Kombucha Adventures!

We apologize for the posting haitus, but are happy to be back! In my time away from blogging I have become very interested in fermentation. This interest largely began with a book I saw at a tea room about fermenting vegetables and beverages. Scanning over the pages,  I found myself enthralled with the idea of microbiomes in food that can be consumed to improve the biomes in our bodies, as well as preparing a new array of delicious foods. I bought the book and hurried home, beginning a fermenting spree. Over the course of the next several months, I hope to share some some of my favorite fermented products, as well as easy recipes so you can follow along  at home.

Today, I am going to discuss a product that has gained a lot of attention in recent years: Kombucha.

Bottled Raspberry Kombucha

Bottled Raspberry Kombucha

Kombucha is fermented tea with a very distinct flavor and visceral experience. It is presently tart and bubbly. It is produced when a culture of a few types of bacteria and yeasts feed on a mixture of tea and sugar. This little party responsible for fermenting the tea is the SCOBY  (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts), which forms a small squishy puck. When given tea and sugars, the SCOBY will thrive and feed off of the sugar, caffeine, and tannins to produce lactic acid, CO2, and a variety of vitamins. The longer the tea sits at room temperature, the more sour and carbonated the tea will become as the colony happily eats. By home fermenting, you can control the tartness as you like to taste.

An interesting characteristic of the SCOBY is that it will produce a baby colony if it is given sweetened tea. In essence, for each batch you will have another SCOBY. (This is why the SCOBY is sometimes referred to as the “mother”) You can share them with loved ones and friends.

What’s so great about all this? Well, I like to compare it to someone who has a green thumb or enjoys gardening. You are watching and tending to a living organism that fluctuates and changes before your eyes. It is pretty fascinating. There are also potential health benefits to probiotics. There happen to be a wide variety of claims when it comes to Kombucha, but a general consensus is that the bacteria in the drink are beneficial for the human intestinal flora and that the drink is a nutritious alternative to carbonated sodas due to the colonies ability to produce traces of vitamins and minerals.

Making Kombucha is simple and fun, but requires one particularly unique and somewhat uncommon ingredient: the SCOBY. The easiest way to get your hands on a SCOBY is to order a “starter kit”, which includes the SCOBY as well as a small amount of Kombucha (sometimes called starter tea). If you are very fortunate and know others who are fermenting Kombucha, see if they would be willing to offer you or sell you a SCOBY. There are many places to look online, like Cultures for Health, although I purchased mine from a Fermentation on Wheels, a traveling food educator.

Kombucha SCOBY mother

After purchasing my SCOBY from Fermentation on Wheels! (Don’t put in the sunlight! Oops.)


Once you have the SCOBY the process goes pretty simply. To start, you’ll need plain caffeinated black or green tea, granulated sugar, and your SCOBY with starter liquid. Below are specific measurements of ingredients for your first batch based on a 2012 article in Urban Farm Magazine. Note that the amount can  be adjusted as needed, but we recommend making at least a quart.

3 and 3/4 cups of water (filtered unless your tap water is good quality)

2 bags of black or green tea (Can use loose tea as well, brew to taste)

1/2 cup of white granulated sugar (no stevia, no honey, no brown sugar)

SCOBY with 1/4 cup starter tea (already fermented tea)

Pot

1 quart jar

First, bring two cups of water to a boil in a pot that can fit at least a quart, setting aside the rest of the water. When the water comes close to a boil, add the half cup of sugar and allow it absorb fully into the water. Then, once the water comes to a boil, turn off the stove and add the two tea bags. Allow the tea bags to seep until the water begins to cool so that the tea bags are seeping minimally. Then, add the remaining 1 and 3/4 cups of water to further cool the liquid. Let the pot sit until it cools to room temperature. This may take a few hours. Once the sweetened tea cools, pour it into the quart sized jar and then add the SCOBY and 1/4 cup of starter liquid. Again, it is very important that the sweet tea is cooled so it does not kill the SCOBY. Afterwards, cover the jar with a cloth and a rubber band so that debris does not fall into it, but so that it is not sealed. This is because the SCOBY needs sufficient oxygen.

