A few years ago, I fell hard for kombucha, the fermented tea that supposedly can help prevent everything from cancer to gray hair. (I don't know if that's true. I just know it's a nice pick-me-up.) I bought my kombucha at Whole Foods, but it's easy to make, requiring only water, sugar, tea, a little vinegar, and a "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast," or SCOBY, a yucky term for a fairly yucky thing. You just brew a batch of sweet tea and add the SCOBY, a rubbery raft that sits atop the batch and helps keep out "bad" bacteria as it ferments the liquid below. Thus, SCOBY is an alchemical feat of nature. It's also whitish with a brown underside, jellyfish meets flan, Jell-O meets the Blob. Just as a fan of bratwurst might not wish to see how the sausage is made, I didn't care to create a disc of goo.

Then I met Charlotte.

My husband and I were living in a guesthouse in Orange County when Charlotte moved into the front house. Having just arrived from hippied-out Maine, she was deflated to find that she couldn't bum a partial SCOBY off a neighbor. Ferraris and facelifts proliferated in our neighborhood; bacteria lumps, not so much. So, she explained, she'd just have to grow a SCOBY in our shared laundry room.

When she mentioned this—"If you smell something weird, don't freak out"—we did some Googling. WebMD warned against DIYing this process; bad bacteria might sneak in, or the fermentation could go rogue, making the brew alcoholic. But we did what polite people do: said nothing, electing to be privately repulsed.

Then, a few weeks later, Charlotte insisted we come try her kombucha, and again politeness won. We took hesitant sips—and couldn't deny the tea's deliciousness. It was a sour elixir, herbal and earthy. "This is the best kombucha I've ever tasted," I raved.

"You should make your own," Charlotte said. "It's easy."

Even as I hesitated, I realized I couldn't just mooch her booch forever. Next thing I knew, I was walking home with my own hunk of ick.

I developed an instant affection for my SCOBY. I liked to peer at it, tend to it. And if you're somewhere out there drunk and passed out on the floor, I sang, in the style of Concrete Blonde's "Joey," oh oh oh SCOBY, I'm not angry anymore. My husband, a patient man, called my SCOBY "the old lady."

Charlotte began coming over to use our juicer (ginger juice really puts kombucha over the top) or test a new flavor on us. Tangerine basil. Lavender pear. My jar-made stuff was good but bested by what she brewed in her two-gallon beverage dispenser, whose SCOBY was the size of a plate. Over sips, we'd dream up kombucha cocktails, debating whether the tea was healthy or just a tasty way to feel virtuous.

When I was accepted to a graduate program in Boise, I was pained. Our fermentation salon would cease to be. To comfort myself, I bought a beverage dispenser like Charlotte's, she peeled a layer off her mega-SCOBY, and I put it in my jug.

Just before we left, Charlotte came by, and we took up our favorite subject. "It is symbiotic," she said. "I feed SCOBY, and SCOBY feeds me." I didn't fully understand what she meant. Not yet, anyway.

My husband and I drove to Idaho, where we knew no one. How would we make friends? And then it occurred to me: What do you have to share?

I posted on a local message board asking whether anyone had SCOBY to spare—I wanted to try Idaho's cultures. A woman named Kelly wrote, "Sure, come over." As thanks for her slime, I gave her a piece of citrine, which she turned into a pendant. Soon after, we went on a trail run. I gave a bottle of my brew to my neighbor Kristine, who has four grandkids and as many suitors, and pedals around the neighborhood with her dog Gucci in her bike basket. She called me the "best neighbor ever," then invited me to brunch.

I'd never imagined that kombucha could open up a whole new town for me. But that's just another of its powers. I feed it; it feeds me. It grows beneath my sink, and it grows my life, outward and upward, sip by sip.

Mary Pauline Lowry is the author of the novel Wildfire.

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