What Is Kefir?

Kefir seems to be everywhere! It can be overwhelming to wander through a Whole Foods and navigate your way around all the items you can’t pronounce or have never heard of. My parent’s generation never grew up on these “foreign” fermented beverages. They certainly weren’t seeing them in the grocery stores. But nowadays, it seems like you can get them everywhere, not just specialty stores.

Kombucha is the gateway to kefir:

I’ve since tackled the kombucha world and am totally in love. I make a continuous brew in my home and have now become that annoying person that thinks kombucha heals everything. You’ve got a headache? Drink some kombucha! The IRS is auditing you? You should probably start drinking kombucha. So naturally I encountered kefir. I loved it! I’ve had it in many forms, fruity kefir sodas, kefir yogurt, and kefir floats. I knew I liked it, and I knew it was fermented, but I didn’t have a true understanding of what it really was.

Kefir is referred to as a grain, but it’s not a grain. It’s actually a combination of bacteria and yeast that looks a lot like cauliflower. Kefir is a live culture. Like the SCOBY for kombucha, it needs to feed off of sugar to stay alive. The whole process of making kefir products really intimidated me. I’ve been procrastinating on making my own kefir for a few reasons: I have turned into a fermenting machine and I only have so much counter and fridge space, but also because messing with milk products really freaks me out. I don’t follow expiration dates strictly, but with milk products I do. I can only imagine getting sick from sour milk is the worst.

Dairy-Free vs. Lactose Free:

Another concern of mine was the diary’s effect on my body and others. Dairy and I don’t hate each other but we’re not best friends. I can tolerate cheese, and small doses of cream, but any more milk than that causes discomfort.

When making kefir products on my own, I realized that I needed to make them dairy-free but I wasn’t exactly clear on what dairy free or lactose free meant. This led me down a rabbit whole of dairy free vs. lactose free kefir Internet searching. I’m going to keep is simple and give you a very basic break down of what I learned.

Milk products contain a sugar called lactose, and milk proteins like casein and whey. People who are lactose intolerant don’t produce enough lactase, the enzyme that helps break down lactose. Most products that are labeled “lactose-free” usually still contain milk proteins. People who are allergic to dairy cant have any of it, so reading and understanding labels and ingredients lists are imperative. Most milk kefir products are already 99% lactose free because the yeast and bacteria feed on the lactose and break it down, making it easier for lactose intolerant people to handle.

I needed to figure out a way to make kefir completely dairy free so I started looking up alternative recipes. I discovered that you can make kefir yogurt with almond milk, coconut milk or cashew. To avoid the dairy issue altogether, you can try water kefirs. These are fruit or herb flavored beverages that are fizzy and refreshing. Kefir soda is huge now, and is known as a healthier alternative to regular soda. In my opinion, it tastes better too.

 I’ll just make it myself:

box of kefir starter culture

So how to you get kefir grains? Well you can get them from a friend, like you do with SCOBYs. You can order them online or you can find them at specialty markets. I’m impatient and didn’t feel like waiting to get some from a friend so I walked over to Community Market in Santa Rosa, CA to see what they carried. On their shelves they carry something called kefir cultures. When examining the boxes of cultures side by side, I noticed that they all contained powdered milk. As confused as I was, I was determined to make some of my own as an experiment so I bought some regular organic milk and a box of kefir cultures and headed home. As I began to follow the directions on the back of the box, I opened up the package of culture to find that it is just a powder. It didn’t look anything like the kefir grains I’ve seen online. I followed the instructions and let my jar ferment on the counter for 24 hours. Afterwards, I gave the top of my jar a sniff and sure enough it smelled just like the kefir I buy at the store and the consistency was similar too. However, when I gave it a stir, no grains, nothing to strain out. I was more confused than ever.

mason jar with fermenting kefir

Ask the experts:

I decided it might be time to consult my local kefir specialists at The Kefiry in Sebastopol. When I arrived at the shop, Jennifer Harris, our local fermentation specialist and kefir expert, was busy bottling their Hibiscus kefir soda. As we shared a tasting of fire kefir, made from garlic, peppers, ginger and more secret ingredients, I told her about my kefir making experience and how confused I was. She explained that the cultures I had purchased were basically dried and ground kefir grains with powdered milk that are used as a “one time” inoculate. This method is great to use if you aren’t continuously caring for kefir grains and just want to make kefir now and then.

Tom from the Kefiry holding a glass flask of kefir

When Deana and Tom, owners of The Kefiry arrived, I had more questions. I asked them if they would explain the difference between water kefir and milk kefir and the production process. Deana explained that water kefir grains and milk kefir grains both need to feed off sugar to survive. So when making a milk kefir, the grains have the lactose to eat. But when making water kefir, you have to give the grains some food. Like fruit, honey or any type of sugar, depending on how you want to flavor it. Tom and Deana are advocates for drinking really high quality water and recommend that, “when making a water kefir at home, start with really high quality, alkaline water, rich in minerals. This will keep your grains really healthy.” Once you have your grains and water, you dissolve sugar into it, as well as some fruit and other sugars for added flavor. You then add the grains and ferment for 2-3 days. Kefir is a really short process compared to other fermented products, like kombucha.

I asked Deana and Tom how they got into the kefir making business and their story was quite simple. Deana had taken a kefir making class and started making it at home. Because she is an Ayurvedic practitioner, she started giving water kefir to her clients. Their responses were so positive and her home production began to outgrow her kitchen. Deana and Tom began attending fermentation festivals. At the time, fermented drinks like beer, cider and kombucha were very well represented at these festivals, but water kefir was a fairly new product. People loved Tom and Deana’s water kefir and encouraged them to produce commercially. Then came the birth of The Kefiry.

During my visit, the store was buzzing with loyal shoppers, music and laughter. Locals come in to the store with their empty bottles and mason jars and stock up on more water kefir. The Kefiry has a bottle return program as well as a stamp card offering discounts to their returning customers. For new customers, they offer a flight of tasting to get you familiarized with their beverages. They also make kefir popsicles! Everything that comes out of The Kefiry is gluten-free, dairy-free and delicious!

Deanna and Tom holding bottles of their product at the Kefiry

Visit The Kefiry at 972 Gravenstein Hwy S, Sebastopol, CA 95472 or call (707) 634-4906 for wholesale inquiries.


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