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Homebrewing away the pandemic days with kombucha

How I learned to stop worrying and love the SCOBY.
Kombucha brewed by Times reporter Gabrielle Calise and Anthony Coustillac.
Kombucha brewed by Times reporter Gabrielle Calise and Anthony Coustillac. [ Courtesy of Anthony Coustillac ]
Published Mar. 17
Updated Mar. 17

A year ago, when the pandemic forced us all to work from home, each Tampa Bay Times reporter became chief of their own little bureau. As late-stage pandemic days trickle by, some of us have also become head brewers of our own kombucha taprooms.

We line up our little bottles of booch, tinted purple and red and orange depending on the ingredients floating inside, and snap photos for one another. We swap Amazon links to glass jars and pH strips, and rank our favorite fruit and herb combinations. We’ve given names to our SCOBYs, the “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” which make this whole process possible. The SCOBYs are welcome new companions, after all. Otherwise, we all live alone.

I became an avid guzzler of kombucha in the Before Times, when ambling around the Saturday Morning Market with friends and sipping out of each other’s cups without blinking was still a thing. One glass from the St. Petersburg-based Mother Kombucha tent had me sold. When I realized that drinking beer and liquor made me feel sick, I started gravitating toward whatever kombucha was on tap during my nights out. Then, when bars and restaurants and everything else not deemed essential closed, I stocked my fridge with store-bought bottles — something special to accompany Zoom happy hours.

Related: Peek inside Tampa’s first kombucha taproom

But I did not set out to make the stuff myself when writing my stay-at-home to-do list. I knew home brewing would save me money. I also knew plenty of people ferment food and drinks on their own and don’t die. But something about the process wigged me out.

The problem is the SCOBYs.

They’re slimy and wiggly. They sit in their own funky fermented liquid. Every time I type out the word SCOBY, without fail, autocorrect changes it to scabby.

To ferment sugary tea into kombucha, you need one of these floppy discs. After a little over a week, you can pour its liquid into smaller bottles filled with basil leaves or chunks of mango or minced ginger or whatever flavor you want. Then you leave those bottles out on the counter for a few more days to get fruity and fizzy. When you want to stop the fermentation process, you stick them in the fridge.

At the beginning of 2021, Romy Ellenbogen, our Pasco breaking news reporter, got a kombucha starter kit in the mail. Every time she brewed a batch, her SCOBY doubled. Rather than throw out the excess, she gave it to breaking news reporter Jack Evans. Then, I became a caretaker to my own.

My boyfriend knows his way around a sourdough starter and insisted that we could figure out how to ferment tea together. The drink has been around for our entire relationship, after all: During our first pandemic date at a park, I brought bottles of my favorite flavors for him to try. When I went to his place for our second meetup, his inclusion of the bubbly beverage was one of the details that won me over.

“He bought me flowers,” I texted my friends that night. “And SIX flavors of kombucha!”

After hours of watching Survivor together on the couch, we decided on a name for our SCOBY inspired by the show’s beloved host: Jeff Scobst.

A jar of kombucha brewed by Times reporter Gabrielle Calise and Anthony Coustillac.
A jar of kombucha brewed by Times reporter Gabrielle Calise and Anthony Coustillac. [ GABRIELLE CALISE | Times ]

We purchased temperature-detecting stickers and pH test strips that were actually made to test urine. (It’s fine! They work for this too!) After sterilizing our tools and hands with stinky white vinegar, we got to brewing. We bottled strawberry, mango ginger and grapefruit flavors.

All my apprehension was for nothing. Our drinks turned out fine. Delicious, even, especially as we took swigs out of our new pop-top bottles. We ran through our batch quickly. Then we started the process again.

I no longer Google things like “Can home-brewed kombucha kill you?” I haven’t had to spend as much on bottled booch at the store.

And when my boss decided to join our SCOBY family tree and pick up one from Romy, I knew how to respond when she texted, “I forgot to separate the baby SCOBY. Are we all going to die?”

Blueberry, strawberry mint, mango ginger and peach flavored kombuchas brewed by Times reporter Gabrielle Calise.
Blueberry, strawberry mint, mango ginger and peach flavored kombuchas brewed by Times reporter Gabrielle Calise. [ GABRIELLE CALISE | Times ]