If you’ve never heard of a SCOBY fear not – it’s not like they’re up for sale on super-market shelves, displayed behind counters in the corner shop or neatly aligned on tables in the local farmer’s market. SCOBYs are part of the collaborative economy and are passed on or shared between friends rather than being big commercial bruisers capable of making the Big Bucks, big time. Health food gurus, fermentation fans and food bloggers may be familiar with them. The vast majority, however, may be forgiven for thinking that a SCOBY is a Scooby-dooby-doo typo.
SCOBY is, in fact, an acronym standing for “Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast” and SCOBY’s are an essential element in the fermentation of some milks, tonics and foods. Harry Marshall-Ward a Victorian botanist was the first to identify and classify them through the study of the Ginger Beer Plant.
To recall most wild fermented foods and beverages are fermented either by yeasts (such as wine) or by lactic acid bacteria (such as kimchi). In the case of a SCOBY yeasts and LABs have joined forces and co-habit the same space to further their interests. Unlike yeasts and LABs which are visible only through a microscope a SCOBY is visible. It can resemble either a gelatinous grain, a flat pancake-like mushroom; or a batter such as a sourdough starter. Since they are working symbiotically they produce, health experts suggest, the perfect live bacterial brew.
Precisely because SCOBY’s are living organisms they require a certain kind of attention – the kind of attention only a home-cook or small artisanal outfit is willing to shower them with. They like the intimacy and warmth of a home kitchen or small artisanal work shop. The moment a SCOBY is forced to leave the kitchen counter and head for the production line they tend to become sulky, unwilling performers. They typically suffer, become unwell and die.
There are five main SCOBY’s: milk kefir (grain), a sourdough starter (batter), komboucha (pancake), the ginger beer plant (grain) and water kefir (grain). The only characteristic they share in common is that they are all colonies of yeasts and bacteria living cheek and jowl alongside each other in a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. For the rest they are composed of different yeasts and bacteria. Many have confused the ginger beer plant with water kefir since they both resemble gelatinous grains but they are, in fact, quite distinct.
For the rest SCOBY’s can be divided into two separate sub-groups. SCOBY’s with an ancient lineage and SCOBY’s with a more recent provenance.
Milk Kefir Grains – a uniquely ancient mother culture.
One of the oldest recorded SCOBYs is milk kefir. Archaeologists working for the Max Plank Institute have found what look like grains of kefir strung around the neck of a Mummy buried in the Taklimakan desert in north western China. They were able to ascertain that the milk curds found around these Bronze Age Mummy’s had been fermented by both yeasts and LABs and without the use of rennet thus making them one of the earliest known kefir curds.
Local Caucasian tradition, where kefir is said to originate from, suggests that the milk grains were given to the tribes-people of the Caucuses by Mohammad on condition they did not share it with their Christians neighbours and for centuries Christians bordering the Caucuses either didn’t know or didn’t care to drink milk kefir. It was not until the early twentieth century that a sudden interest in health foods sprung up and the nascent health food industry in Russia began examining this unique grain used in the fermentation of milk. Harry Marshall Ward, writing in 1891, comments that the ginger beer plant “presents resemblances to the so‑called Kephir grains of the Caucasus, with which, however, it is by no means identical.”
The yeasts and the LABs present in the kefir grain work by consuming the sugar lactose naturally present in the milk.
Sourdough Starter – an equally ancient heritage
The fermentation of grain, rather like the kefir curds, can be traced back thousands of years. Indeed the very same archaeologists who analysed the milk kefir grains of the Taklimakan desert in north western China was also able to identify the remains of bread leavened by a wild yeast sourdough starter thus confirming this SCOBY’s ancient lineage.
A sourdough starter is brimming with a mixture of wild yeasts and LABs that live symbiotically next to one anther. Although most assume that a sourdough starter is used only for the leavening of bread, the traditional Russian tonic kvass was kick-started with a sourdough starter and honey. Today it is more common for kvass to be made with packaged yeast and sugar.
The wild yeasts and LABs feed of the carbohydrates naturally present in the grain.
Sugar SCOBY’s: The new kids on the block? Water kefir, ginger beer plant, komboucha
In more recent times three other SCOBY’s have appeared over the horizon: komboucha, the ginger beer plant and water kefir. There appears to be no written record, depictions or references to these SCOBY’s in ancient literature, drawings or depictions – be it European, Asian, Russian, African, North and South American or Australasian which to my mind makes their origins a more recent phenomenon as opposed to a SCOBY with an age-old tale to tell.
There is no evidence (as far as I am aware but am happy to stand corrected if someone has tangible evidence to the contrary) of people using any of these three SCOBY’s before the nineteenth century.
