Beginners Guide to Fermentation

Last Updated on 03/10/2020 by Mandy

Brew Safe: a Beginners Guide to Fermentation. Week 1. 

What is Fermentation?

Fermentation is the digestive action of microorganisms on food or drinks. Probiotics are microorganisms that provide health benefits when consumed. They aid human health by providing the body with good bacteria that can eliminate or displace bad bacteria in the body. Today probiotics are the fastest growing sector of the nutritional market!


Fermentation starter cultures can assist you to easily start the fermentation process used to prepare various foods and fermented drinks. Many different starter cultures are commercially available.

How do I start?

First you need to find a provider of the culture you are interested in. Most of the bacteria and fungi cultures, called scobys, can be found at NourishMe Organics. They provide everything you need. There are plenty of local culture providers with their own websites or Facebook page as well.

Do some research and check which ones also provide ongoing support and courses for you. The cultures will be sent through the mail to you. The cultures can survive for a few days without their food and most don’t need to be dried for transportation. Most experienced sellers post on a Monday or Tuesday to ensure they get to you before the weekend! Different cultures need different food sources, so make sure you have the right kind of sugar in advance for your culture. Don’t buy from overseas as import restrictions, quarantine and freight costs can be expensive and introduce delays!

The most important thing is to make a start and try one. Keep in mind your favourite drinks. Tea drinkers may like kombucha more than kefir. If you like dairy products then try a milk kefir or cultured yoghurt. If you are a fan of carbonated drinks then kombucha or water kefir could suit you better. 

Your kitchen

You don’t need expensive equipment to get started and many things you will already have. You will need a 1.5L jar, a wooden or plastic spoon, plastic or stainless steel strainer, glass measuring jug and cloth squares for covering jars with elastic bands. Swing top or plastic bottles and Muslin bags to store culture grains or dried fruit for secondary fermentation. I use a pH test kit I developed to help me see how things are going. It’s in our store now.

If you need any other equipment, we recommend our friends at NourishMe Organics in Victoria, and Green Living Australia in Queensland.

Think about the best growing location and the needs of the culture.

There are cultures that rely on oxygen to convert their substrate to by-products and carbon dioxide. These are best placed in a glass or plastic jar with a cloth (tea towel or cheese cloth) secured with a band.  You can try using airlocks on your jars instead of burping or opening your jars to get oxygen.

Using filtered un-chlorinated water is essential as straight tap water can kill or inhibit the growth of your probiotic cultures. You can make un-chlorinated water by simply boiling some tap water and cooling it before adding to a culture. Normal tap water will inhibit bacterial growth. When I talk about adding water in each section please remember this rule! If you are planning to start some cultures it is best to boil some water in the kettle and put it aside for use later.

Water and milk kefirs like to their vessels to be out in the light with breathable covers. I like to have them out on the island bench so I can watch the colour changes and see when they are ready to drink. I also watch for contamination and any colour changes mean they are thrown out and a make a new batch from my starter culture.

Kombucha and vinegar prefer to be in the dark so find a nice dark place, like a cupboard. If it is warm it will grow faster for you. Surrounding them in an electric heating mat or belt in winter can do the trick – check eBay for Copper Tun brand fermentation heating belts to see what I mean!

Be careful of fire risks, from overseas brands, if it is going to run continuously for a long period.

You may be tempted to put them out of sight somewhere in the house but they can get contaminated if you do not feed them every day and change over their jar or container ever few days. For example, Milk kefir cannot be left in its own milk for more than 5 days at room temperature and should be stored in the fridge.

Keep them away from possible sources of mould, such as your compost bin or moist air from air-conditioning vents.

If you need to take a break…

Ginger beer and Kefirs can be put in the refrigerator to slow their growth and then will take a week or so to get back to normal growth.  Milk kefir is more robust then water kefir. Kombucha and Jun can be put in a ‘hotel’ and will be just fine for several months. Mother of Vinegar will be fine for months. You should have a source of starter cultures at all times in hibernations in your fridge, this will save you losing your starter culture from contamination.

Keeping things clean

It is important to wash your bottles carefully before adding the culture. Don’t use steel strainers or utensils as a rule as the acidic nature of these cultures will corrode anything that is not stainless steel. Glass jars are best. Also keep culture materials away from general food use in case of contamination. Keeping some plastic utensils specifically for this purpose can be useful.

Checking for mold. On a daily basis, look for red / pink spots in your milk kefir or brown dis-colourisation on your kombucha. White tendrils are normal. If in doubt, chuck it out!!

Ramping things up

How do you get things growing faster? One way is to increase the temperature with an electric heating mat or home brew heat pad. These have a temperature thermostat to set around 20-25C. Cultures naturally work faster in summer than winter. Adding molasses can definitely speed up the rate of growth but it depends on the culture. I also use sticky thermometers to check my brewing temperature.



  1. Start small with one culture that takes your fancy. Keep in mind your favourite drinks. Tea drinkers may like kombucha more than kefir. If you like dairy products then try a milk kefir or cultured yoghurt. If you are a fan of carbonated drinks then kombucha or water kefir could suit you better.
  2. Invest in some jars and utensils specifically for your new hobby and wash them well. They don’t cost much but are a necessity for good brews. Consider buying an airlock for your jars.
  3. Read the instructions / requirements for your culture. Make sure you always have enough materials (specific sugar) at home to feed your culture for a week. Boil and filter some unchlorinated water and put it aside. Think about whether you can put your culture into hibernation when you want to go on holiday for a week. (Most will survive in the fridge if you feed them in advance of leaving).
  4. Buy from a reliable source who can support you and answer your questions and is in the same country, preferably state.
  5. Take only small quantities at first. A teaspoon a day at first is sufficient to test it out. You may experience a ‘Herzheimer’ reaction when bad bacteria die in your body so easy does it!
  6. Always put some culture in the fridge as a backup. Split your culture into two jars once it gets too thick.
  7. Be careful to prevent contamination. If it looks suspect, don’t eat / drink it and throw it out. Change your jars frequently after straining your kefir to prevent mold growth. Find a reliable test kit (more on this later).
  8. Look for recipes and tips from others about cooking and alternative uses for your pets or in the garden.
  9. Remember that what suits your taste may not work for others. Don’t force anything on them as not everyone wants to be reminded they are eating or drinking bacteria / yeast.
  10. Always document what you are doing if you have any health concerns or are taking other medication. It will be useful later if you feel sick or want to check when you first tried something. Remember the compounds produced by these bacteria/yeast are biologically active!


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Read our other articles about How to make organic kombucha at home and How to build a mushroom terrarium

In an upcoming post, I will be talking about making your own natural cognitive enhancers.. known to some as nootropics… Perfect for banishing those baby brain moments we all have!!

Please comment below and let me know what you think about fermenting. Check out the Gut Healthy Fermentation page at Green Living Australia