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Kefir, Kombucha and The Other Mother

By Caroline Johnson
kombucha-bottles   This discussion is a followup to Liridona Duraku’s recent article entitled, “The Power of Fermented Foods.” Popular among the health conscious community is not just the consuming fermented foods, but also trying a hand at the fermentation process at home. Thanks to an increase in reference materials, blogs and companies that provide right tools for the trade,  the practice of fermentation is being made easier than ever. In efforts to further assist our readers in their own art of home fermenting, we thought it might be helpful to provide some information about three of the most popular foods to ferment at home: kefir, kombucha and mother of vinegars*.
Kefir, kombucha and MOVs are all examples of complex cultures that cause the process of fermentation, or turning naturally found sugars into ethanol, carbon dioxide (CO2) various beneficial acids, vitamins and probiotics.  Though different in the exact type of bacterias present in their makeup, both Kefir and kombucha are considered to be a SCOBY, or a Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. MOVs are different in that they do not contain yeasts to cause fermentation, but only bacteria and thus do not produce any CO2.
These three Cultures also differ in their origins and preferred sugar sources. Kefir is said to have originated in the Caucasus Mountains region (located in Eurasia between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea) and is most often brewed in cow’s milk, though non-dairy milks, juices or even water with the addition of sugar can also be used. Kombucha has its origins based in northeastern Asia and Japan, and requires sweetened tea in the recipe. Distilled vinegar was popular for a multitude of health benefits in the Middle Ages and the word “Vinegar” originates from French, meaning “Sour Wine.” The term points to the alcoholic liquids used in making it, though using a MOV to ferment apple juice, as in the case of apple cider vinegar, is very common.
Another distinction between these bacteria is the feeding schedule each need to ferment properly. Kefir grains (named for their cluster-like appearance) will complete the fermentation process in approximately 24 hours, and require a regular feeding of fresh milk every two days, otherwise they suffer neglect and starve. A kombucha SCOBY and a MOV on the other hand, take at least 2 weeks to finish the process, and are perfectly content being left alone inside a dark and warm environment such as a cupboard, to grow and ferment.
Kefir, kombucha and MOVs are all interesting and exciting ways to practice the art of fermenting at home. The details regarding how to grow these bacteria and benefit from their mysterious and wonderful work is much more than can be discussed in this short overview. Sourcing a starter for any of these bacteria can be found various places, but here are a a couple helpful resources to get started on brewing kefir, kombucha or vinegar at home:

A comprehensive website which provides great discussions on kefir, kombucha and MOVs, as well as community supported forums, recipes and helpful videos.

Supporting the DIY market, this site sells a large variety of cultures, starter kits and other necessary materials for at home brewing.

* in this article the discussion of the mother of vinegars refers to the bacteria community that is used to ferment liquids in order to produce vinegar, and will be called a MOV.