As you and I continue to brew kombucha, the living bacteria culture that ferments it, known as the SCOBY, grows and replicates itself with every brew. Rather than throwing these extra SCOBYs away, you can actually store and keep them alive and healthy for later use in recipes or as backups for future brews.
A SCOBY hotel is a jar or container full of a stack of SCOBYs, sweet tea, and starter tea. The sweet tea will keep the SCOBYs well fed and alive for 4-6 weeks, at which point it will need to be emptied and replaced with a fresh batch. As long as the SCOBYs are being refueled with sweet tea, they can be stored in a SCOBY hotel indefinitely.
In this article I'll talk about why you want to make a SCOBY hotel, how to actually make one, and give you a few tips and tricks to make sure your SCOBYs are being stored correctly. Let's get into it!
What Exactly is a SCOBY?
The SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) is a living culture of bacteria and yeast that is used to make kombucha. These bacteria and yeast eat the sugar and nutrients in sweet tea that kombucha starts as and ferment them into alcohol, acids, and carbon dioxide to create kombucha.
When most people speak of the SCOBY, they’re talking about the ¼ inch to 2 inch thick jelly-like disk of bacteria that sits on top of brewing kombucha. This disk on the surface of the booch is actually known as the pellicle.
The pellicle is a mat of cellulose, which is basically a bunch of sugar strung together by the bacteria. If you look at a pellicle through a microscope, you can actually watch the bacteria creating these strings of sugar. It’s pretty cool.
Technically, the pellicle is part of the SCOBY, but it’s not all of it. SCOBY refers to all the bacteria and yeast present throughout the kombucha, including that in the pellicle, but also that floating throughout the kombucha.
What is a SCOBY Hotel?
As you brew kombucha, your main SCOBY will grow and at some point be so big that it prevents oxygen from being able to reach the liquid below.
In order to prevent this you can pull apart the old SCOBY layers with your washed hands, or trim them with a pair of scissors or knife that have been sanitized with kombucha or distilled vinegar.
A SCOBY hotel is just a jar or container of sweet tea that stores these extra SCOBYs.
Some brewers prefer to rotate the SCOBYs in the hotel and those that are brewing, while others like to keep the same SCOBY brewing every batch and just keep the hotel as back ups. It’s really up to you.
Why You should Make a SCOBY Hotel
So what’s the point of a SCOBY hotel? Well it’s basically just a way to store and keep extra SCOBYs available.
Having extra SCOBYs as backups is good in case a kombucha brew gets moldy and the main SCOBY needs to be thrown away.
A hotel can also be useful for experimenting with different brewing methods. Because while using ingredients like herbal teas, maple syrup, or coffee to make kombucha is possible and can be fun, these things can hurt or do long term damage to the SCOBY. By having a hotel of back ups, you can experiment with different kombucha brewing techniques and don't need to worry about whether or not the SCOBY your using gets damaged.
A SCOBY hotel also can be a good way to build up and keep healthy a supply of SCOBYs before making them into a jerky, candy, gummies, or other recipes. Check out my Can you Eat a SCOBY article if you'd like to learn how to make a few of these tasty SCOBY treats.
Lastly, having a place to store SCOBYs allows you to take a break from brewing and keep your SCOBYs healthy, for pretty much as long as you want, as long as you replace the tea they’re in every 4-6 weeks.
How to Make a SCOBY Hotel (1 Gallon)
1 Cup of Sugar 1 Cup of Starter Tea
1. Brew Sweet Black Tea
The very first thing you need to do to make a SCOBY hotel is brew 6ish cups of black tea. Green tea can work too but black usually has more caffeine in it, and caffeine is an important nutrient for the SCOBY.
Once the tea has brewed add 1 cup of sugar.
If you're creating a 2 gallon SCOBY hotel, just multiply the amount of sugar and tea above by two.
If you’re using an irregularly shaped container, you can brew the tea to the cup by using the numbers below.
To fill 1 cup of a SCOBY hotel you need:
0.0625 Cups of Sugar
0.5 Tea Bags or 0.375 Teaspoons of Loose Leaf Tea
0.125 Cups of Starter Tea
Just multiply these ingredients by the # of cups you need to make and you'll have the right amount of each ingredient.
