"Scientists are working on developing this stuff into fabric and imitation leather," says Jonathan Cox as he pulls a long, slick ribbon of thick supple, skin-like material from a massive jar in his fermenting room. It looks like the way an ear lobe does when you shine a flashlight through it. He holds the SCOBY — an acronym that stands for "symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria" — and says, "One day, maybe your jacket and belt will be made of something you can grow in a jar at your house."
But this fabric line forecast is still cutting-edge biotechnology, many moons from coming into full fruition as a Louis Vuitton. Conversely, Cox is using SCOBY to make something with ancient origins, something you take in but don't wear out, something perfectly ambrosial: kombucha.
If you've never had this unique beverage, do. Kombucha is a sweet tea that's fermented to yield a tangy, fizzy drink. With vinegary, sour, acerbic notes, its flavor gives way to some floral sweetness. If that sounds like a lot of adjectives, it's because they're all necessary and then some. Depending on age and complexity, the drink can achieve dozens of different tasting notes at once, keeping you hopelessly tripping over a succinct description. Originating in China over 2,000 years ago, kombucha began as most fermented foods do — naturally. A few hitchhiking microorganisms hopped into a tea bath and voilà, the murky, tantalizing beverage was born. In fact, SCOBY is also often referred to by fermenters as a "mother." It's believed that every replication of the substance originated from one original Gift of the Gods, bestowed upon man to re-use again and again through each proliferation of the recipes which rely upon it. The community of organisms can easily be introduced to new batches of kombucha, where they will generate another SCOBY, and various colonies are also used in other ferment-based foods like sourdough bread.
Nowadays, kombucha is trending with a fervor that even the cronut would envy, heralded as a tonic that can relieve anything from sour stomach to life-threatening ailments. It's enjoying corporate promotion through producers like Whole Food's GT's and other large-scale kombucha manufacturers that are putting it on the shelves of Harris Teeter, Walmart, and Costco. There are home-fermenters arranging SCOBY trades on Facebook, and a number of companies will ship a mother right to your door. But Cox, owner of Charleston's One Love Kombucha, is South Carolina's only commercial kombucha brewery, and the small-batch attention he puts into each brew shows.
As we sip cool, bubbly ferments at his small James Island brewery, Cox makes a small recipe of kombucha to show me how it's done. He steeps loose-leaf black tea, adds organic cane sugar, and puts the mixture into a crock. Next, he adds a small piece of silky SCOBY and a bit of fermented tea from the last batch. "That's it," he says, placing a breathable cloth over the top of the container. "Now, it's just a waiting game." Over the next 10 to 14 days, this concoction will go through some growing pains.
First, the yeast in the mother culture will eat up all the sugar and produce alcohol. Then the bacteria will consume the alcohol and multiply feverishly, producing the thick SCOBY to seal the mixture off from oxygen as the process now becomes anaerobic. The bacteria will turn the alcohol into the acids that give the tea its notable piquancy, and carbon dioxide will be released, causing tiny bubbles to form. The SCOBY will grow to be a firm, floating mass on top of the brew — the dense pancake that tops another large vat Cox is fermenting for bottling is at least two inches thick. He will test the pH level with a digital meter and note the residual sugar with a refractometer until the right balance is achieved. (The fussy gadgetry tests are FDA-required for Cox's operation. A home-brewer, however, would simply glean the pH level with test strips from a drug store. Under 3.0, and you're good to go.) Then, the brew will be filtered and bottled, at which point other flavorings can be added if desired.
Even though One Love is a fledgling company, Cox isn't shy about sharing the fermentation process with others. He even teaches a workshop on it and sends newbies home with recipes and fact sheets. When I ask him if he's nervous about giving away his secret, he shrugs. "I'm a big believer in information," he says. "I know that this makes people healthier and happier. Commercially, I'm not that worried. I'm keeping things interesting, and people usually appreciate that someone else is doing the fermenting for them."
Cox, who holds degrees in business, nutritional therapy, and culinary arts, has reason to be confident. His company is only two months old, but he's starting to run out of bottles before closing time at the three farmer's markets where he vends — those in Mt. Pleasant and on James and Johns islands — and he'll start selling at the downtown Marion Square Farmers Market in November.
