SCOBY care + building a SCOBY hotel
If you’re familiar with making kombucha, you know that
nearly every time you make a new batch, your SCOBY
(symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) replicates itself.
The mama SCOBY makes a baby SCOBY, which becomes a
mother SCOBY, which makes a baby SCOBY, which becomes
a mother SCOBY... and thus the circle of kombucha life
If you have no idea what I’m talking about and want to
learn more about what a SCOBY is, you can go here.
But in this article, we’ll talk about how to take care of your
SCOBYs and create a home or a “hotel” for your SCOBYs
where they can live when:
You want to take a break from making kombucha.
You want a place to store extra SCOBYs. (It’s always a good idea to have backups in case something goes wrong!)
You want to make a “factory” for super-charged starter tea that you can use for future batches of kombucha.
We’ll cover a lot of ground here, but it’s really important to take good care of your
cultures since they’re the source of all your kombucha. They’re the critical linchpin
to this whole operation.
You can click on any of these links to jump to a specific section below, or just
keep scrolling down to read it all:
So what are some do’s and don’ts of SCOBY care?
Do keep your extra SCOBYs in a container with some sweet tea/fermented kombucha to keep them moist. This is commonly called a SCOBY hotel. (See below for tips on maintaining a SCOBY hotel.)
Do keep the brown stringy yeasty bits on your SCOBY. Don’t try to “clean” them off. Those yeasts help create carbonation. If you have yeast overgrowth (if it’s covering most of your SCOBY), you can remove some of it, but don’t get rid of it all!
Do use your (clean!) hands or scissors to trim SCOBYs or separate them from each other. This is fine if they’re getting too large or if you’d like to split them up to move some to a SCOBY hotel/share with a friend. You can’t hurt your SCOBY by ripping it or cutting it. Its shape doesn’t matter since new ones will always take the shape of the surface of whatever container you place it in.
Do re-use your SCOBYs. They can be used several times before they “get old.” Mine turn a darker brown as they age, but you can honestly keep re-using them until they look too dark, too dry or start to lose firmness.
Do put excess SCOBYs in the trash, compost, or feed to chickens/horses if you have enough backups stockpiled.
How flavorings can negatively impact your SCOBY
This is a bit of a controversial topic with the home brewing community, but I believe that you should keep flavorings, oils and extracts away from your kombucha SCOBY. This means no flavored or herbal teas during first fermentation or in your SCOBY hotel. (After all, there are limitless opportunities to flavor during second fermentation anyhow!)
So why should you keep flavorings away from your SCOBY? In general, flavorings (even if they’re “natural”) can degrade and weaken your SCOBY over time. This is why in my Ingredients 101: Tea post, I talk about making sure that you use “real” tea in your first fermentation and don’t use flavored or herbal teas.
Using flavored teas may work just fine for a few batches, but often times, problems won’t show up until several SCOBY “generations” later. People use flavored brews and wonder why they develop mold later on. It’s a pretty common way to weaken your SCOBY and create an imbalance in the culture.
It’s because SCOBY feed on three things: plain “real” tea (not herbal teas or infusions), cane sugar and water. If you add other ingredients into the mix, you’re feeding your SCOBY things it may not be able to digest. And it could throw off the symbiosis of the bacteria and yeast. It could make it harder for the sweet tea to acidify and become kombucha — especially if the flavorings are essential oils which have an anti-bacterial effect and kill your kombucha bacteria. (And ingredient labels often don’t go into detail about what “natural flavors” actually means.)
I think a lot of people think it’s fine to use flavorings because a flavored batch of first fermented kombucha can often yield good kombucha at least a few times. But it’s the long-term that’s a problem. Sometimes problems won’t manifest immediately. You might be able to make a successful batch of kombucha using peppermint or chamomile tea, for example. You might even be able to make 3 or 4 batches, but at some point down the line, your SCOBY may finally show signs of it being weakened over time and you might start to have problems like lack of fizz, too much yeast or worse: mold. Sometimes problems don’t show up until several SCOBY “generations” later.
So I prefer to stick to plain tea and cane sugar for first ferment (especially because it’s much easier and more effective to flavor during second ferment). But these are all general guidelines to be on the safe side. You’re more than welcome to experiment! After all, your variables will always be different than my unique variables. (Just make sure you have backup SCOBYs on hand. Hint hint: Learn how to make a SCOBY hotel below.)
And just be aware that depending on the flavor you use, if you allow certain flavorings to come in contact with your SCOBY (in your first fermentation brew or in your SCOBY hotel), you put yourself at risk for creating a weakened SCOBY over time. I will admit that many brewers use a variety of different flavored teas during their first ferment, and many have had varying degrees of success. But many home brewers also run into a lot of problems with doing this.
Of course, everyone has an anecdote that can “prove” to be the exception to the rule. And yes, since SCOBYs are all unique, some of them may be less sensitive than other SCOBYs. And flavorings vary so greatly that it’s hard to get a consensus on what works or doesn’t work for all SCOBYs. That’s totally fine! But I’ve found that I’ve been able to create the most flavorful, consistent kombucha by using my method of only using “real” tea during first fermentation. I especially don’t feel the need to risk weakening my SCOBYs because I get the most flavor out of my kombucha from the second fermentation process, when I add fruit and bottle my brews.
