Ferment your way to better health, here’s how

  • This looks disgusting at first 
  • Here’s how to ferment your own drinks

Our friend Sarah had a glint in her eye as we sat around her kitchen table.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“Sure,” said Lara.

“Yes,” I nodded, “I’ve always wanted to see one in the flesh.”

“Ok” said Sarah, sliding a large clay jar onto the table. “It’s not pretty.”

“We’re all adults here,” I said.

Sarah plunged her hand into the jar then began to withdraw, slowly.

“Ugh!” cried Lara.

“Hmmmm….” I said, grimacing.

In Sarah’s hand was what could be described as a human organ, an alien brain, or a mutant fungal entity.

“That’s a scoby,” she explained.

I’d read about scobys and seen some photos of their brown jelly-like structures, but this one looked really hideous.

Scoby is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. They’ve been described as the ‘coral reef of the bacteria and yeast world’. That’s because they’re effectively a home for living bacteria that you keep nourishing in a jar.

Why? To make kombucha, a fermented drink that has all kinds of benefits.

You add the scoby to sugar, filtered water and green tea. The sugar is converted into ethanol and acetic acids to make a naturally fizzy drink packed with antioxidants and probiotic bacteria, which can help balance your gut flora.

If you’ve not tried it yet, then let me give you the lowdown.

Why fermented drinks and probiotics are good for you

Last week I told you about the latest debate over probiotics.

A recent small study has said that rather than depositing lots of healthy microbes into your gut, where they do all kinds of good, they just go right through you…

In one end, out the other, like a child going down a slide.


But as I pointed out last week, plenty of evidence points to the sustained ingestion of probiotics to be beneficial.

These can include yoghurt-style products but also fermented foods and drinks.

In the UK we’re unused to fermented food and drink (beyond beer, of course!) but not so in all countries, like France and Poland where fermented foods are recommended to patients with illness, long term health problems and also people on antibiotics.

This is because fermented foods:

  • break nutrients down into more digestible forms
  • create B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, and niacin
  • remove toxins from food
  • function as antioxidants helping protect you from free-radical damage
  • are rich in lactobacilli, they promote the growth of healthy flora in the intestine which helps with digestion.

As writer Sandor Katz points out: “Fermented foods are alive.  Industrially processed food is dead.”

We’re catching onto this now in the UK, as probiotics and fermented drinks are a big new trend.

But have you seen the prices?

It’s as much as £3 for a small bottle, and in a trendy café near me they charge £3 for just a shot of kombucha to be added to smoothies and juices.

However, you can try the Good Life approach and do it yourself.

How to ferment your own kombucha

You can buy the scoby online – just type “buy scoby” into Google and shop around.

Or you can take it from a batch of kombucha that someone has already.  So if you have any health-conscious friends or neighbours, see if they’re cultivating one.

To make your own kombucha, steep the green tea and sugar in boiled water and then leave it to cool in a non-metallic jar or pot.

Add the scoby. Cover with muslin cloth, put in a warm cupboard and leave to ferment for 7 days.

Next, pour the mix into an airtight container with added sugar and leave for 3 days or more, until it becomes fizzy.

A little warning though…

Be careful to check the scoby each time you go to make a new batch.

Remember that friend, Sarah, I told you about at the beginning of this letter?

Last year she made a kombucha drink from her scoby without realising it had gone rotten, and ended up in bed with food poisoning symptoms for 3 days.

Other fermented drinks to try

You could also try making milk kefir, a fermented milk drink made with a blend of bacteria and yeasts.

Take 1-2 teaspoons of active milk kefir grain and add to four cups of fresh milk. Cover with a muslin top secured by a rubber band then place in a warm spot. It will then culture.

After about 24 hours when the milk is slightly thickened and there’s a pleasant smell, separate the kefir grains from the finished kefir. Make sure you wash your hands and use non-metallic implements to avoid contaminating the living culture.

As you scoop out the grains you may find them coated with a gel. This is known as the kefiran. It’s good stuff. Stir more to mix the kefiran in the kefir then continue to separate the grains.

You can use these grains again to make another batch of milk.

Now refrigerate your drink for when you want it – oh, and if you don’t like the taste, you can add some of it to juices, smoothies and shakes.

If you wish to avoid milk altogether you can make kefir from water or raw almonds.

You could also try kvass, a Russian drink made from fermented rye bread. You simply soak the bread overnight in water, then strain the water, adding sugar, honey and a natural ferment.

Traditional ginger beer is another fermented drink, made by combining a starter culture of lactic acid bacteria with sugared water and fresh ginger. The natural bacteria turn the sugar into lactic acid.

Or as a real throwback, you could make mead, an acholic beverage concocted from honey, water and yeast that humans were drinking thousands of years before wine was a thing.

All these options not only make interesting, flavoursome drinks that you can use to replace fizzy drinks like lemonade and cola, but they’ll help maintain good gut bacteria.

Try it out over a month or two to test the effect before you make any judgement, as the evidence suggests that sustained consumption is the only way to get those great benefits.