The metabolic conversion of sugars by bacteria and yeast into acids, gases or alcohol
An Adventure by Lucy Reading
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman
“You probably won’t like it,” I watch anxiously as my friend and two-time roommate cautiously sips her first kombucha, a popular fermented tea drink of ancient East Asian origin now drunk in hipster, health-conscious pockets of the United States. “I promise it’s one of those things that grows on you over time,” I continue nervously. “This is so gross! Oh my god, EW.” She is unimpressed.
Unfortunately for my friend, she never came to like kombucha. My reaction wasn’t too dissimilar from hers the first time I tried kombucha, or traditional-style hard cider. But now, after trying them now and again over my four years at Middlebury College in Vermont, I am addicted to the fizzy, sour, and tangy qualities these fermented beverages share.
I have been curious about how these drinks come to taste the way they do for a while now, but I never engaged in that interest beyond a slight daydream or side-thought as I sipped on them with friends. It was too much effort and too cliché to get myself involved in another food project at Middlebury. I promised myself I would steer clear of talking about food ever again. I had moved on.
My bitterness for the subject of food stems from having defined my first two years at Middlebury through involvement in the food-activist student club, “EatReal.” As a keen freshman, I joined EatReal eager to help achieve their aim of making fifty percent of the college’s dining hall food “real” – local, fair, ecologically sound, and humane. By my sophomore fall, I was the Co-President and I believed I was working towards a goal that was more important and significant than any of my classes. I knew I must be at the peak of my college career.
During my sophomore spring, my leadership of the club and my passion for its goals had unraveled. I realized that, relative to other items on the College’s agenda, EatReal was small potatoes – it would never happen. Other key students in EatReal went abroad, graduated, or had moved on from the club. I was left unable to continue to take it on by myself and gave up on it emotionally, wanting to throw my hands up in the air and quit. Step by step, I tried to withdraw myself from the project of which I had been the beating heart.
By the middle of my junior year, I couldn’t take the club’s lack of progress anymore and wanted absolutely nothing to do with EatReal. I didn’t even want to talk about sustainable food; even eating it conjured up resentful, anxious emotions. Engaging in anything related to food reminded me of my failure to successfully remain committed to executing EatReal’s goal; it reminded me that I, an ambitious, go-getter President became a quitter. It reminded me that I had wasted hundreds of hours of time on the club, when I could have been finishing my readings, writing better papers, and getting to know my professors.
This resentment has been a real battle for me because, in the end, the subject of food remains one of my natural passions. I felt this struggle as I tried to come up with a project for my senior year winter term class “Adventure Writing.” I went around in circles tossing up different outdoorsy ideas that I had seen other students do in the past. I could go moose tracking, ice fishing, even dog sledding, but none of those ideas felt quite right. I realized that in order to be truly excited about my adventure, it had to be about food. But I didn’t want my project to be about why food is better if it’s local, or how it’s important to eat with the environment in mind and that it’s crucial to make everyone around me aware of the environmental and social impact of their food consumption habits. I wanted to use this opportunity to look at food from a new angle, for the sake of food itself – to rediscover and redefine my broken relationship with food.
I decided I would learn about food from a more historical, culinary perspective and finally delve into my interest in fermentation by examining the history and production of hard cider and kombucha. This January, I met and learned from three local Vermont fermentation experts: Colin Davis the co-founder of Shacksbury that makes hard cider, Mike Kin the former head-brewer of Aqua ViTea Kombucha, and Ryan Miller the founder of Apis Honey Kombucha.
“It wasn’t like either of us were overly big wine drinkers, or cider drinkers, or home brewers. It would probably be more romantic if we were,” admits Shacksbury Cider founder Colin Davis about himself and his co-founder and partner, David Dolginow. Colin has a short red beard and is wearing a bright wool hat, a blue Patagonia jacket, light brown trousers and Bean Boots. The 30-ish former Middkid blends in seamlessly with the rest of us on campus. Over morning coffee in a Middlebury library study room on a grey, winter morning, Colin takes me into his world, a deep dive into how Shacksbury distinguishes itself from most commercial ciders by making traditional styles of cider that use wild apples, wild yeast, and a long ageing process.
