Updated: May 15, 2022
Facebook SCOBYs, Kombucha Leather, and Cocktail Laboratories in Switzerland
Written by Danielle Lopez-Cecetaite
1. Any of a group of chemical reactions induced by microorganisms or enzymes that split
complex organic compounds into relatively simple substances, especially the anaerobic
conversion of sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol by yeast.
2. Unrest; agitation
1. A fermented, lightly effervescent, sweetened black tea or green tea drink commonly
consumed for its purported health benefits. It is thought to originate in China where it is traditional and then spreading throughout Eastern Europe by the early 20th century. A kombucha culture is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) containing one or more species each of bacteria and yeast, which form a zoogleal mat known as a “mother.”
Fermentation can be described with network theory. It examines structural relationships between social entities, the interactions between nature and species, and diffusions, exchanges, and innovations. Regardless of if we look at the network of interactions that led to the growth of a SCOBY, the diffusion of ancient knowledge, the link between the physiological systems, or interactions of new flavour molecules. Fermentation is about collaboration and exchange. Evidently, there is a marketplace exchange of SCOBYs, which are symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast used for creating kombucha, on Facebook.
This story began fermenting intellectual and experimental exchanges at Camera F, an atelier and transdisciplinary research space, run by research-based Matteo Fieni. Soon after discovering a community of fermenters. Noelle Bayyoud, a biologist working at the University Hospital in Zurich, began selling her kombucha SCOBYs on the platform in January because she wanted to make the practice of making kombucha at home accessible for others. We shared a brief correspondence on Facebook Messenger to confirm they were still available. We met a few days later in her apartment, a short tram ride away from Zurich city center. Along her kitchen counter sat a tall jar partially filled with kombucha, a bowl with four healthy kombucha SCOBYs, small Aperol-sized bottles with propagating vegetables, and a small mound of green apples collected from a nearby farm.
Admittedly, she has not received many buyers, but those that have been customers were ecstatic to find someone selling. As none of the buyers have been from Zurich, Bayyoud’s culture is now dispersed across Switzerland. However, this kombucha culture originates in Russia. As a child, Bayyoud observed her grandmother’s fermentations and preservations, one of which resembled jellyfishes floating in a jar but were actually the SCOBYs. One day she tasted the kombucha and realized she quite liked it. In 2011 she relocated to the United Kingdom and took 100ml of her grandmother’s kombucha to use as a starter tea. She carefully cling-wrapped an air-tight plastic bottle so it would not succumb to the pressure of the plane. Upon arriving in the UK, she combined liquid with sweetened black tea and patiently waited. After a short period, the SCOBYs began to grow. Then Bayyoud moved to Switzerland and initiated the process in Zurich as well. And now, with the help of one of Bayyoud’s SCOBYs and some starter tea, there is a healthy jar of kombucha culture sitting in my kitchen in Lugano.
Bayyoud in her home in Zurich with a jar of kombucha and SCOBYs.
Sitting together in Bayyoud’s kitchen with the SCOBYs in a jar between us, we discussed the human culture around fermentation. “If you have a community that looks out for each other, you have a community that supports each other,” Bayyoud stated.
Fermentation encourages exchange and reminds us that resilience is produced through reliance and the collective passage of hardships. The sense of altruism cultivated breaks from the alienation and selfishness of capitalist society. Knowledge sharing through fermentation communities exposes you to more stimuli and “how things are made and how things are produced and how much care and effort go into them.” According to Bayyoud, “you’re just a bit more self-aware in this situation of how you as an individual sort of move and exist in this community, and what effects you have in this community,” as opposed to relying solely on the products presented to the passive consumers in mass markets. Fermentation promotes self-sufficiency, but it is challenging to measure the extent that cultural homogenization can be influenced. “Moving away from just buying things in the shop and making things yourself and of course, educating yourself about everything that’s around you in the environment is very good and very important,” said Bayyoud. It compels conscious consideration of food circulation and ecological issues that are otherwise passively reflected upon when solely relying upon supermarkets standardization.
Minder and a dried 2mx2m kombucha SCOBY at Basel in September 2021.
