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Kefir in a glass.JPG
Plain milk kefir being poured
Alternative namesMilk kefir, gıpı ayran, qundəps, búlgaros
Region or state North Caucasus
Main ingredients Milk and kefir grains

Kefir (also spelled as kephir or kefier, Russian : Кефир; Adyghe : Къундэпс; Karachay-Balkar : Гыпы) ( /kəˈfɪər/ kə-FEER), [1] [2] is a fermented milk drink similar to a thin yogurt or ayran that is made from kefir grains, a specific type of mesophilic symbiotic culture. The drink originated in the North Caucasus, in particular the Elbrus environs along the upper mountainous regions of Circassia, Karachay and Balkaria from where it came to Russia, [3] [4] and from there it spread to Europe and the United States, where it is prepared by inoculating the milk of cows, goats, or sheep with kefir grains. [5]


Origin and etymology

The word kefir, known in the Russian language (кефир) since at least 1884, [6] is of North Caucasian origin, [7] [8] and possibly comes from Old Turkic köpür '(milk) froth, foam' and köpürmäk 'to froth'. [8] Another theory is that it comes from Adyghe кIэй 'barrel' and фыр 'to sour'. [9] [10]

Traditional kefir was made in goatskin bags that were hung near a doorway; the bags would be knocked by anyone passing through to keep the milk and kefir grains well mixed. [11]

Among people of Circassian descent all over the world, it is called qundəps (Adyghe : къундэпс, Adyghe pronunciation:  [qwəndaps] ). [12]

In Karachay-Balkar it is called gıpı, which may have a connection with gıbıt (wineskin).

It was under the name "wineskin" that North Caucasian kefir was distributed in the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. [13] [14] Kefir spread from the former Soviet Union to the rest of Europe, Japan, and the United States by the early 21st century. [7] [15] [16]

Bek-Mirza Baychorov and Irina Sakharova. First distributors of kefir to Russia. Baichorov i Sakharova.jpg
Bek-Mirza Baychorov and Irina Sakharova. First distributors of kefir to Russia.

The homeland of kefir is considered to be "the vicinity of Elbrus along the upper reaches of the Kuban", [3] and the invention of kefir sourdough belongs to Circassians [12] [17] [18] or Karachay-Balkars. [19] [20]

The cauliflower-like grains of kefir culture were thought of as having amazing healing powers as far back as the 18th century, and great care was taken by the North Caucasian families who bequeathed from generation to generation as a source of family wealth. It's still believed in North Caucasian tradition that it's taboo to give kefir grains to anyone because it makes the spirits angry. So the North Caucasian people found a way to get kefir grains, they ″bogusly steal″ them from their neighbors by prior agreement, so spirits wouldn't know about this. [14] Word of this powerful food and medicine spread to areas far from the Caucasus, and at the beginning of the 20th century, the All-Russian Physician’s Society asked two brothers Blandov, who owned cheese manufacturing factories in the Northern Caucasus, for help in obtaining the culture grains of kefir. One of the brothers, Nikolai Blandov, persuaded a young employee, Irina Timofeevna Sakharova, to use her beauty to gain access to the much-desired grain. She, therefore, traveled to the Narsana where she attempted to interest a local uzden, Bek-Mirza Baychorov, to assist her in this plot. When he declined to give up any of the precious substance she left to return, only to be captured by agents of the Bek-Mirza, who didn't want to give up the kefir and did not wish to lose the presence of the lovely Irina either. [21] Finding herself back in his presence and facing a proposal of marriage into the bargain she remained silent until a rescue mission arranged by her employers freed her. She promptly brought the prince before the Tsar’s court where she accepted grains of kefir as the settlement of her suit for abduction. In September 1908 Irina Sakharova brought the first bottles of kefir to Moscow for sale where it was at first used for medicinal purposes. In 1973, Irina, then 85, was sent a letter from the Minister of the Food Industry of the Soviet Union, acknowledging her great part in bringing kefir to the Russian people. [22] Also, according to Alimurat Tekeyev (great-grandson of Bek-Mirza Baychorov, owner of a patent for the manufacture of ayran), letters from Irina Timofeevna refute the fact of abduction: "My great-grandfather, realizing what would become the most valuable gift for Irina, gifted kefir fungi to her". Then Irina Timofeevna wrote: “Bek-Mirza and I left the world a huge health-improving heritage of millions. If Bek-Mirza is no longer with us - his eternal memory”. In fact, Bekmyrza Baichorov continued to engage in animal husbandry and supplied the Caucasian breed of sheep for the famous Parisian Maxim restaurant, as well as to restaurants of Moscow.