“So… I don’t know if you know this about our business but we actually import a lot of our apples from England and Spain.” Shacksbury’s goal is to make a world class product, and Vermont’s apples are not up to their cider-making standards. Colin explains this to me through a wine analogy. Concord grapes are used to make grape jelly, grape juice, grape soft drinks and candy, and if it’s used for wine – it’s for kosher wine. Pinot grapes are used to make great wine. “We’re not growing ‘pinot’ apples here, we’re growing ‘concord’ apples.” As Colin says this, I sit further forward in my chair, intrigued that Shacksbury outright rebels against the “Buy local! Support your local farms!” philosophy that is so central to Vermont’s pride and was so central to my passion for EatReal. Vermont is well known for its local foods, especially dairy, maple and apple products. “We actually struggled a lot in the early days in Vermont because people were like, ‘Well, where do you get your apples?’ All they wanted to hear is we get all our apples from Vermont. They just wanted to drink local, local, local.” I nod my head in full understanding of their struggle. I used to be that person, I tell him. I wanted local food products to be all or nothing, and if it could be all and it wasn’t, it was bad. His response is, “but you’re not anymore?” followed by a mocking yet understanding chuckle.
Colin is just the right type of person to help me transition to my new relationship with food. His primary goal is to make a top quality product; secondary, though not forgotten, is to take advantage of and support the Vermont landscape wherever possible. His attitude is refreshing compared to the unrelenting food activists in town I had come to know through EatReal. At one point, I even thought one of them was trying to use gain access to confidential information to push his organization’s agenda on the College administration. During our conversations, he would take these vigorous hand-written notes and I couldn’t help but feel like I was a spy giving him precious secrets about how the College sources its food.
A few days later on a crisp, sunny, January morning, I head out to Shacksbury’s production facility in Shoreham, Vermont. It’s about a fifteen-minute drive southwest of Middlebury. Shacksbury works out of a large, rented room at Vermont Refrigerated Storage, another operation run by a Middlebury alum – Barney. VRS, as it’s known, is a series of large refrigerated warehouses located along VT Route 22A, just past the gas station. There’s often a truck loading up beside it, ready to transport large quantities of food, usually apples. On this day, there’s a white, Sunrise Orchards container truck with “Eat Apples” on its side. Sunrise is also owned by Barney and his wife Christiana. Given the small circles we run in here in Vermont, it’s almost no coincidence that Christiana was my landlady two summers ago when I interned at a food startup in Middlebury.
I had actually been to VRS before. Two years ago, I met with Barney as part of a winter term independent study for EatReal. Barney and I had discussed the possibility of the College renting refrigerated space so the dining halls could store and serve local vegetables to students year-round. Unfortunately, like most of the projects to which I had dedicated hours for EatReal, it never came to fruition. My team and I pitched the proposal to President Liebowitz and CFO Patrick Norton as a potential pathway to fifty percent real food. We considered fifty percent real food to be a way for Middlebury to remain as the leader of environmental stewardship in higher education going forward, since we would be achieving carbon neutrality soon in 2016. They were greatly impressed by our research effort, but told us the numbers weren’t strong enough for any of our pathways to fifty percent to be considered seriously. I left the meeting disappointed, but not defeated and immediately began to plan how to mobilize EatReal members to improve our financial projections. It was during that next semester that my enthusiasm for EatReal’s goals began to crumble. No one else in the club seemed to care as much as I did about this crucial detail to our mission and, week by week I lost hope that the administration would ever take our pitches serious enough for action.
I breathe in the cold air, and stare at the huge expanse of building before me. It feels both comforting and thrilling to be back out in the field – or rather, in large, industrial warehouses – talking to experts in the food industry. I don’t feel like an outsider here. But I can’t help but feel a tiny bit of disappointment. Maybe if I had persevered just a little longer two years ago, there was some chance the College would be storing vegetables here. Then my pessimism returns. No, that was never going to happen and I think nearly everybody, Barney included, knew it – but me. I guess I have grown up since I was last here; I’m no longer trying to change the world. I just want to be a journalist, a curious student, learning about a historic Vermont craft – hard cider. I can’t fail at that too.
