Monthly Archives: April 2012

Fermentation for the Hell of It

I have a sneaking fondness for fermentation processes.  In the past I made beer for awhile, though that ended when I realized I couldn’t drink all I made.  When a batch came out really well, I could take it to parties and give it as gifts.  But when it was only middling — well, it just seemed a waste of time and money to put half of it out as snail bait.  But after the first arduous afternoon of lab work, boiling, steeping, and cleaning, the fermentation process — the primary fermentation in the plastic bucket and the secondary in the big glass carboy with the cute little air lock — was a fascinating biological experiment.  I liked checking on it, watching the bubbles of carbon dioxide blip through the water in the air lock, and smelling that ancient warm smell of yeast at work.

For a half dozen years I kept a sourdough starter, which made great pancakes.  But then I joined Weightwatchers, and pancakes became a thing of the past,  along with the starter.

Then for a couple of years my partner and I made wine from plums from our tree and our neighbor’s.   Each time we ended up with about twenty-five bottles of fairly decent wine.  But since neither of us drinks that much, and good grape wine is available and cheap, most of them languished in our basement.  From time to time we think idly of trying to distill  the rest into some form of rotgut slivovitz.

Now it’s kombucha.  Last fall, at a fair put on by a local mycological society, a cheerful young woman was selling samples of kombucha tea and SCOBYs, an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” from which kombucha is made.  The process is pretty simple:  basically, you drop the SCOBY, which looks something like a translucent white hockey puck, into a jar of weak sweet tea, cover it with several layers of cloth to keep out the bad microorganisms, and leave it for a few weeks.  What you get is a sour, slightly carbonated drink that is supposed to have mysterious health benefits.   The lure of fermentation seduced me again, and I bought a couple of SCOBYs and set them up at home in their own jars of tea.  Since then I’ve had two jars at a time, at different stages of the fermentation process, and another of mature kombucha in the refrigerator, which I feel constantly pressured to drink up before the next batch is ready.

The first time I drank a glass, I got a little high; later I found out that kombucha can have a fair amount of alcohol in it, and now I drink less and dilute it with a lot of water.  I’ve googled it to find out what its benefits are, and aside from the fact that many generations of Chinese and Russians seem to have felt it was a wonderful tonic and some people make anecdotal claims of its miraculous effects on everything from sexual function to arthritis symptoms, there seems to be little solid evidence that it does much.  On the other hand, it’s not unpleasant; I think on a warm summer day a glass of kombucha might be refreshing, with its fizzy tartness and slight alcohol buzz.  I’ll see if I can keep it going until then.