Kefir grains, a symbiotic matrix of bacteria and yeasts Kefirpilze.jpg
Kefir grains, a symbiotic matrix of bacteria and yeasts

Traditional kefir is fermented at ambient temperatures, generally overnight. Fermentation of the lactose yields a sour, carbonated, slightly alcoholic beverage, with a consistency and taste similar to drinkable yogurt. [23]

The kefir grains initiating the fermentation are initially created by auto-aggregations of Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens and Saccharomyces turicensis , which then gets the surface adhered by multiple biofilm producers to become a three dimensional microcolony. [24] [25] The biofilm is a matrix of heteropolysaccharides called kefiran, which is composed of equal proportions of glucose and galactose. [7] It resembles small cauliflower grains, with color ranging from white to creamy yellow. A complex and highly variable symbiotic community can be found in these grains, which can include acetic acid bacteria (such as A. aceti and A. rasens), yeasts (such as Candida kefyr and S. cerevisiae) and a number of Lactobacillus species, such as L. parakefiri, L. kefiranofaciens (and subsp. kefirgranum [26] ), L. kefiri, [27] etc. [7] While some microbes predominate, Lactobacillus species are always present. [28] The microbe flora can vary between batches of kefir due to factors such as the kefir grains rising out of the milk while fermenting or curds forming around the grains, as well as temperature. [29] Additionally, Tibetan kefir composition differs from that of the Russian kefir, Irish kefir, Taiwan kefir and Turkey fermented beverage with kefir. [7] In recent years, the use of freeze-dried starter culture has become common due to stability of the fermentation result, because the species of microbes are selected in laboratory conditions, as well as easy transportation. [30] [31] [32]

During fermentation, changes in the composition of ingredients occur. Lactose, the sugar present in milk, is broken down mostly to lactic acid (25%) by the lactic acid bacteria, which results in acidification of the product. [28] Propionibacteria further break down some of the lactic acid into propionic acid (these bacteria also carry out the same fermentation in Swiss cheese). Other substances that contribute to the flavor of kefir are pyruvic acid, acetic acid, diacetyl and acetoin (both of which contribute a "buttery" flavor), citric acid, acetaldehyde, and amino acids resulting from protein breakdown. [33]

Low lactose content

The slow-acting yeasts, late in the fermentation process, break lactose down into ethanol and carbon dioxide.[ citation needed ] As a result of the fermentation, very little lactose remains in kefir.[ citation needed ] People with lactose intolerance are able to tolerate kefir, provided the number of live bacteria present in this beverage consumed is high enough (i.e., fermentation has proceeded for adequate time). It has also been shown that fermented milk products have a slower transit time than milk, which may further improve lactose digestion. [34]

Alcohol/ethanol content

Kefir contains ethanol, [35] which is detectable in the blood of human consumers. [36] [ dubious ] The level of ethanol in kefir can vary by production method. A 2016 study of kefir sold in Germany showed an ethanol level of only 0.02 g per litre, which was attributed to fermentation under controlled conditions allowing the growth of Lactobacteria only, but excluding the growth of other microorganisms that form much higher amounts of ethanol. [37] A 2008 study of German commercial kefir found levels of 0.002-0.005% of ethanol. [38] Kefir produced by small-scale dairies in Russia early in the 20th century had 1-2% ethanol. [38] Modern processes, which use shorter fermentation times, result in much lower ethanol concentrations of 0.2–0.3%.[ citation needed ]



Kefir products contain nutrients in varying amounts from negligible to significant, including dietary minerals, vitamins, essential amino acids, and conjugated linoleic acid, [39] in amounts similar to unfermented cow, goat, or sheep milk. [40] At a pH of 4.2 - 4.6, [41] kefir is composed mainly of water and by-products of the fermentation process, including carbon dioxide and ethanol. [42]

