Kefir is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, otherwise known as a scoby. That may not sound like the most enticing thing to have with your breakfast, but when the scoby is used to ferment liquids, it creates a beverage with probiotic benefits that have inspired many Hong Kong residents to have a go at producing it. Probiotics are renowned for improving digestive issues; alleviating skin conditions like eczema; and replenishing ‘good’ bacteria after a course of antibiotics. Rowena Hunt, Wellness Consultant and Yoga Instructor, initially started growing Kefir in 2012 to ease her daughter’s eczema. Rowena now runs regular Kefir workshops and has seen a variety of health benefits in her clients. Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Violet Man, describes Kefir as a complex probiotic, as it contains a number of different ‘good’ bacteria, as well as yeast. Fresh Kefir beverages also contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. Violet notes various studies showing that Kefir can have anti-microbial, anti-tumour, and anti-carcinogenic activity, as well as improving digestive health, controlling cholesterol and blood glucose and influencing metabolism and immune function. In addition to this rather hefty list, Rowena says that her clients often notice a reduction in sugar cravings – which might be reason enough to give it a try!
The Kefir production process is straightforward – instructions can be found online, or through workshops. Ask around and you are bound to find a friend with some Kefir scobys (often called ‘grains’) to spare – their rapid reproduction means excess grains are often frozen in batches to give away. There are also online groups such as Fermenting Hong Kong where you can find people with an abundance to distribute. Once you’ve obtained your grains, it’s largely just a matter of popping them in a cloth-covered jar of your chosen liquid and watching them ‘dance’ for a couple of days – producing a stage one ferment.
The type of liquid you choose for stage one depends partly on the type of grains you have – some are used with milk, others with water (e.g. sugar solutions or coconut water). Milk Kefir can be useful for those that are lactose intolerant but dislike other milk substitutes, as Violet explains that “during Kefir making, the bacteria partly break down lactose into lactic acid, which people with lactose intolerance are more likely to tolerate.” Rowena prefers to use water Kefir grains and rotates between different types of sugar solutions (maple sugar, coconut sugar etc) and plain coconut water. “I think that by rotating the way you ferment the grains they remain ‘happier.’ If the grains have stopped dancing, or growing, it’s invariably the lack of rotation that’s the issue.” Other pitfalls in the process include temperature fluctuations causing slow growth, mould formation, ‘slimy’ Kefir caused by carbon filtered water, and over-fermentation. Despite the apparent simplicity of the process, online help pages are awash with Kefir production problems – it’s important to do your research thoroughly and be prepared to experiment.
Once stage one is complete, the grains are sieved out and the remaining liquid can be drunk as it is – milk Kefir has a slightly sour, yoghurt-like taste. Alternatively, a stage two fermentation can then be undertaken, by adding fruits or spices, then sealing in a bottle for another two days to create a fizzy probiotic beverage. Sai Kung mum, Ellen Hobson, discovered Kefir around four years ago, “when faced with the personal challenges of atopic dermatitis and skin sensitivity exacerbated by Hong Kong’s humidity.” Ellen was told that regularly taking a probiotic might be helpful. She’s been brewing her own water Kefir beverages since 2014 and feels it has made a noticeable difference to her skin health − minimizing eczema and rosacea flare-ups. “My favourite water Kefir drink is a ginger beer-type blend where a slice of ginger is added in stage two. A pineapple blend has a classic dacquiri-type flavour.” Ellen stresses the importance of ‘burping’ the sealed bottles during stage two though, to release the pressure. She explains that, “Kefir is absolutely a probiotic powerhouse! We were woken one night by a mini explosion when a stage two ferment (ignored for several days) erupted – leaving slivers of glass strewn across our floor – thankfully there was no one in the vicinity.”
Explosions are probably the main risk in Kefir production (burp those bottles people!), but it is also important to note that Kefir is not suitable for everyone. Violet cautions that people taking certain types of medication for depression or Parkinsons need to maintain a low tyramine diet, and the high tyramine levels in fermented products like Kefir can have dangerous side-effects. Tyramine can also cause headaches, so migraine-sufferers should use caution. Those with peptic ulcers, pancreatitis or reflux, or patients taking immunosuppressant medications should avoid Kefir. Rowena recommends that anyone new to Kefir “start with just a shot glass for the first few days, see how they go, then maybe do two shots a day, eventually working up to a tumbler. You can then have as much as you want.” Having too much, too soon, can lead to headache, diarrahoea, gas and bloatedness. However, “most people find it just takes a few weeks to regulate, then everything returns to a place of comfort.”
The fact that Kefir contains yeast, sugar and alcohol should also be considered by prospective producers. The length of fermentation will influence the sugar and alcohol levels, as will the type of liquid and the flavours used – typically alcohol is around 1-2 per cent. The benefits that children may get from drinking Kefir might outweigh any concerns regarding sugar and alcohol content. Violet notes that in addition to the well-stated probiotic benefits, Kefir has also been shown to be useful with ADHD and sleep disorders, as it can have a slight sedative effect. Using Kefir with babies is not recommended – Rowena feels their developing digestive tracts don’t need added interference prior to the introduction of solid foods. Violet feels that introducing it to toddlers would be safe, many online resources concur. Regardless of what age your family is, always sterilise glass jars/bottles thoroughly and avoid using metal implements. It’s also important to sniff Kefir before consumption – the smell will indicate immediately if a batch has gone awry.
If you feel your family could benefit from the introduction of Kefir then getting the kids on board is going to be vital. Rowena’s advice is to “make it really fun and colourful − lots of fruit floating in the bottle − and get them involved in choosing which fruit flavours for the stage two ferment.” Ellen hides her Kefir water in ice-lollies and smoothies so the children don’t even know it’s there. Milk kefir can be used on breakfast cereal, in soups, dressings, smoothies – recipes abound. Adding Kefir to your family’s diet can certainly be beneficial – and we all know that growing bacteria in Hong Kong is no problem – so if you think Kefir is right for you, grab a jar and get fermenting!