Success in Mead Making Points to the Simplicity of the Undertaking

Quite frankly, I am astonished by the mead that I currently have in my fermentation closet. While my inclinations to go off script is fairly strong, this project raises (lowers?) the bar in this regard. Although it points to a very important lesson: brewing need not be the exact science that many home-brew websites would have you believe.

It all started two months ago when, at a farmer’s market, I purchased a pound of local, raw avocado honey. This was, for me, a new honey but I was taken by its sharp and somewhat earthy flavor, reminiscent of buckwheat honey, my perennial favorite. Having just gotten hooked on fermentation as a hobby, I thought this would be a tasty honey to attempt to make mead with.

Having read several blogs which indicated that berries and grapes are just covered with yeast, I decided to go with a wild ferment, rather than purchasing a yeast more specialized for the job. Since I knew that the honey would need to be diluted a bit to get the show on the road, I decided to make my first excursion away from canon and tossed the honey into my BlendTec with a fistful of black organic table grapes, which had the frosty look that is apparently due to yeast. The resulting slushy was poured into a large, pint sized mason jar.

And then I waited.
And waited.
And then decided that perhaps this plan wasn’t working because there was no yeast on those grapes after all.

Around this time is when I had my first experience with fermented rice and learned about yeast balls. As a regular visitor to my local Asian food market, I decided to perhaps try one of these yeast balls to get things going.

Within a week or two it became clear that besides adding sediment to the honey/grape mix, the yeast ball did not advance the cause one bit.

At this point, I decided that perhaps the sugar concentration was too high. Thus the content of the pint jar was transferred to a half gallon mason jar, along with a comparable amount of water. And some rice wine from the fermented rice… possibly with a few grains of said rice falling in.

Covered with cheesecloth, the jar sat in the fermentation closet undisturbed. After about a week I looked in and saw what I thought was a telltale sign of mold forming on the surface. Due to scheduling (and lack of strong aroma), the jar remained in the closet, waiting to be taken care of “at some point.”

That some point was last night. But as I brought the jar into the light of the kitchen I realized that what I was seeing on the surface was a thick layer of bubbles, not mold. A quick sniff revealed a very distinct smell of alcohol. Through a fresh piece of cheesecloth, the content was poured into a fresh jar. A taste test confirmed that what I had was, in fact, a nice light mead, still semi-sweet but with a non-trivial alcohol content (~8% as a rough guestimate).

What’s more, the brew tastes quite smooth. This is quite unexpected as mead making sites suggest that the mead would need to age for at least six months, but probably a year or two before it mellowed. If this were to mellow much more than this, I’m not sure how much flavor would be left.

And thus, as the day winds down, I sit here with a glass of some slightly fruity mead, realizing that yeast will be yeast and when presented with sugar, it will make alcohol. And that perhaps the yeast found at 25 cents a ball in the Asian market is quite well suited to the pursues of home-brewing, potentially more-so than more specialized ones given that these mead need not be aged to be consumed. And the whole process can be far simpler than one might fear.

Kefir bread

Kefir Bread — Whole wheat edition with raw hempseed and rosemary

Since apparently WordPress hates me today (as happens), I’m going to keep this short rather than try to recreate the text yet again.

Here’s what I started out with:

1/2 cup raw hemp seed (Nutiva)
1 cup kefir
1/2 cup milk (both this and kefir were nonfat)
1 teaspoon kefir grains (if you use store bought kefir, no worries, you can skip this step I’m sure)

There were put in my BlendTec blender to make into a smooth consistency.
Next, into a large metal bowl went:

2 1/2 cups of whole

To which I added the kefir blend, mixing everything by hand and then kneading the dough for about five minutes. The end consistency was just this side of sticky: enough to have the dough stick to the bowl and my hands a little bit but gentle persuasion was sufficient to get the dough into a nice orderly ball like so:


I covered the bowl with a damp towel and let the dough rise overnight. Keep in mind that the yeast and bacteria in kefir have a favorite food, at it is milk, not grain. Thus the dough will not rise as fast as with baking yeast. Also, that’s why there’s milk added, to give the little microbes a bit of food.

The next morning the double had doubled to look like this:


At which point I added

2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon rosemary powder (easily could have taken more)
1 heaping teaspoon sodium carbonate (baking soda + 4hrs in a 400deg oven)

These probably could have been added earlier but… well, that’s how I did it.

Oiled up a cookie sheet (pan?) with olive oil and gently scooped up the dough and placed it on the sheet. Then gently oiled up the whole loaf to keep it from drying out. And then the whole kit and caboodle went into an oven

Pre-heated to 350deg

After 20min I put a bit of aluminum foil on the bread since it looked like it was already getting a bit dry and I wanted to have a reasonably soft crust.