Now you have your tea and it will begin fermenting. It will need to sit for at least 3-4 days, but after then you can taste it to check if the sugar has been absorbed and if the flavor is to your liking. The tea should taste a begin to taste a bit tangy. The longer it sits, the more tangy it gets. Depending on the amount and taste you prefer, you may choose to have you liquid sit longer. Some will let it sit for as long as 14 days! When your tea is where you like it, remove the mother culture with a 1/4 starter liquid for your next batch.

Kombucha SCOBY Mothers

The “mothers” or SCOBYs have been removed from the fermented tea and are ready to be set aside in some starter liquid. (Notice the light one is the newer “baby” and the dark one is the older “mother”)

Next comes my favorite part – the “second ferment”. This is when you can add flavors and extra carbonation to your batch. Prepare a few jars or bottles to store your tea. Grab your flavorings: a chunk of ginger, some fruit, some mint leaves, some dried flowers, whatever. Add it into the bottle and then add your tea. This time you are going to close the cap and allow the bottle to sit at room temperature for at least one day. Depending on the sugar content of your flavoring, the tea will continue to ferment and create a lot of CO2. You should check your bottles every so often and burp them to avoid a messy explosion.

Kombucha Second Ferment

Raspberries are adding to the carbonation in the second ferment.

At this point, you have your SCOBY and its starter liquid. You can make a new batch to feed the culture or make it dormant. For each brew, your SCOBY will grow a baby colony as a layer on its top. The more you feed it, the more SCOBYs you will end up having. This is where a SCOBY hotel comes in handy. It is just a small jar where you can put your excess mamas and babes when you don’t have the time to tend to all of them. You should still feed them though every 4-6 weeks, just with a smaller recipe using the same tea to sugar ratio. Putting the jar in the refrigerator will make the colonies go into a much slower ferment, as if they were sleeping.

Happy fermenting! I’d love to hear of anyone’s experience in the comments below!

A few notes:

The trick is keeping the sugar ratio to 10% of the volume of your brewed tea. For a while, I thought that I was using way too much sugar for the recipes I was referring to. But I realized, the sugar is not for me – it’s for the culture. If you use less than the 10% per volume sweet spot, you risk inviting other bacteria and microorganisms into the picture. The excess sugar makes for a pretty harsh environment for bacteria aside from the ones in your SCOBY. On top of that, the sugar is used as food, and an acidic environment is also crucial to kill off unwanted bacterias and yeasts that may enter the batch from the air.

Temperature plays an important role in any fermentation process. Kombucha develops best in the temperature range of 74F to 84F. The general rule of thumb is that the colder the temperatures, the slower your ferment.

SCOBYs like the dark, don’t let them sit in direct sunlight.

Keep an eye on your SCOBY and make sure that it does not turn black or blue. If so, you will have to dispose of the Kombucha as this is a sign it is unsafe and molding. A healthy SCOBY will appear as shade(s) of white and brown. Also, wash your hands before handling your SCOBY directly.

Don’t over-do it. Try drinking a maximum of 8 ounces a day to avoid lactic acid build up.

Sanitation is key, brew at your own risk!

What We Learned from a Pigeon

Portrait of Franco, the homing pigeon

The way I met Franco was not very glorious. My roommate and I were on the couch near our front apartment window when she noticed something white hopping around the parking lot. It appeared to be a dove of some sort. We ran down the stairs to get a closer look. My roommate, Stassia, grabbed a shoebox before going down, knowing that the animal was injured. She got down before I did, and when I opened the door to the lot, there was no sign of the dove or my roommate. I began shouting her name. The two were in a stairwell behind a building, my roommate holding the shoebox closed. She had caught the dove.

