, for at least a couple of weeks (unless you are combating a serious illness). The side-effects of Kombucha very, and I hope that they will be posted in this library in the near future. I now consume 16-36 ounces each day. I also take a week off every 10 months or so, to allow my body to adapt to the environment from which I am trying to protect it.
You should also ask about what kind of tea was used to ferment the Kombucha culture. Many health conscious people would choose an herbal tea. If they did, find a new source for your Kombucha culture. Use black tea or green tea, or don't waste your time. (Lipton's green tea and their orange pekoe and pekoe cut black tea are both excellent). Once you have a reserve of cultures, you can experiment (as I have), but until then, protect your Kombucha offspring.
Once you have ascertained how the culture was grown, you will be better able to determine whether or not you wish to accept the culture or look somewhere else. For instance, if the culture was grown using honey instead of sugar, you should find out what generation it is. If it is less than 10 generations, you will probably have a viable culture. Ferment your Kombucha with sugar, bury the parent in the flower bed or garden and ferment your next batch with the baby. Do this for three generations. Each new culture will be healthier and stronger.
If the culture is the result of raw sugar, it has simply suffered from mal-nutrition and once you feed it a stable diet of white sugar it should be fine.
What water, boiling container, and fermenting container were used to produce the Kombucha culture? Tap water frequently contains chlorine, which can kill the bacteria in the culture just the same as it is intended to kill the bacteria in the water supply. Well water contains its own bacteria and a long list of minerals which may be at odds with procuring the desired result. While boiling the water may kill most of the bacteria, many different types of microbes are capable of surviving. The best nutrients are obtained from using purified or distilled water. The Kombucha culture will obtain its nutrients from the sugar and the tea. Any other minerals or elements only complicate the fermentation process. When in doubt, use the KISS principle and Keep It Simple!
If the culture you are offered was grown with well or tap water, you are taking a risk. I realize that the ancients grew their Kombucha cultures in well or creek water. The ancients however, did not have to worry about the amount of mercury in fish.
Having satisfied yourself about the water source, ask about the container used to prepare the nutrient. A glass "UNLINED" pot or casserole is best. Many versions of "visionware or pyrex" have a non-stick lining on the bottom. Don't worry, if you can't see it, it's not there. It is the same gray or black lining you find in many metal non-stick pans. If the Kombucha was fermented from a tea brewed in an "UNLINED" glass pot, then your lesson in metallurgy is over. If the tea was brewed in a metal pot, IT MUST HAVE BEEN STAINLESS STEEL! Will it survive cast iron or steel, or copper? Probably. Will it survive aluminum? If it does, I would not drink it.
Having now satisfied yourself as to how the nutrient tea was prepared, you should know about the container in which it was grown. If it was grown in anything other than a clear glass jar or bowl, you should probably look elsewhere for a Kombucha culture. Colored glass (also known as carnival glass or depression glass) has its own toxins, and crystal bowls contain lead. Tinted "Vision Ware" which is used for cooking is NOT considered colored glass. The gray and brown tints in these cooking vessels do not release any toxins that can be absorbed by Kombucha. While stainless steel may work for boiling the water and sugar, and steeping the tea, it is not an environment for propagating cultures.
There are reasons why metal corrosives are contained in glass bottles. You are planning to produce your own acids, and they are best produced in clear glass containers. As for bowls versus jars, I have done both and find that the results are the same, just a different measure of time. Bowls offer a larger surface and increased oxygen speeds fermentation. I personally use one gallon jars because the resulting cultures are easier to handle. The fermentation process is only two to four days longer (depending on the environment), but the end result is the same.
So now you know the age and method of propagation, what other questions should you ask? Start with how long has the person offering you a Kombucha culture been growing them? The longer, the better, BUT even short-timers can grow a perfect culture. And PRACTICE DOES NOT MAKE PERFECT, IT MAKES PERMANENT! A long time grower using honey, probably is offering you a tired vegetative yeast patty. Ask where they obtained their culture and what they know about its ancestry. It will amaze many of you how much pride most Kombucha owners take in knowing the ancestry of their culture. Who they got it from, who that person got it from and so on.
If you are getting a culture from a friend and they know three or four generations before their culture, let your confidence grow a little. If you know any of the previous growers, call them and talk to them about growing Kombucha cultures. Ask them the same questions you asked the person who provided (or is providing) your Kombucha culture. These are living creatures and a little paternal bragging about how well they care for their cultures should also let your confidence grow a bit.
If you accept a Kombucha culture under the premise that it will take care of itself, you will soon have a sick or dead Kombucha culture. If you think they are going to grow in the sewer or the flower bed or on the kitchen counter, you are sadly mistaken. They may have a strong hold on life, but that life is attached to centuries of care and maintenance by people. While I cannot testify about the genesis of this yeast and bacteria symbiosis, I can state without reservation that if you do not take care of your Kombucha culture, it will eventually die.
The only thing between the existence and extinction of the Kombucha culture is human intervention. How this hybrid of yeast and bacteria came into being, I do not know, and can only speculate based on other works of the ancients. That it is not growing on its own somewhere that people can go and harvest it, implies its most essential weakness is you. The Kombucha culture is dependant on people for its survival. The components have no need for humankind to intervene for their existence, but the symbiosis of the components to produce the combined product we call Kombucha, that does require nurturing and diligence.
I hope that is enough said for the lay person to determine whether or not to accept a Kombucha culture or to determine if the culture they received is the "real thing" (probably get sued by Coca-Cola for that comment).
When this paper was first posted for me over a year ago, it contained all of the information I had been able to obtain about Kombucha. It included the Kombucha mythology along with the Kombucha facts. We now know that there is no vegetative yeast patty (there's no Kombucha boogey man), that honey grows a perfectly healthy offspring for generations (years), and that brown sugar and turbinado sugar will neither contaminate the colony and ferment, nor will they slowly starve them to death.
We also know that no matter what brewing method you use, the ferment is subject to change. Some methods breed out certain yeast or bacteria, while others help to breed them in. The number of possible strains of Kombucha is not yet known, but of all of the strains that we have examined, only the ferments contaminated with molds might pose a serious health risk. Of all of the colonies sent to us for testing, not one would be considered as containing anything harmful for the average person that consumes this ferment. There is no Glucuronic acid, no Usnic Acid and no Heparin in any of the Kombucha we've examined. There are about 200 compounds of various concentration in this ferment, and it may be years before they are all cataloged and the benefits of consuming Kombucha are defined. But, for whatever it's worth, at this point in our study of this ferment, our microbiologist, our chemist, and I, are all Kombucha drinkers, and we all feel it has improved the quality of our lives.
Common sense dictates cleanliness, attention to detail about your ferment, and a willingness to do some reading on the topic. Paul Staments and I agree and disagree. The FDA/CDC and I agree and disagree. Vinegar will not wash away molds, so throw it away, parent, child, and ferment, and consider washing the container with alcohol before you put it in the dishwasher. If it smells bad, tastes bad, or has visable mold, don't drink it. The rest will work itself out over the course of your fermenting career.
May you drink Kombucha to your good health.
August 10, 1996
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