by John Slattery
Have you ever wondered ‘where does sauerkraut come from?’, or ‘how do they make kefir?’
Both of these traditional foods were started with ambient microorganisms present either on the food (for example, on the outer leaves of the cabbage) or in the air, thus landing on the milk to begin their feast upon its sugars.
Over time, some microorganisms of traditional ferments were selected for certain traits and isolated in order to replicate those flavors, or to control the outcome of the product. Yeasts selected for brewing beer, champagne, or wine have been standardized for decades, if not centuries in order to produce a predictably reliable product.
However, there is also a very long-standing tradition (likely, much older) of producing food products which are made from obligate microorganisms - that is, those who happen to thrive under the conditions presented at a particular place and time on a particular substance. Those conditions (eg, quality and quantity of sugars present, relative humidity, ambient temperature, etc.) may dictate which sector of the microbial profile proliferates and this may have a minor to significant effect on the final product.
This community of microorganisms is often referred to as a SCOBY. This acronym stands for Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeasts. There are various types of SCOBY and they can be found in different cultures across the globe. Apparently, it’s a way that nature has found to include an array of relatively diverse microorganisms to be endeavored towards a common goal. And when it produces a tasty and nutritious food for us, then that’s what we’re looking for!
One particular type of SCOBY is known as a water kefir grain. The term “grain” refers to the size of the individual particles that make up the SCOBY, but it doesn’t have anything to do with cereal grains. Apparently, the term “water kefir” was borrowed as a means of comparison to the fermented dairy product from the Caucasus in Crimea, near the Black Sea, known as kefir. However, the water kefir grains do not require dairy but can be grown in a wide variety of sugar-rich waters or fruit juices.
So where did the water kefir grains come from then?
This leads us to a discussion of tíbicos… During the late 1800s a group of Swiss scientists were exploring in southern Mexico and were either searching out the unique fermented beverages of the Mexican culture or had simply stumbled upon them. Whichever may have been the case, they certainly did find a wide variety of fermented fruit beverages - some alcoholic, some sour, some in between - and they were taken to the source of some of these beverages:
Nopalli - the prickly pear cactus
Known to the scientific world as Opuntia since 1700, the prickly pear cactus is essentially the national plant of Mexico featuring prominently on their national flag where an eagle, perched upon a prickly pear pad, holds a serpent in its beak. There, the nopál comprises an essential food of Mexican culture - both pad and fruit - and was once the source of red dye for royalty throughout the Western world (cochineal bug).
The 19th century Swiss visitors to Mexico were introduced to a particular SCOBY found growing on the prickly pear of el campo (the countryside) in Mexico during the 1890s. The Mexicans informed the Swiss scientists that it was this collection of microbes (I don’t think they would have referred to them as “microbes”) that they added to their fruit juices to create such delectable fermented beverages such as colonche, nochoctli, or tepache either from prickly pear fruit juice or a great many variety of fruits either cultivated or found growing naturally in the Mexican countryside.
Known as tíbicos, this collection of microbes, or SCOBY, was brought back to Switzerland where they intended to analyze it and attempt to replicate what the Mexicans had been doing. It wasn’t long before the Swiss researchers were able to identify a variety of bacteria (Betabacterium vermiforme, now known as Lactobacillus vermiforme) and yeasts (eg, Saccharomyes pastorianus) found in the tíbicos.
Not only that, the Swiss (particularly those within the mountainous region of Lucerne) quickly took to this new probiotic beverage, locally known as tibi. It was commonly brewed up with dry figs and lemon until the 1930s when World War II rationing changed a lot about the local variety of available foods.
Despite disappearing for decades, tibi is once again popular as a health-promoting drink not only in Switzerland, but elsewhere in Europe, such as Germany, Austria, and Holland.
Over time, the SCOBY once known as tíbicos in Mexico, became known as water kefir grains. Although popular in Europe, it had not yet made its way back to North America, where it had originated, to reach popular culture in America. Presumably, this started happening in the 1970s.
After starting our prickly pear juice fermentations years ago with local ambient microorganisms, we now ferment all of our tepache with water kefir grains, aka tíbicos. These little guys made the round trip across the Atlantic and back over a century to come back home to the American desert!