If you've already let flavorings come in contact with your SCOBY, find my tips/recommendations here.
But what if I want to “break the rules” or experiment?
You totally can! You do what you’ve gotta do for your bucha! I support you. Like I said, many home brewers have tried flavored teas or alternate ingredients during first fermentation. But when you experiment, make sure that you have plenty of backup SCOBYs on hand (hint, hint: in a SCOBY hotel) — just in case something goes wrong with your experimental or flavored first fermentation brews. Make sure those backup SCOBYs only come in contact with real tea (black tea is best), water and sugar.
Alright, alright, I’m convinced. I’ll make a SCOBY hotel. How do I do that?
It’s easy. All you have to do is put all your extra SCOBYs in a glass container along with some room temp sweet tea or some finished, unflavored kombucha. An extra brewing vessel like a 1 gallon glass jar works perfectly as a SCOBY hotel.
You can add your SCOBYs over time as you accumulate them.
Cover your SCOBY hotel with a tight-weave, breathable cloth cover to allow airflow, but keep dust + insects out. Some people like to cover their SCOBY hotels with an airtight lid to prevent evaporation. That’s OK too.
Keep your SCOBY hotel at room temperature. Between 65 - 85 degrees works, but mid- to high-70s is ideal for the healthiest cultures. Too cold, and it could go dormant. Too hot, and they could die.
Don’t keep your SCOBYs or your SCOBY hotel in the fridge. There’s absolutely no need for it when they do just fine at room temp. Cold temperatures make SCOBYs go dormant and put it at risk for mold. If you keep your SCOBYs in the fridge, then take them back out, it may be difficult for your bacteria and yeast to wake back up and start acidifying. That puts your brews at risk for developing mold as well.
SCOBY hotels can go untouched at room temperature for months on end. I’ve even heard instances of people forgetting theirs for a year (or longer) without any issues. (I’d still recommend at least checking on your hotel every few months or so, though!)
If the liquid ever looks like it’s fully drying up, you should “feed” your SCOBY hotel with sweet tea or unflavored kombucha.
SCOBY hotel food recipe (a.k.a. A small batch of sweet tea): Steep 1 tsp. black tea in 2 cups of water and add 2 tbsp. cane sugar. Let cool to room temp and strain all tea out before putting in SCOBY hotel.
Or better yet, you can feed your SCOBY hotel with tea from “finished” batches of kombucha right after you finish a first fermentation cycle. That way your hotel is always getting a good amount of kombucha tea to keep the SCOBYs moist and you’re essentially creating a well of super-charged starter tea you can use for all your future batches of kombucha.
Don’t keep your SCOBY hotel in a moist cupboard that could harbor mold.
It’s unlikely that your SCOBY hotel will get moldy because the SCOBYs make it very acidic and inhospitable to mold. But if something goes wrong and it gets moldy, you’ll have to throw it all out. There’s no salvaging something moldy. But no biggie, just start over!
If a SCOBY turns black or has black patches, that means it’s died. You should toss that too.
Tell me more about how my SCOBY hotel can be a source for “super-charged” starter tea...
This is my favorite thing my SCOBY hotel does. So, like I mention above, every time I finish a first fermentation cycle, I take 1-2 cups of that unflavored kombucha tea and put it into my SCOBY hotel. This way I never really have to make a separate batch of sweet tea to “feed” my hotel. My hotel is just getting fed from the finished kombucha batches that are always in my rotation.
And every time I have extra SCOBYs, those go into the SCOBY hotel as well. So at any given moment, my 1 gallon jar is often half filled with a stack of SCOBYs and half filled with plain, unflavored kombucha tea that is acidifying at a really rapid pace because of the sheer volume of all those SCOBYs. Oftentimes, the kombucha in my SCOBY hotel will taste like vinegar and smell really acidic...which is perfect for using as super strong, bacteria-rich and yeast-rich starter tea in my future batches of kombucha.
So whenever I want to brew a new batch of kombucha, I steep my tea with sugar as I usually would. And once I add water and once the temperature is right, I take a SCOBY from my hotel along with 1-2 cups of my super acidic starter tea from my SCOBY hotel. And it acidifies my brew perfectly. I’ve always had perfect batches of delicious kombucha with beautiful, healthy SCOBYs ever since I’ve maintained my SCOBY hotel this way.
What else can I do with my SCOBY hotel?
My SCOBY hotel also gives me the flexibility to pause and start my brews on my schedule, even if I’m going on vacation or taking a 'bucha break for a few months. With a SCOBY hotel, I’ll always have SCOBYs handy and a good stock of starter tea that’s just getting stronger and stronger the longer I let it sit. And I can just leave it alone and come back to it whenever I’m ready.
And of course, SCOBY hotels give you a good stockpile of SCOBYs to share with others or try some experimental batches. Spare SCOBYs are great for trying batches with flavored teas in first fermentation (or break other rules of kombucha!) because if something goes wrong with a batch, you won’t feel bad about wasting a SCOBY because you can always just toss it!