I peeked in the box to see the bird and its potential injuries. The all white and very large pigeon was streaked in black as if it had hit a power line. It held its left wing limp at its side and beat it uselessly when trying to take off in the lot. I once worked at a wild-bird rescue center and thought we may be able to take the pigeon there to heal. Unfortunately, the center was closed for the season. Stassia and I decided it would be best to take the bird to an emergency vet to be examined.

When we arrived at the vet, the receptionist asked for a name for the bird. The box it was being held in was for “Franco Sarto” shoes. I announced that the bird’s name was “Franco.” In the patient room, Franco attempted to flap around. She looked starved and ragged. The vet inspected and observed her overnight to check for signs of west-nile virus. The vet called the next morning for us to pick up Franco. Thankfully, there were no signs of west-nile (as they would euthanize the animal). We took her home and kept her in a large rubbermaid box in our bathroom. We lined the box with towels and gave her water and parakeet seed. She ate. It was a great sign. She slowly recovered, loosing the black marks on her body and revealing pure white feathers. Franco had more visits with a vet who explained that she was a domesticated pigeon and couldn’t be released in the wild because she wouldn’t know how to survive. The fact that the bird was bred white also made her a beacon to predators, especially birds of prey. We kept her and built her a large cage. Stassia bought her “pants” to wear around the apartment so she could exercise while collecting her droppings. We loved watching her become more comfortable. For a while we thought that a) Franco was a King Pigeon and b) that she was a boy. Later, after a lot of research and talking with pigeon experts, we were informed that Franco was a homing pigeon, and built more like a hen (although still not 100% clear if she is a girl).

Homing pigeons are bred for ceremonies, such as funerals or weddings. These “release doves” are trained to return to the roost after being let out at the ceremony location. Ideally, the birds return back to the roost. However, due to the lack of camouflage and survival skills that these captive birds have, many do not come back. White doves symbolize peace in many religions and cultures. Breeders will isolate the gene for white feathers in the homing pigeons to embody the visual of the white dove. It seems to be that Franco was a bird like this. (King pigeons are white and bred for squab with the potential to escape from backyard breeders. The same issues apply.)

It never crossed my mind about what happened to the “doves” after releasing them. My great grandmother’s funeral released a pigeon and it seemingly went off to freedom. I was frustrated that I had not realized these birds were being used as props. Freedom was not there for an animal that relied heavily on humans for survival. Releasing it with the likelihood that they may not go home seemed cruel to me, as if they were disposable. The amount of research that Franco caused both Stassia and I to partake in really opened our eyes.

Franco also taught us that all animals have personalities. Her stubborn and stoic behavior became comical when her lack of gracefulness was seen. Companion animals are sometimes disrespected unless a price tag is attached; she is not a $500 parrot that people covet for its “exoticism” (don’t misunderstand me here, nothing against a parrot, just people’s mentality). She is seen by some as a “sky rat.” She was used and forgotten by someone. She was found. She has taught me to appreciate all life even more.

Illustration by: Lauren Korany, Urban Hermits

Mark and Lauren Go Places: A Northern Michigan Adventure!

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A scene at Sleeping Bear Dunes, in the Northwest of Michigan’s Lower Pennisula.

Hi all,

While summer weather is here, it can still be difficult to get outside and enjoy it. Work and other obligations can be overbearing, but it can do a lot to take some time for yourself and your loved ones and go on an adventure. Even if you are limited in funds, there are pockets of greatness everywhere! Personally, I love hiking and camping. Its a great way to see beautiful places and experience the world on a budget. This summer has started off with a bang, as Lauren and I made our annual trip to one of our favorite locales: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We also made a brief excursion to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While we have been to Sleeping Bear Dunes several times, we continue to go and be awed by the scenery and great wildlife sightings. Here are some of our favorite photographs!

Enjoy,

-Mark and Lauren

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Gulls in the sunset over Platte Point

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A firewood vending machine!

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Lauren looks into what seems to be infinity

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On the Good Harbor Bay trail

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A Sandhill Crane, Michigan’s largest bird!

