The culture of culturing

I stare at the blob of sediment that has settled to the bottom of the glass bottle. It bears a passing resemblance to a ball of dryer lint suspended in watery green Kool-Aid, if dryer lint had tentacles. I can’t believe anyone drinks kombucha, but they do – in quantities so large that Sauce wants a story on it, and Whole Foods dedicates an entire refrigerator case to it. Even so, I find the cloudy liquid more freaky than foodie. I hide the bottle in the back of my fridge, close the door firmly and contemplate my career options while drinking a comfortingly familiar and completely artificial Diet Pepsi.

Though it sounds like a character in “Godzilla,” kombucha is technically a tea, just not the kind that’s served with cucumber sandwiches. It’s fermented, which means that in its pre-bottled state, the tea hangs out in a vat with some sugar and a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), aka the lint at the bottom of my bottle, aka the mother. The timeline varies, but imagine a dance party that lasts anywhere from a few days to a month, during which the yeast gorges on sugar and leaves probiotics and digestive enzymes as a hostess gift. When the music stops, the tea is so full of probiotics – nutritionally beneficial microorganisms – that it is still dancing. If pasteurization is the process of killing harmful bacteria, fermentation is the process of bringing good bacteria roaring to life.

So why, in an era when vials of hand sanitizer swing from key rings, would we eat bacteria on purpose? The simplest answer is that fermented foods, with their strong and complex flavor profiles, taste good. We don’t usually think about it – or try not to – but pickles, yogurt, beer and wine are all deliciously fermented. Love a good Reuben? Its tang comes from two fermented foods: cheese and sauerkraut. Even better, fermented foods are good for us. Packed with probiotics, they contribute to everything from good digestive health to a strong immune system.

While fermentation may have once been the domain of hippies and home brewers, local chefs and adventuresome home cooks are bringing the craft back into their kitchens. I asked about their fascination with fermentation and learned that the process of nurturing a fermented culture – finding a mother and keeping it happy – was just as important to them as cooking with it. Whether discussing sourdough, vinegar or even kombucha, chefs gushed about their mothers with the affection and respect that is usually reserved for, you know, moms.

When Local Harvest Café changed its name to LHC and revamped its menu this past winter, kitchen manager Joe Stein devoted an entire section of the menu to house-made fermented foods, including sauerkraut and kimchee, a spicy Korean side dish of fermented vegetables. But if you really want to see Stein’s eyes sparkle, ask him about his kefir cultures.

Stein showed me four gallon-sized jars, some filled with local cow’s milk, others with organic coconut milk. All held kefir grains, which is what the bacteria and yeast are called. “It’s like a pet,” Stein cooed. “You name the grains. You think about them before you go to sleep. You worry that you forgot to feed them that day. I’ve got a whole colony in there.”

executive chef bob brazell of athlete eats babysits his kombucha mother // photo by greg rannells

He gently jiggled the jars. This moves the milk around and helps feed the grains. I asked to see his “pet” up close, and Stein ever-so-gently strained the kefir through a nonreactive strainer because, as he said, “The grains don’t like aluminum.” They looked like giant luminous white popcorn kernels and not at all like bacteria bombs, even though his homemade kefir had around three dozen strains of beneficial bacteria and yeast. Yogurt, by comparison, has fewer than 10 strains.

Enticed by the idea of being kind to my belly, I tried LHC’s mango kefir and vegan kefir, the latter made from grains grown in coconut milk. Defying my expectations, both were tangier than a traditional yogurt smoothie, but the fruit and coconut milk mellowed the sour punch, and they certainly were a palatable way to avoid a troubled tummy. I already make breakfast smoothies, so I wondered: Just how hard would it be to grow and add my own kefir?

A few days later, Greg Rannells, photographer for Sauce and a fermenter of everything from sake to kimchee to mead, assured me that kefir is easy and inexpensive to make at home. It ferments at room temperature and doesn’t require special equipment. He gave me a little jar of his personal grains and a four-page instruction booklet. I felt the weight of responsibility, since Rannells, like Stein, referred to his cultures as pets.