As I said before, the tea and sugar will provide food and nutrients for the SCOBY to keep it alive and healthy.
2. Add SCOBY and Starter Tea
Next we are going to add the few cups of sweet tea we just made to the glass jar/container and fill up whatever space remains with water. You can use cold water to help the tea cool down faster.
Once the tea has cooled down to room temperature, add in the SCOBY/s and starter tea.
Starter tea is just unflavored kombucha from a previous brew that will help create an acidic environment in the hotel early to prevent mold growth.
If you've brewed before and didn't save any starter tea from a previous batch you can use a store bought bottle of unflavored kombucha or a splash of distilled white vinegar to give the liquid some initial acidity.
It’s important to wait until the sweet tea has cooled down to room temp to add the SCOBY because too hot or too cold temperatures can shock it.
3. Cover the Jar
After the sweet tea, SCOBY, starter tea, and water have all been combined in the brewing vessel, cover the top of the container with cloth or old tee shirt and secure it with a rubber band. This will keep fruit flies and other bugs out.
Do not seal the hotel with a lid or anything airtight, since we need oxygenated air to be able to flow in and out of the container to keep the SCOBY alive.
4. Refuel every 4-6 Weeks
Depending on how many SCOBYs there are in a jar and their activity levels, you’ll need to replace the liquid with new sweet tea somewhere between 4-6 weeks.
Just pour out about ¾ of the old stuff (it’ll probably smell like vinegar at this point) and replace it with fresh tea and sugar.
The remaining ¼ of leftover vinegar kombucha will stay in the hotel as starter tea to keep the environment acidic and prevent mold.
Never Refrigerate Your SCOBY Hotel
There are some brewers and brewing guides out there that suggest refrigerating your SCOBY hotel to store it.
Their argument is that by refrigerating it, the slowed down fermentation and activity levels from the cold air will make the SCOBY take longer to eat up the sugar and nutrients in the tea, meaning you don't have to refuel the container with new sweet tea as often.
While this sounds like a good idea, the truth is that refrigerating your SCOBY hotel to store it is not worth the risk, and is likely to do more harm than good.
While it’s true that cold temperatures slow down fermentation, this is a bad thing. The reason kombucha is recommended to never be brewed in an environment below 65 degrees F (18 C) is that slow fermentation and activity from cold temperatures leads to very few acids being produced. And it’s these acids that fight off mold growth in the kombucha.
So by putting your SCOBY or SCOBY hotel in the fridge, you’re slowing down the bacteria culture, leading to a less acidic liquid that will be extremely vulnerable to being ruined by mold. And if mold develops in a SCOBY hotel, all those SCOBYs are ruined and will need to be replaced, which will take months.
In addition to a greater possibility of mold growth, placing your SCOBY and starter liquid in the fridge could lead to it absorbing odors from any raw meat and seafood also stored in there.
And even if your hotel stays mold and odor free in the fridge, once you take it out it can take a few brewing cycles or weeks to wake back up and reacclimatize to normal temperatures.
This means that you’ll either have to wait a few extra weeks to use it, or you’ll have to be ready a few weeks in advance and take the SCOBY hotel out of the fridge early.
Because if you don't wake it up and reacclimatize it to warmer temperatures, the kombucha won't ferment properly, leading to off flavors and lack of acidity.
So although some people have refrigerated SCOBYs before and had success with it, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Use your SCOBY Hotel for Extra Strong Starter Tea
It’d be a shame to waste all the vinegary kombucha that we drain off from our hotel every 4-6 weeks. One good way to use this super strong booch is as starter tea for your actual kombucha brews.
Starter tea from the hotel will be much stronger than just using leftover kombucha from a previous batch, which means it will also be more acidic, better protecting our new kombucha brews from mold and speeding up the brewing time.
Use SCOBY Hotel Liquid as Vinegar for Recipes or Dressing
You can also use the super strong kombucha that you drain from the SCOBY hotel every 4 weeks as good starter tea for your brews, or as kombucha vinegar for salad dressings, vegetable glazes, cleaning fluid, skincare, and more.