Typical of milk, several dietary minerals are found in kefir, such as calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium, copper, molybdenum, manganese, and zinc in amounts that have not been standardized to a reputable nutrient database. [42] Also similar to milk, [40] kefir contains vitamins in variable amounts, including vitamin A, vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B9 (folic acid), vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E. [42] Essential amino acids found in kefir include methionine, cysteine, tryptophan, phenylalanine, tyrosine, leucine, isoleucine, threonine, lysine, and valine, [42] as for any milk product. [40]


Probiotic bacteria found in kefir products include: Lactobacillus acidophilus , Bifidobacterium bifidum , Streptococcus thermophilus , Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus , Lactobacillus helveticus , Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens , Lactococcus lactis , and Leuconostoc species. [28] [39] [43] Lactobacilli in kefir may exist in concentrations varying from approximately 1 million to 1 billion colony-forming units per milliliter, and are the bacteria responsible for the synthesis of the polysaccharide kefiran. [5]

In addition to bacteria, kefir often contains strains of yeast that can metabolize lactose, such as Kluyveromyces marxianus , Kluyveromyces lactis , and Saccharomyces fragilis , as well as strains of yeast that do not metabolize lactose, including Saccharomyces cerevisiae , Torulaspora delbrueckii , and Kazachstania unispora . [28] The nutritional significance of these strains is unknown.


90 grams of kefir grains Kefir-grains-90grams.jpg
90 grams of kefir grains
Kefir production Kefir-insieme.jpg
Kefir production

Kefir is made by adding kefir grains to milk typically at a proportion of 2–5% grains-to-milk. The mixture is then placed in a corrosion-resistant container, such as a glass jar, and stored preferably in the dark to prevent degradation of light-sensitive vitamins. After a period between 12–24 hours of fermentation at mild temperature, ideally 20–25 °C (68–77 °F), [33] the grains are strained from the milk using a corrosion-resistant (stainless steel or plastic) utensil and kept to produce another batch. During the fermentation process the grains enlarge and eventually split forming new units.

The resulting fermented liquid may be drunk, used in recipes, or kept aside in a sealed container for additional time to undergo a secondary fermentation. Because of its acidity the beverage should not be stored in reactive metal containers such as aluminium, copper, or zinc, as these may leach into it over time. The shelf life, unrefrigerated, is up to thirty days. [44]

The Russian method permits production of kefir on a larger scale and uses two fermentations. The first step is to prepare the cultures by inoculating milk with 2–3% grains as described. The grains are then removed by filtration and 1–3% of the resulting liquid mother culture is added to milk and fermented for 12 to 18 hours. [45]

Kefir can be made using freeze-dried cultures commonly available in powder form from health food stores. A portion of the resulting kefir can be saved to be used a number of times to propagate further fermentations but ultimately does not form grains.

In Taiwan, researchers were able to produce kefir in laboratory using microorganisms isolated from kefir grains. They report that the resulting kefir drink had chemical properties similar to homemade kefir. [46]

Milk types

Kefir grains will ferment the milk from most mammals and will continue to grow in such milk. Typical animal milks used include cow, goat, and sheep, each with varying organoleptic (flavor, aroma, and texture) and nutritional qualities. Raw milk has been traditionally used.

Kefir grains will also ferment milk substitutes such as soy milk, rice milk, nut milk and coconut milk, as well as other sugary liquids including fruit juice, coconut water, beer wort, and ginger beer. However, the kefir grains may cease growing if the medium used does not contain all the growth factors required by the bacteria.

Milk sugar is not essential for the synthesis of the polysaccharide that makes up the grains (kefiran), and rice hydrolysate is a suitable alternative medium. [47] Additionally, kefir grains will reproduce when fermenting soy milk, although they will change in appearance and size due to the differing proteins available to them. [48]

A variation of kefir grains that thrive in sugary water also exists, see water kefir (or tibicos), and can vary markedly from milk kefir in both appearance and microbial composition.


Lithuanian kefir-based borscht (saltibarsciai) Saltibarsciai.JPG
Lithuanian kefir-based borscht (šaltibarščiai)

As it contains Lactobacillus bacteria, kefir can be used to make a sourdough bread. It is also useful as a buttermilk substitute in baking. Kefir is one of the main ingredients in borscht in Lithuania, also known in Poland as Lithuanian cold soup (chłodnik litewski), and other countries. Kefir-based soup okroshka is common across the former Soviet Union. Kefir may be used in place of milk on cereal, granola, milkshakes, salad dressing, ice cream, smoothies and soup.

