I was first introduced to the S.C.O.B.Y. (more on that acronym in a second) of juice kefir while traveling in Argentina. An Australian lady staying in the same hostel as myself gifted me a plastic bottle that held some fizzy looking liquid and smelled sort of like apple cider vinegar. She was leaving the country for her native land, and was afraid her little friends would get taken from her in customs.
This bottle contained a complex colony of life forms, a
B acteria &
There are many different forms of S.C.O.B.Y.s from all over the world. Kombucha is an especially famous one in the states at the moment. The microbes create some kind of structure to hold themselves together in a shape. I don’t know exactly how this works, and I guess I could research it but I haven’t yet. I’m more interested in enjoying the beverage that results when these colonies digest sucrose or fructose. The bubbly, tangy results are one of my favorite fermented beverages. Many people are more familiar with milk kefir, but the juice or water version is essentially the same culture, the only difference being the grains eat sucrose and fructose instead of lactose.
On Australian lady’s instructions, I fed the kefir “grains” – so called because they are little clumpy things down in the bottom of the bottle (exactly like a kombucha culture’s flat squishy shape is called a “mushroom” even though it has nothing to do with a mycelium colony) – juice or sugar water, and because it was easier than buying juice all the time, I fed it mostly honey water. In 24 hours it created a lovely drink that tasted almost exactly like kombucha. Once I fed it some of the ultra pasturized cream that is ubiquitous to the south american continent, and it became SO thick and SO pungent and SO impossible (or so I thought at the time) to deal with…that I threw the whole jar away.
I regret that now just as I did soon after the incident, when I had no more fizzy drink with which to greet each morning. I’m pretty sure I could have rinsed the cream off the grains and started over…..but I wasn’t quite the intrepid fermenting nutter then that I am now. That seemed to be an especially vigorous batch of kefir grains, and I could have had that same culture to this day! No use crying over spilled kefir, I suppose.
The wonderful thing about this particular fermented beverage is the quick turnaround time – 12 to 24 hours after introducing new sugar to the microbe-grains, they have digested them and created an acidic, fizzy, very slightly alcoholic beverage reminiscent of soda pop. I believe that our culture guzzles the amount of soda it does because we are hard wired to consume fermented foods, and the fizz of a carbonated beverage satisfies some kind of instinctual desire.
I personally don’t think our bodies are well adapted to handle the quick sugar found in fruit juice (and don’t get me started on the types and amounts of sugar found in modern sodas). Only eight oz of fruit juice has 30 grams of sugar! That’s more sugar than we eat in a week. Freeing fructose of its fiber creates a very concentrated sugar, and I know that my body feels best when it’s fed fruit sugar in its whole form – as a fresh seasonal fruit. We eat fruit only when it’s in season, which means for large chunks of the year we eat only dried or processed fruit (as in apple butter).
I think the vitamins and nutrients in fruit juice are valuable as a stable form of fruit for the winter, but in order to keep juice around for any period of time (without it turning into wine) it has to be pasteurized. A big goal of mine is to eat foods that are alive and have been pre-digested with microbial action. The juice kefir allows us to consume fruit juice all year round without eating a lot of fructose. The microbes eat the vast majority of the sugar in the juice, and we get to enjoy the benefits of the vitamins in the juice without overloading our bodies with sugar, while at the same time ingesting lots of pro-biotics! What could be better?
About a year ago I ordered juice kefir grains from a nice lady in Oregon, and for $10 I got a small bag of the grains, with no instructions. At first I kept them alive feeding them agave nectar water, but I noticed the grains were slowly getting smaller and smaller, and I was nervous I was slowly killing them through ignorance.
Then I got some more information which suggested keeping two jars of grains. The first jar is the “mother jar” – sort of like a sourdough starter. The grains in this jar are fed molasses dissolved in water, plus a rinsed egg shell every other week or so. The calcium in the molasses and egg shell gives the grains the calcium they’re accustomed to getting from milk. But this liquid tastes awful, the calcium in the egg shell neutralizes any acidic flavors, and the strong molasses flavor just isn’t tasty. But the grains become large and vigorous with this feeding regmin, and reproduce endlessly. When I get too many of them down in the bottom of the jar, I feed the grains to our pigs. I aim for a quarter or less of jar space devoted to grains. The amount of grains is roughly the amount of molasses I feed them, but really that ratio doesn’t seem to matter very much. I’ve found that this ferment is very hardy. I’ve killed three kombucha cultures, but these grains can be overheated, frozen, dried, and will bounce back.
When I empty the jar for feeding (I pour that liquid in the pig pot) some of the grains from this jar are removed, rinsed, and placed in another jar. Then I add about half fruit juice and half water (my preference, you could use 100% juice), and tightly screw on a lid with a good seal. This jar lives in a warm (70-80 degress F) place for about 24 hours. There’s is a distinct hiss of carbon dioxide escaping when the jar is opened (when the lid seal is good enough – no fizz if the seal is inadequate). Instead of juice, dried fruit (figs are the traditional choice) soaked in water can be used. A slice of lemon, or ginger, or any other natural flavoring can be added for extra interest. I’ve never attempted to feed the kefir freshly squeezed juice, I’m sure the results would be interesting and delicious!
The longer the jar ferments, the less sugar remains in the juice, and the more sour and fizzy the finished drink becomes. It’s a matter of personal preference as to how long the juice is digested by the microbes inhabiting the grains. After 36-48 hours, especially if the jar isn’t moved to a cooler place to slow down the action of the microbes, the juice becomes more like vinegar, and after two days it’s not very pleasant to drink, but makes a lovely meat marinade or cooking liquid.
I’m not going to go very deeply into the history of the grains here, as it all seems a little murky, but apparently they originated in the middle east, a long time ago. If a reader is interested I suggest they delve into a web search themselves. There’s some conflicting information.
The grains can eat fructose, sucrose, or lactose. The original beverage was made from milk, stored in the stomach of a ruminant animal. I’ve been told that you can switch the grains from eating one kind of sugar to another, and then I was told that that’s impossible. So I tried it – with a couple of experimental jars, gradually replacing the molasses water with more and more milk at each daily feeding. Two of the jars just ended up being curdled milk floating in brown molasses water….not exactly appetizing. One jar eventually started smelling like milk kefir and I got so excited! And then, one of those little errors happened and the contents of that jar ended up all over the floor. And I haven’t tried again since. I might just find some true milk kefir grains and order them, I don’t have the patience to go through the switching over process again.
Milk kefir is one of the best dairy choices for people who are lactose intolerant. The combination of yeast and bacteria are much more efficient at digesting most all of the lactose than just bacteria by itself. The milk kefir sold in the US is actually just a thinner yogurt culture. True milk kefir is slightly carbonated, a sign of the yeast’s action, and has a very different and more interesting flavor than the commercial stuff.