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If you start with sugar, water, and the tiniest bit of bacteria, you’ll soon have a fermented beverage on hand. Whether it’s a “soft” lacto-fermented beverage, a “hard” alcoholic one, or a good old vinegar-based beverage depends on sugar, time, and exposure to oxygen. They all begin with sweet liquids.
Generally speaking, sugar- or fruit-based beverages go through several stages of fermentation, from fresh juice to soft drink to hard drink to vinegar. Take apple cider, for instance. It begins as freshly pressed apple juice, more or less. If left for a short amount of time, it changes to soft cider when the lactic acid bacteria have taken over. At this stage, the beverage contains only trace amounts of alcohol, along with beneficial bacteria, enzymes, and small amounts of organic acids. This is primarily a lactic acid fermentation.
Given a bit more time, this soft drink will begin to form more alcohol. Eventually, it will contain enough alcohol to no longer be considered a soft drink. At this point, the sweetness is minimal, and the alcohol flavor is pronounced. This is now primarily an alcohol fermentation, known as hard cider.
The final stage can only happen if the hard cider is left exposed to oxygen. In an aerobic environment (meaning, exposed to oxygen), the Acetobacter begin to take over in the alcoholic environment. Eventually, the acetic acid becomes prolific, and the beverage becomes apple cider vinegar. This is now primarily an acetic acid fermentation, or vinegar.
At each of these stages, a culture can be introduced to persuade the microorganisms to go in one direction or another, but if given oxygen, time, and warmth, all sugar-containing liquids will go down a similar path.
All these forms have their health and sustainability benefits. Hard cider, for instance, is generally what you’d bottle to preserve the apple harvest for long-term storage. Once capped, it can keep for months or years, as can apple cider vinegar. The soft cider is a short-term storage solution, as are most “soft” lacto-fermented beverages.
Wild-Fermented vs. Cultured
There are generally two types of lacto-fermented beverages. The first is the cultured variety, in which you add a mother culture – such as kombucha or water kefir – to ferment sweetened water. The second is a wild fermentation, which involves allowing the bacteria present on a raw piece of food to work as the inoculant.
Both have their place. Beginners are generally more comfortable with something that’s more predictable, so cultured beverages are often best to start with. More adventurous folks can plunk just about anything containing bacteria or sugars into a jar of water and it will begin to ferment – but the end result isn’t always consistent, nor is it always tasty.
Passing down food traditions from one generation to the next is often done in the kitchen, with only memories to serve as recipes. Similar to such memories, these recipes are traditional frameworks for making delicious wild-fermented beverages. As you work these recipes into your routine, you’ll form new memories to pass on to future generations.
For more on fermented beverages:
Reprinted with permission from Traditionally Fermented Foods by Shannon Stonger, Page Street Publishing Co., 2017.
Shannon Stonger, founder of the Nourishing Days blog, holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She and her family live on an off-grid homestead in Texas.