Like any bustling city, Buenos Aires has its pockets of quiet magic. A native of the Argentine capital, Gonzalo Enríquez recently found a home in one of these secret spaces, where he's traversed the fermentation spectrum from craft beer to water kefir.
Behind a nondescript gate in the city's lush green suburb of San Isidro, there's a network of narrow, tree-shaded sidewalks and dirt paths connecting about 50 houses, many occupied by artists, that sit near the edge of the wide Río de la Plata, where the multi-colored sails of kite surfers fill the sky. About a year ago, after Enríquez had settled into one of these houses, he threw a couple spoons of water kefir grains (a gift from a chef neighbor) into a jar of water, fed it sugar and raisins, and watched it grow. “I tried it, and I didn't stop. I really like to ferment, and making beer is not that different from making water kefir,” Enríquez says.
Less well known than its dairy counterpart that's commonly consumed in Europe, water kefir is generally thought to have originated in Mexico. Full of lactic bacteria and yeast, water kefir granules (also called “tibicos”) thrive in sugary water, and in a few days, produce a fermented beverage that's full of probiotics.
Today, that handful of grains, nurtured under Enríquez's attentive eye, has become the potent source of Dalú Kefir, his line of flavored, fizzy water kefir beverages. Enríquez sees his kefir as a “healthy soda alternative” for a city that is starting to embrace fermented foods and beverages as passionately as it has embraced the craft beer trend.
In fact, it was craft beer that led Enríquez, who calls himself “a modern alchemist,” to this new adventure in fermentation. From 2013 until 2018, the city-bred brewer pursued the tranquility of village life in Argentina's hilly province of Córdoba, where he developed his homebrewing skills into a solid craft beer business in the region, eventually opening up one of the first growler shops in the province's largest city, also called Córdoba. What caught the attention and devoted following of his customers was Enríquez's unique approach—infusing the beer with flavors from what grew around him, native plants like carob, mistol, and chañar, which are “very important and old trees that grow in the provinces and that you hear about in Argentine folk songs,” Enríquez explains.
Dalú's six flavors are borne of this same philosophy. A short visit to Peru for a wedding reminded Enríquez that he could continue to ferment his kefir in the same style as his beer, and he returned to Argentina inspired to make a kefir flavor based on chicha morada, a Peruvian beverage made of fermented purple corn.
“Moving back to Buenos Aires from Córdoba was a big change—no longer living in the mountains, not being in the wilderness and fermenting. I still wanted to keep my style of fermentation, so realizing I could mix traditional ingredients with the kefir—that was the key that made the engine go,” Enríquez says.
Constant experimentation quickly resulted in other flavors: grape juice from biodynamic grapes sourced from Mendoza, Argentina's world famous wine region; hibiscus and watermelon; passion fruit from Brazil; and blueberries with black currant, both organic and sourced from Patagonia. His current favorite flavor “is a really thirst-quenching drink,” with lemon and lime, grapefruit, ginger, peppermint from Córdoba, and a little bit of Simcoe hops.
“It's important for me to choose ingredients handled by a small family farm or small company. I want to bring good, local ingredients to the people, using water kefir as the medium,” says Enríquez. Even the sugars that nourish his kefir grains are chosen with intention: blond organic sugar from a small producer in Salta, mascabo sugar from Misiones for its high mineral content, and arrope, a thick, jam-like syrup produced by cooking down fruit (Enríquez uses grapes or chañar). “The sugars you use really make a difference. It makes the grains happier as they ferment,” he says.
For each flavor, Enríquez cooks the ingredients together and lets the mixture cool before adding it into the fermented water (now absent of grains) to achieve a second fermentation. This is where the kefir gets its rich, distinct flavor and strong carbonation, factors which distinguish Dalú from the few other local water kefir brands that Enríquez has encountered.
Enríquez's pursuit of the local and the traditional reaches into every aspect of his kefir production. As water quality is crucial for the water kefir, Enríquez uses well water—“I like to think my water is untouched,” he says. But he also began taking courses with a well-known Argentine ceramicist, learning how to make natural ceramic water filters (which he also sells) that drip one liter of water per hour “cleaning the water as the earth does. It's a slow filtration, but the water picks up the minerals in the clay of the filter, and the minerals are very good for the yeast in the kefir,” Enríquez points out.
Lest you forget, baking ceramic objects requires a kiln—so Enríquez built one for himself, from scratch. The kiln now sits in the grassy space beside the community garden, just a few feet, through a canopy of weeping willow trees, from the long stretch of sandy river bank. While a part of the required water is slow-filtered, the rest is purified by the same reverse osmosis filtration system Enríquez used for his beer. The 130-gallon brewing system, which Enríquez transported back with him from Córdoba, is set up in a building that's a 30-minute bike ride away from his house.
So far, Dalú has been sold via word of mouth, but the brewing equipment sits ready to fulfill the orders that Enríquez was on the verge of taking from health food stores and craft beer bars (to be available on tap) he had been talking with before Argentina's quarantine began in mid-March. In the meantime, Enríquez continues to experiment and perfect his water kefir flavor recipes in small batches at home. “I want to offer something that makes people not only happy but also healthy.”
All photos by Guadalupe Orfila.