Taking A Break From Brewing Kombucha: How To Do It Without Damaging Your SCOBY
Isn’t it great, always having fresh kombucha on hand? The SCOBY in each of your brewing jars is happily working away, changing plain sweet black or green tea into nutrient-rich kombucha gold, and new SCOBYs are forming at the top of each new batch. Your SCOBY hotel is full of fat and healthy “mothers” that are waiting their turn in the brewing jars, and you’ve got a dozen bottles of freshly-made kombucha wine in the pantry that are going to be a taste sensation in a few months.
There’s only one problem: you’re going away on vacation, and it’s 85F in the shade. Aren’t your SCOBYs going to shrivel up and die? Or maybe it’s the middle of the winter, and you’re off for the yearly family visit at the holidays. Won’t your SCOBYs freeze to death? Or you’re moving to another city, and won’t have your equipment set up for a few weeks. Or your cat just knocked your only brewing jar off the counter and you won’t have the chance to go get a new one until the end of the month.
Or maybe … maybe you just want to take a break from brewing for a little while. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. If you’ve been stocking up on bottles and bottles of filtered second-ferment kombucha, you might not need to do any fresh brewing for a while.
Whatever your reasons, there are ways to put your kombucha brewing on hold, and still keep your SCOBY (or SCOBYs) in good health.
What Does the SCOBY Need to Stay Healthy
A SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) is a living thing, and it needs what almost every other living thing needs to survive: air, food, and shelter. As long as you’ve provided enough of each of these three things, you’ll be able to stop brewing for a bit, and then start up again when you’re ready.
Air. The yeasts in the SCOBY need oxygen to flourish and reproduce. They will survive in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment for a while, but the bacteria that form a part of the colony will start to die off if there is no oxygen available.
Food. The SCOBY yeasts take in the nutrients from the sweetened tea and give off carbon dioxide and alcohol (ethanol). The yeasts break down larger sucrose molecules into fructose and glucose, and the bacteria take some of the glucose along with the ethanol and transform it into organic acids and vitamins. As long as there is a source of food, the SCOBY can survive for a surprisingly long time.
Shelter. Although a SCOBY is fairly hardy, it does need to be protected. Dry air is not good for a SCOBY, so it should be kept in liquid so that the colony does not die off in patches, and attract mold. Other contaminants, like dust or pet hair, can damage the SCOBY.
With air, food, and shelter, you can keep your SCOBY alive and healthy for weeks at a time between batches.
SCOBY Storage Technique #1: Just Ignore It (up to 4 to 8 weeks)
That isn’t really the opposite of “give it food and air and shelter” although it may seem like it at first glance. When you get a new batch of kombucha going, you’re pretty much ignoring the SCOBY while it ferments the sweet tea mixture, right? Yes, you’re keeping an eye on it, making sure that the jar is covered, and testing the flavor of the tea every day or so, but you’re not hovering over the SCOBY worrying about its health. As long as the SCOBY is busy working on the sweet tea mixture, you can just walk away and let it do its thing.
During this primary brewing process, you’re going to be essentially ignoring the SCOBY for at least a week, and possibly up to two months, so it’s not a big leap to assume that you can ignore it just as easily from someplace a hundred miles away. If you need to leave for a month, or want to take a break for a month, simply leave the brewing container where it is.
NOTE: The kombucha tea that’s left when you extend the primary brewing cycle for longer than usual will be more acidic than usual, but it will make a good starter for your first batch of kombucha tea when you start up again.
As long as there is tea in your jar, you can store your Kombucha for long, long periods of time. Far longer than even the 4 to 8 weeks even.
How to Abandon Your Kombucha for a Month or Two without Worrying
While you can just make your new batch and forget about it for a month, maybe two, there are some things you can do to make sure the culture stays as healthy as possible..and or to extend to shelf life of your abandoned buuch.
Keep the Temperature Constant
In fact, you can probably leave the brewing jar and the SCOBY alone for a month or longer, depending on the temperature of the jar.
- At room temperature (65F to 75F) the SCOBY should be fine for 4 weeks to
- If the jar is at a constant temperature of 55F to 65F you may be able to stretch 12 to 24 weeks without harming the SCOBY. This cool temperature (around 60F) is ideal for long term storage.
- When the temperature is 75F to 80F you’ll probably only be able to leave the SCOBY for three or four weeks.