The origins of hard cider, or just “cider” as it was known before the non-alcoholic variety came into existence, are not fully known due to how apples grow all over the world, however some of its earliest records go back to the Roman era. Around the year 55 B.C., Julius Caesar found people drinking cider from native crabapples when he invaded Britain. After the Roman Empire collapsed, the Moors in Spain used modern horticultural knowledge to grow new apple varieties. Spanish apples were particularly bitter, tannic apples; these are the classic cider apples.
Cider was extremely popular from early, colonial, to pre-prohibition America. In fact, in early New England one out of every ten farms had their own cider mill. Cider was America’s drink and a safe alternative to water, which was often unpalatable. Even Presidents Washington and Jefferson were avid drinkers and cultivators of cider. At Monticello, Jefferson planted two orchards, one specifically for cider. Jefferson described his cider as “the finest cyder we have ever known, and more like wine than any liquor I have ever tasted which was not wine.”
Ethan Allen, an American Revolutionary patriot and one of the founders of Vermont, didn’t find cider alcoholic enough for his taste – it hovers between 4% and 6% alcohol. Allen made his own drink known as the “stonewall,” which was half-rum, half-cider. There are rumors that the “stonewall” is at minimum partially responsible for Allen’s Green Mountain Boys’ victory at Fort Ticonderoga in the Revolutionary War. During Vermont’s first century, nearly every farm had its own orchard.
During the temperance movement and the Prohibition era, both cider consumption and apple production fell dramatically and America lost most of its traditional cider apple tree varieties. Cider apple varieties are not nice eaten freshly picked off a tree due to their bitterness and high tannins; absent alcohol, there was no use for these varieties anymore. Cider consumption fell from 210 million liters in 1899 to 30 million liters in 1919. It was also around this time that “cider” became synonymous with non-alcoholic pressed apple juice, made possible by the advent of refrigeration, and the term “hard cider” was coined.
I walk into Shacksbury’s 4000-squarefoot space at VRS and find Colin managing his team, each working on various stages of the cider-making process. Colin is wearing his usual outfit: bright wool hat, blue Patagonia puffy, light brown pants, and low-cut Bean Boots. The room is just above freezing, with high ceilings and every wall stacked with huge, filled plastic tanks of fermenting cider. There are four women running various work stations, also dressed in warm, ski-chic clothing – the Vermont uniform. One woman is operating the machine that labels finished cans, two others are cleaning a large piece of stainless steel equipment and packing boxes, while the fourth fiddles with the music; a curated, upbeat jazz-rock playlist is blasting.
While I’m there, I help Colin with his various to-do’s of the day. We cast yeast into some cider, but he makes sure I understand that he prefers whenever possible to use wild yeast over the packaged strain of yeast ‘Saccharomyces.’ Wild fermentation is the method used in medieval Europe and early America to make traditional cider that Colin is trying to emulate. All you have to do is let pressed apple juice sit out for a long period of time, and eventually different yeast varieties in the air will work their magic, converting the liquid to alcohol. Colin explains that when you use wild fermentation, the successional process of different strains becoming dominant gives a lot more complexity and flavor. Colin tries to recall the name of a wild yeast strain as an example, “I think it starts with ‘tobruk-y’ something. I don’t know…they all have weird Latin names.”
