In the same week that Putin annexed Crimea my home-made kvass detonated. Kvass, a typical Russian beverage, entails soaking dark rye bread in water overnight, straining the juices, adding sugar and leaving it to ferment. The recipe I used was a more modern interpretation of this ancient beverage and called for the addition of cultivated, packaged yeast and not the traditional sourdough starter. This combination – rather like modern Ukrainian-Russian relations – was explosive.
We were away on holiday so thankfully no one got hurt. Had someone been standing next to our fridge they would almost certainly have been seriously injured or worse. The build up of carbon created by the mixture of sugar and cultivated, packaged yeast tore the glass apart at high velocity, which in turn forced the fridge door open and out shot small, sharp shards of glass. Every available surface area in the immediate vicinity was covered in a sickly brown liquid. Our Ukrainian baby-sitter, alone in the stillness of her bedroom above the kitchen and already nervy about events in her home country, got the fright of her life!
It’s not like I hadn’t been warned. Just about every post on fermented tonics begins with a caution – put this drink in a plastic bottle to test resistance. I had put it in a glass bottle – doh! Release pressure once a day. We’d gone off on holiday – doh! Leave in the fridge to slow down fermentation! Hold on, I had done that! It had not slowed down the fermentation. Do not seal the bottle! Hadn’t done that either. The lid was sitting loosely on the bottle neck precisely to prevent the build up of pressure inside the bottle and to release carbon. Further, the glass bottle was less than a quarter full. I had drunk most of it so thought there wouldn’t be a problem. There was.
The oxygen loving yeasts (in the absence of their traditional partners (LABs) who put a break on their exuberance) had worked their magic and produced enough gas to turn my innocent enough looking bottle into an improvised explosive. Luckily for us Iryna wasn’t standing anywhere near the fridge when the moment came for the energy to be released. Iryna cleaned up all the mess and closed the fridge door so that by the time we returned, other than one missing bottle, the kitchen looked like nothing had gone amiss. We owe her a big thank-you!
A cautionary tale to begin my piece on sour tonics – ditch your instinct to use pretty, traditional glass bottles. Use plastic bottles instead!
Tonics are not the same as alcoholic beverages
Fermented beverages can be divided into meads, wines and ciders (those that ferment the available sugars into alcohol); lager, pils and ales (those that ferment sugars in fermented grains into alcohol); and komboucha, kvass, ginger beer and water kefir those that ferment added sugars into effervescent, low-alcoholic tonics. This blog post is on the later.
They are not the same as the bitter tonic we have come to assume is the only tonic on offer today – as in the quinine based bitter-sweet beverage frequently mixed with gin. In fact sour (as opposed to bitter) tonics used to be far more common than the single bitter tonic that has come to dominate today’s soft dinks markets. The demise of sour tonics can probably be traced back to the “war on bacteria” policy which requires the elimination of all microbes (even the good ones) and the rise and rise of soft drinks flavoured with artificial syrupy sugars, artificial flavourings and artificially produced pressurised carbon. The combination of the war on bacteria and the steady rise of patented artificial flavourings and fake sugars all but destroyed traditional effervescent tonics.
Traditional home-made tonic fermentation: water, whole cane sugar, fruit and or herbs, or tea plus a SCOBY
Traditional tonics are typically associated with one country or region. Thus, ginger beer is forever associated with the British Isles from where it spread to the Caribbean, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; kvass is associated with eastern Europe and Russia where the modern version is still widely drunk today; tipicos (often referred to as water kefir) is said to originate in Mexico; and komboucha is associated with either China or Russia. I have written elsewhere about the origins of these drinks but want to discuss here the different ways of preparing them and contrasting them with more modern methods.
There is no doubt that kvass, komboucha, tipicos and ginger beer all taste the most refreshing and delightful when fermented with a SCOBY. These unique colonies of yeast and bacteria, living harmoniously in a symbiotic relationship, gift all those who consume these drinks millions, if not trillions, of beneficial micro-organisms that the body can easily assimilate. If you’ve only ever tried commercial soft drinks it is impossible to compare the natural flavours of traditional home-made tonics to that of the modern fakes.
