I am a fermented food fanatic. In part, this is because probiotic fermented foods and beverages are the best way to get a healthy dose of beneficial bacteria into your digestive system. They help improve digestion, may boost the immune system, and are a good source of B vitamins and vitamin K. Besides this, they just taste very good, having more complex flavors than their unfermented counterparts.
Yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi are all commonly eaten fermented foods. They are often sold pasteurized, a process which destroys the beneficial bacteria(along with the bad). This greatly reduces their nutritional benefits, and means they are not probiotic. The best way to ensure you are getting all the probiotic benefits from fermented food is to make them yourself.
Yogurt is one of the most studied and lauded of probiotic foods, and many people try to make it at home to maximize the health benefits. Of course, if you are a vegan you can’t eat yogurt(unless it is soy or almond based), or drink its distant cousin from the Caucasus, kefir. Kefir tastes like yogurt and is similar to yogurt in many ways but its often thought to be more powerful(it has more “biodiversity” I’ve read), and is usually consumed as a milk beverage. Unlike yogurt, kefir is made from kefir grains, a symbiotic mixture of bacteria and yeast which is used to ferment milk into a bubbly kefir milk drink; the kefir grains, which multiply when fed properly can be reused indefinitely for this process. Sometimes kefir grains are called a “SCOBY”, acronym for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast.
Traditionally, kefir grains were only used for fermenting milk, but luckily for us vegans there is a vegan version of kefir. These are called water kefir grains, and just like the milk based version, they are made of a symbiotic complex of beneficial bacteria and yeast(unlike milk kefir, water kefir grains tend to be smaller and more translucent). They can be used to make fruit or spice based drinks, and can even be used to ferment juice. I like to use them to make a fizzy blueberry kefir juice. It sort of tastes like soda but is so much better.
This is how I go about making blueberry kefir juice. You will need:
- 1 half gallon wide mouth glass mason jar with a sturdy plastic lid
- 32 ounces blueberry juice(I used Trader Joe’s because it is 100% pure blueberry juice)
- 1 tablespoon of organic or unsulfured molasses
- Strainer to strain the kefir grains(use plastic or stainless steel, any other metal can cause serious problems)
1) Obtain water kefir grains and make sure they are healthy. Healthy kefir grains tend to be somewhat firm, and sort of look like rock candy. You can order water kefir grains from so many different places online or get them from a kefir enthusiast friend like I did. If you get them in the mail, you will need to rehydrate them in sugar water(unless they are shipped fresh), and they should come with directions for this.
2) Pour blueberry juice into wide mouth jar and add one tablespoon of molasses. Stir very thoroughly. It is important that you do this before adding the water kefir grains, since stirring them can damage them. The molasses provides sugars and important minerals the water kefir grains need to thrive.
3) Add 1 to 3 tablespoons of water kefir grains to the blueberry molasses mixture. Do not stir the grains into the mixture, just let them settle.
4) Cover the jar, preferably with a plastic lid and screw it on tightly. You want to limit the kefir drinks contact with metal as much as possible since it can give the drink a metallic taste or damage the kefir grains. Do not shake.
Strained water kefir grains that were in blueberry juice overnight.
5) Leave the jar in a dark area for 12 to 24 hours, and look at it every now and then to make sure it doesn’t get too bubbly. If it gets too bubbly, quickly open it to release the pressure then close. After waiting for 12 to 24 hours, you can strain out the now reddish-purplish water kefir grains. The kefir is now ready for secondary fermentation.
6) In secondary fermentation, the water kefir grains are removed by straining since by now the blueberry juice should have a significant amount of bacteria and yeast to help continue the fermentation process for another 2 to 3 days. Do not shake.
First fermentation on left, using plastic lid but no airlock. Secondary fermentation on the right. Note the airlock in the photo on the right.
7) Although not absolutely necessary, it may be a good idea to use an airlock(or fermentation lock) to help release CO2 gas from the brewing blueberry kefir. Airlocks keep out oxygen while allowing the release of CO2 gas, and are commonly used by home brewers who make their own beer or wine. I recommend using one because the CO2 pressure can really build during secondary fermentation, so if you don’t have an airlock, don’t leave the lid on too tight, or if you want it to be fizzy, screw on tight and open a few times a day to let out gas. Although it has never happened to me, kefir can cause explosions or the lid may just pop up to the ceiling. This is why it is a good idea to monitor your kefir a few times a day, and use an airlock in secondary fermentation which can pretty much prevent any explosions. This is also why the wide mouth jar should only be filled to no more than 2/3, since any more increases the risk of explosion. Refrigerating the kefir drink during primary or secondary fermentation can also slow down the fermentation, which can help prevent it from exploding. Don’t forget that the fermentation will continue even after the kefir is ready for drinking and even if you only leave a small amount in the refrigerator.