Another 25min at the bread came out of the oven:


After letting it cool a bit (~10min), bread went on the cutting board and:


Looks good, no? Tastes good too. No hint of sourness or tanginess, but a nice full flavor that mixed well with olive oil and salt. The texture is both substantial yet light. Despite the lack of sugar, this whole wheat bread doesn’t have that “must be healthy” taste or mouth-feel. Overall I’m quite pleased with how this project turned out. Fairly easy, tasty, and less than a day from start to finish, which on a fermentation scale is pretty short. Variations to come for sure.

Fermented Lemons: Reawakening

As you may or may not recall from my first entry, part of my microbial menagerie involved preserved lemons. Or really, fermented lemons. After about two weeks of their brine sitting, I checked in on them. Contrary to what the recipe had assured me of, but consistent with everything else I’ve learned about fermentation, the one lemon above the waterline was covered in a light fuzz. Fortunately, the mold had not gotten so far as to hit the surface of brine so after carefully disposing of the miscreant into the trash, I decided to see whether or not any magic had happened (the now dubious recipe also assures the reader/listener that they should be ready with a week).

The results were underwhelming to say the least. Sure, it tasted of good organic lemon. And rind. And salt. But beyond that, nothing that I would not have expected of freshly salted lemons eaten whole.

However, John Cage fan that I am, I decided that since having them sit in a jar for two weeks wasn’t interesting, I’d see what would happen if I kept them in a jar for two months. Thus the lemons got relocated into a smaller mason jar where they could be packed in tight and have the brine reach the top, getting pressed down below the surface by the lid.

Two days ago I checked in on them and found that John Cage was a bit of a genius. The lemons started releasing gas, which they had not previously done. Taking of the lid to release the pressure and perform an olfactory inspection of the story thus far, I found that while not appetizing, the smell definitely moved past the “lemon and rind” smell to something new.

This evening  I found that whatever process was responsible for the sudden abundance of gas was speeding up. As I released the pressure, the build up had been sufficient over the past two days to send brine flowing through the small air vent.

I suspect that we have come to a crossroads, where cellulose providing structural integrity to the rind is beginning to be digested. Whether this is due to a different and exciting strain of bacteria finding its voice or whether this is the fruits of the prolonged labor of strains that have been at this for the past four weeks, I have no idea and at the moment I’m hard pressed to figure out how I’d even investigate this. Granted, if there is a sudden shift in aroma, this would indicate a change in metabolic processes within this little lemon world, suggesting that the torch was passed to the next microbial workers in this process. While one might hypothesize yeast contamination, this seems unlikely since the lemons didn’t have much in the way of sugars to begin with and by the four week mark whatever sugars there were would have already been consumed.

I’m quite curious where this is going. And what culinary use these lemons might have in a month

Kefir Modding : Engineering the SCOBY

Several weeks ago I ordered kefir grains. Although they were viable after their stint in an envelope for close to a week, the kefir they produced didn’t seem right in taste and flavor; harsher than what kefir should taste like.

Since this did not resolve after the first few batches, I bought some Lifeway kefir at the store. The idea was that since this kefir does taste the way I wanted mine to taste, it clearly had the right bacteria and yeast in the right proportions. Since the grains are just a polysaccharide, specifically kefiran, which provides a home for the yeast and bacteria that make up the kefir SCOBY, it seemed reasonable to assume that the ones from the store bought kefir would join their brethren.

What ensued was World War I in a jar. There were clear signs of some heavy use of chemical warfare. Although kefir normally produces some CO2 during fermentation, in the night that followed the mingling of the two colonies the amount generated was almost explosive.

After brewing up a batch of kefir with the grains that had multiplied quite dramatically during the short lived war, it was clear who had won. The kefir was still running and harsh.

Fortunately, I had another plan and ordered some Matsoni yogurt starter. This yogurt was described as having “a thick viscous consistency,” which suggested that Leuconostoc Cremoris bacteria in it were producing some nice polysaccharides. Plus since the other name for this particular yogurt is Caspian Sea yogurt and kefir thought to originate in the Caucasus Mountains right next door, it seemed like this ‘cultural’ addition might work.

And… It did!

The kefir that is now produced is much silkier in texture, the way that, in my mind, kefir should feel. And the taste has mellowed out considerably. Of course, the diversity of the SCOBY might have taken a hit, since suddenly a very large new population of just two strains was added. But maybe not. It’s possible that the weird texture and flavor were indicative of an unbalanced system, with one particular strain being overactive and the two new strains put the house back in order.

Thus is seems that SCOBY engineering was successful on the second try and that’s pretty good. As is the kefir, which just makes this experiment that much more satisfying.

