KEFIR IS A drink that I first encountered while I was on holiday in the United States last year. I was walking from my accommodation in the suburbs of Boston into the heart of the city and needed a snack to keep me going. I popped into a deli on the side of the road and wandered around trying to find something new and interesting to try. Given the heat wave that was burning up the USA at that point of the summer, something cold was way more appealing than an energy bar or a bag of pistachio nuts, so attracted by the cold air, I started gazing through the fridges.
I noticed a shelf full of one-litre bottles of kefir, a product that was new to me but seemed to be some kind of fermented drinking yoghurt. This stuff looked to be just what I needed – it was ice cold, cost only three dollars and was loaded with protein and those healthy probiotic cultures I like so much.
I paid for a bottle of the blueberry flavoured version and got back on the road, pausing only to take a massive swig. I quite liked the taste, which was simultaneously sweet and tart, with a background tang of sour milk that had been left in the sun too long, but that didn’t bother me at all.
Along with kombucha, kefir became a staple for me for the next few months while I was on the road. Most mornings, I’d make a plan to find a Trader Joe’s, a whole foods market, a health shop or even better, a Safeway supermarket (where my Safeway card usually offered big savings on the kefir produced by Lifeway). I’d grab a bottle of kefir (and a bottle of kombucha if they had any), a punnet of blueberries, a couple of apples or nectarines and a muffin or a cookie, and I was sorted for snacks and power food for the day.
Being quite thick, the kefir stayed cool in my backpack all day long and I’d generally glug it down in four sessions. I got into the habit of buying the unflavoured type, because like most yoghurts, the flavoured versions are full of added sugar – plain has 11 grams of carbs per 240ml but flavoured has 21 grams per 240ml – that’s over 80 grams per bottle, and who needs that? Both versions have 14 grams of protein per 240ml, and protein is just what I needed given that I was walking all day and then working out at night.
The taste of the unflavoured version is much harsher than the sweeter sugar-laden variants, tasting more like sour milk than modern drinking yoghurt, but I found that I didn’t mind it at all (bear in mind that I grew to love the taste of the harshest kombucha I could find, so I’m pretty rugged when it comes to taste buds).
What is Kefir?
So after all that, what is kefir?
It’s a fermented milk drink, but there is also a lesser-known water kefir variant (more on this later). It’s popular in Europe, which means it’s widely available in the USA because the waves of immigrants hitting the States from Europe over hundreds of years have brought their tastes and preferences along with them. I had no hassle finding kefir from NYC to California and all points in between.
Kefir apparently originated in the Northern Caucasus region of Russia, created by shepherds who noticed that the milk they carried in leather pouches would sometimes ferment into a carbonated drink.
With traditional domestically produced kefir, grains are used to promote the fermentation process; these kefir grains are produced when kefir is made and are effectively a combination of bacteria and yeasts – they resemble tiny pieces of cauliflower. These days in the modern factory production environment, kefir is made by adding bacteria and yeast to milk, which allows the taste and texture to be carefully controlled. When it’s made domestically with grains however, the end result can vary depending on the conditions, type of grain, etc. which is fine for domestic use but not so good when supplying a product to consumers.
Why is kefir healthy?
Like any yogurt, kefir contains beneficial probiotic organisms (friendly bacteria, the kind you want in your gut) but kefir has a greater variety of these organisms in it – most fermented dairy products contain from one to three organisms, while kefir contains heaps. Because kefir is fermented for longer than yoghurt, it also contains greater outright quantities of them.
These probiotic organisms are great for improving digestion and for helping with lactose intolerance issues. Because probiotic organisms compete with pathogens in the body for nutrients, they’re also very helpful for generally boosting the immune system by dominating pathogens. That just has to be a good thing considering how easily doctors prescribe antibiotics – logic tells us that it’s far better to avoid getting sick in the first place by being as healthy as possible.
Kefir is an excellent food for people who are already on antibiotics, because the beneficial probiotics help replenish the body’s good bacteria, which can be decimated by the powerful shotgun effects of the antibiotics. Kefir also contains beneficial yeasts, which help to control bad yeasts in the body. This explains why kefir is also known for controlling candida, which is a type of yeast.
Kefir reduces flatulence, which may well be the major driver for some folks. Dairy based kefir is lower in lactose than most dairy foods and is a well-balanced food (at least the ones that aren’t loaded with added sugar), so it can make an excellent addition to any healthy, non-vegan diet. Even the sugary ones are okay if you’re not clobbering a litre a day like I was.
Kefir in NZ
After getting back to NZ, I found that I was missing my daily kefir but much to my dismay, I searched through the aisles of the local supermarkets in vain. There were plenty of yoghurts but nary a bottle of kefir in sight.
A quick look around the Web showed that no one seems to be producing kefir for sale in supermarkets or even in health stores in NZ. Fortunately, there were heaps of options to buy kefir grains to make it at home.
Because I was more focused on getting my home-brewed kombucha production up to speed, I put kefir on the back burner, and by the time I was ready to get started, I was heading into my less-dairy phase (as discussed here), which made dairy-based kefir something of a no-no.
While kefir can apparently be brewed with soy or rice milk, I read about water kefir, which is much the same thing as regular kefir but it’s made using water, sugar, dried fruit and grains that are specific to water, not milk. The end result is a fizzy, fermented kefir drink that resembles a soda – this sounded like a good way to get kefir’s beneficial nutrition without the dairy.
Rule #1 of home-made kefir is “No grains, no Kefir”, so I did a bit of searching online and ordered some water kefir grains from a local website. A day later, I received a small bottle containing some strange-looking white grains soaking in sugar water, along with a couple of pages of notes, tips and a recipe.
The brewing process is practically foolproof.
Rinse the grains in running water, pop them into a jar or bottle with some sugar, lemon pieces and a few raisins and leave it to bubble away for 24-48 hours depending on the ambient temperature. It’s ready when the lemon and raisins float to the surface.
Then you remove the grains and the fruit, bottle the liquid and leave it to ferment through the secondary fermentation phase for a couple more days. Then chill and drink. It couldn’t be simpler and it’s certainly quicker and easier than brewing kombucha at home.
My first batch of water kefir is now in the secondary fermentation phase and should be ready to drink in a day or so (assuming of course that it doesn’t blow up while I’m at work – CO2 buildup can be problematic). The next batch is made immediately following the first, so all going well, I’ll basically have a continuous stream of water kefir on the go, and because the grains expand with each batch, I can start using the extra grains to experiment with different flavours or to give to friends who want to try making their own water kefir at home.
Taste impressions to follow…
It strikes me that I’m onto a good thing here – with masses of kombucha being brewed in the kitchen and lots of water kefir fermenting away, my probiotic needs are pretty much taken care of. Or at least they will be once I get into making home-made sauerkraut, which is also packed to the brim with probiotics (and fibre and all the good things found in cabbage and other veggies). Then I’ll get back into making my special vegan kimchi and I’ll be living in the most probiotically powered-up house in NZ. ASHLEY KRAMER