Throwing water on my water kefir
A few years ago I joined a Meetup on sustainability. One of the activities was, for a nominal fee, to learn how to make water kefir. At the time I had never heard of this lovely, probiotic drink. Kombucha was all the rage, but what is this water kefir (pronounced ka-FEER)? So I took a mason jar, my entrance fee, and went to the workshop. I became immediately hooked!
Water kefir contains multiple microorganisms for good gut health like kombucha does, but without the wait. Also, it doesn’t have dairy like the kefir we see in the store. But why isn’t it more commercially available? I decided I might be the one to produce a local water kefir much like other local businesses are producing kombucha.
I worked out a few recipes that I particularly liked, joined some Facebook groups to see what other people are discovering, bought bottles, developed a label, and found a way to barter use of a commercial kitchen. All that was left was approval by VDACS, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Safety.
Water kefir is delicious. It’s healthy. I’m using all organic ingredients. Of course, my product will be approved.
I followed the protocols for VDACS and was informed that because my product is fermented it falls into a category of “acidified foods” which requires further testing to assure safety. They directed me to the food safety lab at Virginia Tech where I took samples for alcohol and shelf-life testing.
The FDA has determined that the acceptable level of alcohol in a product is .5% -- that is it must contain less than half of 1 percent alcohol so as not be further regulated by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC). (Note: all fermented foods or drinks produce some alcohol. Even sauerkraut has alcohol as a -- very! -- minimal by-product.) My water kefir couldn’t possibly be outside the acceptable range, right? After all, I’m not trying to produce an alcoholic product. I’m trying to produce a probiotic product.
If you guessed that it was above .5% you would be right. My lovely, thirst quenching, lime-basil water kefir clocked in at .83% alcohol rendering it above the legal limit for a non-ABC regulated product. Urgggh! Back to the drawing board!
I tweaked my recipe by adding more water, reducing the fermentation time, and reducing sugar, all of which were intended to reduce the alcohol level. The result on round 2? .86%!
The food safety people were sympathetic and suggested a couple of fixes that are unacceptable to me. The first idea was pasteurization. For me that is absolutely out of the question as that means all of those lovely microbes, the sole reason for producing this product, would be destroyed. The second suggestion was to introduce an additive that will halt fermentation such as potassium sorbate. Maybe this would have been a reasonable course of action for some producers, but not for me. I want a pure, unadulterated, probiotic drink.
So, at least for now, I will be producing water kefir for my own enjoyment and incorporating it into my fermentation workshops. It really is a delicious drink and I look forward to sharing a bottle with you one day.
Learn about the production of kombucha, tepache, beet kvass, switchel, and of course, water kefir at one of my fermented beverages demonstrations -- coming soon.