Pulling out what looked like a hunk of decaying beef from a large glass jar, Michael Sommer of Purple Sage Farms smiled like a proud parent and said, "Look at this monster." What he held was actually a chunk of yeast measuring about 6 inches long, 3 to 4 inches wide and 1 or 2 inches thick. The "monster" is really a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or a SCOBY. It's mainly cellulose and because of the SCOBY's branching cell structure, it's extremely tough. It actually feels like a thick slab of calamari.
This mass is the key to brewing kombucha, a tea-based fermented beverage with an army of devotees that claim the drink has elixir-like qualities, can detoxify the body and energize the mind. Sommer said he doesn't like to talk about the health benefits, though he agrees there are many, but instead focuses his efforts on brewing "an interesting and tasty beverage."
Sommer brews and sells several different varieties of kombucha, including Holy Basil and Lemongrass, using the organic herbs grown at Purple Sage Farms.
Sommer said he began developing his first SCOBY and brewing kombucha because his sister gave him one while he was living in Glacier National Park.
"I brought it all the way back to Idaho and started working on the farm and realized every day more and more that we had all these herbs that were great for making tea. I started making small batches of herbal teas and experimented with combining the plants on the farm and the kombucha," Sommer said.
For Sommer, who studied botany at the University of Montana, brewing kombucha is fascinating and something anyone can try if they have a mind to.
"It's like a big science experiment. I fill up books with experiments with results. I'm really striving to understand what's going on," he said.
Sommer said there are many well known kombucha starters available online for purchase, and unless you know someone willing to give you a start, ordering your own is the best option.
"It's an amazing relationship between bacteria, yeast, plants and humans. It takes all four of those groups of organisms to make this. It's really unique and it's something to promote in all ranges of life, to promote symbiosis, things working together," he said.