After tasting some cider made of normal dessert apples such as Macs, he walks me over to a big, round, almond-shaped tank to taste some of his “wild” cider. This tank is full of Shacksbury’s “lost apple” cider and has had no packaged yeast added to it. All of the yeast has come simply from the air. This tank’s apples come from Michael Lee’s Twig Farm in nearby Cornwall. Michael is known for making cheese, but he has cider apple varieties growing on his property from the era of America’s very early hard cider. To Colin and David, “these trees represent a door to another time, and the basis for superior cider.” As he turns the tap and fills his Shacksbury-printed snifter, he double checks, “you 21?” and laughs to himself at his funny joke. He then tells me about what I am about to taste. “This is fermented completely dry. You’ll notice there’s no sugar at all. The aromas are definitely a lot more complex and it’s got a lot more tannins so it’ll have an astringent, kind of more bitter taste and a lot more complexity.” His explanation grows into more of a warning, “Really extreme examples of tannin would be like if you put a black tea bag in your mouth. It’s like a drying, rough, chalky…like the cinnamon challenge! That’s intensely tannic. Try it.” He looks on in amusement as I begin to draw the glass up to my mouth; the flavor is indeed “intense,” but I do really like it. Colin tastes a little, looks up to the left and nods his head, “This is, in my opinion, world class cider.”
I ask Colin why more cider-makers don’t make cider like his, using unusual apples, wild yeast from the air, and allowing age to change its flavor. It feels like he’s about to let me in on his take, but he quickly steps back “no I won’t say that” and laughs guiltily. I gather that the gist of it is that most cider is made as if wine-makers were treating their wine like beer, and most cider-makers are too scared to experiment with wild fermentation. “They’re so terrified of spoilage and bad stuff going on that they just want to use super yeast that goes totally clean, and they’re not willing to have the patience or leap of faith to let something go a little funky so it can get even better.” Even I, no cider-connoisseur, can taste the difference between modern-day conventional cider and Colin’s traditional cider. Colin’s is tastier. Talking to him, I feel like I’ve been allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table at lunch.
Charlie Brown presses all of Shacksbury’s apples at his cider mill down in Castleton, about a forty-five-minute drive South of Shoreham. Charlie is sixty-two with a thick Vermont accent and every morning by at four o’clock he runs the cider mill his family founded in 1926. About 250 years ago, Charlie’s family settled in Vermont alongside Ethan Allen; they have stayed on this land ever since. There are plenty of cider mills closer to Shoreham Shacksbury could use, but Colin tells me that no matter what he will always do business with Charlie. The quality is unbeatable. We drive down there first thing in the morning later in the week to see traditional cider pressing in action, and to meet Charlie. We pull up to Brown’s Cider in Colin’s pick-up truck with a trailer full of apples behind us. As soon as I have one foot out of the truck, Charlie is shaking my hand and telling me about the history of his cider press machine and his family’s business. We walk up to the press which is in full action, and he introduces me to the press operator who is ancient and very insistent on how he will be eighty-one next weeks; he’s not eighty-one yet, despite what Charlie tells me. Charlie just laughs, and continues. Charlie’s cider is the best you can get, Colin insists, because of how he doesn’t wash the apples and put them into the press wet, watering the flavor down. Charlie interrupts Colin to clarify that he does in fact wash his apples, the difference is that he then individually dries each apple and checks there are no rotted ones before they go through the press.
I watch every step of the cider making process: first, the apples get placed at the bottom of a stainless steel conveyor belt and then carried up about 3 meters above the ground. The noise quickly picks up as the apples begin falling down a chute filled with multiple spinning blades that dice and crush the apples into a yellow, foam-like mush. The eighty-year-old sets up a stack of wooden boards for the “cheeses” of apple mush. Quickly, he picks up a wide-mouthed, transparent plastic tube; it looks like a shower hose, but bigger. The apple mush begins pouring out of the hose, and the man squirts it onto a wooden board, places a cheesecloth-like-cloth on top of the mush and immediately places a wooden board on top of that and repeats. Once all of the “cheeses” have been made and stacked one on top of the other, the pressing begins. A multi-ton block of metal slowly squeezes the “cheeses” flat. Off every rung of the wooden blocks, fresh cider comes trickling down like a fountain, collecting in a large trough of delicious, sweet, fresh cider. Charlie jokingly complains that he just had to upgrade his machine for a hefty cost to accommodate Colin’s “weird” apples. But the twinkle in his eyes can’t hide how excited he also is by these old, forgotten apples.