- 80F you can leave your SCOBY for 2 weeks to 3 months, but you’ll have a massive SCOBY lid that forms and your tea will be much dehydrated and you’ll have kombucha vinegar at the end of it.
NOTE: There are ways to keep your culture cool in warmer weather but most of them will not work well for longer-term unsupervised storage of your SCOBY.
Give it Good Food
When you are planning on leaving the SCOBY in its sweet tea mixture, it’s a good idea to give it the type of food that it likes the best, because that will keep it in good shape.
- Make a good strong tea using filtered water and fresh unflavored black and/or green tea leaves.
- Steep the tea leaves for at least 30 minutes to extract all of the nutrients and caffeine that the SCOBY loves.
- Stir in plenty of organic white cane sugar to give the SCOBY the supply of sucrose it needs. It’s a good idea to increase the amount by 25% to make sure that there’s enough food available, if you’re going to be gone for more than three weeks.
- Use good strong starter culture from your SCOBY hotel or from your last batch of unflavored Check the pH of the starter culture, and if it’s not at or below 2.4 then you can also add a few tablespoons of distilled white vinegar to make sure that the tea is acid enough to protect the SCOBY.
Give it Shelter
The SCOBY is already protected by the brewing jar, and you’ve made sure (you have made sure, haven’t you?) that you’re going to be leaving it in a place with a constant temperature of around 70F. If that location is very dry, you can further protect the SCOBY by making sure it stays immersed in the liquid. Put a clean glass saucer gently on top of the SCOBY to push it underneath the surface. You don’t need to use a heavy plate, and you don’t need to use a big one; you want to leave enough surface area exposed that the oxygen flow continues.
Lastly, be sure to cover the jar with a tightly-woven cloth, as you usually do when you’re making kombucha. Be absolutely sure that there are no openings or holes in the cloth, and tie it tightly around the neck of the container, or use a rubber band or elastic, to attach it firmly so that there are no gaps. You can even use masking tape to secure the edges to the sides of the container. If you’re leaving town for a few weeks, you don’t want to come back to a kitchen full of ants who have been merrily munching on your SCOBY while you were gone.
SCOBY Storage Technique #2: Make a SCOBY Hotel (8 weeks to 16 weeks)
You can store several SCOBYs in the same container using the same technique, pretty much indefinitely — as long as you refill the tea every few months.
However, if you don’t want to refill the tea, you can leave a big SCOBY hotel jar for months and months and months without issues. I’ve left SCOBY hotels for 3 months or longer with no problems. You could probably stretch this out to 6 months or a year even (though your SCOBYs would need some love and care through 2-3 brew cycles to brew good buch after).
Instead of putting the SCOBY on top of your sweetened black tea and starter mixture, you’ll simply pile the SCOBYs into a large container and pour that mixture on top of them. There should be enough liquid so that all the SCOBYs are covered by a few inches. Weight down the top SCOBY with a clean glass saucer if there is a risk of it drying out.
With all of those SCOBYs in the jar, the sweetened tea mixture will be “eaten” quickly and will become very acidic. The SCOBYs will go into a more dormant phase once all of the sugar is gone, and they will be protected by the acidic starter culture they’re floating in. However, they will continue to grow slowly, so be sure to choose a large jar that lets them expand a little bit without oozing out over the top.
With a SCOBY hotel, you still need to add sweetened tea at least every six weeks. Although the SCOBYs are dormant, they’re not completely inactive, and they need some food. This is a good option if you’re going to be gone for more than six weeks and you’ve got someone looking after your house or apartment. Even people who think that a healthy SCOBY looks like the weirdest kind of scary creature possible will be able to help you out by refreshing the jar every so often. Be sure to leave them a clearly-labeled jar of sweetened tea so that you know that it has been made correctly (and so they don’t have to make it for you).
Before you add the new sweetened tea, tip out a few cups of the liquid in the jar and pour in an equal amount of sweet tea. You don’t have to add more starter liquid, because the rest of the liquid in the jar is already very acidic.
If you are too lazy to make a sweet tea mix, you can just add pure sugar (refined or organic cane sugar) to the jar instead and your scoby will do just fine for a few brew cycles. However, doing this more than a couple cycles (so 8 to 12 weeks) without adding new tea will cause your SCOBY to start to die. For the health of your SCOBYs, we don’t recommend you do this more than 1 cycle.