All we have to go on is speculation, rumour and guess work. Komboucha, by way of example, is said to have originated in northern China from where it spread to Russia yet traditional Chinese cuisine has no recorded history of people drinking tea fermented with a “mushroom”. The ginger beer plant is rumoured to have begun life in the Crimea and was brought back to England by soldiers returning from the Crimean war in the 1850’s, yet there is no local Tartar tradition of drinking a fermented ginger beverage and Marshall Ward tells us the grains of the GBP, although resembling the kefir grain of the Caucuses, are by no means identical. Tibicos or water kefir is said to have originated in Mexico from the opuntia cactus yet there is no recording of populations in modern day Mexico of ever drinking fermented sugar water.
It is difficult therefore to say with any certainty when, where and how these three SCOBY’s first emerged out of the fermentation soup. Even the great Victorian botanist Harry Marshall Ward who lectured in Kew Gardens, London, and who was responsible for first analysing and identifying the symbiotic nature of a SCOBYs (in this case the GBP) was unable to verify with any exactitude where the ginger beer plant came from. What can be said for sure is that there are no recordings of them in medieval, Tudor, Stuart or Georgian Britain – and yet at some point this wonderful, refreshing, effervescent drink became uniquely associated with the British Isles from where it spread to Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand.
One possibility could be that a non-fermented ginger drink originating in either Jamaica or India became popular in Britain and that when mixed with sugar, over time, resulted in a unique new SCOBY evolving? An earlier, more colloquial name for the ginger beer plant was – somewhat confusingly – bees or barnacles.
As the clumps of yeast form, the carbon dioxide which is given off during fermentation carries them to the surface, where the bubbles disperse and allow the clumps to sink to the bottom again. The yeast clumps do thus move up and down and are rather like ‘busy little bees’.
There is a strong possibility that the colloquial “bee” became known as a “plant” following Marshall-Ward’s botanical research into this SCOBY towards the end of the twentieth century. Marshall-Ward was, after all, a botanist hence his instinct to call this unique yeast-bacterial culture a “plant” rather than a barnacle or bee.
Based on the fact that there are no known recordings of these three sugar SCOBYs prior to the nineteenth century, I humbly propose, that it is probably more than likely these sugar SCOBYs are a by-product of mankind’s ability to refine sugar. All three are, after all, wholly dependant on the addition of refined sugar to survive. All of the fermented foods and beverages with a long, recorded, tradition of use are capable of spontaneous fermentation by feeding off the sugars naturally present in the food source. The same can not be said of these three new comers.
In the case of beverages fermented with a sugar SCOBY humans have to actively add sugar for the party to begin. No added sugar. No fermentation. Interestingly, natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup slow down rather than encourage the sugar SCOBYs fermentation since they contain anti-microbial elements which can affect the ability of the SCOBY to grow and ferment the liquid.
Could it be that the ginger beer plant, komboucha and water kefir are a result of mankind’s historical leap into the world of refined sugars which occurred around three hundred years ago? If so this could explain why there are no historical records of them prior to the nineteenth century.
Does this make the relatively new SCOBYs fakes? Not really. No one patented them. They appear to have arisen spontaneously – a produce of nature as opposed to a contrived product born out of the dabbling of lab technicians. Further, it appears impossible to build a self-propagating SCOBY from scratch. Unlike a sourdough starter which anyone can begin today if they want to by mixing whole grain flour with water, neither the milk kefir grain, nor the sugar SCOBYs are capable of being reconstructed from scratch. This makes them particularly vulnerable to extinction as we have seen with the GBP.
What can be said for sure is that these sugar SCOBY’s have been around for at least two hundred years which gives us a good indication that they are not even chronically toxic. The only note of caution is perhaps the addition of refined sugars that the SCOBYs feed off. However, if left to ferment for long enough most of the carbohydrates will be converted to lactic acid.
If nothing else, when prepared correctly, they are considerably more wholesome, refreshing and delightful than commercial fakes. Soured sugar tonics are brimming with beneficial microorganisms that are easily absorbed by our bodies. Soft drinks produced with isoglucose, artificial flavourings and colourings can not compete.
Even if the heritage of komboucha, water kefir (tibicos) and the ginger beer plant is not as ancient as that of milk kefir or sourdough the new kids on the block can be seriously good stuff. They are relatively easy to prepare – but come with one caution. Once started they do require constant attention, which explains why they form such a large part of the collaborative economy as opposed to the commercial economy. As the tale of the ginger beer plant indicates their very existence is fragile and wholly dependant on mankind’s interest in propagating them. The moment mankind loses interest they can vanish, potentially forever, from our repertoire of food and beverages.