8) After 2 to 3 days of secondary fermentation the blueberry kefir is ready to drink. It should be delightfully fizzy and bubbly as well as sour but still have some sweetness due to the natural sugars and molasses. Depending on how long you ferment it, you may also taste a tiny bit of alcohol, but it is usually no more than 1% alcohol, unless you leave it in secondary fermentation for more than a week(it can become wine-like if left to ferment for weeks). 1% alcohol is acceptable to a teetotaler like me(ripe bananas are often 1% alcohol), and practically harmless for nearly everyone including children. However, I think you should avoid drinking kefir if you’re a recovering alcoholic, or have a liver disease, or you’re pregnant.
The finished product! It was very fizzy, and it does have a mild alcoholic(a little more alcoholic than I thought it would be) taste with some sourness and a little bit of sweetness(not as sweet as I had anticipated). I refrigerated it for a day before I drank it this morning. I removed the lid with the airlock and put the regular plastic lid back on before putting it in the refrigerator.
The taste reminds me a lot of Synergy gingerberry kombucha that is sold in a lot of health food stores – the blueberry kefir tastes more alcoholic, more “juicey” overall, and a bit more sweet.
Keep in mind that it won’t stop fermenting just because it is drinkable. It will continue to ferment even in the refrigerator(I kept mine in the refrigerator for the last day of fermentation to slow it down as I was busy and didn’t want it to ferment too fast before I could drink it), so be careful with it. I keep the blueberry kefir juice in the refrigerator in the same large jar I used to ferment it in. This blueberry kefir juice is a real nutritional powerhouse, and could serve as the ultimate sports drink. It is full of healthful phytochemicals that may speed up exercise recovery, has B vitamins, minerals, and unlike most sports drinks has a good dose of healthy gut bacteria to improve digestion. I will drink a little bit of it before I go for a run today to see if it gives me a boost.
There are so many different ways to try this recipe. You could even skip the secondary fermentation stage if you want, and just leave the kefir grains in the juice for a few days(though it still will be in secondary fermentation the moment you remove the water kefir grains for drinking, even if refrigerated). I don’t recommend skipping this stage, unless you have a significant surplus of water kefir grains that can be disposed of after use. In fact, even if you leave the kefir grains in the blueberry juice for less than a day it can still damage them; this entire recipe may render the kefir grains useless for making any other fermented drinks, so make sure you have a kefir grain surplus first(remember, they multiply when fed right).
Another variant is to simply add a little kefir sugar water(after it has fermented for a day or 2) from the jar you normally keep your water kefir grains in to some blueberry juice or any juice to give it a probiotic boost. This approach will spare the water kefir grains but at the same time its not the same as fermenting blueberry juice as a whole, which gives it such a robust taste.
This is a great resource for so that you can reuse the same kefir grains indefinitely and help them to grow – Encouraging Water Kefir Grains to Multiply
The water kefir grains I used to make the blueberry kefir juice are kept separate from my main water kefir grains. Putting water kefir grains into juice can damage and prevent them from growing, so after doing this I won’t use them to make a kefir juice drink for about a week or so to let them recover, and will store them in their usual sugar water solution.
Water kefir grains are very versatile, so have fun with them but make sure you don’t do anything to permanently damage them. There are so many different ways to make kefir drinks, but don’t stray too far from the directions until you gain experience. Making kefir drinks is a great way to teach children about symbiotic organisms and fermentation. Maybe they could even do a science project about kefir. Making kefir is similar to making kombucha(fermented tea), but I think making kefir is a little less labor intensive than making kombucha. Some people even use water kefir grains for making sauerkraut or sourdough breads.
If you are not used to fermented or probiotic foods, you may feel a great deal of digestive discomfort after drinking this for the first time. So if you are new to this, drink only a small amount. You can get used to it after a week or so. If you are avoiding sugar, keep in mind that much of the molasses sugar in this recipe(and in water kefir sugar water) is converted to lactic acid and alcohol, though it still does contain a significant amount of sugars even in the end product. If this is still too much, then just eat fresh sauerkraut for the probiotic benefits.
If you have any questions or comments, please post.
Happy kefir making!
Some more resources on water kefir:
1) Dom’s Kefir Site
My water kefir grains, the ones that were not in the blueberry juice.