The Cabinet of Creepy Pellicles
In my house I have an antique hutch that was reclaimed from some older house as a built-in and, well, torn out. It’s a nice piece, eye-catchingly placed in the dining room feet from the front door so that guests can ogle the strange contents. I call it my Cabinet of Creepy Pellicles, and it’s where my vinegar, kombucha, jun, and a few other long-term cultures live. If you’ve never seen one of these fermentations in production, it can be pretty jarring.
A pellicle is a skin, film, or membrane. In the case of our good friends vinegar, kombucha, and jun, the fermentation organisms are responsible for producing this layer of microbial cellulose along the surface. This is triggered by exposure to oxygen. If the word “pellicle” feels too technical, just think of them as creepy pancakes. They’re rubbery to the touch, fairly resilient, grow rapidly, and are technically a waste product. That’s right – they aren’t even where the magic happens. The liquid itself – raw and alive – makes new vinegar, kombucha, or jun.
Vinegar, kombucha, jun – Where do they come from?
Real answer? Fruit flies. You’re probably familiar with the microbiome, and the essential role that our trillions of microbial passengers play in the proper functioning of our bodies. To the best of my knowledge, the Acetobacter family is not among the members of the human microbiome. They are, however, native to the gut flora of fruit flies. And boy do fruit flies love sweet things and organic acids!
The first home brewers were probably also the first vinegar manufacturers. Airborne or fly-carried Acetobacter would have had a field day at Babylon Fruited Honey Wine, Inc., and Cairo House of Malted Grains. Early people were frugal by necessity and not likely to let an edible go to waste. Vinegar has an array of beneficial uses, so the wine may turn, but the benefits go on. Vinegar, kombucha, jun, and assorted other variants would have cropped up on their own.
Where does kombucha come from?
Kombucha is like a purpose-built vinegar factory for non-alcoholic beverages. Vinegar tends to be a monoculture of one species feeding on alcohol. Kombucha and jun are the products of a diverse ecosystem of bacteria and yeasts that can feed on most any sweetened liquid. While the origins of these things will always be mysterious, there’s documentation of fairly ancient Chinese commentary on the fermented tea.
Again, the creepy pancakes likely followed alcohol production, and early Chinese alcohol production sounds like an exciting thing. It predates the Chinese civilization, for one. There’s evidence of alcohol manufacturing from as long as 9,000 years ago (good on you, early humans!). Arguably, it was this vast storehouse of booze that ultimately brought the people of pre-China together. Perhaps over a few bottles of strong wine, they declared somebody Emperor.
But back to kombucha. Kombucha is a two-phase culture. The yeasts in the community turn the sugars into a little bit of alcohol. The bacteria take the alcohol and oxidize it into acids.
Early beers and wines wouldn’t have been very alcoholic, and being full of live yeasts, all the necessary ingredients were there. Eventually, the microbes involved realized what a great partnership they could have, and developed a stable ongoing community.
So the creepy pancakes in my Cabinet of Creepy Pellicles? Those are the normal product of Acetobacter infection of an ethanol-containing liquid. The cousins of vinegar, kombucha and jun, are like version 2.0 of this process, taking any sweetened liquid and turning it into magnificent, healthy, organic acids. Vinegar, kombucha, jun – creepy and completely amazing.