A few years ago, I wrote a post on how to grow a kombucha scoby that skyrocketed to the top of search engine results. It wasn’t about brewing kombucha, but about how to grow your own kombucha starter culture. It’s affectionately called a “mother” and is also known as a SCOBY — a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.
At first, readers emailed me about the post saying “WOW. I did it! I can’t believe it worked. I’m so happy to have my own kombucha scoby and to start brewing kombucha. Thank you.”
Then about a year ago, I started getting emails saying “I couldn’t get it to work. I bought a bottle of store-bought kombucha, but I couldn’t grow a kombucha scoby from it. HELP!”
What happened? Why did my instructions for growing a kombucha scoby no longer work?
Finally, I decided I wanted to know which way of growing a kombucha scoby is best. Could I still successfully grow a scoby from store bought kombucha? I experimented with three kombucha scoby cultures — fresh, dehydrated, and store-bought — to find out!
My Kombucha Scoby Experiment
I began by getting my starter cultures:
- Kombucha Scoby Starter Culture #1 — A bottle of store-bought kombucha.
- Kombucha Scoby Starter Culture #2 — A dehydrated scoby from a reputable online supplier.
- Kombucha Scoby Starter Culture #3 — A fresh scoby from a reputable online supplier.
Next, I got everything ready for them to flourish — organic black tea, organic sugar, filtered water, and identical brewing vessels.
Then, I got busy growing. Here are my results.
Kombucha Scoby Starter Culture #1
I followed my own instructions to a tee, just like I did years ago.
After three weeks, the new culture looked like this:
Do you see what I see? A whole bunch of nothing! Absolutely nothing grew. Sure, there’s some small bubbles. But that’s how much growth I expect to see after three to five days, not three weeks.
Okay, I thought, maybe I just got an off bottle that had been on the shelf too long.
So I bought another bottle and did it again.
It also failed.
I gave it one last shot.
It failed, too.
Why can’t I grow a kombucha scoby from a store-bought bottle anymore?
You may or may not remember the great kombucha recall of 2010. Kombucha was pulled off store shelves across the U.S. because it had been feared that some brands were too alcoholic to be sold as a regular beverage.
Most major brands reformulated their kombucha, then put it back on store shelves promising that it would no longer be possible for their kombucha to contain too much alcohol.
Whatever they did, I think they made it virtually impossible to grow a kombucha scoby from a store-bought bottle of kombucha anymore.
Some companies, like Dave’s GT, have even started adding a supplement called GBI-30 to their “Enlightened” (AKA kombucha for those under 21) bottled booch. GBI-30 is a patented pro-biotic that is non-native to the Kombucha culture.
I don’t know precisely why they added this to their formula, or how it prevents the growth of alcohol, but it doesn’t make sense to include GBI-30 in your homemade kombucha scoby. It’s not part of the normal fermentation process for kombucha, so I can imagine that it is also somehow interfering with our ability to grow a fresh kombucha scoby from the bottled brew.
Kombucha Scoby Starter Culture #2
I had never grown a kombucha scoby from a dehydrated starter culture before, so I didn’t know what to expect.
When it arrived, it looked just like described — a dried up kombucha scoby.
It also took far longer than I realized it would to rehydrate it. After three weeks of waiting, it finally starting growing a new scoby.
About a week after that, my new scoby looked like this:
It was about 1/4 inch thick, and a nice creamy white.
All things considered, this was a success.
Kombucha Scoby Starter Culture #3
My final kombucha scoby was delivered fresh. It was a beautiful, firm, large, creamy white starter culture that was nearly an inch thick!
Unlike with the dehydrated culture, I could start brewing with this kombucha scoby right away.
So, I did.
Within one week, I had another equally creamy white, inch thick scoby on my hands in addition to a tasty new batch of kombucha tea.
After three brewing cycles, I still had a beautiful, thick kombucha scoby. Here you can see three generations of this scoby still going strong on my counter top:
This is most certainly a success!
Recommendations and Conclusions
Kombucha Scoby Starter Culture #1 — Not Recommended!
Obviously, growing your own kombucha scoby from store-bought bottled kombucha is no longer recommended.
To be fair, I have heard from readers who successfully grew a new scoby from a bottle of store-bought booch since the reformulation. But when I question them further about it, I inevitably find that their scobies are more translucent, less firm, and took at least a month to grow — longer in the winter. Weak cultures like that tend to beget even more weak cultures, so that after a few batches their brews fall flat and no longer pack the same flavorful punch.
Kombucha Scoby Starter Culture #2 — Neutral
Growing a scoby from a dehydrated culture seems to work just fine, but it had a long wait. The new scoby was weak and thin compared to the fresh scoby, and within a few generations it was even thinner. The kombucha tea I brewed with it tasted okay, but fell flat compared to the kombucha I brewed from the fresh culture.
I’ve also read that dehydrated cultures are more likely to mold. While I didn’t personally experience this, I can believe it. That’s because the kombucha scoby I grew in my first batch was relatively weak and just kept growing more weak with each generation. Ultimately, I stopped growing this culture altogether.
Kombucha Scoby Starter Culture #3 — Highly Recommended!
Growing a scoby from a fresh culture is by far the quickest and easiest method. The culture arrives beautiful, thriving, and fresh — completely ready to use. It also produces strong baby cultures and a fresher tasting kombucha tea.
Yes, it initially costs just a little bit more. But just like with any nutrient dense food, the source matters.
You would not argue that CAFO-finished supermarket beef is as healthy or tasty as grass-finished beef from your local farm. So it makes sense that not all ways of making Kombucha result in the same quality.
Where can you order a fresh kombucha scoby?
My own fresh kombucha scoby came from Kombucha Kamp.
Kombucha Kamp is the #1 kombucha site in the world (true by the numbers and reputation). The site is run by Hannah Crum, a beautiful woman who totally knows her stuff! I met her at the Wise Traditions conference last year and hooked up with her again at this year’s conference to my delight.
She calls herself the Kombucha Mamma, and for good reason. Kombucha Kamp has the best and most complete repository of Kombucha information I’ve ever seen. I signed up for her free kombucha tips and learned quite a bit I didn’t already know, even after years of brewing kombucha at home.