Kombucha and water kefir — cultures that create community

Gillian Kerr has been keen on natural medicine and healthy eating for a long time. However, kombucha and water kefir (the non-dairy version of milk kefir) have become a big part of her life over the last couple of years. Gillian’s introduction to fermentation and canning was through her good friend Angie Evans, who trained Gillian and a handful of others when she moved from Regina to Edmonton a few years ago.

Mature kombucha
Mature kombucha. Photo courtesy Michael Garten

Kombucha, when purchased in-store, can be quite expensive. On average, one bottle costs around five dollars, so for those who really enjoy fermented drinks, there is a huge cost savings to making batches at home. 

Over the course of a morning, Angie taught Gillian and her friends how to can, and into the afternoon, they tackled fermentation. Although they left armed with the knowledge to make a variety of items, Gillian has specifically continued to make kombucha and water kefir. Of the 10 people who participated in that day’s workshop, Gillian is the only one who continues to make the beverages on a regular basis. It’s not due to difficulty, or for a lack of trying or want on the others’ part — the fermentation process requires a bit of babying. Lengthy periods away from home can get in the way of the process, and if not cared for, the cultures used to make the drinks die off, so they have to be nurtured like a pet.

Both drinks are fermented probiotic beverages that can be ingested in their natural forms or mixed into other drinks like smoothies or cocktails. Because of the fermentation process, the drinks become carbonated and are great alternatives to sodas. Plus, the drinks can be flavoured according to each person’s preference. The period of renewal for each drink is different though. Water kefir can be made from start to finish within four to five days versus the typical two weeks for kombucha.

While there are not a lot of peer-reviewed pieces of literature to support the evidence of the health benefits of kombucha, it has been said to have anti-cancer and digestive properties. Overall, both beverages are believed to help general human illness because the ingredients found in the drinks work to improve the immune system.

Gillian now makes kombucha and water kefir in larger batches, sharing the drinks with those she knows. It has become her own little contribution to her community, and every two to three weeks, friends bring their bottles back to her for refills. Should anyone want to start brewing again themselves, Gillian also usually has some water kefir kernels and kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) on hand to pass along. 

Water Kefir Grains
Water kefir grains. Photo courtesy Simon A. Eugster

The Local Good fields a handful of questions each year about learning to make kombucha or where to find SCOBY. Gillian’s volunteer work with the Blue Dot Movement put her on TLG’s radar, and the opportunity to have her teach a workshop at the 2016 Edmonton Resilience Festival seemed like a natural fit.

During the workshop, Gillian plans to have enough water kefir grains on hand for everyone to start the water kefir right away. She also keeps more SCOBY on hand than she needs — a SCOBY hotel as she called it — to help others who want to make their own kombucha, but likely will pass those along on an individual basis, if people reach out to her after the class. Those who attend the workshop can expect to learn the differences between kombucha and water kefir, where these drinks come from and why they are considered useful, the ingredients and supplies needed, as well as what to do and what not to do when it comes to making both. Participants will leave with an understanding of how these drinks are made, access to the starters for both, and support from Gillian as they move forward with their journey in fermentation. Curious about other fermentation techniques? Jana Sacco is also teaching the art and science of fermentation at the 2016 festival.

Gillian said she knows that a lot of people love workshops like these, and she realizes that buying similar products at the store adds up, so having the ability to sustain oneself and develop your own healthy food and/or drink is very appealing. This is why she wanted to take part in the Resilience Festival; she’ll be able to have greater reach to the public.

Her workshop is taking place in the upstairs kitchen at Boyle Street Plaza on May 1, 2016, during the Edmonton Resilience Festival (and tickets are still available!). Unable to make it in person? Gillian suggested this water kefir recipe by Wellness Mama, and how to make kombucha tea by the Kitchn.