Fermented drinks like beet kvass, kombucha, water kefir and REAL ginger ale are not just fun to drink, they're also loaded with probiotics that keep your gut healthy and your immune system working right. Here's the skinny on what they are, why they're so good for you and how to make them. Plus there's LOADS of easy recipes, too.
What are fermented drinks?
Fermented drinks are typically made from fruit juices, herbal infusions, soaked grains, green and black tea that have been allowed to culture or ferment for a period of time. As a result, these drinks are generally a good source of probiotics, beneficial bacteria and yeasts.
Do they contain alcohol?
Brewers ferment some drinks, like wine and beer, specifically for their alcohol content. And others brew ferment drinks, like wild sodas and kvass, for their probiotics.
Accordingly, lightly fermented drinks, like jun tea and water kefir, contain only negligible amounts of alcohol. Most fermented drinks contain less than 1% alcohol by volume, and typically closer to .5%. In other words, that's about the same amount that you'll find in orange juice.
In order to ferment properly, cultured beverages and tonics need a caloric sweetener like sugar, honey or fruit juice. Sugars feed the beneficial microorganisms that are responsible for fermentation. And, without them, your drink won't ferment properly.
As a result, many probiotic drinks still contain a fairly notable amount of sugar.
Are they good for you?
Lightly fermented drinks are an excellent source of beneficial bacteria and yeast that help to support digestive system health. Moreover, each different drink will offer slightly different benefits. And that's because their benefits depend upon the bacteria and yeast used to culture them. Accordingly, the more diverse the bacteria in the starter culture, the more microbiologically rich the drink will be, and the greater benefit you're likely to obtain from drinking it.
Fermented drinks are functional foods (1). That is, they're foods that convey more benefits than providing nutrition alone.
That's primarily because they contain beneficial bacteria. Further, many of them contain fruits, vegetables, herbs and teas which are also high in antioxidants and phytonutrients. In combination, those probiotics and micronutrients, can offer some serious nutrition.
- Fermented foods and beverages support the digestive system (2).
- They may also support liver health (3).
- Probiotic-rich foods and drinks also support oral health, too. (4, 5).
- The probiotics found in fermented foods also play a substantial role in the proper function of the immune system - both in combatting illness and in mitigating autoimmune disease (6).
It's easy to understand why fermented drinks have a substantial role to play in a whole-foods diet. Fortunately, they're really easy to make at home.
Starter Cultures and SCOBYs
If you're just getting started with fermentation, there's a few things you should know. Primarily, most fermented drinks rely on a starter or a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), while others use wild fermentation.
These starters inoculate your sweetened herbal infusion, fruit juice or other substrates with specific bacteria and yeasts that help them to culture safely and effectively.
The Cultured and Fermented Drink List
All fermented drinks use the same, basic method - allowing a drink to culture at room temperature for a few days up to several weeks. However, there's three categories of fermented and cultured drinks, and each category requires a slightly different method.
Fermented Drinks that Use a SCOBY
The result is a slightly acidic, often fizzy drink that's rich in B vitamins and beneficial acids. Brewers make both Jun and Kombucha in open crocks - sometimes with the continuous brew method. Next, after the initial brew, you can add flavorings like spices, fruit or fruit juices to make flavored kombucha.
Water kefir is a traditional fermented drink with deep roots in pre-Columbian Mexico. Like Kombucha and Jun, you need a SCOBY to make it. This SCOBY, called water kefir grains or tibicos, turns sugar water into a bubbly drink. You can also flavor it for recipes like Cherry Water Kefir or this one that uses adaptogenic herbs.
Ginger Bug and Whey Sodas
Ginger bug and whey act as starters, much like SCOBYs do. They give fruit juices and sweetened herbal teas the boost of beneficial bacteria and yeasts they need to make a traditionally fermented brew.
You can use both ginger bug and whey as a starter for other fermented drinks. Homemade herbal root beer, fermented lemonade and this mango soda are fun to make. And fermented berry-ginger sodas are nice too, like this Raspberry Ginger Soda and this version that uses blackberries.
Wild-Fermented Sodas and Tonics
While many fermented drinks depend upon a SCOBY or starter culture to ferment properly, others use wild fermentation. To clarify, they ferment using only the wild bacteria and yeasts that populate your kitchen.
Ready to get started? For fermentation newcomers, it's best to tackle low-investment, simple fermented drinks. So instead of rushing out to buy expensive continuous brew equipment or mother cultures, consider making a simple wild-fermented drink or whey soda.
- Tepache de Piña is great for first-timers.
- Wild Fermented Rhubarb Soda is a breeze to make, too.
- Bread Kvass is also a nice option, too.
- When you're ready, move onto making ginger bug and pick up a kombucha mother or water kefir grains.
Start slowly with probiotic-rich foods and drinks, especially if this is your first time making them. They can upset your stomach if you're not used to them. So, aim for about 4 ounces per day and increase that amount depending on personal tolerance.
Article Citations and References
1) Baschali, A., et al. (2017) Traditional low-alcoholic and non-alcoholic fermented beverages consumed in European countries: a neglected food group. Nutrition Research Reviews.
2) Didari, T., et al. (2015). Effectiveness of probiotics in irritable bowel syndrome: Updated systematic review with meta-analysis. World journal of gastroenterology.
3) Lee, C., et al. (2019) Hepatoprotective Effect of Kombucha Tea in Rodent Model of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease/Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis. International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
4) Twetman, S. & Stecksén-Blicks, C. (2007) Probiotics and oral health effects in children. International Journal of Pediatric Dentistry.
5) Çaglar, E. et al. (2005) Bacteriotherapy and probiotics’ role on oral health. Oral Diseases.
6) Liu, Y., et al. (2018). Probiotics in Autoimmune and Inflammatory Disorders. Nutrients.