Elderberry Sparkle: A Beginner’s Guide to Lacto-Fermented Herbal Brews

I do a lot of brewing here. This is in part to compensate for the lack of refrigeration at the center but also just because I love the process of fermentation. I make homemade wines and ales of all kinds, but want to start here with a basic primer for Lacto-Fermented Herbal Brews because they’re easy, quick and you and your children can drink them to your heart’s content. The herbal sparkles are fizzy and tongue-tingly, and depending on the culture you use, they can also have a bit of a sour bite to them. Very yummy, and a great alternative to most commercial beverages out there.

  1. Make a quart of herbal infusion. Yarrow, Elderberry or Chamomile are all good starting points. Let it infuse for several hours then strain.
  2. Add a couple tablespoons of sugar or honey.
  3. Pour about 1/2-1 cup of whey into the bottom of a clean quart jar.
  4. Add infusion to jar until close to the neck of the jar.
  5. Add two or three slices of fresh ginger (optional, but helps with the fermenting process)
  6. Cover loosely (you can use a canning lid, just don’t screw it on all the way).
  7. Let sit for two-three days (depending on warm the spot was and what you’re fermenting).
  8. Drink up.
  9. Store remainder in a cool dark place, in an airtight jar once you’re sure the fermentation process is done (you can put a balloon around the jar mouth overnight, and if it inflates it’s still fermenting.

It really couldn’t be simpler or tastier. You can get your whey from plain yogurt (by separating the solids from the liquid, the liquid is your whey) although I prefer the whey from piima. In a couple days, your brew will be sparkly, fizzy and delicious. With yogurt whey based brews, they’ll easily last for more than a month with refrigeration, but will get progressively sourer. I’m not sure what happens with piima because I drink it too fast to find out. I like these brews as a quick ferment for instant gratification. If I want longer lasting brews, I make wine or ale.

In general the more sugar you add, the fizzier the drink and the longer it takes to ferment. With lacto-fermented brews I find you really don’t need that much to make a tasty, sparkly drink. There is some alcohol content happening here, but it’s very low

What herbal infusion you choose depends on your tast. Yarrow is bitter and pungent, providing a slightly mind altering edge while Elderberry is blood nourishing, tart and a beautiful shade of purple. You get all the benefits of a normal herbal infusion plus the extra benefits of fermentation and friendly bacteria for your belly. Who can complain?

As with most traditional foods, there’s lots of room for improvisation with these brews. Endless combinations of herbs, sweeteners and ways of fermenting await you. Be creative, and don’t forget to have fun.

31 Comments

  1. shamana flora
    May 25, 2008

    Beautiful! I can’t wait to start doing more brewing again when we have our own space. It’s incredibly sad how much herbal medicine making was put on hold while I lived in a cramped, dirty space in Colorado. I did this once with elderflowers and found it to be just divine! I love the way elderflowers taste, and the sparkly fizz was just lovely. I bet elderberry is delightful. Rosehip….mmmmm ….hibiscus….droool….lemon balm….love…
    oh yes…this could get addicting and out of hand…but oh so wonderful…i’m already dreaming up recipies in my head!!
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Riana
    May 26, 2008

    I make kombucha and kefir juice ferments and i have a lot of whey, so today i’ll make some mulberry ferment and perhaps elderberry. i tell everyone that is addicted to sodas to try natures sodas and you’ll never go back. i didnt know that they last without refrigeration for so long, that is good news! thankyou!

  3. Ananda
    May 26, 2008

    I can’t beleive it’s that easy. I thought it would be complicated like making mead or beer which I have not attempted yet.
    Well I’m game :) – I’m going to the Cedar Grove this morning and I might bring back some spicy monarda leaves to add to my infusion. mmmmm

    Can you enlighten us on how to separate the yogurt or milk?
    thanks Kiva!

  4. Kiva Rose
    May 26, 2008

    Darcey, I LOVE elderflower sparkle too, it’s wonderful!

    Ananda, the thing is, mead is that easy too… you can make it all complicated and crazy but most of the traditional fermentation processes are super easy.