For such a popular drink in hip, millennial communities, it’s kind of amazing that almost everything about kombucha is still shrouded in mystery: its name, its history, its health benefits, and even its recipe are all up for debate. What people who drink it do know is that its tart, vinegar-y, fizzy qualities make it taste heavenly. Kombucha is a lightly sparkling probiotic drink made by fermenting sweet tea with a kombucha starter known as a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). From my first sip of kombucha my freshman year at Middlebury’s campus café, its strange, foreign name hinted at its obscurity. Still, I did not realize it was as an oddity even to the people who make it.
In a red hard hat, I step into Aqua ViTea Kombucha’s production facility in Middlebury’s industrial park with Mike Kin. Mike is buzzing with enthusiasm to show me around Aqua ViTea; he tells me how refreshing it is for him to talk to me about kombucha for the sake of the drink itself. Mike’s a father of young kids dressed in a blue and pink flannel, jeans and the staple shoe du jour: Blundstones – an Australian work boot. Aqua ViTea’s roots go back around twenty years to when Mike’s friend Jeff was brewing kombucha for friends and family out of his garage in Oregon. He was pretty ahead of his time. In 2005 Jeff moved out to Vermont with his wife, brought his culture with him and began brewing kombucha again, and started selling it too. Three years later, Jeff finally convinced Mike to join him in Vermont and become head brewer. Since then, Aqua ViTea has only grown bigger; they’ve had to expand to new locations three times in the last ten years.
The high-ceilinged, warehouse room where the kombucha is being made in large vats is a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature required for the bacteria to thrive. “It’s suuuuper easy to make,” he explains. The ingredients are tea, sugar, and a SCOBY starter. SCOBYs are a mucus-colored, rubbery, highly dense slab of cellulose bacteria, apparently readily available on Craigslist. SCOBYs eat sugar and convert it to carbon dioxide and ethanol, leaving trace amounts of alcohol and its unique tangy taste. They are pretty off-putting and intimidating when you first see one. If I hadn’t tasted kombucha before seeing a SCOBY, I’m not sure I ever would have been brave enough to try it. Alternatively, you can leave a bottle of kombucha with a little bit left in it out in your kitchen with a muslin cloth around the top, and theoretically your own SCOBY will form after around two weeks.
As we walk around the twenty-or-so vats of brewing kombucha, I compare kombucha-making to cider-making in my head. “So, what if I wanted to make kombucha entirely from scratch?” I ask Mike, “like how you could make hard cider or sourdough from grocery store ingredients instead of buying a starter?” Mike turns and looks at me. His eyes convey full understanding of my question; it’s one he has spent years asking as well. Nobody knows the answer. Kombucha has to be made from another kombucha. No one, at least no one that Mike has heard of, has ever successfully cultivated the right combination of wild bacteria and yeast to make kombucha from sweet tea out of thin air, like how Colin makes his traditional cider from leaving apple juice out. “So, does that mean SCOBYs have been passed down from generation to generation, across continents, person to person since its birth?” I ask, stunned. “Yup,” he replies.
Kombucha is ancient. Depending on who you talk to, the drink has its origins in either China or Russia sometime around 250 B.C. Maybe someone in China left some old tea out to sit and exactly the right concoction of bacteria and yeast formed a SCOBY? Or maybe it was actually Russian peasants who first made kombucha by making tea out of birch leaves and birch bark, and the bark contained the right bacteria. Nobody knows. The ambiguity is accompanied by a plethora of fascinating mythologies surrounding kombucha’s origins and history through the centuries. There’s stories that in ancient Japan, samurai warriors used to drink kombucha in battle. During Russian invasions, myths attribute Russian soldiers’ vitality to drinking kombucha. During Russian industrialization and heavy pollution, there are legends that pockets of the country where the Czar had introduced kombucha centuries ago were nearly cancer-free.
