How a SCOBY Named Sheila Changed My Life

I walk to my bedroom with an empty swing top bottle in my hand, open my clothing closet and a waft of sweet and tangy air parades my senses.

Amidst my partner and my folded shirts, pants and sweaters dwell other creatures, my kombucha SCOBYs (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Slimy jellyfish-like-pancakes float in several two-gallon jars of tea and three cases of smaller jars fill up the remaining shelves with 30 baby kombucha organisms ready to find new homes.

Floral printed vintage napkins cover the openings of the two-gallon jars secured tightly with rubber bands. I lift one of the edges of the cloth cap and whisper, “Hey Sheila, how’s it going in there?” “Sheila” is the name I gave the kombucha organism that was given to me in 2012 after a stint volunteering on an organic farm on Vancouver Island. I hold my empty swing top bottle up to the stainless steel spigot at the base of one of my larger vessels and twist the lever, freshly brewed ‘booch comes rushing out of the opening into my bottle. I bring my kombucha to the kitchen and pour myself a small tasting glass. I close my eyes to savor  the sweet, sour and slightly effervescent brew, feeling satisfied with this batch’s level of fermentation.

You might be wondering if my SCOBY cave infuses all my clothes with an acidic scent of kombucha. Luckily the fragrant beverage leaves no trace of its perfume on any of our outfits. My partner would be extremely unhappy if he had to pitch to a room full of investors smelling like a fermentation closet.

Remember the slimy jellyfish-like kombucha organisms I have in my closet? They are called “SCOBYs,” (pronounced /SKOH-bee/like Skoal!, not /SKOO-bee/ like Scooby-Doo.) This organism is a mat of cells made of bacteria and yeast that creates a pellicle, which is  the membrane or skin that grows on top of the fermenting tea. To make kombucha you simply brew tea, add sugar, let the tea cool and then pour it into a brewing vessel with starter liquid (a.k.a already brewed kombucha) and a SCOBY. The SCOBY “eats the sugar” from the tea and in return naturally carbonates the beverages and gives it all of its probiotics buddies. 

My SCOBY was given to me in the  Summer of 2012 when I WWOOFed (worked on an organic   blueberry farm) on Vancouver Island. Everyday, Joanne, the owner of the farm, would pull out a jar of liquid with a slimy “thing” floating on top and pour herself a glass. I was slightly disgusted, but very intrigued. One day I got up the guts to ask her what she was drinking. She said that it was ‘kombucha’ and offered me a glass. After the first sip, I instantly fell in love! The drink was bubbly, sour, sweet and slightly strange. A perfect combination for me. 


 


My SCOBY Sheila and I—this SCOBY was given to me and she’s been with me ever since—like an adopted child.My SCOBY Sheila and I—this SCOBY was given to me and she’s been with me ever since—like an adopted child.

My SCOBY Sheila and I—this SCOBY was given to me and she’s been with me ever since—like an adopted child.

 


As a parting gift, Joanne gave me a piece of her SCOBY before  I traveled back to California for the rest of the Summer. I started brewing the moment I got home and never stopped. I have traveled all over the world with my SCOBY making lots of kombucha and kombucha friends along the way.

My SCOBY is the closest thing I’ve had to a pet. Growing up my mom was allergic to cats and we never lived in a house that had a backyard for a dog. Once I had a hamster named “Lucky,” but she sadly ran away a few months after I got her. My SCOBY Sheila has taught me the life lessons that come along with taking care of another living thing: attunement, responsibility, commitment and love. 

I have gotten to know this organism quite well to give her exactly what she wants. I can tell when she has fermented to the perfect taste, what kind of sugar she likes best and that she prefers the closet over the counter. Sometimes it feels like a chore to feed my SCOBY Sheila, but in the end she always cheers me up with a silly slosh in her jar. (Just to be clear SCOBYs are not the same kind of sentient beings as humans and cannot move at their will.) I have a true relationship with this tea dwelling creature that reminds me the type of love and care I want to give to myself 

Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I run my own full-time business hosting corporate kombucha brewing and nutrition workshops at big name Bay Area tech companies. Last month I had my largest public workshop with a whopping 40 attendees, who traveled from near and far so I could teach them how to make this fermented beverage themselves.

Standing up in front of rooms of people and nerding out about how we are made up of the food we eat and how the microorganisms in our bodies are the ones who are really running the show lights me up inside. I love when attendees get really enlivened about making their own kombucha, I can feel their excited energy, and that’s when I know I’ve done my job right.

I often get email updates from people who took my workshop years ago, telling me how their konbucha SCOBY named “Chuck” or “Moby” is doing. 

One Saturday morning in 2017 I was loading my trusty Prius with cases of baby SCOBYs in jars, homebrewed kombucha, a bag of assorted kombucha illustrations and special SCOBY snacks. There was nothing particularly special about this morning, but as I drove away hearing the mason jars jiggling in my backseat, I thought to myself “this is my life and I love it.”


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Kombucha is the fermented tea drink that has taken over grocery store shelves nationwide. Even San Francisco’s technology companies lure top talent with their kombucha on tap at the office. Kombucha is basking in the spotlight of the beverage industry with a projected net worth of $7.05 Billion by 2027.