Photo credits Sandra Bühler
Maya Minder, a bio-artist and chef, conceptualised Gasthaus Kitchen Lab, a temporary space where locals can gather and spend the entire day fermenting, sharing ideas and recipes, and visions. According to her, it is “like the alternative internet, where you can gossip around a lot” and develop a community and translate knowledge. She stated that the coexistence among trillions of organisms living in just one jar can be used as a metaphor applied to a community in our society. Through fermentation, we see that we “are not just singular entities, but coexisting with our microbes.” For her, “everything is fermentation and, the beauty of it is that we can learn that humans are very entangled with their environment.” It connects our contemporary world with ancient and traditional knowledge through proverbs and idioms as it is a practice over 10,000 years old that has been used in every culture and nation. Fermentation is dependent upon the seasons, environment, weather, and geology of a country itself; it is hyperlocal. In antiquity, it was a survival strategy and season working. Minder states that in a time of crisis, they remind us that “empathy is one of the things that gives us the capability of understanding our environment in a more comprehensive way.” Our fermentation starter cultures can be understood as a culture itself. The fine line between manipulation and control towards trust and letting go that things work in a good order is similar to the concept of agriculture.
Minder (re)discovered fermentation--or should we say fermentation discovered Minder--during her academic career. She studied art history, art studies, as well as, performative practice. During the process, she began engaging with fermentation even though, like Bayyoud, she grew up watching her family engage in as her mother is South Korean and shared in the collective imagination. The kitchen is a form of chemistry and alchemy that allows for the experimentation and discovery of new flavours and working with biological matter. Similar to Bayyoud, growing up Minder observed her mother engaged in fermentation. Minder began engaging with biomaterials and combining them with fermentation themselves. The process of making kombucha creates SCOBYs that seem alien and feel slimy and gelatin that become new beings living in your apartment with you. Minder was fascinated by them, always asking herself how she can use them and then sharing and if not to cook them until discovering that kombucha is a known alternative vegan leather product. Curiosity drove her to spend approximately half a year investigating this through a very experimental approach that also led to collaborations with designers. As a bio artist Minder was aware of the discourse and practice around alternative plastics and the necessity to reduce waste and devise potential alternatives to combat the challenge the future and present have regarding plastics. On this topic Minder stated that curiosity arises during the practice of fermentation to discover how the product can be utilized in various transdisciplinary ways for a range of purposes. As she quotes, trans disciplinarity is a must and key approach to environmental issues.
When you begin the process of fermenting kombucha, it can go in various directions; Minder states that it is like a book you cannot close at night because, “once you open the page, it’s never-ending and we could go deeper into it.”
Minder has most recently been exhibiting in a space called ‘Symbiont’ curated by Roland Fischer during the Art Basel art fair. Inside the exhibition called Scarcity she juxtaposed the microbial world against the human. In one room she grew two SCOBYs as a sculpture, one of which was dried and hung from a wall while the other was alive and in the process of forming a new SCOBY also called a microbial cellulose or biofilm. The former grew during her recent artist residency in Paris at the Cités des Arts in her studio and the later on site in Basel. The kombucha tea was inoculated and began fermenting and creating emissions, smells, and odors. The activity of microbes increased and as the days progressed it began to interact with the humans in the adjacent room. She advises people to ferment together and never ferment in a bad mood as it affects the ferments. It was an experiment, or social sculpture, to see “which side will be more resilient because, in one way, it’s affecting the humans, with the smell, maybe it becomes unbearable and they want to leave, feeling disturbed by its emissions, but in the same time, also the humans are affecting the kombucha,” she said. “There’s a danger of inoculating it with undesired yeast and bacteria.” Minder remarked that she began fermenting from the personal need to become more resilient. ."That’s the funny thing, lots of fermenters say that fermentation came to them in a moment of personal crisis, and that it is indeed a state of matter that a bad mood is often from a bad gut microbiome,” she laughed.
In the process of fermentation, you see the transformation of the invisible materials through all your senses because it stimulates and interacts with your sight, hearing, olfactory, gustation, and tactile perception. Minder also remarked about the important connection between the brain and our gut where everything from our subconscious, body systems, and modern disease is related to the state of our gut system. Everyone has a gut microbiome that they rely on for the digestion of their food and it has been linked in scientific papers and studies to a lot of health issues such as anxiety and depression. It’s a “very big deal” according to Bayyoud, “especially if you have a community or social structure or system where people are working nine to six every single “where “they do not really have that much time for themselves, they are mostly depressed, and they are not eating well.” For humans, anything that promotes good bacterial growth for a long time is quite good for you.