Right, the “how to part” went missing. Here we go:

1.Poured off kefir, leaving the kefir grains in the sieve
2. Using a spoon, got all the grains together into a single mass, and flattened it out (gently)
3. Opened a packet of the Matsoni yogurt starter and sprinkled entire powdered content onto the grains
4. Gently worked the grains with a spoon to try to disperse the starter evenly throughout the grains, making sure there were no dry clumps of starter left
5. Mixed the grains into some room temperature milk and let the whole thing do it’s business for two days.

Home made soy and hemp tempeh: First attempt results

There are several things I enjoy about tempeh. The texture is nice an hearty and, unlike other concentrated sources of veggie protein, eating a chicken-breast sized chunk of tempeh is as filling and satisfying as eating a chicken breast.

What isn’t quite as great about tempeh is that its a little bland for my taste. There is something about soy that almost feels like an active non-taste. There are some commercial products that mix soy with other grains in a way that improves the taste… but lowers the protein content and raises the carbohydrate content; not ideal when attempting to use tempeh in place of meat.

But you know what other vegetable matter is high in protein? Hemp seed. Much like soy, hemp is a complete protein. As an extra bonus, hemp seeds are loaded with magnesium; most people’s diets is deficient in this mineral. This is unfortunately since it’s just as, if not more critical, for your health than calcium. But more on that another time.

Thus, it seemed like a logical extension of standard tempeh would be a mix of soy beans and hemp seeds.

Unlike yogurt starter, which is available everywhere, tempeh starter is harder to come by. Fortunately, Cultures for Health carries five packs for $5, which is a darn good price considering that tempeh costs about $3-5 per 2 serving pack and each pack of tempeh starter can make between 5-20 comparable sized servings.

The project involved following instructions (for a change), with the exception that the starting mixture was 1 part cooked organic soybeans to 1 part raw organic hemp seeds.

Placed the mixture on  cookie sheet, making a layer about a quarter of an inch thick. Covered with a damp cheese cloth and into the oven it went to sit at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. 

After 24 hours, there was hint of something going on.
By 36 hours, there was a pleasant ‘woodsy nuttish’ smell, with a slight ammonia undertone (as expected)
This is what it looked like from the top (sorry, cellphone camera for now):


And from the bottom:


Clearly, the mycelium preferred to be protected from oxygen and having access to more moisture than expected from the instructions that came with the tempeh starter.

Since the instructions said that the whole process might take 48 hours, I decided to let the project run to completion. This was a mistake. A minor one but the ammonia smell increased over the next 12 hours (fortunately it dissipated quickly) and the tempeh acquired a slight hint of bitterness.

But overall, I’m quite pleased with how this turned out. Because the cooked soybeans had been dried out a bit and the tempeh had a chance to breathe, it turned out much lighter than the store bought kind. Which meant that after being put into a soy/shittake broth, it soaked up some of the tasty goodness.

So far, the soy and hemp tempeh is as filling and satisfying to eat as the pure soy from the store. But tastier and more versatile. Plus my homemade tempeh is cheaper and more nutritious than the stuff from the store. All in all, this project is a win.

After I finish eating this batch, the next one will be made with chickpeas instead of soy beans. But the hemp seeds stay, that’s for sure.

Kombucha: The Science and The “Science”, Part I

But before getting to the benefit question, it should be noted that there have been case reports of negative health outcomes from kombucha. The key thing to notice here is “case reports.” These have been few and far between, despite titles like “Kombucha–toxicity alert.” To be fair, there are things to watch out for. First, the way you make kombucha is putting sugar in tea, thus there is always a risk of contamination (although it has broad-spectrum antibacterial properties, Second, human allergies/sensitvities are varied; if you are allergic/sensitive to what the SCOBY produces, you’re going to have issues. For example: “A case of Kombucha tea toxicity.” The patient shared a bottle of kombucha with a buddy. The buddy had zero effects from the kombucha whereas the patient was up a creek for a while. One possibility is that, having a compromised immune system, the sudden influx of microbes that should in theory stimulate the immune response (see below) instead sent his body into chaos. Or perhaps it was a sensitivity to the output of the microbes. Or perhaps it had nothing to do with the kombucha and the acute toxicity was due to something else. Here is another case study “Unexplained severe illness possibly associated with consumption of Kombucha tea” Two women ended up in the ER, one of them subsequently died. The thing to note is that 115 other people had been drinking kombucha from the same source of SCOBY and were fine. The other thing to note is that this was made at home. Commercial products tend to be standardized as to potency. At home you can make it strong. Very strong. Undrinkably strong, unless one espouses the view that extra strong taste means more health benefits, which some people do. Thus this might be a case of kombucha overdose, rather than ‘cosumption’ per se. In general, the way in which the medical community approaches the question of kombucha toxicity seems to be more “science” than science, and statements such as “Consumption of Kombucha tea should be discouraged, as it may be associated with life-threatening lactic acidosis” betray a naïve approach to health/harm that, to my mind, is on par with people on the internet who claim that kombucha, or anything else, is the magic potion to cure everything that ails you. Scattered incidence of potential toxicity are about as convincing to me as scattered incidence of potential curing of illness.

