Mother or SCOBY?

Reginald SmithAll About Vinegar, Making Vinegar, Mother of Vinegar, Uncategorized10 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.

10 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)?


    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,

    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.

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