Beyond Kombucha: The Fizzy, Healthy World of Fermented Drinks

Probiotic-packed beverages are popping up all over the place.

(Photo: GT's Kombucha/Facebook)

Sep 10, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“Drinks that contain all sorts of good-for-you ingredients like probiotics are becoming much more of a presence at supermarkets. What can you tell me about them?

—Jonathan Richards

“The beverage industry is the single most important market for natural and botanical ingredients,” announced Euromonitor International in a 2013 trends and influences piece, and it was right on target. Stevia sweeteners are an early example of what the publication meant, and these days, you’ll find all sorts of highly touted “natural” ingredients in everything from ready-to-drink teas and “enhanced” water to fermented dairy beverages and even sports and energy drinks.

One of the most distinctive brands is one you’ve probably never heard of: Shoro, which is made from animal fat and wheat. It was created by the late Tabyldy Egemberdiev, who drew inspiration from the nomadic heritage of Kyrgyzstan and became the largest nonalcoholic beverage retailer in Central Asia.

These beverages all fall under the umbrella of so-called functional drinks—what the Persistence Market Research blog defines as nonalcoholic ready-to-drink beverages that include nontraditional ingredients. “Some of the most common ingredients found in functional drinks include herbs, minerals, vitamins, amino acids and some additional raw fruits or vegetables,” a analysis and forecast of the industry reads. “The trend toward healthy lifestyle and disease prevention, coupled with rising health care costs, are some of the major drivers of the global functional drinks market.”

“North America is the largest market for functional drinks and is still having a healthy growth rate,” the blog continues. “It is followed by Europe, where demand from Germany and the U.K. is boosting the market and expected to boost the growth rate further in coming years. Asia Pacific is the fastest growing market of functional drinks. Demand from the Chinese and Japanese market is fueling the growth of the market in this region. India is expected to be one of the fastest growing markets in the Asia Pacific region with a growth rate in double digits in the coming years.”

No wonder companies like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, two of the major companies operating in the global functional drinks market, are diversifying: Soda is so last century compared with more interesting, often healthier (gotta watch the sugar) alternatives available today. Here are some popular options.

Kombucha

This is sweetened black or green tea fermented by what fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz calls “a very interesting community of microorganisms.” As he explains in The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes From Around the World, those microorganisms are referred to as a kombucha mother or SCOBY (symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast). Kombucha is often called “mushroom tea,” because during fermentation, the bacteria and yeast form a mass that looks like a mushroom cap.

You can drink kombucha plain or flavored with fruit or herbs; depending on the kind of tea used and how long it’s allowed to ferment, it can range in flavor from pleasingly sweet-sour to sharp and vinegar-like. Kombucha is rich in probiotics if it’s raw (unpasteurized), and it contains B vitamins and antioxidants as well as some alcohol that results from the fermentation process.

I haven’t had the opportunity to taste a wide array of commercially made kombuchas, but two brands I like are Health-Ade and GT’s. Both organic raw brews have nice effervescence, a (surprisingly) low sugar content, and flavors that enhance, not conceal, the drink’s signature tartness. Kombucha is also simple and economical to make at home, although stringent sanitary conditions are a must; there are a number of how-to blogs and videos online, as well as home-brewing kits. Be aware that DIY kombuchas vary in alcohol content and may approach the amount that is in beer.

Dairy Kefir

Kefir (ka-feer) is a great excuse for a romp through Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, by the erudite (and vastly entertaining) culinary historian Anne Mendelson. By the 20th century, kefir, which may be as ancient as yogurt, had come to Russian cities from the Caucasus, where it had probably been made with cow, goat, or sheep milk, depending on what was convenient. “Part of the fascination is that, unlike yogurt bacteria, the starter itself is visible to the naked eye,” wrote Mendelson, describing it as “small whitish irregular blobs clustered into an irregular mass.

“The kefir ‘grains’ contain all the operative microorganisms, ready to flourish together symbiotically in the milk and turn it into a pleasantly sour beverage of gentle fizziness and a slight alcoholic kick,” she continued.

Commercially made kefir, which may also be called milk kefir, has been retooled to stop fermentation and may be sold in “gussied-up, highly sweetened versions surrounded by nutritional hype and augmented with faddish ‘nutriceuticals’ such as the complex sugar called inulin.” To experience the real thing, however, “you’re best advised to seek a source of kefir grains.” You can find them through Cultures for Health and other online sources. Dairy kefir is extremely versatile in the kitchen, by the way: Try it in smoothies, salad dressings, mashed potatoes, and creamy soups.

Water Kefir

Like dairy kefir, water kefir is fermented with bacteria and yeasts, but while dairy kefir grains metabolize the natural sugars in milk, water kefir grains (aka tibicos or Japanese water crystals) need additional sugar or fruit juice to get up to speed.

Kvas

Also known as kvass or kwas, this traditional nonalcoholic fermented drink, which is crisp and malty in flavor, originated in Russia and is typically made from dark rye bread or beets. In April, Dutch brewer Heineken made news by gearing up production of bread-based kvass in four factories across Russia. The company is using spare capacity owing to a slump in Russia’s beer market. Russian brands available in the U.S. include Granary Land (Khlebny Krai) and Nicola. An American producer who hews to traditional methods is Beaver Brewing in Pennsylvania.

Whey Soda

Where’s there’s a will, there’s whey, the cloudy liquid byproduct of cheese- and yogurt-making. The two wheys differ, as the food critic Jeffrey Steingarten (who is also erudite and vastly entertaining) points out in the July 2014 issue of Vogue. Cheese, or sweet, whey contains enough milk fat to make whey butter and enough protein to create ricotta. Yogurt, or acid, whey “contains mainly acidity and a good amount of lactose,” and because there are thousands of gallons produced every week by yogurt makers in the Northeast, New Yorkers are awash in the stuff. The Brooklyn-based father-and-daughter team behind White Moustache—a fabulous yogurt that has serious cult cred here—also sells probiotic whey that comes plain or flavored with ginger or honey and lime, and various creative chefs and home cooks are transforming whey into all manner of intriguing drinks. Yogurt whey is also known as sour whey; it’s absolutely delicious served plain over ice, with a pinch of salt and crushed dried mint.