• Kefir is the "it" drink, even though it's been around for ages. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The milky brew might be 2019’s biggest drink trend – but in Russia, it’s been old news for centuries.
Lucy Rennick

21 Feb 2019 - 12:44 PM  UPDATED 12 Feb 2019 - 5:52 PM

Next time you’re talking to your Russian friends about 2019 drink trends, don’t mention kefir unless an eye-roll is the preferred response.

Australian supermarket giant Woolworths recently picked the milky, fizzy brew as one of the year’s most popular drinks in the making, but kefir has featured prominently in the diets of Russians for centuries.

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Russians consume around 20L of the drink each year. It’s a fixture on kindergarten and hospital menus, and has even garnered a reputation as a hangover cure – a treat for young and old. Kefir may just now be causing a buzz in Sydney, but in Eastern Europe, it’s seen as more of a reliable, nutritious old friend, its origins lying in the Caucasus Mountain region. It's such an ancient drink that it was being consumed before records were written – and one legend has it that the Prophet Muhammad gave kefir grains to the mountain-dwelling locals. According to Russian culture site Russia Beyond, it first appeared as a fungal culture within the Caucasus steppe tribes – and the first official mention of kefir is in a Caucasian Medical Society report dating from 1867.  

Kefir, dubbed “the champagne of milk” by some, is almost like a kombucha made with yoghurt, or a lightly fizzy lassi. Traditional milk kefir is the result of the fermentation of kefir grains, which, surprisingly, aren’t grains at all. They’re a combination of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts, proteins, lipids and sugars that work together to make scoby – symbiotic bacteria – and end up as gelatinous beads that curiously resemble cauliflower. The grains are soaked in cow’s milk and left to ferment at room temperature for a minimum of 24 hours, creating a frothy, creamy drink with just a hint of detectable sourness.

In this age of upmarket kombucha bottles being sold in supermarkets, and fervent gut-health discussion dominating both health and food-related news, it’s little wonder why kefir is attracting some attention: believe it or not, fizzy milk is good for you. Kefir is chock-full of friendly bacteria (probiotics), which means it could be beneficial if slurped by people suffering gastrointestinal disturbances. Australian dietitian Charlene Grosse recommends incorporating fermented foods like kefir into a standard diet for the promotion of good bacteria in the gut.

Australian dietitian Charlene Grosse recommends incorporating fermented foods like kefir into a standard diet for the promotion of good bacteria in the gut.

And Woolworths customers are going to love it, according to the brand's senior nutritionist Natalie Chong. “This year we predict that functional products such as green banana flour, cereals with prebiotic fibre and fermented foods with probiotics like kefir will become increasingly popular with customers,” she told News.com.au.

The trend doesn’t seem to be localised to Sydney, either. This week, dairy-free brand Coyo recently launched a line of vegan-friendly coconut milk kefir drinks in the UK, in two varieties: natural and strawberry. 

While the rest of the world starts crushing on kefir in earnest, Russians continue to use it to marinade shashlik, make blini and okroshka soup, or simply drink it straight from the glass – just like they have for centuries. Whether Australia can rival Russia’s annual 20L-per-head consumption rate is yet to be seen. 

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