Live and Let Die – Culture Edition

Live and Let Die – Culture Edition

For a very long time I would read the part in “The Art of Fermentation” where quantity moderation and quality specialization are recommended over lots and lots (and lots) of ferments and scoff, just the tiniest bit. I’d been fermenting stuff daily for a good long time when I first read that part and I felt no signs of waning attention for any of my many cultures and projects. The competitive part of me was proud of the 20+ ferments I had going on a slow day and of the extraordinary cultures I kept alive with daily or weekly feedings that sometimes came at the expense of an hour or so of sleep. I couldn’t really foresee a future in which the health of any one of my cultures would be in question due to neglect, nor a time when I would simply not feel like managing the daily care of so many little beasts.

Ginger Beer plant

I love my microbe babies, but sometimes they have to DIE!

I had (and have) a reminder system on my phone as well as a pretty kickass spreadsheet, detailing the times ferments were started, refrigerated, need to be changed and any odd variations I might have done with that batch. I’m not that kind of engineering-brained person normally, but it felt necessary at times when my sourdough starters would all start to look the same and I couldn’t remember if it was my milk or water kefir that had already completed secondary fermentation.  The fact that I created those systems would definitely be impressive to anyone who knows my propensity to fly by the seat of my pants.  I used to think that it was a sign of my growing maturity, or perhaps just my extreme love for the fermentation process. In retrospect, I think they are signs that I was getting overwhelmed.

Hola, SCOBY dear.  Would you mind not attaching so tightly to your babies? It would make my life a lot easier.

Hola, SCOBY dear. Would you mind not attaching so tightly to your babies? It would make my life a lot easier.

Last year, I suffered some serious guilt when I lost a yogurt culture and a sourdough culture in the space of one week. I felt guilty, and a little frantic, but it didn’t convince me to slow down or make changes. In fact, it was only very recently that I reached a breaking point. Or maybe it was a revelation. In any case, I let a culture die. On purpose. It was my ginger beer plant. While it makes (made) the world’s best ginger beer, I just couldn’t keep up its every-second-day feedings when I had SO many other cultures to care for that produced foods and drinks that I drink on a daily basis. 3 gallons of ginger beer on standby when you’re hosting large, drunken dinner parties (or better yet, ragers) every week is a gift. Three gallons of ginger beer on standby when you have two people in your household and are trying to down three kinds of kombucha, two kinds of kvass, water kefir, milk kefir, and a whole host of other limited edition fermented foods and drinks is a nightmare of undesired sugar.

So I said to myself, “Two tears in a bucket. I’ll culture this batch until I have the energy to make a new one. If the little guys are still alive when that time comes, more power to them. If they’re not, I’ll sing them a song of RIP.” And I did. Turns out those little suckers are hardy! The batch, at 3 weeks, was undrinkable sour and had an odd, creamy aftertaste, but after a brief stay in a recovery bath, they completely bounced back and have made me many lightly foamy batches since then.

Milk kefir grains, you helped me heal my gut before I even knew healing guts was a thing.  Thanks for growing slowly.

Milk kefir grains, you helped me heal my gut before I even knew healing guts was a thing. Thanks for growing slowly.

Long before I knew they would recover, though, I decided not to feel guilty, and I decided to take stock. As it turns out, unsurprisingly, Mr. Katz was correct.  I can’t do everything, especially when I’m frequently growing cultures for classes.  While getting rid of SCOBYs might be a hassle for most kombucha-makers, my problem is storing SCOBYs so that they don’t connect to each other and stay alive and happy while I’m growing 20 more of their friends for my next kombucha class.

water kefir grains

Water kefir grains, you’re so beautiful! But could you stay healthy and grow a teensy bit slower?

Doing fewer things gives me a bit more time to commit to getting better at the things I continue to do. It also gives me time to experiment with new things (lots of that coming to a blog near you soon) and that is very important to me.

Have you ever had to voluntarily give up a culture? How did you cope?

Basics Ferment Probiotic


  1. Becky says:

    This is why I only have a few cultures – sourdough & a scoby. I don’t have the time or space to devote to more than those as well as the occasional item that doesn’t need a culture.

    • Amanda says:

      Yes! The uncultured items are always present in abundance in my house :-). Thanks for sharing your strategy, Becky.

  2. narf7 says:

    I had to release Herman to a Viking funeral out on the river (no…I didn’t really do that but he did deserve that kind of farewell…). Another bout of honesty will have me telling you that Herman, my very first sourdough, who made the very BEST vingegar bricks in the world, second to none and even the possums couldn’t eat them made the sourest bread known to man that wouldn’t rise. I tried…and tried…and obviously wasn’t giving my starter enough of something to cultivate yeast as Herman was pure vinegar and managed to turn 2 batches of wild cider into vinegar along with his bread loaf charges. I couldn’t flush him. I couldn’t bin him or feed him to the chooks or compost him. The only thing that I could do was to dehydrate Herman and hope that one day…we will be able to recreate Herman into a world of vinegar brick lovers.

    • Amanda says:

      Thanks for the belly laugh, narf! I’ve definitely been in that (Viking funeral) boat before. Once those acetobacter set up camp, I think we’re all done for! RIP Herman.

  3. Jessie says:

    My milk kefir is by necessity, cultured in the fridge. My yoghurts are cultured for so long I usually need to buy a tub of biodynamic yoghurt to start each new batch (which is still much more economically viable :) ) and the only culture I can currently keep up with is my kombucha but that might be due to its newness and appeal to 2 of my 3 little people. I did voluntarily let both my sourdough starters die but that was due to discovering that even sourdough bread was no good for my eldest and I (gluten intolerant) and if we can’t eat bread then no-one can! I miss looking after Bertha and Andreas. :(
    We do what we can I guess and stay as healthy as our sanity and time will allow. I figure though with daily booch, lacto fermented onions and sauerkraut eaten nearly daily plus a fridge full of lacto fermented garlic and daily milk kefir milkshakes our gut flora should be looking reasonably healthy. :)

    • Amanda says:

      Sounds like you got yourself a nice little culture farm there, Jessie. Also, why is it always sourdough that gets the fun name? My long-term sourdough boyfriend was Hercule. I guess my milk kefir gets fun names too.

  4. Gretchen says:

    I referred to my milk kefir as “the tribbles” and regretfully let it go, though I have a batch dehydrated that is probably too old to guarantee rebirth. It was a little funky and very tangy and a touch boozy and I was the only one who liked it, and it just kept DOUBLING.

    Now I’m doing occasional lacto-pickles, which are a nice slow pace. I may look into mesophilic milk culturing again, as it’s so much easier than yogurt, but I want something more yogurt-like than kefir like the Nordic cultures. I am also planning to try out making injera, which is a wild sourdough grown on teff – I’m celiac and not much of a baker so it’s likely the only sourdough starter I’ll ever need.

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