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What is Water Kefir?

Water Kefir: a Ferment to Cultivate a More Eco-Conscious Lifestyle 

Water Kefir (pronounced ‘key-fur’) is one of a clutch of innovative ferments beginning to penetrate the mainstream market. With its promise of improved gut health linked to brain function, this reinvention of an ancient ferment is the new talk of the town. Rowan Watt-Pringle talks to local water kefir champions Happy Culture to find out more about the tantalising possibilities of this ferment.

What is Kefir?

Kefir has been around since ancient times, with most research agreeing that it originated in the northern regions of the Caucasus mountains, between Russia and Georgia, although it remained virtually unknown in the west until the 20th Century. 

In the traditional beverage, cow or goat milk is combined with kefir grains to produce a thick drink packed full of probiotics. Water kefir, though, replaces the milk with sugar water meaning that vegans and others following a dairy-free diet can also enjoy this tasty and healthy soft drink.

But what exactly is a kefir grain? “The grains are colonies of yeast and bacteria which are beneficial to the human digestive system and can be derived from multiple sources,” explains Mark Jones, who co-founded Happy Culture with his partner, Manon Colmant. “Our cultures are chosen to be the most beneficial to one’s health, while also inducing an elegant sensory experience.”

Water Kefir: a Healthy and Responsible Choice

Water kefir adds a twist to the ancient dairy-based ferment, in line with the worldview of many people who have discovered the magic of fermentation. Jones points to water’s hydrating qualities as a major boon, in association with the maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome, while it is often regarded as a healthier alternative to dairy.

As well as providing the overall physical and mental well-being associated with the probiotic benefits of milk-based kefir, for some, the removal of large-scale commercial dairy products from the ferment reflects a more eco-conscious choice of refreshment. “Dairy carries an environmental and ethical weight in today’s world,” says Jones, adding that Happy Culture’s mission is to evolve the world of beverages in line with the evolution of humankind, advocating a plant-based way of life. For those that don’t have access to small-scale, ethically-minded dairy production, water kefir offers a welcome eco-friendly alternative. Happy Culture’s offering also contains added Vitamin B12 (in which Jones says many people are deficient) and ends with zero sugar, ticking another major health box.

“For those that don’t have access to small-scale, ethically-minded dairy production, water kefir offers a welcome eco-friendly alternative”.

Mark Jones – HAppy Culture FOunder

The Benefits of Fermented Beverages

Jones believes that there has been an exciting positive shift in recent years towards greater health consciousness, as more information and awareness has become available. As people have become more aware of the health dangers posed by the high-sugar, artificially-carbonated drinks intrinsically woven into our consciousness through decades of mass marketing campaigns, healthier options have begun to find a foothold in the market, leading to an upsurge in their availability. 

Healthy drink options are now more accessible, tastier and more recognisable than ever. Many people outside the fermenting community are aware of the health benefits provided, for example, by Kombucha. While this tea-based fermented drink has gained popularity, the strong, distinctive taste is an acquired one and may put some people off. Happy Culture’s water kefir is based on natural mineral water (sourced in the Berg River Valley) and apple juice and, in general, the flavour profile of water kefir is lighter and crisper than its better-known counterpart. 

Starting Your Own Ferment

If you’re keen to try your hand at a water kefir ferment, honey or unrefined brown sugar can make for a healthier ferment, while various herbs, fruits and plants offer a range of health benefits. Dandelion, for example, activates liver and kidney cellular metabolism, while coconut water is a fantastic natural isotonic solution. As with any ferment, though, it is sensible to consult an expert about the effect of mixing different herbs and/or plants.

Pretoria-based The Pro Health Shop makes water kefir to order and their website provides tips on how to make your own water kefir, as well as a free downloadable water kefir recipe book to get you started on your homebrew journey.

Looking to the Future

Fermentation is far from a niche industry and is used in multiple sectors globally. In addition to large-scale commercial fermentation, there has been an upsurge in local fermenters, which Jones believes is partly due to a greater understanding about the importance of physical health for longevity and quality of life. “As people look for healthier, more harmonious ways of living, the ancient traditions of fermented food and beverage – alongside plant-based alternatives – are rapidly gaining popularity around the world and South Africans are following suit,” he says.

“As people look for healthier, more harmonious ways of living, the ancient traditions of fermented food and beverage – alongside plant-based alternatives – are rapidly gaining popularity around the world and South Africans are following suit”

Mark Jones

Water kefir certainly offers an elegant and stylish solution for those looking to shift away from unhealthy alternatives and reap the rewards of improved gut health and enhanced well-being. Happy Culture’s founders have poured their life’s passion into fermented beverages because these ferments form a central part of their worldview: “I believe the shift towards healthier lifestyles is not just a short-lived trend, but a movement of the future,” Jones concludes. “We look forward to witnessing – and being a part of – the evolutions to come”.

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