    The way I strain the whey out is by putting cheesecloth or muslin in sieve and then pouring the yogurt into it. Now, piima is easier because it often separates into curds and whey on its own and makes the whey easy to squeeze out. Yogurt takes longer, but works too. You can squeeze on the cloth some to get out the first bits of whey, but mostly you just have to wait several hours for it all to drip through. Alternatively, sometimes yogurt gets a bunch of whey on top (that clear stuff) and then you can just pour it off. You want to try to prevent getting too much milk solids in your whey, which is what will happen if you’re like me and always try to squeeze everything out of the cloth instead of waiting patiently.

    Once you get all that whey separated from the milk solids, you can also make a soft cheese from the solids, add some herbs, butter etc and you have instant spreadable cheese yum.

    There may be a quicker way to do all that, but that’s my method…. it’s a good deal, you get whey for brewing with and cheese for eating, yay!

    Riana, I’m waiting for my kefir grains to grow big enough so I can make kefir drinks too, I’m very excited about it!

  5. tammy
    May 26, 2008

    thanks for this!! I can’t wait to try it. I just made my first sassafras brew last week using yeast. It turned out really well even though I was guessing and figuring it out as I went. I like the idea of using whey much better, and this is so easy. very cool.

  6. Ananda
    May 27, 2008

    Ok, this is just awesome. For some serendipitous reason my kids were obsessed with sasafrass this morning and went into the yard to see how many we had. I told them if they brough back the roots, I’d help them make root beer :) And roots they brought back! So the brew has been a simmerin’ and my first lacto-fermented potion soon to be underway. Off to find some Piima!

    Thanks a million.
    XOXO
    ananda
    p.s – nice quote there up top ;)

  7. Kiva Rose
    May 27, 2008

    Lemme know how that turns out, Ananda… I haven’t tried Sassafras yet! Piima might be hard to find depending on where you are, email me if you can’t find it and I’ll either send you some or give you some links to where you can.

    Glad everyone enjoyed the recipe, hope ya’ll have good luck with it, I’d love to hear about the results.

  8. Kiva Rose
    May 27, 2008

    oh, and i’m glad you like the quote, ananda… a wise woman once said that.

  9. Ananda
    May 27, 2008

    Alright, well I found Greek Yogurt, called “Fage” but nothing called Piima. So I’m using the fage and we’ll see how it goes. It’s so damn creamy and yummy it’s good that I have a plan for it – I could easily eat the whole container. It’s like a mix of yogurt, whip cream and cream cheese. I see the whey slowly but surely dripping out.
    My kitchen smells incredible, and the brew is a glorious red. Yay!

  10. Kiva Rose
    May 27, 2008

    Yeah, I expect you have to trade with someone to get Piima… Greek yogurt is great, but does tend to have less whey than other kinds of yogurts. Not really a big deal, it’ll just take longer for you to get the whey out.

  11. karin sayre
    May 29, 2008

    Im unfamiliar with Piima, will be in new mexico in July at our cabin outside of Quemado, is it a local plant? or something I might find there? Thanks for info and totally inspiring recipes and inspiration!! Aloha, Karin

  12. Kiva Rose
    May 29, 2008

    hi karin, piima isn’t a plant, it’s a milk culture like yogurt or kefir. enjoy your stay in quemado, you’ll be very nearby!

  13. Alchemille
    May 29, 2008

    Pima yogurt cultures are sold on ebay and etsy.
    I haven’t tried these yet but I have swedish filmjolk and tried finnish viili.

    I’ve also made fermented beverages with kefir grains: with nettle infusion and organic apple juice. I can really taste the alcohol in them.

    The thing is no matter how hard I try to like it, especially knowing how beneficial kefir is…I don’t! I thought the sweetness of juice would make it more palatable but NO.

    I will give your recipe a try some time, maybe I’ll like it better.

    Otherwise I’ll stick to my yogurt cultures and my regular infusions & brews (which I fully enjoy).

  14. kate
    Jun 3, 2008

    ooh, questions…

    Is that a Weed/Bairacli Standard brew infusion to start with?

    Does the stored ferment need to be full to near the top of the bottle?

