A toast to your health: Because fermented beverages can be nonalcoholic too

Local fermentation fiend Dawn Story’s kefir soda is a light, refreshing beverage. Photo: Elli Williams Local fermentation fiend Dawn Story’s kefir soda is a light, refreshing beverage. Photo: Elli Williams

Fermented things scare a lot of people. Submerged veggies in dubious states of edibility are not exactly as mouthwatering as they may have been in the past, and the staple and tradition of fermented food in the human diet has declined as most of the foods in supermarkets are sterilized, pasteurized, or rendered a-biotic through other means.

With a proliferation of first-world ailments—namely a host of autoimmune disorders—a recent influx of research has focused on how fermented foods benefit gut health, and how a healthy gut might affect overall wellness. The emerging research suggests that maintaining a healthy flora of intestinal bacteria can combat a wide range of maladies, from dermatitis to colon cancer. Fermented foods and beverages, like kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, sour pickles, and water kefir soda, are key sources of healthy varieties of intestinal bacteria that can result in improved overall health.

Dawn Story is a local who has deep appreciation for the tradition of fermentation. Having grown up with homesteading hippies for parents, Dawn learned at an early age about fermentation and both how delicious and healthy ferments can be. She started New Moon Naturals, an herbal tea and tonic company, and found herself helping people the most by prescribing fermented foods as a focal point of a healthy diet. Encouraged by seeing the results of ferments on health, she started Farmstead Ferments, where she produces raw, naturally-fermented foods and drinks by hand. I sat down with Dawn to talk shop, health, and the difference between water kefir soda and kombucha.

Lots of folks are interested in consuming or making fermented foods, but are concerned about the safety of these foods. Are they safe? Any tips for the home fermenter?

By definition, fermented foods are foods that have undergone microbial transformation by various yeasts and bacteria, which produce beneficial acids including lactic acid. It is this high concentration of lactic acid that preserves food by destroying the harmful bacteria, which can decompose food and sometimes make you sick. The USDA has no reported cases of foodborne illness due to fermented foods, probably because E. coli 0157, salmonella, and botulism cannot exist in the acidic environments of properly fermented foods. When fermenting foods at home, you want to process fresh ingredients using clean equipment and provide the proper environment for your brews in terms of time and temperature. Follow recipes but trust your instincts. For example, if it looks like kraut, and it smells like kraut, it is probably kraut. If in doubt, pitch it and try again. Fortunately, most fermented foods are inexpensive to make.

How important are ferments in the human diet? Have you seen ferments make a big difference in the health of individuals you’ve counselled?

Fermentation is about as old as agriculture itself and some fermentation enthusiasts claim that it was the fermentation of grain into alcohol which catapulted humans from a hunter-gather society to an agrarian one. Fermenting foods was a common practice of our ancestors and was frequently how they ate before the advent of chemical preservatives and refrigeration. It was a survival technique used to secure food supplies and maintain community health in harsh living conditions.

Still today, over one third of food eaten is fermented. Think chocolate, coffee, tea, beer, wine, cheese, sour cream, yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, salami. These are some of the world’s most beloved foods! They’ve been around for a long time and remain popular today, yes, due to their intriguing tastes and aromas, but also because I believe we have a natural resonance with them due to their life-enhancing properties. Fermented foods are super-foods. That is, they are loaded with easily assimilated and digested vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids and probiotics. Fermented foods also help us digest the foods they are eaten with, which is why they’re often associated with meats and heavier foods. Indeed, I have witnessed numerous improvements in the health and well-being of my friends and customers reporting improved digestion, enhanced immunity, increased metabolism, clearer skin, and clearer thinking. Modern science is proving more and more what Hippocrates knew all along —that good health starts in the gut!

What is water kefir soda and how is different from kombucha? What does it taste like? 

Water kefir soda is fermented sugar-water while kombucha is fermented sweet tea. It is a light, refreshing and effervescent beverage that can be flavored with a wide variety of fruits and herbs. Right now, we are playing with apples and herbs like hibiscus, nettle, lemongrass and elderberry. The sodas can be found locally at Rebecca’s, and the water kefir starter grains will be available soon. Kombucha enthusiasts who wish to give home brewing a try can pick up a kombucha starter culture at Rebecca’s, Whole Foods, and Fifth Season Garden Supply. Our website lists the many locations to find our krauts and kraut juices.

What’s your favorite fermi-bev this time of year?

Right now, I’m downing a lot of kraut juice shots from summer batches of Salsa Kraut. Pickle juice shots, too. For something more nourishing and filling, I fill a mug with fresh, hot broth, which is always bubbling in our kitchen, and add a shot of Garlicky Greens Kraut Juice. This warming, immune-boosting combo is just the right thing on cold mornings to get the life force going. On special occasions, I like to serve up some gorgeous red hibiscus water kefir soda in my prettiest, vintage glasses. And for brunch, Kimchi Bloody Marys anybody? Just drop a shot of kimchi juice into Bloody Mary mix and boom! It’s easy to enhance any beverage with a blast of probiotic goodness.

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Dave Keays

I know this is late. I hope I’m not to late to get an answer, but here goes; I’m playing with hybiscuss (jamaica) tea with a ginger bug but I have to avoid alcohol myself so I need to know; is there any way to be sure the fermenting process doesn’t go too far and created alcohol? As a note; I proved that I cant control myself once I start drinking by going to a new year’s party to show I could control my drinking. But when I woke-up in the county jail I realized I failed my own test… Read more »