What he's peddling isn't some cloudy brown liquid staining the bottom of a cup. Each variety a pop of color, One Love's kombucha is imbued with fresh ingredients, mostly sourced from Johns Island mini-farm Spade and Clover. Among the flavors are a refreshing pineapple basil, an ever-so-slightly briny spirulina, and a vibrant hibiscus ginger with a punch so resonant that it's inspired James Island locavore restaurant The Lot to feature a new cocktail. It's called the Love is Tricky, and it's a heady concoction of High Wire Distillery's Hat Trick Gin and Crème de Violette finished with effervescent kombucha, lemon juice, and Champagne. The restaurant, along with several others, is ardently pursuing Cox's kombucha as a permanent staple behind their bar. Turns out, it's a killer cocktail mixer. There's even talk of a kombucha-ponzu sauce in the works for an upcoming sushi restaurant.
Cox is a big believer in the health benefits of fermentation. Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and turned to fermented vegetables as a source of natural probiotics and digestive acids, and began to experiment with kombucha two years later. These foods began to ease his symptoms dramatically, so much so he says that he was eventually able to stop taking other medications altogether. Though neither Cox nor the FDA endorse fermented foods as a replacement for other working cures, he isn't alone in recommending it as a natural digestive aid and promoter of gut health.
Yet for such an unassuming, ol' timey little drink, kombucha has enjoyed some notoriety in recent years. In 2010, Whole Foods pulled kombucha bottles from shelves because they weren't being refrigerated or handled properly, so the alcohol content in some bottles had been elevated to 2.5 percent — a full 2 percent above the maximum FDA-allowed amount for a beverage in its category. (Because of the way it's fermented, there will always be a minute level of alcohol in kombucha. The FDA is fine with that, as long as it's under 0.5 percent. The addition of fruits and other flavor enhancers can increase sugar and thus heighten alcohol content, but as long as it's handled safely, the level won't approach anything that's intoxicating. Owing to this, the FDA is considering raising the maximum ABV for kombucha alone.) There have been flurried reports of adverse health reactions and stomach upsets from the beverage as well, but the FDA has released no report surmising that kombucha is the cause of a defined health risk or problem. Perhaps the pitfall in the promotion of fermented foods as "super foods" is in the dubious number and scope of problems some supporters claim they treat. It has been touted that kombucha alleviates and/or cures wrinkles and liver spots, hot flashes, PMS, cramps, muscle aches, joint pains, coughs, allergies, migraine headaches, cataracts, and, most jarringly, AIDS. But even while singing its praises as a detoxifying agent, most supporters are careful to point out that the tea really isn't a cure-all and that the amount of symptomatic relief each person receives will vary based on the individual.
In taking a step back and defining kombucha simply as an enjoyable beverage, the government and the public are relaxing little by little. There are better regulations in place to keep it from turning boozy, and as long as no one's claiming on the bottle that sprinkling it on lepers will cure sores, it can rest comfortably on shelves. It's even gaining popularity as a children's beverage, with an ever-growing number of parents buying it as a soda alternative. Cox says some of the melee in recent years has actually been beneficial to the industry: it's made big-time producers more answerable, and it's given smaller brewers an earnest chance to catch up to the larger guppies.
Later down the line, Cox plans to sell jars of his own fermented vegetables. Right now, he's got his hands full trying to keep his kombucha bottles occupied, but I've talked him into making a little batch of fermented vegetables for my visit to the brewery.
He chooses kimchi, the popular, spicy Korean condiment that's now fairly familiar stateside. Cox chops up cabbage, daikon, carrots, garlic, turmeric, and kale, his own personal addition. This type of fermentation uses no SCOBY — it relies instead upon lacto-fermentation, wherein Lactobacillus bacteria found in the soil (and thus in and on the surfaces of fruits and vegetables) convert sugars into lactic acid. He keeps the skins on all of the vegetables, saying that they are the best source for the helpful bacteria. Instead of the traditional fish sauce and shrimp used to flavor kimchi, Cox opts for seaweed. He adds flakes of mildly sweet wakame and dulse, a red seaweed with a characteristically smoky, bacon-y flavor profile. He doesn't skimp on gochugaru, the dish's signature red chili powder. He packs it all into a specialized pickling jar where it will sit for a few days, bubbling and breaking down, and then it will be ready-to-serve with ... well, pretty much any type of savory dish you can dream up, and some you haven't even thought of yet.
A VW bus is parked out front of Cox's brewery, where it's being outfitted with a series of taps that will allow him to pour kombucha as ordered, food-truck style. He plans to keep his kombucha local always, but he allows that his future fermented products could see much more of the world. The future looks pretty bright with that bus heading toward the horizon, and he knows it.
He may have to reassess the competition, however, when Louboutin rolls out the next line of SCOBY shoes.