Saturday, 15 August 2015

The microbes are my friends

My search for the perfect pickle has been a long one, full of disappointment, small Polish shops and lots of E numbers. And then, one day, Alex brought home a small packet of Armenian meats (you know, something strung from the back of a saddle to dry as the horse runs), a bottle of something I didn’t know what but it was alive, and a small plastic pot of pickles. I feel like I can still get some mileage out of my pickle story so I won’t say more about them here; but when I found myself drinking all the brine from all the pots, I thought I’d better go see the source* for myself. And sure enough, I came home with a (different) pack of Armenian smoked meats, having tried a pickled tomato (from Russia, delicious) and a little jar of water kefir grains. With no clue as to what they were.

All I knew is that they were responsible for that lovely fizzy stuff we were making pilgrimages to drink. And, I thought, as I’d already managed to turn pineapple skins into alcohol, the beginning of what I’ve recognised to be a certain attraction to big jars of lightly fizzing yellow liquids, why not make my own? So I did and I’m on my second batch, hoping the third will actually be drinkable.

So, if you too are thinking about making these little guys your friends, and I warn you now: it is a friendship that solidifies pretty quickly if not only because once you have them, you'll do anything to keep them from dying on you, here’s what you should know, limited to what I know on the subject (which still isn't much).

The things I now know about water kefir grains

Water kefir grains (tibicos) are small translucent, gelatinous structures made of different bacteria and yeasts that act in symbiosis and maintain a stable culture. They are different to milk kefir. When you feed them with sugar, the grains produce lactic acid, alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is the stuff you drink, flavoured with different fruit of your choosing and, I've found, is served best with ice cubes (the first two, much too sour, batches we made, we added to beer which wasn't so terrific I'd want to do it again, but made it drinkable).

Once the grains have fermented for 48 hours, you drain the liquid from the fruit you've added (throw away) and the grains (save, rinse and start feeding again in a new batch), and store in the fridge which slows the fermentation process. You’ll have made a fuzzy, slightly yeasty, sparkling drink that’s much better than it sounds and, which apparently, is very good for you.

Here’re some cute facts I picked out from all the science:
  • Water kefir grains can become stressed and unhealthy.
  • They know what time of the year it is.
  • You need to feed them. They are living, consuming organisms with a metabolism that will slow down if they’re sitting too long between feedings.
  • You can make them rest (with a bit of water and sugar) in the fridge.
  • They change shape with the temperature.
  • They multiply and so you'll always have to make more.
  • They have preferences and can get tired of what you’re feeding them.
  • Different grains like different things and they’re all unique.

I was recommended to start with sugar, lemon and dried figs but have heard tell of grapefruit, ginger, grape and plum. I'm also eyeing my mangoes that are undergoing a little fermentation of their own accord as I figure all their sugar should satisfy my little jelly friends as it does the flies. 

All you have to watch out for is that everything you add to the grains is organic - so that's the fruit (dried and fresh) and sugar - that you feed them about every 48 hours and that they don't get too cold. Oh, and that you also have real friends to give some to when you have too many.

* More on Thull's later, but for now lots of thanks to Simone van Thull for the grains.


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