Imagine an organism, living in a jar in the kitchen, an edible terrarium. About once a week, it is fed sugar and water, kept in the dark and covered by a cloth. The fizzy, brown, sour and sweet tea is called kombucha, and it is made by a living, ever-changing symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, aka scoby.
The recipe for kombucha is simple: water, sugar and tea. The scoby ferments the sugar and creates a delicious, unique, carbonated, vinegar-y and minutely alcoholic beverage. There are many recipes for kombucha on the internet, but they all follow the same method: boil water; add tea bags; add sugar; keep the jar covered by a cloth in a cool, dark place; peel the scoby when needed; repeat.
Interest in kombucha has progressively gone up since 2014 and peaked around 2018, according to Google Trends. A simple web search brings up numerous articles, asking: “Are There Benefits to Drinking Kombucha?” and “Is Kombucha Healthy? Here’s What Experts Say.” Even healthline.com proposes the benefits of kombucha — but even then, it’s all proposed.
Commercial products should be safe, Dr. Walton Sumner, a research scholar with the Ronin Institute and a co-author of the review on the available literature on kombucha consumption, said in The New York Times article. Dr. Sumner advises to drink it in moderation and exercise caution for those with kidney or lung disease and those at risk for acidosis.
But the moderation disclaimers about kombucha aren’t stopping anyone from brewing and drinking it. Grant Hohenstein, a student at Hocking College studying art and design, has been making kombucha since early this year.
He likes making kombucha because he finds it fun and rewarding. But, he said, brewing kombucha sometimes has a learning curve.
“It took me three batches before I got it right,” Hohenstein said in a message. “I had a few bottle explosions all over my kitchen, problems with it not (being) carbonated enough or carbonated too much, and problems with straining fruit out. Now, I've bought the right equipment and just use 100% fruit juices to avoid any straining.”
Mike Makosky is another Athens County resident who brews his own kombucha. Makosky’s Constellation Kombucha is available at Fluff Bakery, Kindred Market, The Farmacy and Hocking Hills Emporium near Logan. He’s also working on a Columbus restaurant and a “kombucha delivery service.”
Makosky and a friend started Constellation Kombucha about three years ago.
“The first step was building my own commercial kitchen and getting it approved by the state of Ohio,” Makosky said in an email. “I like to think of it as the smallest commercial kitchen in Ohio as it is only 8' x 8'. I also had to get my brewing process, testing procedures, and labeling approved by the state. It was a lengthy process but really not too bad.”
Makosky produces kombucha in five-gallon batches, and he currently has about 60 gallons of kombucha in various stages of fermentation.
“I generally use the basic recipe of black tea and sugar, but I have refined it throughout the years with different types of teas,” he said in an email. “Now, I brew with only organic sugar, teas, fruits, vegetables and herbs.”
Makosky started drinking kombucha as an attempt to lose weight. He liked the idea of a non-alcoholic drink with lots of flavor and not too many calories. Now, he loves producing it.
“It's a good time,” he said in an email. “I have my system down pretty well now so it's a couple of intense hours of production at a time. I just throw on some music and get to it. I also enjoy the experience of learning about the beverage industry and trying to figure out how to expand my sales and create new flavors.”
For Kara Osbourne, an Ohio University graduate student studying social work, one of the great things about kombucha is that it lends itself to “community.” Osbourne described herself as “drowning in kombucha” — she has too much, so she often gives away cultures to Athens neighbors.
Osbourne estimated she’s given out between 20 to 30 scobies to Athens residents. It’s been a good way to get to know her neighbors, Osbourne said.
“I really like things like that I can share,” Osbourne said. “I’m a sharer when it comes to things like gardening, houseplants and bread. It’s like friendship — and everybody’s kinda like brothers and sisters of scobies now.”
Osbourne always prefaces that she hasn’t done her research on kombucha. She obtained her first scoby only about a year ago and simply enjoys the drink. She doesn’t know about the supposed health benefits or science. She just enjoys the simple craft of kombucha brewing.
For Obsourne, sharing scoby is a part of Athens culture, a culture of sharing and making a craft.
“Athens is so cool in that way people are always sharing their vegetables and flowers and seeds and even just anything that can be shared, especially right now more than ever,” Osbourne said. “I moved in and started sharing my scobies, and that has rapidly introduced me to my neighbors or people next door to me, and we met online and shared addresses and found out we lived across the street. It’s pretty awesome.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article contained the incorrect spelling of Mike Makosky’s last name. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.