Mother or SCOBY?

Reginald SmithAll About Vinegar, Making Vinegar, Mother of Vinegar, Uncategorized48 Comments

This is a quick post to clarify some confusion I have run into from a lot of home fermenters. The rise of the popularity of kombucha has brought the notion of the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast ) to name the thick gelatinous mass that sits on top of kombucha fermentations.

Before this the more widely known and used term was mother of vinegar in vinegar fermentations. What is the difference, if any?

As the term SCOBY states, the mother (a biofilm made of cellulose) hosts not only acetic acid bacteria which make the cellulose for the SCOBY but also hosts yeast and other bacteria such as lactic acid bacteria. The reactions cam be complex but the yeast turn sugar into alcohol used by the acetic acid bacteria and the lactic acid bacteria can also ferment some compounds as well. The acetic and lactic acid bacteria also likely exchange DNA in a process called conjugation.

So a SCOBY is typically a SCOBY for all starting vinegar and kombucha fermentations when slow processes like vat or barrel fermentation are used. Both terms can work at this point. However, for vinegar around 1% acidity the yeast die off and at higher acidities the lactic acid bacteria die off as well leaving only acetic acid bacteria to feed on alcohol. At this point it is only a mother of vinegar containing one type of organism. Kombucha acidity usually ends between 0.5-1% while vinegar is 4% minimum and usually 5%. So calling a fermenting vinegar mother a SCOBY isn’t strictly accurate.

48 Comments on “Mother or SCOBY?”

  1. Thanks so much for the above post and ALL the information on this website! I started a batch of ACV on the same day as my first batch of kombucha and almost got the mothers mixed up. I won’t do that again. I have 2 questions I’m hoping you could help with: 1) you don’t mention ceramic as either a permissible or forbidden material. I ferment veg in my own stoneware crocks, but am new to vinegar and have only tried glass. 2) I have quite a few bottles of good but old and improperly stored wine. I opened two, and while they both smell good, they do not taste good. I’m wondering (but am chemistry-challenged), if these have just already started down the alcohol -> vinegar path, and would thus be suitable for continued fermentation, or is it as simple as if-it-tastes-bad-it’ll-make-bad-vinegar? I really appreciate your patience with the copious amount of questions you get here – it makes for informative reading!

    1. 1) Ceramic is tricky as it can depend on the material and if it is glazed or not. In general, I would say ceramic is ok as long as the inside has a food safe glaze that is preferably not containing lead (even in approved amounts) and it is made to hold food/beverage.

      2) The wine will probably make good vinegar. The in-between state between good wine and good vinegar isn’t great taste wise but if the wine was good, usually the vinegar will end up being good at the end of fermentation and any aging you decide to do.

  2. Hello there – could you clarify the information about ceramic crocks for vinegar making? I assumed it would need to be glazed to make it food safe? Would an unglazed crock not allow the vinegar to seep into the pot itself?

    1. Hi thanks for your comment. I did amend that comment since it was only half accurate (I don’t deal with ceramic much). It should be glazed to be safe but it should also preferably be a food safe glaze (not all are) that contains minimal or no lead. There are limits that allow some lead and cadmium in the glaze but if you can find a ceramic without at least lead that will be preferable. I don’t think the typical testing assumes vinegar will be sitting there for months on end. Let me know if this helps.

  3. Thanks so much for your input! I’m giving it a shot with the wine, and if it’s good, will try next batch in a crock. Cheers.

  4. Thank you so much. Very helpful. We will make sure we use food safe glazes to glaze the vinegar crocks.

  5. What an excellent source of clear info!
    having spent so much time to clarify the limits of using distilled white vinegar in food, I finally came across this website! Great.

    In making Kombucha, where no scoby is available, some kombucha websites state that adding ‘distilled white vinegar’ to the mixure of tea n sugar will kick start the process of making scoby.
    however, it is very difficult to find any good n certified quality distilled white vinegar in the UK’s supermarket (unless bought on line from other sources).
    Could you please elaborate on what other vinegars could be used instead, noting for example that the raw apple cider vinegar (ACV) can result in vinegar eels growing in the kombucha liquid?
    And since ACV seems such a desired n healthy vinegar, how would you suggest to eliminate any trace vinegar eels in the bought organic acv (sold with the mother)?

    thanks

    1. White vinegar can work but white vinegar is usually pasteurized and won’t have acetic acid bacteria. Also don’t use the “non-brewed condiment” from fish & chips shops as this is synthesized acetic acid and will not have any bacteria. The raw, unpasteurized ACV is a much better choice as you state. However, a true SCOBY also has yeast so pitching brewer yeast at the same time is necessary. Also make sure you don’t add so much ACV that your initial tea starter has an acidity of 1% or higher or that will inhibit the yeast. Good luck!