Keep in mind that if you just add sugar and no tea, the liquid will evaporate with time, so you will have to refill it at some point with tea lest you end up with no liquid!
The SCOBY hotel should be covered with a tight cloth cover, just like a primary brewing jar.
Temperature at the Hotel?
There are arguments raging through the kombucha community about whether or not to store a SCOBY hotel in the refrigerator. Some people report absolutely no problems with keeping their SCOBY in the refrigerator, while others insist that it kills off the yeasts and bacteria, making the SCOBYs unusable in the future.
It’s true that the yeasts and bacteria in the SCOBY will start to die off if they get below 40F. But it’s also true that yeasts and bacteria are some of the hardiest organisms known to humanity. Bacteria have been found living in outer space at temperatures that would kill a person in less than a minute, and at the bottom of the sea in boiling water. A few weeks in the refrigerator may kill off some of the colony, but if your refrigerator is set to around 38F then your SCOBY hotel should provide enough protection that your SCOBYs will come out of their dormant phase with no problems.
If you do choose to leave your SCOBY hotel out, try to leave it in a place that’s as cool as possible. The idea of the hotel is to have dormant SCOBYs, not ones that are growing quickly. If you can keep the SCOBY hotel between 50F and 55F that’s probably a good compromise between the SCOBY’s preferred temperature and the “danger zone” as temperatures approach freezing.
SCOBY Storage Technique #3: Dehydrate Scoby (3+ months)
If you want to take a long break that requires no effort on your part to maintain your SCOBY culture, you may consider dehydrating it and shoving it in the fridge.
However, we don’t ‘officially’ recommend this because dehydrated SCOBYs have a tendency to make subpar Kombucha and may produce Kombucha brews that become contaminated by mold, as the SCOBY might be damaged by the dehydration process and long storage.
I personally would suggest you use every other possibility other than dehydrating a SCOBY to take a break, but if you need to transport a SCOBY to another location (you are flying say and can’t bring a live culture with you) or a SCOBY hotel is not feasible, then dehydration may be your only option.
You can read our guide to Dehydrating a Scoby here for more information if you want to pursue this last-resort option.
Can you? The answer is…yes and no.
We’ve seen some people recommend putting your scoby or scoby hotel in the fridge to preserve it longer, as the cool temperature slows down the fermentation activity. But we do not recommend this at all for more than a few days at most.
Fridges get down to about 50F which is at the point where your bacteria culture completely stops all activity and your yeast slows down. For long periods of time, the culture will start to die and this will allow other stuff to take hold in the liquid, mainly MOLD.
Yes, some people do refrigerate Kombucha for longer periods and it can work (I have left, as a test, a jar of SCOBYs in the fridge for a month without issue), but you do risk damaging your culture and brewing new Kombucha batches with the SCOBYs you refrigerate with for long periods could allow MOLD to grow in the brew (we’ve read reports about this).
Just to test this out, I recently made a batch of new kombucha and put a jar into the fridge. I made another batch and put that in a dark area (but not very cool — temperatures were about 85 degrees). I left both for 2.5 months while travelling.
When I came back, my refrigerated Kombucha had mold growing on it while the Kombucha I left outside the fridge (i.e. a normal brewing process…though 2.5 months instead of 2 weeks) was fine with a massive SCOBY formed near the top.
So moral of the story, DO NOT LEAVE KOMBUCHA WITH SCOBYs BREWING IN THE FRIDGE for more than a couple days or you risk a mold contamination and culture damage.
Do it at your own risk, but we recommend using a SCOBY HOTEL stored out of the sun instead of the fridge — this can last you month and months.
Starting Back Up After a Break
A SCOBY that has been at room temperature in a brewing jar (technique #1 above) will just need to be put into a new clean jar with a fresh batch of sweet tea and starter liquid. The liquid in the brewing jar where the SCOBY has been waiting is the perfect starter liquid, in fact. Getting your brewing up and running again will take you no longer than the time it takes to brew the sweet tea and let it cool to room temperature.
If you’re starting with a SCOBY that has been stored at a cooler temperature, you may need to give it some time to “wake up” before you use it. Bring the SCOBY out of the SCOBY hotel, or remove the entire container from the refrigerator, a day or two before you’re ready to start brewing again. You can use the liquid in the SCOBY hotel as your starter liquid, or use distilled white vinegar to provide some added protection for the SCOBY if you are afraid that it may have been damaged in the cold.