In the early twentieth century, kombucha made its way to Eastern Europe. One idea of how it got there that German World War One prisoners of war brought it back with them from Russian camps. Sometime in the late twentieth century, it made its way to the United States and gained popularity during the AIDS epidemic due to hopes that the probiotics may boost the immune system. People call it “kombucha” but in Japanese, that actually means seaweed tea, which is not what it is. Even the name’s a puzzle. What we do know for fact is that over the last seven years, kombucha sales have gone through the roof. It is the fastest-growing market of functional beverages in the United States with a market size of more than US$700 million in 2015 and predicted to reach US$4.64 billion by 2024.
I found learning about Shacksbury’s traditional cider-making process fascinating, but the enigma surrounding kombucha had me intrigued in a different, more ethereal way. The fact that every sip of kombucha I have ever tasted has come from someone else’s kombucha culture, which has come from someone else’s kombucha culture dating back to East Asia several millennia ago was wild. Every time I drink kombucha, I’m consuming an ancient living organism.
Once I am back on campus, I spill everything I learned from my visit to Aqua ViTea to my roommates (also lovers of kombucha). During our conversation, a euphoric feeling surges through me and a tingling sensation trickles down from my brain. I haven’t felt this way talking about food since the peak of my EatReal days over two years ago. I remember feeling this way after I successfully organized and executed an $8,750 symposium “Food [in]Justice in the 21st Century.” Three other EatReal members and I brought four speakers to campus to speak. One speaker discussed the intersection between post-race-consciousness, hip hop vegan ethics and food justice. Another raised awareness about building the voice and power of migrant dairy farmworkers in Vermont. I have a crystal-clear memory of telling my friend in our hospital-green-colored hallway of our sophomore dorm that I had found a subject – food – that got me fired up in an unexplainable way. I felt like I had found a sense of clarity and purpose in life.
Wanting to dive deeper into this crazy drink I reach out to another local kombucha maker, Ryan Miller. Within a few days, I am sitting in his living room chatting to him about the story behind his SCOBY, named “Jun.” Ryan looks somewhere in his thirties, has shoulder-length flowing dark brown hair accompanied by a two-inch beard and is dressed in a grey flannel and jeans. Ryan founded Apis Honey Kombucha just six months ago as a spin-off business in addition to running his organic farm, Golden Well Farm & Apiaries, with his wife Nicole. They live in a stunning, renovated 200-year-old farmhouse. Prior to moving to Vermont in 2012 and having a daughter in 2013, I gather from snippets of our conversation that Ryan and Nicole had both lived quite nomadic lives. Their living room is stylishly decorated. There are colorful strings of mini pom-poms hanging from the high ceilings and artifacts from all over the world on built-in shelves. I recognize a gamelan, a traditional Indonesian instrument similar to a xylophone, from a family holiday to Bali last summer. I ask Ryan about it; he tells me his mother once lived in Indonesia. I mention that my family lives relatively nearby in Hong Kong, and he immediately calls out to Nicole to join our conversation because she also used to live there with her family as a child. This is no ordinary Vermont farming family. As EatReal’s Co-President, I visited a number of farms in the area to discuss the price points involved in increasing local, organic food. They were great people too, but they had not grown up down the road from me in Hong Kong. It feels as if Ryan, Nicole, and I come from a similar world.
Ryan explains to me that his kombucha is slightly different to Mike’s because his culture “Jun” eats honey, not sugar. They’re cousins of sorts. Ryan has had a lifelong love for honeybees and fermentation, and came across the Jun culture in his research and knew it was the perfect vehicle for him to merge his two passions. The folklore behind the Jun culture is that it was originally cultivated by the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi in Tibet, and so there are stories that at some point monks brought Jun to America, separately from the cane sugar-eating kombucha that came across through Eastern Europe.
I ask Ryan a bit more about his beekeeping and why being able to use honey was so important to him. To him, being able to produce his own ingredients locally on the farm and support other local businesses are of utmost importance. “Organic local is first. Local is second. If I can’t get it local, then organic domestic. Lastly, it would be organic international.” I am all too familiar with these purchasing matrices. Many EatReal meetings had been dedicated to how the college should prioritize its food purchases in the most environmentally and socially-conscious way. I cringe at the memory, and squeeze out the thought to focus back on Ryan.