  6. Hi there,

    I have a question: What happens if I use Kombucha SCOBY in the processes of making vinegar? I’m planning to make apple(cider) vinegar and pomegranate vinegar. I wonder what the difference would be.

    Kind regards,
    Memo

    1. It should work fine. The SCOBY itself is actually made by acetic acid bacteria. They have more yeast than a regular mother of vinegar. Just add some pieces of it to the hard cider and it should go fine.

      1. Thanks and hi there again,

        Is it possible to combine SCOBY with MOV while making vinegar? Do they function in harmony, or effect each other that is becomes something else other than vinegar?
        Any experience, or any idea?

        1. There is no need to combine SCOBY and mother if you are making vinegar since they are basically the same for that purpose. Either one will ferment to vinegar as they are made of the same material (cellulose) and have vinegar making bacteria. They won’t interact or create anything besides vinegar unless there is lactic acid bacteria present which usually don’t take over in these conditions.

    2. I’m starting apple cider vinegar and don’t have a mother. I make kombucha all the time and have a scoby hotel. Can I use a scoby to start my acv?

      1. A SCOBY is basically a mother. It is a kombucha term but the acetic acid bacteria make the cellulose that forms the SCOBY. Only difference is SCOBY is lower acidity so has more yeast but that is no problem. You can use any SCOBY to start any vinegar.

  7. Today my friend gave me two small jars of what she calls SCOBY so I can drink . Well another friend seen and asked me if I wanted one of her mothers ! I of course said yes I’d love to start . And here I am with two mothers and two small jars of SCOBY I put one jar of SCOBY in bigger jar with the two mothers. With a coffee filter and rubber band on top . Does this sound right ? I don’t want to kill it

    1. They won’t hurt or kill each other but cover them in vinegar so that they will not dry out or grow mold.

  8. Hi Reginald. I accidentally left a jar of apple cider on the counter. Lo and behold, it now has a SCOBY floating on top. I assume I can’t make kombucha out of it? Can I make more vinegar from it? Thanks in advance for your time in reading and/or addressing this.

    1. Kombucha is technically started from a black tea base so apple cider couldn’t make “real” kombucha but if you stopped it at about the same time of kombucha it could be similar. Just let it go if you want to make vinegar. It will be done in 1-2 months.

  9. I purchased fresh apple cider and put a gallon in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks. I noticed a growth in the gallon; the cider has become “hard” and fizzy. I just saw information about Scoby formation, and wonder if this happened in my cider, even though the container was kept sealed and in a refrigerator. The fermented cider tastes great; much better than cider that I ferment with added sugar and champagne yeast. Could someone explain what is happening in the bottle of cider that was left in the refrigerator?

    1. If it is just hard and fizzy with no solid growth on top it is probably only alcoholic fermentation. This can occur with little air and in the fridge. The wild yeast may have made a better flavor profile than the champagne yeast.

    1. Maybe but probably not. You need yeast and mother to brew kombucha (SCOBY is a fancy term for a mother of vinegar with yeast embedded). Kombucha only goes to 1% acid or so and most of the yeast are still alive. Fully made vinegar kills off the yeast due to its high acidity so if using a mother from finished vinegar I would add a pinch of brewing yeast at the same time and it might work.

  10. What is the ratio of using white wine vinegar to grow the kombucha scoby since I don’t have access to any kombucha drink here in scotland

    1. Could you be more clear? If you are trying to use a white wine vinegar to start a black tea fermentation for kombucha, you need to mix brewing yeast with the raw white wine vinegar & mother for a true scoby. It should fizz (alcoholic fermentation) and grow a mother/scoby at the same time.

    1. Yes it is edible, but more for chickens than people in large amounts. It is basically cellulose so much of it is not digested and absorbed for people but animals can digest it just fine if they are herbivores.

  11. Hi there,
    I am always using vinegar in my cleaning and hate that I come home with a plastic jug that will end up in the landfill. I am amazed that I could make my own vinegar and reduce waste so I truly appreciate this post! I saw another comment asking a similar question but I wanted to clarify to be sure… I have my kombucha scoby happily brewing and growing. I was wondering if I could take a bit of that scoby, mix it with equal parts wine and water, wait 4-6 weeks and voila have my own vinegar? Is this accurate?
    Thank you again!
    Katherine

    1. Yes, this is accurate. The kombucha SCOBY have the “acetic acid bacteria” necessary to make vinegar and will work as well as a vinegar mother.

  12. All vinegar mothers are a combination of organisms. it is nearly impossible to have a yeast free vinegar mother structure unless you are maintaining absolute sterility. wild yeasts are everywhere.