See also

Other fermented dairy products

Other fermented beverages

Related Research Articles

Yogurt A food produced by bacterial fermentation of milk

Yogurt also spelled yoghurt, yogourt or yoghourt, is a food produced by bacterial fermentation of milk. The bacteria used to make yogurt are known as yogurt cultures. Fermentation of sugars in the milk by these bacteria produces lactic acid, which acts on milk protein to give yogurt its texture and characteristic tart flavor. Cow's milk is the milk most commonly used to make yogurt. Milk from water buffalo, goats, ewes, mares, camels, yaks and plant milks are also used to produce yogurt. The milk used may be homogenized or not. It may be pasteurized or raw. Each type of milk produces substantially different results.

<i>Lactobacillus</i> Genus of bacteria

Lactobacillus is a genus of Gram-positive, aerotolerant anaerobes or microaerophilic, rod-shaped, non-spore-forming bacteria. Until March 2020, the genus Lactobacillus comprised over 260 phylogenetically, ecologically, and metabolically diverse species; a taxonomic revision of the genus in 2020 assigned lactobacilli to 25 genera.

Lactic acid fermentation

Lactic acid fermentation is a metabolic process by which glucose or other six-carbon sugars are converted into cellular energy and the metabolite lactate, which is lactic acid in solution. It is an anaerobic fermentation reaction that occurs in some bacteria and animal cells, such as muscle cells.

<i>Lactobacillus delbrueckii <span style="font-style:normal;">subsp.</span> bulgaricus</i> Subspecies of bacteria, used in yogurt

Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus is one of over 200 published species in the Lactobacillus genome complex (LGC) and is the main bacterium used for the production of yogurt. It also plays a crucial role in the ripening of some cheeses, as well as in other processes involving naturally fermented products. It is defined as homofermentive lactic acid bacteria due to lactic acid being the single end product of its carbohydrate digestion. It is also considered a probiotic.

Kombucha fermented tea beverage

Kombucha is a fermented, lightly effervescent, sweetened black or green tea drink commonly consumed for its purported health benefits. Sometimes the beverage is called kombucha tea to distinguish it from the culture of bacteria and yeast. Juice, spices, fruit or other flavorings are often added to enhance the taste of the beverage.

Probiotic microorganisms said to provide health benefits when consumed

Probiotics are live microorganisms promoted with claims that they provide health benefits when consumed, generally by improving or restoring the gut flora. Probiotics are considered generally safe to consume, but may cause bacteria-host interactions and unwanted side effects in rare cases. There is little evidence that probiotics bring the health benefits claimed for them.

Lactiplantibacillus plantarum is a widespread member of the genus Lactiplantibacillus and commonly found in many fermented food products as well as anaerobic plant matter. L. plantarum was first isolated from saliva, based on its ability to temporarily persist in plants, the insect intestine and in the intestinal tract of vertebrate animals, it was designated as nomadic organism. L. plantarum is Gram positive, bacilli shaped bacterium. L. plantarum cells are rods with rounded ends, straight, generally 0.9–1.2 μm wide and 3–8 μm long, occurring singly, in pairs or in short chains. L. plantarum has one of the largest genomes known among the lactic acid bacteria and is a very flexible and versatile species. It is estimated to grow between pH 3.4 and 8.8. Lactobacillus plantarum can grow in the temperature range 12 °C to 40 °C.


Viili (Finnish) is a mesophilic fermented milk product found in the Nordic countries, particularly Finland. Viili is similar to yoghurt or kefir, but when left unmixed, its texture is malleable, or "long". The metabolism of the bacteria used in the fermentation also gives viili a slightly different taste.

Pediococcus is a genus of gram-positive lactic acid bacteria, placed within the family of Lactobacillaceae. They usually occur in pairs or tetrads, and divide along two planes of symmetry, as do the other lactic acid cocci genera Aerococcus and Tetragenococcus. They are purely homofermentative. Pediococcus dextrinicus has recently been reassigned to the genus Lactobacillus.