Ryan continues on about his enthusiasm for a local economy. “People need farmers and need connection to what they’re eating and who they’re getting it from. Otherwise, you’re missing out on a lot of pleasure and joy of life. It’s important for our social health, our mental health, our relationship health.” Ryan insists it also leads to a superior kombucha because the raw honey he uses naturally cultivates the taste of the land, the “terroir” in his product bringing in local flora, bacteria, and yeast.
The EatReal Lucy would have been enthusiastically nodding my head as he tells me this. But now I am confused. These days, when I find myself in a conversation about how people need to eat more local food, I bite my tongue trying not to say anything disrespectful. I want to tell these people to save their energy; they’re not about to single-handedly alter the globalized food supply chain. There are going to be huge roadblocks, mostly financial, and you’ll be forced to give up or settle for something less than satisfying. But as I talk to Ryan I’m not holdings these thoughts on the tip of my tongue as confidently as I normally do. Ryan has a lot more experience than I do in the food industry, he is well-educated, well-travelled, and doesn’t seem like the old, radical food activists I used to meet with in town. I respect him and what he is doing on his farm with his wife and daughter.
Ryan offers to give me a small slice of his Jun culture so that I can experiment with kombucha-making in my own time. If you like kombucha, drinking a home-made batch is much more satisfying than buying it in the store, Ryan tells me. I come back to his house the next day with my mason jar. In his kitchen, he steeps some Japanese Sencha tea, and measures out some of his honey in preparation. Then he retrieves from a cupboard what he calls the “mother.” It’s a ten-by-ten-inch SCOBY, as mucus-y and intimidating as they get, sitting in its own juice. Ryan cuts me a tiny slice and places it in my jar. The acidic, distinct kombucha aroma permeates the room. He uses a temperature probe to ensure the tea has cooled enough to not harm the SCOBY, or cook the honey. It’s crucial the honey remains raw for the Jun to eat it. Once the ingredients are assembled in my jar, he hands it to me. Ryan instructs me to cover the jar with a cloth so that the culture can breathe, and place it in a warm spot of my room with minimal light. Within ten to fourteen days, the culture will have eaten all the honey and I can transfer it to a gallon container. In that container, I’ll add more tea and honey and ten to fourteen days later, I’ll have a gallon of kombucha ready to drink. So long as I always save the SCOBY and a little bit of kombucha at the bottom of my container, I will be able to use my Jun culture to make kombucha indefinitely.
I believe I am quite a self-aware person, and I realize that my visceral aversion to sustainable food activism is somewhat irrational. Throughout my life, I have had a tendency to dislike some subjects – or even some people – to an unfair, unhealthy extent. The subjects I detest are always things I used to like quite a lot. But time passes and the intensity of my passion wanes and the phase of liking that subject comes to a close. As I reflect on myself during that phase I become horrified by how much of myself I invested in it. I can’t help but look down on others who still love it, and then I worry that others were looking down on me when I loved it. I am embarrassed that when I thought something was really cool, others probably patronizingly thought it was “cute” how excited I got by such a topic or person.
With EatReal, I thought it was really cool that I was doing my part to “change the world.” My childhood dream had been to become the person who gets invited to speak at schools about my efforts to fight global environmental perils. The world needs more people like that, and I believed I wanted to dedicate my life to giving back to the environment. Increasing Middlebury College’s “real” food quota was my first attempt at achieving this dream of mine, and I gave up, failed, and lost that childhood dream. I lost something else too though when I abandoned the subject of food. I lost that tingling feeling that trickles down the back of my neck when I talk about something I really care about.
This relationship with food that I am starting to explore through fermentation does not ignore the importance of locality, but instead focuses more on appreciating the historical and culinary aspects of food. I am not ready to convert back to being a food activist, and am not sure I ever will be. But I resent myself less for being so infatuated by the subject; who can blame me for wanting to feel alive?