I hoped to grow kefir grains as robust as LHC’s, but instead I killed them. Apparently the grains did not enjoy basking in direct sunlight, which I would have known had I read the instruction booklet.

Rannells kindly gave me another batch, and I sought culturing advice from Marilyn Jarzembski, the “Kefirlady” of Fayette, Ohio, who sells LHC its grains. After emailing back and forth with her, I desperately wanted to live with Jarzembski and her 50-plus goats, whose milk nourishes her kefir grains. I settled for absorbing her folky wisdom. For example, don’t even think about feeding your grains ultra-pasteurized milk – “ultra-dead milk,” as Jarzembski called it – though regular pasteurized milk is fine. And if your kefir tastes too sour, just remove some grains, silly.

Sharing grains, or really any yeast starter, is another part of the culture of culturing. As Rannells said, “Cultures crave to be made and given away.” (To be fair, he said this before I killed his pet.) Bread starters are a good example. There’s even one around town with a scandalous past, rumored to be 150 years old, possibly with roots in Italy. According to kitchen lore, the starter was stolen from a famous Chicago restaurant by a vengeful chef, who shared it with his chef friends. They shared it with their chef friends, and it made its way to St. Louis, where Matt Daughaday, chef at Taste, shared it with executive chef Derek Roe of Dressel’s Public House. Roe uses the starter, which he named La Madre, to make sourdough boules and focaccia. The focaccia is featured on Dressel’s bread board and is the anchor of Roe’s muffuletta. Roe feeds La Madre every day between 9 and 9:30 a.m. to be ready to make bread in the afternoon. Once he tried feeding it twice in one day, after he got off schedule. “It just wasn’t ready to be used after that second feeding. You gotta work on its schedule,” Roe said. It took two weeks to straighten out the timing. “You gotta have patience.”

Patience is what Adam Lambay, executive chef at Grapevine Grill Restaurant at Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, advised when he talked about his cultures. While kefir and bread need daily feedings, Lambay’s pet culture was fed only once. He is making a balsamic-style vinegar out of 10-year-old Norton wine. Always one for a project, a month and a half ago he inoculated the wine with a vinegar mother and some water. Though he will begin using samples of the vinegar next month, and periodically afterward, he plans to let the vinegar age in the barrel another 10 years.

As I made a note to check out Chaumette’s aged vinegar in 2024, I realized I no longer thought of linty fermentation mothers the same way. They seemed less tentacle-y and more warm and fuzzy. And when I finally tasted the kombucha in my fridge, I was able to enjoy its light, bright flavor. I even drank the weirdness at the bottom without flinching. (It wasn’t weird at all.) And then, my brave new palate was rewarded when I discovered the kombucha mother lode. Bob Brazell, executive chef at Athlete Eats, serves house-made kombucha on tap. That’s right, he will pull you a pint, or even a growler, of possibly the most delightful drink I’ve ever enjoyed. The one I tasted was oolong-based, full of happy, fruity effervescence. I tried not to giggle (the bubbles!) as Brazell told me about his fermenting process. He refers to his mother as Mamma. He plays blues music on low for her while she ferments. “We brew the tea and then we have to let the tea cool,” he said. “And Mamma’s just hanging out. The music gives her something to keep her happy. And everyone knows you gotta keep Mamma happy.”

So there you go. It turns out I love kombucha, particularly when it’s homemade and on tap. I drink it every day and haven’t craved a Diet Pepsi in ages. I’m also making my own kefir. It doesn’t drink quite as smoothly as kombucha, but I can’t stop feeding and jiggling my ever-growing grains. It really is a pet, and caring for it makes me happy. And as the chefs told me, if mamma is happy, everyone’s happy.

Kellie Hynes is a contributing writer for Sauce Magazine. She is happy to share her kefir cultures with you – if she hasn’t killed them first. Find her on @KellieHynes.