When I first fell in love with making my own fermented beverages, flavored water kefir was not a priority on my list. Experimenting with flavors of Kombucha was at the top. I had a natural affinity for kombucha. It fascinated me. The whole process of fermentation was something I had not experienced before in all my years of health food preparation. I was thrilled to enter the world of fermentation. A door had opened to me inviting me into a whole new way of preparing and preserving food and beverages.
Each time, I experimented with new kombucha flavors, I had great success. I make very cherry, which is heavenly since I am a cherry flavor lover. I also make chocolate which drives all the chocolate lovers wild. I seem to encounter no impediments to making great kombucha. I continue to experiment with different flavors and still love everything about it.
I guess I should step back for a moment to provide some insight into this amazing technology. There are numerous tools or techniques for fermentation and preservation. So far, I have tried about seven of them. Salting is one that I imagine everyone is familiar with. Dehydrating and smoking are two others that have long histories but not too old that many people know about them as well. But then there are the fermentation techniques that have histories indigenous to many ancient cultures. Fermentation is so old that it is believed to pre-date man!
The SCOBY is the essential fermenting agent. SCOBY stands for, symbiotic colony (or community) of bacterial and yeast. When I first heard of SCOBY I was told it was a mushroom. It is not. There are many kind of SCOBY. Kombucha is most commonly linked to the term SCOBY. But kefir grains are SCOBY, too.
There is also a SCOBY for making JUN which is considered the ‘champagne of kombucha’. It is indistinguishable in appearance from a regular Kombucha SCOBY. But the ingredients needed to create this beverages are not the same as regular Kombucha. Green tea is used instead of black. Honey is required instead of sugar. We’ll talk more about this delicate and delicious drink at a future date.
Now that you have a general introduction to the SCOBY world, some explanatory definitions and an overview of beverage fermentation, we can discuss kefir, water kefir and flavored water kefir. The Kefir SCOBY is in the form of grains or crystals. They are actually very pretty to look at. They are much less intimidating than a Kombucha SCOBY. There are two kinds of grains. One is for kefir water. The other is for kefir milk. We will only focus the water kefir grains and flavored water kefir.
It took me some time to cozy up to water kefir. It just didn’t excite me the way Kombucha, natural sodas and lacto-fermented lemonade did. As a result the water kefir I had brewing just sat in the jar unattended. Then something happened. A Kombucha looking SCOBY formed on top. Underneath it was a membrane like a baby SCOBY forming and a brown bulging sack. I decided to explore. I separated everything. I opened the sack. To my surprise and delight, it was filled with grains. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I suppose I could have started a new batch using these grains. I saved the SCOBY for a while planning to show it to Matt. But I thought the whole thing was a result of cross-contamination from Kombucha bacteria. The two jars were closer together than I now know to keep them, at least four feet apart. Lastly, the liquid had turned sour. I got discouraged with the whole mystery and threw it everything out, the SCOBY, the sack with new grains, the membrane and the liquid.
But I like a challenge and I don’t like when I cannot master something. Between those two aspects of personality and persistence at work, I knew that learning to make kefir water was going to be my next endeavor. So I started from scratch, I got some new water kefir grains from my friend and fermentation mentor, Matt Fallon. At his suggestion, I even got a painter’s mesh strainer bag. This would keep my new babies contained while still being submerged in the liquid.
I arranged my new set up and even added some adornment to my most elegant dispenser. I filled the jar with bottled water (about a gallon and a half) and organic sugar (about a scoop per gallon). I submerged the grains contained within the mesh strainer’s and secured them to the dispenser’s top with the elastic band sewn into the top of the mesh strainer. I was ready for action.
Water kefir grains only take about 24 hours to ferment their liquid. This is much faster than it takes to make Kombucha. That can take a few days or even longer.
The number of days depends upon the temperature of the environment the container is in. In the summer, my Kombucha brew is ready in a few days. When the temperature gets colder, I wrap a light kitchen towel around the jar. Some people report weeks for fermentation to be complete. There are actually both heating pads purchasable for jars and creative fermenters make ‘coats’ and covers designed to keep the container and liquid from getting too cold. This allows for a speeding up of a process that would otherwise slow down too much or virtually stop when it just gets too cold.
I didn’t have the same spontaneity at first that I had with making Kombucha. But I gave myself a good talking to and said, ‘This is the same process as making Kombucha. It is fermentation and the grains, not a jelly fish looking pancake, are the SCOBY. I am only using another type of SCOBY. Everything else is the same. So do basically what I do when I make Kombucha’. I did just that and it works. It is so much easier than I thought. I have been going wild making all kinds of flavors of water kefir just like I had started to do with my first love, Kombucha. I’ve made chocolate peppermint with dried leaves from Matt’s garden. I made a ginger-orange brew that needs a touch of maple syrup to sweeten it. I’ve made Cherry Kefirade which is my favorite. It is a combination of Cherry water kefir and fermented lemonade. That recipe will definitely have to wait for another blog post. It even deserves a pedestal it is so outstandingly delicious (and nutritious).
This is just another beginning, seeing how far I can stretch what appear to be the normal limits of a technique. Water kefir is clearly very versatile. It is quite cooperative and easy to make flavored water kefir. It does not mind when I use the tea that has already been used for a Kombucha or JUN brew. I let it sit for a day or two and there I have it, a new water kefir flavor. This new world I have entered allows me continual exploration. It is a world that has existed for millennia. Some say that fermentation existed before man rather than man ‘inventing’ fermentation. Be that as it may, I am thrilled to have been introduced the world of beverage fermentation and food preservation.
If you would like to get more involved in beverage fermentation, there are many groups to join on facebook. Some are about fermentation in general. Others get specific to Water Kefir, Kombucha, SCOBY exchange, etc.