Water kefir, pronounced keh-fear, is a lightly sweet, naturally-carbonated probiotic beverage. You can flavor this health-enhancing drink with beneficial herbs, coconut water, or fruit juice. Water kefir fermentation is similar to kombucha in that it requires a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). These clusters and colonies of bacteria and yeast form a microscopic insoluble polysaccharide matrix. Most brewers refer to this water kefir fermentation culture as a ‘water kefir grain’.
Experts have yet to identify the exact origin of the water kefir culture. In Mexico, the tibicos culture comes from the Ountia cactus, and the brewing grains are referred to as tibi. Water kefir culture from the Caucaus Mountain region can be found growing wild on reeds next to mineral-rich rivers. The grains we brew with at Gingerhill are an heirloom strain from Cultures for Health. Water kefir culture is so mysterious because of the microscopic nature of the SCOBY.
Beneficial bacteria and yeasts in this Kefir culture may include:
Each water kefir culture is unique in color, shape, size, and taste. Furthermore, the bacteria and yeast that comprise each colony can vary markedly. In fact, water kefir develops naturally all across the world, accounting for its variability. Each SCOBY is special, and the fizzy bio-soda and culture used to brew it are therefore known by many names. These include: Aqua Gems, Bébées, Bees, Japanese Water Crystals, Kefir d’aqua, Kefir di Frutta, Tibicos, and Wasserkefir.
The SCOBY reproduces naturally. Thus, it is a custom among brewers to give the extra grains away to friends and family who want to brew their own kefir. Gifting the grains is a way to honor the life force of the SCOBY by sharing the abundance that the culture provides.
Water kefir grains are self-replenishing and will reproduce more culture, but they only do so at a rate that is sustainable for their environment. In other words, the kefir grains will not outcompete each other for food or for living space. The SCOBY consumes sugar and produces carbon dioxide, lactic acid, and ethanol. The kefir culture tends to prefer fructose over sucrose. Its preference becomes apparent when you see pronounced bubbling activity during the second ferment, which I describe in detail in the How to Brew section.
Making water kefir at home is a great way to reduce trash. The startup cost to home-brew water kefir can range from zero to about $35. Homemade water kefir is therefore a fraction of the cost of store-bought kefir and kombucha. If you upcycle brewing vessels and have a friend who will share second generation water kefir grains, you can start brewing at a low to non-existent cost. If you purchase a kit from Cultures for Health, the startup cost is about $35.
Here is a sample of the marginal cost to make 32 ounces of home brewed water kefir:
Cost of Supplies: Organic sugar = $0.45 cup; Tap water: $0.0003 per cup; Water kefir grains: free; and organic fruit or fruit juice: For this exercise we will account for organic apple juice at about $4/liter.
Water Kefir Recipe = Cost:
1/4 cup of sugar = $0.11
32 ounces water = $0.0024
Water kefir grains: free
1/2 cup fruit/juice= $1
The marginal cost for 32 ounces water kefir is about $1.11, or $0.035 per ounce!
When you brew your own probiotic beverages at home, you can choose to include specific strains and ingredients. By extension, you can feel confident that your brew contains only the best ingredients. Furthermore, home brewed kefir can be bottled in up-cycled, reusable glass containers to eliminate the production of trash in the process.
It is common for commercial brewers to use plastic vessels and toxic cleaning chemicals in their brewing processes. Additionally, it is illegal for commercial brewers to brew or ferment using clay or glass vessels because of health and hazard concerns. Clay is porous and can harbor yeast and bacteria (which is actually a good thing if it is the right yeast and bacteria). Glass is a hazard when brewing because there is potential risk of explosion. Never overfill your vessels; always leave at least 25 percent of the volume of the vessel for carbon dioxide.
Kefir Fermentation: How-To-Brew
- 1- 1 quart sized mason jar
- Piece of fabric or coffee filter
- Rubber band or mason jar ring
- 1- 4 liter/gallon sized mason jar or glass vessel with hermes swing top
- Pyrex measuring cup
- Upcycled glass bottles with corks or lids for bottling
- ¼ cup organic cane sugar. Do not use honey.
- 4 cups filtered water or spring water
- 3-4 tablespoons hydrated kefir grains
- ½ cup organic fruit juice, 1 cup fruit or ½ cup flavored simple syrup
For the First Kefir Fermentation:
- In a quart-size glass mason jar, dissolve ¼ cup organic cane sugar in a small amount of hot water. This is Jar One, your first stage fermentation jar.
- Once you dissolve the sugar, fill the jar with cool filtered water. The solution must be at room temperature (68-85°F) before adding kefir grains!
- Add the hydrated water kefir grains to Jar One.
- Cover with a breathable cloth and secure with a rubber band. Yeast requires oxygen for it’s metabolic process. It is very important to keep your water kefir in a warm (preferably at 68-85°F) clean space with good air and positive energy.
- Leave Jar One on the counter for 24-48 hours. The longer you let it ferment, the more sugar ferments out. Remember to feed the SCOBY at least every 48 hours to avoid starving them.
For the Second Kefir Fermentation:
- After 48 hours, pour off the liquid from Jar One into a 1 gallon hermes jar. This is Jar Two. Be careful not to pour out the water kefir grains from Jar One. Reserve some liquid from your first ferment to give your next batch an active culture boost. This method is also known as back slopping.
- Transfer the grains and backslop liquid to a new, clean, quart-sized mason jar. This is the new Jar One.
- For the second ferment in Jar Two it is critical to use a vessel that is especially made to withstand pressure from carbonation. A swing top jar with a hermes lid allows excess air to escape while keeping oxygen from entering the jar.
- Add herbs, fresh fruit, or fruit juice to jar two. Be sure that you add at least ¼ cup of fructose or sucrose to the jar to continue to feed the SCOBY present in the liquid. Allow Jar Two to ferment for 48 hours or until it reaches a pleasant level of fermentation. Kefir SCOBY prefer fructose over sucrose and you will notice increased activity and production of carbon dioxide when you add fruit to Jar Two.
- As you are learning the cycles and rhythms of brewing water kefir, be sure to taste your brew about every 12 hours.
- Once the brew reaches a flavor the you enjoy, not too sweet but not too sour, then bottle and refrigerate the kefir. Pour the liquid from Jar Two into smaller glass bottles, leaving enough room for pressure from carbonation, and seal the bottles. Upcycled wine bottles with corks or upcycled kombucha bottles work great.
- Label and date your bottles then refrigerate. The fermentation process will slow down once the liquid is refrigerated, but carbonation and flavor will continue to develop.
Tending the Kefir Colony:
- Continue the brewing process about every 48 hours by replenishing the kefir grains in Jar One with fresh, room temperature sugar water. You will notice that kefir grains begin to multiply! So please share with your community.
- If you are using filtered water, you will need to supply the SCOBY with a source of minerals. Added mineral supplementation can include ½ teaspoon crushed organic eggshells, ⅛ teaspoon unrefined sea salt, ¼ teaspoon plain baking soda, ½ teaspoon unsulfured blackstrap molasses or a few drops of liquid trace minerals.
- For flavoring, you can get creative with herb and fruit combinations by making flavored simple syrups to add during the second ferment. For example, dissolve ¼ cup organic cane sugar in ¼ cup lemon juice, add 1 cup of crushed mint leaves, and add to Jar Two to create mint lemonade water kefir.
Tending a water kefir colony is an act of friendship. The colony depends on you to feed it. In return, the beneficial yeast and bacteria contribute to your gut health.
- Katz, Sandor. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. Chelsea Green Publishing Co, 2013.