Traditional sour tonics require water, whole cane sugar and a SCOBY – but differ in what mediums they thrive in. Thus, for example, komboucha thrives best in sugared black tea, water kefir is happiest when living alongside other fruit such as figs, pomegranates or apricots, the ginger beer plant survives on a diet of fresh ginger and lemon juice and kvass relies upon a sourdough SCOBY to kick-start the fermentation process
In an initial phase the wild yeasts living in the SCOBY will consume the carbohydrates present in the liquid thereby releasing alcohol and carbon. For their part the LABs living alongside the wild yeasts consume the alcohol (which explains why these fermented drinks are, initially at least, not as alcoholic as wine) and excrete lactic acid thereby lowering the ph. level of the drink.
Away from tonics, we see a similar phenomena occurring with sourdough bread making. When working symbiotically with LABs it can take the wild yeasts in a sourdough loaf up to eight hours to leaven the bread. The wild yeasts will make your bread rise – sometimes too high in the summer – but it takes longer than when cultivated yeasts leaven bread in the absence of their symbiotic partner the LABs. Does it matter? Yes. The slow fermentation allows enzymes, LABs and yeasts to alter the flavour, texture and nutritional value of the grain being consumed.
Which is why whether in bread making or the preparation of effervescent tonics the happy union between these two ancient fermentative microbes delivers the ultimate result in terms of taste but also in terms of pro-biotic diversity. Those who regularly drink naturally soured tonics can be assured they are consuming plenty of naturally occurring wild, beneficial yeasts and LABs. The whole cane sugar or honey will ensure that the kids are drinking a perfectly natural beverage without the addition of fake sugars, artificial colourings and phoney fruit or herb flavourings.
Tonics fermented with a SCOBY are a veritable eco-system of live beneficial bacteria consisting of natural wild yeasts and LABs and are a great way to replenish, feed and spoil the human biome.
As we have seen elsewhere SCOBYs require a certain amount of care and attention in order to keep going – the kind of care and attention only a home cook or small artisanal brewer is capable of showering them with. The cold sterility of a factory premise will ultimately crush these beauties. SCOBYs are creatures of the home kitchen. Take them out of this environment and they will soon become too home-sick to perform their fermentative tricks.
Aware of the complexity of maintaining these unique and unusual cultures those wishing to make big profits from the fizzy drinks industry have abandoned the traditional way of preparing these delightful sour beverages all together. The proprietor of a factory will look for efficiencies, short-cuts, profitability and economies of scale. How can a living SCOBY fit in with this line of thinking? It can’t. It has to go and alternatives found.
To save on costs the modern soft drink industry has, arguably, initiated one of the most tragic of all initiatives in modern food preparation. They effectively decapitated a perfectly balanced, stable, harmonious and working relationship. By inventing and patenting methods to cultivate yeasts one partner in the symbiotic relationship was completely eliminated from the equation. The LABs were discarded, whilst the other micro-organisms – the little beauties that turn the beverage fizzy, were maintained in the form of cultivated, not wild, yeasts. To recall, prior to the patenting and invention of packaged yeasts these microorganisms could not, indeed would not, be separated from their symbiotic partners the LABs.
From hence forward yeasts only would perform the task of fermenting the beverage, whilst LABs would be eliminated from the equation. Most modern recipes for fermented, effervescent tonics still call for the addition of packaged yeast and sugar rather than the SCOBY – as, indeed, was the case with the kvass recipe I followed with such explosive effects.
One can see the logic of relying upon cultivated, packaged yeasts as opposed to wild yeasts symbiotically fused to complex LABs. It’s cheaper, more efficient, does not require, like a new born baby, endless feeding and pampering. Dried yeasts can be stored indefinitely with little risk of contamination. From a commercial point of view it makes perfect sense. From a nutritional point of view it is short changing all those who drink the beverage.
At a later stage the soft drinks industry discarded the yeasts in favour of a pump capable of pouring artificial carbon dioxide into the brew. Why bother with either yeasts or LABs when there’s an industrial pump to hand that can inject fake carbon into the fake isoglucose, fake cherry-flavoured cocktail.
Use of fake carbon, fake sugars and fake flavourings has deceived us all (initially at least) into believing we’re drinking something refreshing, replenishing and delightful. For those who’ve wakened up to the fact that this is not the case many of the traditional recipes and methods – indeed SCOBYs – have been lost. We have to figure out, largely through guess work and scouring old anecdotal sources, how to make these sour tonics at home like they used to be.
No where is this suggestion more evident that in the peculiar tale of the lost Ginger Beer Plant.