    Do you have to drink all of it once you open it?

    Is that month it last for in a fridge or out of a fridge?

    I don’t usually have a fridge either, would love to know how you keep your yoghurt in the summer without one!

    cheers,
    kate.

  15. Kiva Rose
    Jun 3, 2008

    Kate, yep, that’s a standard Nourishing infusions. It doesn’t have to be, it just works out nicely strength wise that way.

    It probably helps for it be close to the top bottle…. but sometimes I’ve stored a half a quart jar full of something.

    Well, it’s never really “closed”, it’s not like wine really…. But it’s good to start drinking it within a week after making it because it will eventually either go sour or become alcoholic.

    A month out of the fridge (in the pantry, which dark and fairly cool, but definitely no fridge).

    For yogurt, summers can be somewhat challenging. We keep a large cooler with a couple blocks of ice in it usually, and yogurt often goes in there. Piima and Kefir don’t seem to need the same level of refrigeration at all, and that’s one reason I prefer them. They go through various transformations depending on how long they’ve been sitting but they don’t really seem to go bad.

    Hope that helps :)
    Kiva

  16. Becca
    Jun 18, 2008

    Hi, I’m new to your site, someone’s just referred me. I’ve just tried fermenting vegetables, which I love. They came out really tasty. I didn’t use any culture as I was told it isn’t necessary. I have allergies to dairy, soy and gluten. Is there another way of making this without out using dairy?

    Thanks!

  17. Kiva Rose
    Jun 18, 2008

    Hi Becca…. well hmmm, there’s lots of way to ferment infusions including just putting in some dried fruit and letting it go, but you’ll end up with alcohol with most of them. The two options that might work the best for you are the ginger bug and the water kefir grains. You might try Riana’s recipe over on her excellent food blog: http://garlic-breath.blogspot.com/2008/01/ginger-pop.html

  18. K.Ruby
    Jun 29, 2008

    Hi Kiva Rose,
    I found your recipe while researching various types of lactic fermentation online. I wanted to make one correction to what you write: When you lacto-ferment no alcohol is produced. That is only a by-product of yeast ferments. There are three ways to ferment:
    ~ alcohol fermentation is the action of yeasts on sugar which produces alcohol
    ~ acetic acid fermentation is the action of acetic acid bacteria on sugars and produces vinegar
    ~ lacto-fermentation is the action of lactic-acid bacteria on sugars which produces lactic acid.
    All of these are cultures (just like a yogurt culture or a kombucha culture), but only yeasts produce alcohol. Lacto-ferments, like yogurt and kombucha are alcohol-free.
    Also, in regards to the last post above, I wonder if folks who are allergic to dairy would still be allergic to the whey. Most people who have issues with dairy have problems with the milk proteins. The process of separating curds from whey is the process of separating out those proteins. Further, the whey is cultured which means its chemistry is altered by the lactobacilli–this may mean that technically whey is no longer dairy at all. It would be interesting to look into this.
    I know for example that I am wheat-intolerant, but sprouted wheat breads are no problem, as the sprouting changes the chemical structure of the wheat–no more gluten involved!
    Anyway, I have rambled on long enough. Now I will take a look at the rest of your site. If you are interested in what I am up to here in California. Check out The Institute of Urban Homesteading In Oakland, CA. Thanks for your wealth of information and
    Happy Fermenting!
    Ruby

  19. Kiva Rose
    Jun 29, 2008

    Hi Ruby, thanks for reading. I do understand that lactic acid is not the same as alcohol. However, sometimes, yeasts get in there too, and I’ve had lacto fermented drinks go alcoholic at some point (probably should have drank it the week before LOL). I think it’s just a mix of fermentations happening. Also, my understanding is the kefir grains based ferments often end up with a small alcohol percentage. I don’t know that that’s from the kefir itself or from some other fermentation process. Your clarifications are helpful though, and next time I do a fermentation post I’ll be sure to add something like that to the initial explanation.

    I’ve seen very dairy sensitive people sometimes react to lacto-fermented veggies or beverages. Yeah, there’s some interesting transformations going on, but there seems to be something to still be sensitive to in there.