If you want to learn more about kombucha vinegar and its many uses, you can read the article I wrote on it here.
Do I Need to Clean a SCOBY Hotel?
Some people recommend that you clean out your SCOBY hotel every few months by removing all the SCOBYs and liquid and thoroughly cleaning the jar before putting them back in.
Cleaning your hotel isn’t going to do any harm, but it definitely isn't necessary. Because the SCOBY hotel is so acidic, even more so than regular kombucha, it should be able to fight off any type of mold or other contamination that would need to be cleaned.
The only reason you would need to clean SCOBY hotel is if there was mold.
How to Know if Your SCOBY Hotel is Moldy
As I just said, because so many SCOBYs are packed into a small area, a SCOBY hotel is super acidic. And since it’s the acidity in kombucha that fights mold, it’s extremely rare for mold to develop in a SCOBY hotel that’s being properly taken care of (enough starter tea, temperature 65-85 degrees F, 18-29 C)
However, I still think it’s important to keep an eye out for mold growth in your hotel. And to do that you need to know what to look for. Here are a few tips to identify mold:
1. Mold always grows on the surface
Because mold is an aerobic being (it needs air to survive) so you’ll only find it on the surface of the hotel. This means that anything under the SCOBYs or floating under the surface is not mold.
2. Mold’s texture is dry and fuzzy
Mold is made of tiny hair like structures known as hyphae that are fuzzy to the touch. Knowing this, we can rule out any smooth and moist parts of our SCOBYs as not moldy.
3. Mold develops in circles
Mold usually grows in clumps, circles, or rings.
4. Mold is an interesting bright color
SCOBYs are usually brown/tan, so if you see colors of white, green, blue, or black, in your hotel, there could be mold developing.
White is probably the hardest color to define as mold, but if you use the other identifiers in this list (is it circular? fuzzy?) you should be able to figure out if it's mold or not.
What to Do with A Moldy SCOBY Hotel
If there is mold, you’ll need to throw away all the liquid and SCOBYs in the hotel. The reason you need to throw away all the SCOBYs in the hotel, even if some of them don’t have visible mold on them, is because mold spores can be microscopic. If they’re in one place, they’re likely everywhere.
After you dispose of the SCOBY, any contaminated liquid, and the hotel container is empty, wash it thoroughly with soap and water like you would wash your dishes.
Once it’s cleaned with soap and rinsed, add a splash or two of distilled/pasteurized white vinegar (raw vinegar has its own bacteria cultures that will contaminate our brew) and swirl it around to coat all the interior of the jar. This process is known as “curing” and does two things:
1. Removes any soap left behind that could harm our SCOBY
2. Sets the pH of the jar to prevent mold and contaminants
After curing you don’t need to rinse the jar again, just plop in your new SCOBY, sweet tea, and starter tea to begin a new hotel.
It would suck to have to throw away an entire SCOBY hotel, but as I said before, mold is extremely rare in kombucha, especially in a SCOBY hotel. Keep an eye out for it but don't lose any sleep worrying about it.
How Long Can SCOBYs Last in a SCOBY Hotel?
As long as you regularly feed them, SCOBYs should be able to stay healthy in your hotel for years. They’re pretty tough creatures so even if you don’t take care of them perfectly, they should still stay alive and healthy.
SCOBYs can get darker and less active over time, but as long as they’re producing good kombucha I don’t see a reason to retire them. However, some people do prefer to brew with fresher, lighter SCOBYs because they believe they produce better booch. It's really up to you.
SCOBY hotels are a great way to store extra SCOBYs. Having a hotel gives me piece of mind knowing that if one of my main SCOBYs gets moldy from regular brewing or because I'm experimenting with a new technique, I have backups available.
If you're brewing kombucha regularly and growing a lot of SCOBYs, I strongly recommend you make a SCOBY hotel.
If you want to learn more about kombucha, how it relates to your health, and even how to brew it yourself, be sure to check out the rest of my website!