    If you let kombucha go long enough you always end up with vinegar. the genetic analysis on this were settled almost a decade back. kombucha is tea vinegar that adapted from a rice wine vinegar strain.

    kombucha is usually stopped short and caped to trap carbon dioxide to make it fizzy. you can do the exact same thing with ACV mothers or wine vinegar mothers, i make both.

    1. Your statements are true though I wanted to add some detail for clarity. The main motivation of this blog post was to check the ‘SCOBY’ overuse I have been seeing in Q&A on the blog and my email. I would say 60-70% of the people with vinegar making questions are calling it a SCOBY even though it isn’t being used for kombucha. I’m not jealous :), I just want the distinctions to be clarified. As you know, they are basically shades of each other though the nuances are lost by many. I appreciate your thoughts.

      On the detailed comments:

      1. A mother initially always likely has yeasts but that does not mean the mother/SCOBY distinction is 100% semantics. Once you pass 1% acidity or so, the yeasts die off. The primary difference between mothers of vinegar as typically used in vinegar fermentation and SCOBYs is that the SCOBY is supposed to help in alcoholic fermentation as well as acetic acid fermentation. The steps are usually distinct in vinegar making though some old school fermentation in the Middle East and Asia does dual alcohol/acetic acid fermentation similar to kombucha. The mothers we sell are in vinegar of 4-5% acidity and would not work well with kombucha making since the high acidity raw vinegar basically removes the wild yeast that were initially in culture.

      2. Kombucha bacteria are acetic acid bacteria. No argument here. Our lab has a PCR and I have actually cultured and amplified the barcode DNA from raw kombucha in our lab and had it sequenced. It matches up just like the papers state it does. I would state though that bacteria mutate and change much more than yeast so while yeast are easy to trace over wide geographic regions, bacterial taxonomy is harder. The kombucha acetic acid bacteria are the same species as rice vinegar bacteria but these similar species are also used in wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, etc. Matching a bacteria strain in kombucha to one used for rice vinegar may tell more about the original starter for the kombucha that was sampled. Kombucha globally now uses as many different bacteria species as vinegar does.

      3. Again, this is true. I jokingly tell people I know who are kombucha brewers that they are making ‘tea’ vinegar. People don’t think about it like that but it is the case.

  13. a few questions:
    I have tons of mothers from one batch pf red wine vinegar that I made. They just kept forming and forming. In fact, there was almost as much mother as liquid, so I strained out the liquid, added 3 of the mothers in and put it back in the cupboard. What do I do with the remaining mothers?
    A couple of weeks ago I decided to try and experiment. I wanted to make white wine vinegar, so I took a mother from the red wine vinegar and added white wine to it, hoping to make white wine vinegar. Of course it “bled out” causing more of a rose color, but that won’t bother me, if it will eventually turn to vinegar. In the meantime, I checked it today and see that the mother is almost gone! Why would this happen and should I add another from the red wine vinegar? Can I even use the red wine vinegar mother to start new batches of vinegar, and must they only be red wine?
    Thank you for any help with all my questions.

    1. Hi, you can store the remaining mothers as described here and use them to make future batches of vinegar or give away as gifts.

      Any type of mother can be used to make any type of vinegar. Different mothers are sold to preserve the taste profile of the original alcohol. Feel free to use red wine vinegar mothers to make red wine, white wine, rice, or even malt vinegars.

      I am surprised that the mother disappeared in your new batch. Maybe it was relatively loose and broke apart? Mothers are made of cellulose which is not water soluble so they cannot dissolve into alcohol or vinegar.

  14. So which is better to save, the cellulose layer “scoby” or the hazy looking liquid form of mother in the bottom? Will one start quicker than the other?

    1. Either can do but you should have at least half by volume of the hazy liquid. I don’t recommend solid mother alone.

  15. Thank you so much for this post Reginald.
    Really clears up some things.

    I have a question:
    You mention that yeasts will likely die off at 1% acitidity.
    However most kombucha recipes call for 4-6 tablespoons (50-75 grams) of sugar per liter of water.
    If I am not mistaken this corresponds at the minimum to a SG of 1.03, which if fermented will give an ABV of 3.0% and will result in an acidity of ~2.4%.
    How come they don’t kill the yeasts with such a high sugar content?
    Is my math off?

    1. Hi, thanks for your email. That the yeast ferment the sugar to alcohol which the bacteria then ferment to acetic acid. 1% of that 2.4% alcohol becomes acetic acid which eventually kills the yeast, 0-0.5% residual alcohol is allowed (in store brands) the rest of the sugar remains unfermented by the yeasts and sweetens the final brew.

      1. Thanks for the reply!
        I guess I did not take into account the fact that the two fermentations will happen in parallel and the acidic one will inhibit the alcoholic one after a certain point and not allow it to ferment all the sugar into alcohol.