Minder discovered a cooking book that was a standard book for all students in primary public schools in Switzerland designed in the 1960s that had “chapter by chapter different techniques of cooking and fermentation never made it into it,” she said.” It was put into a “closed envelope” because people regarded it as backwards, not progressive, and perhaps unhygienic. This was contributed by Louis Pasteur’s discovery caused by microbes and consequent research laid the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization as well as the basis of hygiene and public health. He developed the process of pasteurization which is currently used to increase the shelf life of liquids containing yeast and sugar. Now, as fermentation is emerging as a common practice, once again society is in a process of ‘un learning’ those traditional beliefs of it being “unhygienic” and reactivating old knowledge to see the benefits of fermentation and considering safety precautions. In this age of sanitization, fermentation provides an entrance for discussing the importance of bacteria in our environments.
Food fermentation creates layers of taste and different types of taste that “we still have too little vocabulary [as humans] to describe the smells and tastes.” Minder regards this as beautiful and demonstrative of the poetry and sophistication of cooking since taste and smell become transformed. When trying to describe the scent of a fermented product, we lack words and thus metaphorically compare it to the scent of a rose or intoxicating, bewitching combination of funk, flowers, and freshness.
The experience at Flamel, a mixology lounge opened in the center of Lugano in July 2020, is crafted to stimulate the senses. It sits within the Dante Hotel at Piazza Ciocarro. As the name suggests, alchemy is at the center of its products. It recalls the 14th-century alchemist Nicolas Flamel who allegedly turned lead into gold and created the philosopher’s stone as an elixir to immortality. Simone Maci initiated the Lugano-based project from a desire to embody alchemy to provide its customers an unforgettable mixology experience. Taste creation is guided by a framework of 98% Swiss, meaning all their products are local while only 2% is global such as spices used in some of the brews. It intends to stay local and work with seasonal products thus, providing a more tropical flavour in the summer and more intimate ones in the autumn.
From growing aromatic herbs in a garden on the premise to distilling its own alcohol, and brewing kombucha in its cocktail laboratory, Flamel approaches each day looking for a new flavour and complex aromas. Nicolò Rapezzi, the head of mixology, works in the cocktail laboratory every day. As a mixologist it is unusual to be faced with fermentation; however, Rapezzi finds it to be “a great motivation to every day think of a new idea.” Combinations of taste molecules create a signaling a cascade that illuminates the brain with signals via a network of taste nerve fibers stimulated by emotions, memories, and sensations. Fruits and herbs are combined to elevate the flavours during a secondary fermentation process which is the step of fermentation that allows for flavouring and bottling the liquid to capture the carbonation. All of the kombucha at Flamel is pre-bottled and only opened upon mixing for an order, to maintain a consistent flavour. Offering fermented products “completely [changes] the structure of your product” in ways in which, as Minder also echoes, said words cannot describe. The space was carefully considered to create an intimate energy and patrons can sit at a flat bar to be closer with the bartenders and interact with them and hear about the techniques integrated for the preparation of a beverage at Flamel. It is integrated with the reception to eliminate any separation. Rather, a flow and sense of community among the people sharing a kombucha-infused drink, chefs in the kitchen that can be observed right upon entering, hotel guests enjoying their stay, and amicable staff.
After we discussed the core of Flamel, we went upstairs to the cocktail lab to see the fermentation box. The SCOBY that started the kombucha here came from the breakfast manager at the hotel who was home fermenting and offered a few SCOBYs for the project. It is a humble space comfortable for one or two people to move around. Three large jars were tucked away in the far corner of a tall shelf covered in dish towels to allow the kombucha SCOBYs to breathe but simultaneously protecting them from possible contamination with the outside. Rapezzi stretched onto the heels of his feet as he reached to take down one of the jars and show the thick SCOBY that were growing and creating the kombucha. In one of the fridges were some of the latest experiments for the autumnal kombucha flavors.
The knowledge and community built around fermentation is incredibly vast and deep and will continue to traverse people’s histories, migrations, and identities. Bayyoud’s starter culture has traversed different countries and cantons via planes, trains, and automobiles and has linked various people together that previously had no relation. Minder’s bioart has led her to collaborate with individuals in various fields and professions to experiment with the possibilities of kombucha SCOBYs as an alternative plastic. And it has brought her to connect with her cultural heritage and share knowledge with others at her Gasthaus. And finally, Rapezzi’s mixological experimentations are being shared with individuals living in Lugano and with travelers from all over the world staying at Hotel Dante. As we shared a cheers and finished off a bottle of chamomile-fig kombucha at Flamel, it echoes Minder’s philosophy, “Fermenters Unite!”