In the universe of vinegar cousins, kombucha is probably the best known. It’s become one of America’s fad miracle drinks and is widely available in grocery stores and even gas stations here in Atlanta. It’s easy to grow too – you can buy a bottle of commercial kombucha and leave it open to the air (cover it with a breathable lid though – flies love it). Within a few days to a few weeks, a translucent film will begin to grow on the surface. Add the liquid and skin to a jar of sweet tea and voila, your kombucha farm is off to the races.
But kombucha isn’t the only vinegar cousin around. Lesser known and more mythologized is a culture known as jun. This is propagated in green tea that’s sweetened by honey, and by most accounts is a little fussier and slower to grow than kombucha.
The way this works is that pellicle-forming organisms, which in vinegar are pretty much exclusively Acetobacter species, live in a more diverse colonial ecosystem. Jun and kombucha pellicles are described as SCOBYs, which stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. The yeasts convert the sugars in the tea to alcohol, and the bacteria convert the alcohol to various acids.
Jun is said, by its many enthusiastic brewers and promoters, to have originated in Tibet thousands of years ago. Stories are told of monks racing through mountain passes with special teas to feed their brews. There’s generally a sense of magic and wonder ascribed to jun, and while I’m a skeptic about stories like that – Sandor Katz has written that jun is likely a kombucha variant developed in Eugene, Oregon, in recent years – I won’t deny that it’s a cool culture to maintain.
I grew kombucha in the past, but the practice got away from me and I gave it up when I moved houses a few years ago. Vinegar has kept me happy enough, but in a spurt of culture ordering last year, I found someone purporting to offer jun SCOBYs on Amazon (these folks [aff], if you’re interested) and had one shipped to me.
Within a few weeks I’d created three jars of jun, but since I’m not a big sugar eater, I tucked them away to do their thing in my Cabinet of Creepy Pellicles alongside my vinegar pots. Still, there’s something about jun’s mystique that kept me from abolishing the practice altogether. I’ve found myself pulling one or two of the jars out every few months, decanting the honey vinegar they’ve produced, and adding a new mix of green tea and honey. In the process, they make thick, durable SCOBYs that I often have to cut out of the jars.
I did that today, and thought I’d share the process. I like this stuff – the vinegar it’s become by the time I drink it is tart but retains some of the honey’s floral notes on the aftertaste. It smells lovely too, even with the acid punch. I’m never going to be a daily jun (or kombucha) drinker, but it’s a nice treat from time to time.
Here’s a bit of what jun maintenance looks like at my house (click any picture to open a slideshow):