  16. Hi I started a batch of red wine vinegar with what I’ll call “ancestral vinegar” from an Italian friend. He advised me to gradually add more (homemade sulphite-free, same batches he uses) wine and eventually it would grow a mother and make vinegar.
    Months passed with nothing but evaporation happening. One day I added a bit of Braggs cider vinegar and within a short time what looked like a pink scoby had grown.
    My friend says his mother is basically a blob that sits at the bottom, resembling nothing like mine. He also pours new wine in whenever he has leftover – kind of like a continuous brew I guess. He told me to do the same, and to pour it on top.
    It has been many months now, and the room it’s kept in has a very strong vinegary-ish smell. I looked at it the other day and it was almost all scoby-looking mother, with very little vinegar at the bottom. The scobys ranged from solid and cellulous to a slimy ooze. No mould apparent.
    I composted all but one, which I placed back in the vinegar, and added more wine. (I leave the wine to air for a day or two so some of the alcohol can evaporate.)
    Any insight and advice on what I’ve got brewing and what I should do next?

    1. Hi, first of all the mother of vinegar (not SCOBY in this case) should be resting on the surface, not at the bottom. A mother of vinegar on the bottom is not receiving oxygen and is inert for all practical purposes.

      As far as adding wine, you should add new wine only once the vinegar is done and you have removed some of it (for example 1/2) and replace that volume with wine. Adding wine continuously makes sure the vinegar is never done and eventually the acidity and alcohol will get so high as to halt additional fermentation (sometimes with an acetone smell).

      The fact that you have all mother and no vinegar means that there must have been heavy evaporation. It probably went too long. In this case, get some wine, sulfites removed, cut it one part water to one part wine and add to start a new fermentation. Once the mother reforms, let it go until it is done (send it to a wine lab to check at least 5% titratable acidity is the best practice) and then when it is done, take half out and replace that half with wine. You don’t have to dilute wine with water this second time.

  17. Thanks for this article, and all the good conversation; I’ve gotten a lot out of it…. I’ve been making ACV for a few years now, and what a treat ! my last batch came from some wild green apples I foraged ( most likely, pippins) that were very tart, and make great vinegary vinegar ( as opposed to the red apples that are sweet and make delicious yummy vinegar) I have a very large mother from the green apple ACV that I want to keep and use on my next batch; and it is starting to evaporate so I need to be able to feed it… so, would I just boil some sugar water to do that? Or, do I need to keep adding back the vinegar? Also, in regards to the wine vinegar that Kirsten is attempting; I would be cautious using cheap store bought wine; even if it says that there is no sulphur… because these inexpensive wines are gassed for fast fermentation, and so much of the healthy properties are gone; and the gaseous chemicals that remain ( you can taste the difference ) would most likely affect the fermentation process… maybe that’s why Karen’s mother died, or dissappeared…

    1. Hi, if you want to store the mother for future use, use the instructions in this blog post on storing it in vinegar in an airtight container. If you want to jump start it, use hard cider/fermented apple juice.

  18. It was an unusually good year for our old Paula Red apple tree. The plentiful harvest = apple peels/ cores = apple scrap vinegar. I was more careful this year, covering the scrap, weighing it down, covering the jars with paper coffee filters and am confident my vinegar is nice and clean. I’ve never seen such a pretty SCOBY on my vinegar before. I’ve made Kombucha in the past. Did not associate that mushroom structure on the surface until I did a little research. Now I’m curious. I did a second fermentation, removing SCOBY and adding fruit for a different flavored Kombucha. Could I do the same thing with the apple scrap vinegar? It seems like this was easier than trying to manage Kombucha, since it formed the SCOBY without one to inoculate the brew. Am I understanding this process correctly?

    1. Hi, you can add new fruit but it will only flavor the vinegar, not ferment. The high acidity of the vinegar has already killed the yeast so the sugar will not be fermented. The flavor may be great though!

  19. Hi!! So grateful to find your site. I have a ceramic crock that last year I added apple scraps in the hope of making ACV…..I put the lid on and forgot it….it’s been doing whatever it’s doing in there for a year all alone….no smell. I am afraid to look in the crock. When I shake it, it feels like there is liquid in there…..could it possibly be ACV? Or is it now fermented to the point where it’s wine? Please advise. I would love to actually make some ACV….it’s on the bucket list….but being sick I don’t always feel well…..and this was left in the deep dark pantry forgotten until thorough cleaning today ….thanks so much!

    1. Hi, if the lid was airtight it is likely nothing happened but perhaps some alcoholic fermentation. If it is not airtight it may have made vinegar but after a year of continuous fermentation it could have overoxidized (see details here) and reduced in acidity. I would check it and if there is a bad smell or even no smell, toss it. If it smells like vinegar I would have a small sample tested before using. Email me and I can give some recommendations on testing.

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