The Kombucha Mask

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There's a moment—a brief and terrifying moment—when you question the wisdom of the internet. Sometimes that moment finds you lying down on the kitchen floor on a beautiful October afternoon (that happens to be your birthday) with your face suffused and sweltering under an inch-thick coagulation of fermented bacteria.

Let me back up: I’m a big fan of kombucha. A complete devotee. (It’s the acidity. I can’t help myself.) For the uninitiated, kombucha is tea that is fermented over the course of a few days with sugar. As yeasty cultures form on top and inform the brew, they feast on the sugar until it’s eaten up and what you’re left with is a delicious, healthy drink. It’s fizzy and you can buy it for $5 a bottle at fancy grocery stores. Or you can brew it yourself.

Homebrewing kombucha is not as laborious as it sounds. One thing you do learn is that after all that fermentation, you find yourself with a sturdy film of probiotic culture on top of the tea. This culture sits on the surface of the tea and spans the width of its container. In brewing circles, it’s called a “SCOBY”—Symbiotic Cultures Of Bacteria (and) Yeasts. I think it sounds like a Bond villain’s evil corporation.

So, in time, this scoby turns into an inch-thick amoeba and keeps growing throughout the course of different kombucha batches. Eventually you have to get rid of a layer or two, lest they overtake your house and all souls within. Now, the kombucha community is very whole-hog/tail-to-snout in approach—the idea is to use everything for as many healthful benefits as possible. And it’s sad to just throw away a perfectly vibrant scoby. Some folks recommend blending it and using it as fertilizer but, alas, I have no garden. What am I to do with this probiotic blob?

If you’ve been following along at home, yes, I am about to put this thing on my face.

There’s a pro-scoby community that claims doing this leaves you glowing and renewed. I liked the sound of that and it was my birthday— the day to look glowing and renewed. I decided I was game for a little organic innovation. That, and no SK-II masks were readily available to me. So I lifted the scoby out of the container, rinsed it with filtered water, lied down on the kitchen floor, and went (metaphorically) to town.

It was heavy. And cold and clammy and what I imagine it feels like if something intestinal from a mollusk is stretched over your face. Nothing like SK-II. But it was also sort of peaceful down there on the floor. I felt kind of like Sigourney Weaver finding the alien nest and having it drip all over her face—a little bit scared, but think of the scientific ramifications! I left in on for about 15 minutes.

Now, I’m not sure if it was because it was a beautiful day out, or because I had coagulated bacteria on my face, or because it was my birthday, but I was positively radiant afterwards. I drank my serving of kombucha that day with renewed vigor—like we had been through something together and we’d become a part of each other. Maybe that’s the fermentation talking. Either way, I’ll be doing it again, as soon as the next scoby comes of age.

—Trace Barnhill

Photos courtesy of the author.