But onto the science! As in the peer-reviewed, experimental kind, not the speculative kind.

One early study looked at mice living out their (sort of natural) lives without interruption in a lab ( ). The most notable effect was that the mice fed kombucha lived longer. However, this might be due more to the tea aspect of the treatment rather than kombucha per se. Still, this does tend to support the idea that kombucha is non-toxic. A study done on rats ( looking at acute toxicity also failed to find any negative effects of kombucha. Indeed, not only was there no toxicity found for kombucha at “regular” does, even more “extreme” doses failed to induce toxicity ( and, indeed, showed some interesting benefits, including lower stress response to cold or hypoxia, although, again, this may have had more to do with the tea part of kombucha rather than anything specific to the SCOBY.

Feeding kombucha to rats has been shown to prevent the toxicity induce by chromate(VI) which is a potent oxidant (as in causes the kind of damage that you consume antioxidants to avoid), although here again, there was no “tea only” control ( ). Similarly, kombucha reversed at least some of the problems of lead ingestion ( ). Similarly, kombucha prevented toxicity due to phenol in mice ( ). However, the few studies that have compared kombucha with not only water control but tea as well seem to suggest that there might be something special about kombucha. For example, although black tea, black tea with some kombucha based enzymes, and kombucha all reduced the toxicity of carbon tetrachloride ( or go to ), the kombucha group did better than the other two groups. The authors speculate that there might be some antioxidants produced by the SCOBY that are not present in tea. Similar benefits of kombucha over tea were reported for dealing with trichloroethylene toxicity ( ). The importance of this finding is that trichloroethylene is a common industrial solvent which does all manner of damage to the human body. On a more mundane yet perhaps also more relevant to daily life level, kombucha was found to not only more effective than tea at ulcers (in mice) its efficacy was on par with omeprazole, aka Prilosec  ( ). Although the authors suggest that this could have been due to kombucha reducing gastric acid release, another possibility is that the effects were more at the source, as kombucha inhibits the growth of Helicobacter pylori (, which is the bacterium responsible for ulcers in humans. Finally, kombucha was recently found to improve outcomes for diabetic rats ( ), in terms of blood sugar and blood lipid content. Again, kombucha was found to be better than just plain black tea.

So there you have it. Kombucha is unlikely to harm you and could potentially keep you in better health. If nothing else, it is certainly a very tasty drink and definitely healthier than chugging a soda.  

Thermophilic Cashew Cheese a Go!

Today when I looked in on my two raw cashew cheeses, things did not look good. It was quite clear that some mold had gotten in there and, while not having a party yet, was clearly scoping the place out. As I was washing the mesophilic batch down the drain, I realized that the mold was a completely superficial phenomenon. In the past when I’ve attempted raw cashew cheese the bacterial colonies deployed tended to produce a very large amount of gas (carbon dioxide, I’d imagine), creating a very porous structure that could have been easily penetrated by contaminants. No so much gas in this batch. Of course, because I was flushing things down the drain, the uncontaminated portion was clearly no longer so, having just been ‘rinsed’ with mold spores.

However, this made me think that the thermophilic culture might still be viable. Keep in mind that these were in one pint yogurt containers, thus only one surface exposed to the elements. Thus I very carefully removed the upper half inch of the culture, revealing a healthy looking cashew mass underneath. Swirling it with a spoon showed that the mass had thickened. Huh. A promising sign that the cultured bacteria were still alive and working on it, since it certainly had no opportunity to dry out and previous (failed) experiments with raw cashew cheese certainly did not indicate that cashew mass will thicken on its own.

The taste was… eh… nothing to write home about. But some of the nut flavor has definitely dissipated. This too in very exciting since that indicates the possibility that if the bacteria can alter the flavor in some unexpected ways.

How to accomplish aging the cheese without having it be overrun with more mold? This is where I’m going off script. Having acquired a high thread count cheese cloth, I decided to wrap the little cheese ball in a double layer. This allows it to breath but certainly makes it impossible for it to escape. Put the wrapped ball in a pint plastic container (fresh one) and then covered the ball with kosher salt. The cheese cloth is thick enough that this coarse-ground salt is not going to make it into the cheese. However, I’m hoping that the salt will absorb any excess moisture, helping to harden the cheese, or at least help create a rind of sorts that will keep mold from growing on the surface again.

Given that this is a purely thermophilic culture, I am hoping that room temperature will be cool enough to have this process proceed in an orderly fashion.