<i>Lactobacillus casei</i> Species of bacterium

Lactobacillus casei is a species of genus Lactobacillus. This particular species of Lactobacillus is documented to have a wide pH and temperature range, and complements the growth of L. acidophilus, a producer of the enzyme amylase.

Leuconostoc is a genus of gram-positive bacteria, placed within the family of Leuconostocaceae. They are generally ovoid cocci often forming chains. Leuconostoc spp. are intrinsically resistant to vancomycin and are catalase-negative. All species within this genus are heterofermentative and are able to produce dextran from sucrose. They are generally slime-forming.

Lactic acid bacteria Order of bacteria

Lactobacillales are an order of gram-positive, low-GC, acid-tolerant, generally nonsporulating, nonrespiring, either rod-shaped (bacilli) or spherical (cocci) bacteria that share common metabolic and physiological characteristics. These bacteria, usually found in decomposing plants and milk products, produce lactic acid as the major metabolic end product of carbohydrate fermentation, giving them the common name lactic acid bacteria (LAB).


Tibicos, or water kefir, is a traditional fermented drink made with water and a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts (SCOBY) held in a polysaccharide biofilm matrix created by the bacteria. It is sometimes consumed as an alternative to milk based probiotic drinks or tea-cultured products such as kombucha. Water kefir is typically made as a probiotic homebrew beverage. The finished product, if bottled, will produce a carbonated beverage.

Fermentation Anaerobic enzymatic conversion of organic compounds

Fermentation is a metabolic process that produces chemical changes in organic substrates through the action of enzymes. In biochemistry, it is narrowly defined as the extraction of energy from carbohydrates in the absence of oxygen. In food production, it may more broadly refer to any process in which the activity of microorganisms brings about a desirable change to a foodstuff or beverage. The science of fermentation is known as zymology.

Fermentation in food processing Converting carbohydrates to alcohol or acids using anaerobic microorganisms

Fermentation in food processing is the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids using microorganisms—yeasts or bacteria—under anaerobic conditions. Fermentation usually implies that the action of microorganisms is desired. The science of fermentation is known as zymology or zymurgy.

<i>Streptococcus thermophilus</i> Species of bacterium

Streptococcus thermophilus also known as Streptococcus salivarius subsp. thermophilus is a gram-positive bacterium, and a fermentative facultative anaerobe, of the viridans group. It tests negative for cytochrome, oxidase, and catalase, and positive for alpha-hemolytic activity. It is non-motile and does not form endospores. S. thermophilus is fimbriated.

Levilactobacillus brevis(previously Lactobacillus brevis) is a gram-positive, rod shaped species of lactic acid bacteria which is heterofermentative, creating CO2, lactic acid and acetic acid or ethanol during fermentation. L. brevis is the type species of the genus Levilactobacillus (previously L. brevis group), which comprises 24 species (, It can be found in many different environments, such as fermented foods, and as normal microbiota. L.brevis is found in food such as sauerkraut and pickles. It is also one of the most common causes of beer spoilage. Ingestion has been shown to improve human immune function, and it has been patented several times. Normal gut microbiotaL.brevis is found in human intestines, vagina and feces.

Microbial food cultures are live bacteria, yeasts or moulds used in food production. Microbial food cultures carry out the fermentation process in foodstuffs. Used by humans since the Neolithic period fermentation helps to preserve perishable foods and to improve their nutritional and organoleptic qualities. As of 1995, fermented food represented between one quarter and one third of food consumed in Central Europe. More than 260 different species of microbial food culture are identified and described for their beneficial use in fermented food products globally, showing the importance of their use.

Lactobacillus pontis is a rod-shaped, Gram-positive facultatively anaerobic bacterium. Along with other Lactobacillus species, it is capable of converting sugars, such as lactose, into lactic acid. Lactobacillus pontis is classified under the phylum Firmicutes, class Bacilli, and is a member of the family Lactobacillaceae and is found to be responsible for the fermentation of sourdough, along with many other Lactobacillus species. This microorganism produces lactic acid during the process of fermentation, which gives sourdough bread its characteristic sour taste.

Symbiotic fermentation is a form of fermentation in which multiple organisms interact in order to produce the desired product. For example, a yeast may produce ethanol, which is then consumed by an acetic acid bacterium. Described early on as the fermentation of sugars following saccharification in a mixed fermentation process.


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