George of GT’s Kombucha was the first to put kombucha on the shelves in the 1990s and has built an empire on this bubbly drink and his company, GT’s Living Foods is worth over $900 million. He started by selling his own kombucha to health food stores in LA out of his home in 1995. He told his mother’s heartfelt cancer survival story on the labels of his kombucha (which later got him sued for “deceptive, misleading, unfair and unlawful labeling” in 2010). Word of mouth got GT’s kombucha  on the shelves of a large chain health food in 1999 and his beverage blew up when LA celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow and Madonna were spotted drinking his brew.

Kombucha had a brief dark period where a large chain health food store removed kombucha from its refrigerators in 2010. A Maine branch of this store was found to have booch that was 2.5% over the legal alcohol levels for a non-alcoholic beverage. After this debacle many companies either stopped making kombucha all together or chose to pasteurize their kombucha to control the alcohol (this process also destroys the healthful probiotics) to get it back on store shelves. GT refused to pasteurize his product and decided to make less fermented booch line called “Enlighten” and stuck a black “21 and up” label on his original recipe that has slightly more alcohol content than its counterpart. Now “hard kombucha” is its own thing with bottles reaching up to 8% ABV that will straight up get you drunk. 

Most people who pluck colorful kombucha bottles from shelves are unaware of where the bubbly beverage  comes from, how it’s made or that it’s extremely easy to make at home. 

Kombucha has been around for thousands of years with its roots tracing back to Asia in about  2000 B.C.E. It traveled along the Silk Road where it became very popular in Eastern Europe until World War II when tea and sugar were rationed and kombucha became too expensive to brew for many people. It had its resurgence in the 1990’s with GT’s Kombucha and gained popularity to become the hyped health food that it is today.

Before making kombucha myself I never thought that I could make anything that I’d find in a store. I became inspired to make other foods items like jams, nut butters, bread and sauerkraut. I also started to make the connection between the food I eat and how it makes me feel. Drinking kombucha and eating vegetables made me feel good, while eating a bunch of vegan brownies and peanut butter for dinner did not.

Not only was kombucha delicious to drink and made me feel good physically, but I also loved connecting with people when I taught them how to brew  it themselves. I discovered my love for teaching people about nutrition and how to make their own nourishing food. This enthusiasm for wellness was one of the things that inspired me to go to Bauman College and become a Certified Nutrition Consultant.

I had a friend who had graduated from Bauman College’s Nutrition Consultant program and she talked with me about the chronic rashes I was experiencing all over my body. Her words of advice reaffirmed that nutrition plays a major role in overall health. She questioned if what I was eating had something to do with my chronic skin condition. After some experimenting with my diet, my rashes got 50% better and I was sold. I needed to know what she knew so I could heal myself and help others heal through food. Bauman College was founded in 1989 and is one of the most well-known nutrition consultant certifications in the country and the campus happened to be less than a mile from my house. I took that as a sign and signed up for the Nutrition Consulting program a few days later.

In college, I’d bring my home-brewed kombucha in recycled jam jars to sip on during my art history classes. More and more of my friends started asking me what I was drinking (because most people thought I was making my own moonshine). Once they learned it was fermented tea and tried some of my brew, they insisted that I teach them how to make kombucha too! I taught my very first kombucha brewing workshop in 2012 through Sprouts, the campus  Student Food Co-op, where I volunteered. I’ve now made teaching people to brew kombucha my business with Kombucha to the People and have taught well over 100 kombucha brewing workshops since 2012 to over 1000 people all over the world. 

I like to think of kombucha as the “gateway fermentation” that gets you into acquiring more culinary pets. It is seriously easy to make at home and many people are tired of spending most of their grocery budget on buying bottles of kombucha for $3-$5 a pop. I created Kombucha to the People to provide in-person kombucha brewing experiences to Bay Area residents and companies to empower folks to have a deeper relationship with their food and receive the tools to make their own kombucha.

When I received my SCOBY eight years ago Joanne told me that she got hers from San Francisco in 1992, so Sheila the kombucha pellicle is at least 27 years old.

In a world full of humans, people are feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before. To combat the feeling of separation, we need to recognize the ways we are invisibly linked. Making kombucha helps us remember how we share much more than meets the eye.

When a SCOBY gets too big for a brewing vessel, I recommend “pruning it” by peeling off one or two layers, so that your brew doesn’t ferment too quickly. What to do with those extra layers? My first suggestion is to share them with friends, family members or even a stranger! To me, the fact that kombucha SCOBYs grow in layers that are easy to separate, means that the process of brewing kombucha is designed for connection

I have given parts of my SCOBY to over 1000 people all over the world from college students in Vancouver, techies in San Francisco to  farmers in Germany. Each person who has attended one of my workshops has likely given a piece of their SCOBY to another person, thus the invisible web of connection continues.

Kombucha is so much more than a satisfying post-yoga sip. It is an ancient beverage that reminds me  we are made of stardust, makes me feel connected in the isolation of the digital age and nourishes me from the inside out. My kombucha SCOBY, Sheila, has been my companion for the last eight years through moves, break-ups and job transitions. She reminds me to take care of the ones I love and myself. The nature of her ever growing layered form highlights abundance that surrounds me. I am so grateful that kombucha has given me a platform to do the meaningful work of inspiring  people to have a meaningful relationship with their food and their bodies.

// If you’re ready to embark on your own kombucha brewing adventure come to one of Lila’s monthly public kombucha workshop, bring her in to up-level your team building time, and follow her on Instagram to learn about all things kombucha @kombuchatothepeople.


How a SCOBY Named Sheila Changed My Life
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