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Can you spot our friend?

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A deer along the Platte River

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View from our campsite in Hiawatha National Forest

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An old ferry in the port of St. Ignace

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Close to Home – BP Spills Tar Sands into Lake Michigan

Urban Hermits - BP Oil Spill Lake Michigan

Just a few days ago, Urban Hermits wrote an article criticizing the fossil fuel industry. Well, unfortunately we have more content to write about on the topic. On Monday afternoon, it is estimated that the BP owned Whiting refinery in Indiana leaked between 630 to 1,638 gallons of crude oil into Lake Michigan (originally thought to be 500 gallons). The refinery, now being used to process tar sands from Alberta, had increased volume of crude oil production which supposedly caused a malfunction. The Great Lake is part of the world’s largest supplies of fresh water, the drinking water source for 7 million people just in the Chicago area. Ironically, the incident occurred less than two weeks after the U.S. lifted BP’s ban on bidding Gulf of Mexico oil leases since the massive Macondo disaster in 2010.

The EPA initially reported there appeared to be no negative effects on Lake Michigan. Furthermore, BP spokesman Scott Dean stated “I’ve had no reports of any wildlife impacted.”

Right.

Just recently the refinery, BP, and Koch Industries were sued by Chicago residents due to the mass storage of petroleum coke polluting the area and lake. Petroleum coke, or “petcoke” is the byproduct of tar sand oil. The Whiting refinery currently produces around 600,000 tons of petcoke per year. It now has the potential to produce 2.2 million tons per year with the recent $3.8 billion expansion. According to the Chicago Tribune, federal records show that the Whiting plant remains one of the largest sources of industrial pollution discharged into Lake Michigan.

It seems to be nothing but bad news for crude oil, from processing to transport. Two weeks ago, a damaged tar sands pipeline owned by Sunoco spilled 20,000 gallons of crude oil into Ohio’s Glen Oak Nature Preserve.

The Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has admitted that they don’t have the resources needed to enforce standards on pipelines. Thus, corporations are responsible for routes and safety monitoring. Well, I for one am totally comfortable trusting that a large corporation isn’t going to cut corners… (sarcasm). If you would like to see stats, Kiley Kroh from ThinkProgress states,

According to an analysis of PHMSA data, since 1986 there have been nearly 8,000 significant pipeline incidents, resulting in more than 500 deaths, more than 2,300 injuries, and nearly $7 billion in damage.

Safe tar sands? Safe pipelines anyone?

Sources:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/03/25/294454330/bp-says-oil-spill-in-lake-michigan-has-been-contained

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-bp-whiting-crude-oil-lake-michigan-spill-20140325,0,3069441.story

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/03/25/3418808/oil-leaks-lake-michigan/

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/03/25/3418592/pipeline-spill-ohio/

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/25/refinery-operations-bp-whiting-idUSL1N0MM0RQ20140325

http://ecowatch.com/2014/03/19/pipeline-spills-crude-oil-ohio/

http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2014/03/estimate_of_lake_michigan_oil.html

Visit to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens

I wanted to share some photos from my first visit to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens Conservatory this month. It was a warm escape from the bitter cold weather. The conservatory displays plants from three major biomes around the world: tropical, temperate, and arid. I learned about plants that I take for granted, (did you know that black pepper grows on a vine?), and found artistic inspiration from the natural patterns in plants. I also found inspiration from a unique sculptural planted kaleidoscope in the gardens. The incorporation of plant growth into the kaleidoscope ensures that you will only see that geometric image once and it will always be a fresh experience. Such as great reminder of how substantial moments are. This was a peaceful one for sure.

Your Warming World – Climate Change Map

New Scientist’s Your Warming World uses data from NASA’s surface temperature analysis to illustrate climate change around the globe. Explore where you live to see the pattern and compare it to the overall global analysis. You can also compare the shift in temperature to other time periods of a 20-year duration at the same location. Most importantly, make a point of sharing this map with any climate change denying friends and family. This is a great tool to visualize abstract statistics!