    I’m wheat intolerant as well, and still intolerant to sprouted grains, so I think it just has to do with the sensitivity of the individual…. it all comes down to a really long term and very interesting organic experiment for each of us.

    I will check out the Urban Homesteading site, sounds like good work! Thanks again for your input.

  20. Sage
    Jul 2, 2008

    Hi there.
    I made an elderflower version of this fizz and it did not get fizzy. I’ve tried other recipes before with dandelion too and it never got fizzy. Do you have any suggestions as to why?
    Thanks.

  21. Kiva Rose
    Jul 2, 2008

    Hi Sage, hmm, I’ve never had this problem so I’m not sure what to say… did you add a few slices of fresh ginger and some raisins?

  22. Jonas Gaertner
    Jul 15, 2008

    Kiva, there will still be some milk proteins even in the whey that you may not be able to see. In the process of making cheese, one tradition is to take the whey, mix it with vinegar and cook this until the vinegar reacts with those proteins to solidify them. This solidification of the leftover milk proteins in the whey is what we call Ricotta Cheese. Once all of the Ricotta is out then the whey should be protein free. Unfortunately it also means it’s been exposed to high heats and vinegar which would leave it unusable for this.

    For anyone who makes homemade sauerkraut, some of that liquid should be usable for some fermentations as well I would imagine. I know that would affect the taste, but it would be a substitute for those who are intolerant to the whey.

  23. Kiva Rose
    Jul 15, 2008

    Jonas, thanks for that info. I suspected as much but hadn’t had time to research it. I certainly have seen people react to it as if there were milk proteins therein.

  24. molly k
    Aug 17, 2008

    Hi Kiva,

    Is there a reason not to brew these outside in the sun? For optimal warmth, I guess is my (totally uninformed) thinking, but I don’t know if perhaps it would be excessive and/or damaging to the fermentation somehow. Thoughts?

    Oh, also, by filling up “close to the neck of the jar,” you mean that one leaves an inch or so of space at the top, yes?

    And thanks for this beautiful website…

  25. Kiva Rose
    Aug 17, 2008

    hi molly… I don’t like putting most of my herbal concoction out in the sun so I don’t really know whether it would work or not. If you try it, let me know.

    Yeah, I’d say to leave about two inches of room…

    Thank you for reading!

  26. K Niven
    Oct 14, 2008

    Hi – just wanted to let lactose intolerant people know that it’s possible to get kefir for fermenting in water with sugar – brown or white. Information here:

    http://www.thekefirshop.co.uk/water_kefir_crystals.htm

    Also, I wanted to let people know that if they are using whey from yoghurt, then they have to ensure that the yoghurt contains LIVE cultures.

    This is a beautiful site. I happened on it while searching for recipes for lactofermenting my elderberries. I see that there is much more here to feed my mind, body and spirit.

    Thank you

  27. Inka
    Dec 16, 2008

    Hi – I enjoyed reading the discussion, and am interested in trying lacto-fermented drinks. We only drink water, and no sodas or juices, but natures sodas might be a nice addition. I make a lot of goat cheese, some hard, some soft. I also make my own goat yogurt. I have a lot of whey from the cheesemaking, but not much from my yogurt. Do I have to use yogurt whey, or can I use the whey from my cheeses? When I make chevre (the cheese I make most often), the culture is a mesophilic DVI culture.

    Thanks for your help.

  28. wendy west
    Feb 15, 2010

    I know this posts are older, but I’ve just found this site. I have elderberries that I picked last summer, and they are frozen. How much of those do I use with the quart of water, and do I need to cook them first?

    Thanks
    Wendy

  29. Amelia
    Apr 12, 2010

    I was wondering if one could use Rejuvelac (fermented drink from wheat berries) instead of the whey?
    Thanks
    Amelia

    • Kiva Rose
      Apr 12, 2010

      Hi Amelia, I don’t really know. Being rather intolerant of wheat myself, I’ve never tried rejuvelac.

  30. Alonna Hawkshead
    May 12, 2010

    This sounds like so much fun and very interesting! I have a lot of herbs that I need to use up.

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