The Mushroom Named SCOBY
by Mollie Doyle
Depleted from 18 months of early motherhood— nursing, no sleep, no time, you know the story—I was desperate for something, anything, to make me feel better. I had tried exercise, napping and dietary changes—lots of carbs, no carbs, wheat-free carbs. Nothing was helping.
A friend suggested I try kombucha tea. She said it had really helped with her fatigue. I tried some. It tasted like vinegar with a splash of fermented fruit. Pretty vile.
But I was desperate. So desperate that, in no time, I had developed a four-to-five-dollar-a-day kombucha habit for something that I wasn’t sure was helping—I was still tired—but figured couldn’t hurt.
Then Betsy called. “Do you want a kombucha mushroom?” Knowing nothing about kombucha mushrooms, I said, “Yes.” The mushroom arrived, riding shotgun in Betsy’s vintage convertible green bug. She handed me a large glass tea-filled jar with a prehistoric, brain-like substance floating in it and said, “I just fed it yesterday. So it should be fine for a few weeks. It’s so fun—kind of like a low-maintenance pet! Oh, and you know not to bother with any alternative sugars, right? I’ve tried. Only white sugar works.”
Betsy made it all sound so simple that I didn’t ask for better directions. I put the mushroom on a sunny windowsill in my kitchen and didn’t do anything with it. Every time I looked at it, it reminded me of the extraterrestrial in the jar in Ridley Scott’s Alien. I kept imagining the scene in the movie when the alien suddenly shakes the jar and soon after, all hell breaks loose. It seemed to have the same spooky potential.
For two and a half weeks I did nothing. But then I started feeling responsible for the mushroom’s life. What if it was starving? Had I already killed it by ignoring it? I did what I always do when too embarrassed to ask a living person (God forbid I not know something): I Googled.
Of course, it turns out, that making kombucha tea is one of the easiest things you could ever do in the kitchen. Basically, you make a really sweet tea and then “feed” it to the mushroom, wait a week or two and “harvest” the tea. (Note: I found wikihow.com had the best instructions.)
I went from kombucha novice to kombucha fanatic. My mushroom, which I learned was really a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast), had babies. And the babies had babies. Soon I was brewing 10 gallon-sized jars at a time and playing with flavors: chai, ginger-infused, lemon, peach. I could go on. And would have gone on had my husband not said, “Are you sure drinking so much of that stuff is good for you?” And complained that kombucha was taking over our kitchen—there was barely any counter left, and two shelves in the fridge were packed with bottles of brewed kombucha tea.
So, I began giving the babies away to friends, espousing the great taste, the savings (I figured I was saving at least $120 dollars a month), the fun of making it, and the health benefits that I’d heard others bandy about: it can treat arthritis, constipation, obesity, arteriosclerosis, impotence, kidney stones, rheumatism, gout, cancer, and it balances the acidity or pH in your body.
But then, three months later, I stopped breast-feeding and, almost immediately, stopped craving kombucha. Wondering why, I called my friend Cathleen Vincent, who practices acupuncture on the Island. She said that the exact same thing had happened to her. She said, “Kombucha tea is not an everyday thing.”
Curious, I did some research. I found many articles touting kombucha as a heal-all elixir. I learned that it was a reprisal of a 19th-century Russian health fad, not an ancient Chinese potion for eternal youth. However, I found as many, if not more, articles by credentialed, well-respected organizations and doctors, warning that kombucha tea has no health merits, and that it is a potentially dangerous and lethal substance. I read about several kombucha-related deaths. This made me pause.
I had bought into this whole kombucha craze without doing thorough due diligence. I, a person who reads the Physician’s Desk Reference every time I am prescribed even the most benign of drugs, hadn’t even read the label! Not investigating could have been far more costly than a $5 drink.
To be fair, I was exhausted and my guard was down. Then again, tired or not, I am always enchanted by the idea of ancient wisdom. This is one of the reasons why I love yoga so much—secrets to unlocking and healing the body being passed down over centuries. (Note to self: anytime you see the word ancient, ask: Is this myth or medicine?) But even more important, I was reminded that what I put in my body either hurts or heals me. Food is my medicine.
So, for now, I am sticking with drinking water—sometimes with fresh rosemary, mint or lemon—pumped from my well. A free, road-tested, essential, and profoundly healing substance.