life, Plants and Herbs

Reskilling: Learning to Brew (and how it almost shot my partner)

Hello!

I haven’t updated in a while — it hasn’t been for lack of material, either. As we move into spring, I’ve been working on planting my balcony, developing new skills, and seeking out more connections. It’s the time of year for planting seeds in the anticipation for growth, and I feel it.

Anyway. You’re probably wondering about the title, so here goes: I’ve been making tibicos, also known as water kefir. This is a kind of probiotic beverage that’s made from granules that naturally develop on Opuntia cacti. These are essentially a SCOBY, kind of like kombucha, in a sort of gummy polysaccharide matrix. The balance of bacteria and yeast is quite a bit different, however, yielding an end product with a very different taste and bouquet of probiotics. Also, unlike kombucha, water kefir grains form little clear to beige squishy lumps instead of a mushroomlike “pancake.”

So, the process of making water kefir goes like this:

  1. Boil some filtered water.
  2. Add sugar. I usually use a half cup or so for a half gallon jar.
  3. Make sure the sugar’s dissolved.
  4. Let it cool.
  5. Add the kefir grains.
  6. Cover the jar with a piece of cloth or loose-fitting lid.
  7. Wait 36-48 hours.
  8. Strain the liquid into a bottle (save the strained-out kefir grains).
  9. Add juice, crushed fruit, spices, or whatever you want the final flavor to be.
  10. Cover the bottle with a cap, or one of those fancy swing-top corky deals.
  11. Let it sit on the counter for another 24 hours. Burp it occasionally.
  12. Put it in the fridge.
  13. Enjoy.

Note the part that says “burp it occasionally” in bold letters. This is extremely important.

I’ve been working with a flavor blend that my partner and I really like. It’s about a half-cup to a cup of tart cherry juice and a cinnamon stick, in a 32-ounce swing-top fermentation bottle. There’s only one problem: It’s been very warm here, and cherry juice has a lot of sugar.

Even if you’re watching your sugar intake, the sugar content of water kefir is kind of the opposite of a problem. The fermentation agents in the grains break almost all of it down and produce CO2, a bit of alcohol, and more of themselves. In the end, you get something that’s fizzy, very slightly alcoholic, and flavorful, without being too sweet. The warmer the environment, the faster the bacteria work.

That is, if you get the ratio of juice to water kefir right for that second fermentation. And if, as I said, you burp the bottles regularly. Otherwise, you’ll get something that’s fizzy, alcoholic enough to peel paint, flavorful, not too sweet, and capable of detonating your entire kitchen and giving anyone in the room with you a traumatic brain injury.

I know this all sounds like hyperbole. I cannot emphasize enough to you how much it is not.

I popped that swing top off, and the force of the gas (from a bottle that I’d already burped a few hours ago) was enough to blow the wired-on top completely off, ricochet it off of the cabinet and into another room, and soak the ceiling in a geyser of cherry and cinnamon water kefir. I stood there in shock, holding the now half-empty bottle, while a sticky red rain fell around me. My partner, who very narrowly avoided having a wire and rubber bottle top embedded in his left temple, was in a similar state. It took a minute for the adrenaline rush to calm down, and I hope the probiotic benefits are enough to make up for the eight years the experience shaved off of our lives.

As it turns out, uncorking things can be way more dangerous than you’d think.

Anyhow, we poured out two glasses of what was left, and it was delicious. I think the fact that it was just this side of moonshine also helped calm us down a bit, which was a plus.

(Fortunately, I’ve gotten my better-ratio-of-juice-and-burping-the-bottles-often together since then, and no longer produce things that could conceivably be used to rob a bank.)

I’ve also made another version, where the water kefir grains feed on brown sugar for their first ferment. I add some lemon juice, ginger, and cinnamon for the second, and the end result is a very tasty ginger ale with just a tiny bit of sweetness. Since I have my process more or less nailed down at this point, I’m also working on adding herbs and fruits for various intentions to make drinkable potions.

Though I’m limited by space, I have a long list of skills I’d like to rediscover and build upon. Hopefully none of the others produce ersatz explosive devices.

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