Source: New Scientist, Your Warming World

Saving Sochi’s Strays

PovoDog, a shelter funded by a Russian billionaire has rushed in a last-effort save hundreds of strays before the 2014 Winter Olympics begin today in Sochi.

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The New York Times writes:

Lying past a cemetery, at the end of a dirt road and without electricity or running water, the makeshift PovoDog shelter is already giving refuge to about 80 animals, including about a dozen puppies.

Local animal rights workers say many of the strays were pets, or the offspring of pets, abandoned by families whose homes with yards were demolished over the past few years to make way for the Olympic venues and who were compensated with new apartments in taller buildings, where keeping a pet is often viewed as undesirable.

In recent months, residents of Sochi have reported seeing dogs shot with poisoned darts, then tossed into waiting trucks. Aleksei Sorokin, the director general of a pest control business, Basya Services, has confirmed that his company has been hired to catch and kill strays, telling local journalists the work was necessary.

A huge thank you to ProvoDog for stepping in.

Photo Source: Sergei Ilnitsky, European Pressphoto Agency
Source: David Herszenhorn, Racing to Save the Stray Dogs of Sochi, The New York Times, 5 Feb 2014

Winter Bay Laurel

Short days and early nights are making me long for greenery. Now that I have more time on my hands, I’ve started to go a little haywire on my indoor gardening. My newest plant addition is the Bay Laurel (Laurus Nobilis), often used as a spice in cooking. This little plant was shipped in the mail during the winter, and is looking pretty good considering its cold travel. It did appear to have some powdery mildew. Wiping the leaves with some neem oil seems to have resolved the problem!

On a side note, it did not occur to me that this plant is “laurel.” I have only ever referred to it as “bay leaf.” Interestingly enough, names beginning with the Latin prefix “Laur-” have meanings related to this plant. For instance, my name is Lauren, meaning “crowned in laurels.” The Greek God Apollo was depicted with a crown of laurels, and traditions of crowning victorious athletes and warriors occurred in Greek and Roman culture. Some pretty interesting folk-lore explains this origin in the story of Apollo and Daphne.

Enough of my ranting, have a peaceful winter!

Inspiration – Einstein & Compassion

Einstein Quote - Urban Hermits

Design by Lauren Korany, Urban Hermits, 05 January 2014.

Faux Faux Fur

In the midst of holiday shopping, stay up to date on a retailer that is currently being investigated by the Humane Society of the United States: Kohl’s. Selling real fur in place of “faux” fur (synthetic) is a relatively new development. A handbag sold as synthetic fur by Kohl’s was tested in labs and matched positive as rabbit fur. The false advertising is deceitful to consumers who intentionally avoid fur products due to animal welfare issues. More than 75 million animals, including rabbits, raccoon dogs, mink, bobcats, foxes and even domestic dogs and cats, are killed annually to make unnecessary fur products.

    Recent Investigations by HSUS concerning misleading fur sales –

  • August 2013: Federal Trade Commission issued enforcement action against retailers Neiman Marcus, Drjays.com and Revolveclothing.com, in response to 2011 HSUS petition alleging the selling of animal fur as “faux.”
  • March 2013: Investigation by The HSUS revealed NY department store Century 21 sold real fur as faux, including a Marc Jacobs jacket with raccoon dog fur.
  • July 2012: Investigation by The HSUS revealed illegal sale of domestic dog fur in apparel and other items by NY retailer, leading to action by Customs and Border Protection.”

You can contact Kohl’s to ask questions or submit a complaint through the Humane Society’s User Action Page.

Sources: The Humane Society of the United States, “Buyer Beware: Rabbit Fur Sold as ‘Faux’ at Kohl’s”, 02 December 2013; Laura Moss, Mother Nature Network, “Is That Faux Fur Really Fake?”, 04 December 2013