It all began with a round, yellow-colored gelatin glob. This clump, known as Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) would transform tea into the fizzy nectar we know as kombucha, and a sophomore’s interest into a passion.
GT’s, Healthade, Calmbucha, Lion Heart, Laughing Gut: A plethora of kombucha brands flood grocery stores and health circles. Meanwhile, the general public is left with the question: What even is kombucha?
Fermented tea (green or black), sugar, yeast, bacteria and “love” are constitutive ingredients in a typical kombucha recipe. To make the drink, a SCOBY must be added to sweetened tea and left to ferment for a couple of weeks until it reaches the perfect sweet-tart flavor to be separated from the SCOBY and then bottled (Time, “Is Kombucha Healthy? Here’s What Experts Say,” 02.11.2019). This practice originated in the Manchuria region of ancient China (hence kombucha’s nickname, “Manchurian mushroom”) and then spread through time and space to reach mass production and Target shelves, ultimately purchased to fill collegiate mini-fridges.
During my first few days on campus, I instantly became known among my fellow Lathropians as the kombucha girl. I stocked my mini-fridge solely with kombucha and somehow managed to incorporate kombucha into whatever conversation we were having. But not all kombucha-loving college students purchase their bottles. Some make their own. My student fellow, Henry Mitchell ’22, was quick to inform me of a former Lathrop resident that brewed kombucha in his dorm: Benji Mathot ‘22.
A current Ferry House resident, biology and earth science double major, Vassar SEED member, EcoLeader, piercing enthusiast and proud socialist, Benji immediately struck me as someone I wanted to know. Upon finally meeting the mythical Mathot at the Deece during my first week at Vassar, I instantly asked him if I could sample some of his craft. He responded “Sure! Your whole fellow group can have my next batch!” with what I soon learned was his characteristic generosity,
At this point, I had only been at Vassar for a short time and I was taken aback by the eager generosity he exuded. As we talked more, and as I consumed three bottles of his kombucha, I soon learned that such kindness is common among kombucha kooks.
“In kombucha brewing, there’s [a] hippy tradition,” Benji explained, “It’s where basically you don’t buy a SCOBY, but you find someone who has a SCOBY and they give you one of theirs. Then once you have a big enough SCOBY, you can peel it off and give it to someone else and you kind of pass it on. That’s the tradition—that you always give yours away. It’s a very hippy, socialist, forward progressive thing.” This tradition remains dear to Benji, as it launched his kombucha career. At the end of his first year, an upperclassman gifted him two SCOBYs, which he readily accepted, igniting his newfound passion. To date, he has made eight batches and shared the love with people across campus along the way.
Each of Benji’s 14-bottle batches brew for about a week and three days. The brewing process
is split into two parts, or rather, two fermentations. The first fermentation requires black tea, sugar, a SCOBY and time to ferment. Then, the SCOBY is taken out and the tea is put into carbonating bottles ready to be flavored and shared. The artistry in kombucha comes in the flavoring. There are an unbelievable number of flavor combinations: blueberry mint, cucumber watermelon, orange creamsicle, and pomegranate and sangria are the flavors Benji crafted for my fellow group’s batch.
As a self-proclaimed kombucha connoisseur, I can definitively say that Benji’s kombucha is as tasty, if not tastier, than kombucha sold at grocery stores. Considering the time and resources required to make a successful product, one would think that this new hobby could easily turn into a business plan. Not for Benji. Kombucha is not just a drink or a product to be exploited; it’s a manifestation of who he is. “Kombucha was the first thing that embodied my socialism because I never make anyone pay for most things that I give to them. But especially kombucha—I have never accepted a penny,” Benji said with pride. Sharing kombucha is not only an act of kindness, but a way to practice and express his beliefs. He may pass them on one day in the form of a yellow glob.