Water kefir, a fermented beverage teeming with beneficial bacteria, is remarkably simple to prepare and often more palatable than other probiotic tonics like kombucha and beet kvass. Similar in flavor to a dry, slightly fizzy lemonade, water kefir is pleasant and even small children can enjoy it. When my son was littler than he is now, I’d often fill his cup with diluted water kefir as treat, and he loved the fizzy lemonade, and I loved knowing the treat nourished his growing body.
What is water kefir?
Water kefir, like kombucha, is first cultured by introducing a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts) into sugar water. The beneficial bacteria and yeasts present in the water kefir grains metabolize the sugar, turning it into an array of beneficial acids and infusing it with beneficial microorganisms, additional B vitamins as well as food enzymes.
Water kefir grains are small, translucent, gelatinous structures and are comprised of assorted bacteria including lactobacillus hilgardii which gives them their characteristic crystal-like appearance. When properly cared for and regularly cultured, they produce a wonderful probiotic-rich beverage and will continue to grow and reproduce indefinitely.
Water Kefir Benefits
Water kefir, like most fermented foods, supports gut health and systemic wellness. The beneficial bacteria in the water kefir grains consume the sugar in the sugar water, and as they metabolize the sugar, they produce a variety of beneficial acids, food enzymes, B vitamins and more beneficial bacteria. This process of fermentation also reduces the sugar content of the drink.
Water Kefir and Alcohol
Like all fermented beverages, culturing water kefir produces a small amount of alcohol. The alcohol content of water kefir hovers around 0.5% to 0.75% depending on how long it is brewed, and is typically less than what you find in over-ripe fruit which hovers at 0.9% to 1%. If you’re concerned about alcohol content in water kefir, you can test your brews with a hydrometer (like this one), often used by home brewers, or read this piece about alcohol content and water kefir.
What You Need to Make Water Kefir
Water Kefir Grains
To make water kefir, you need water kefir grains (available here). Water kefir grains (or tibicos) are a SCOBY, that is a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts. As you brew water kefir, the grains will grow and reproduce, and you’ll have new grains to give to friends so that they, in turn, can begin culturing water kefir at home. Water kefir should not be made with milk kefir grains, which are a different composition of beneficial bacteria and yeasts that rely on milk to grow and reproduce. While you can culture non-dairy liquids (like coconut milk, sugar water, sweetened infusions, etc.) with milk kefir grains, you should return them to milk at least weekly lest they weaken with time. Water kefir grains, similarly, should be kept only for culturing water kefir.
Water kefir grains proliferate best in a high-mineral environment. While I prefer plain organic cane sugar in making water kefir, for it offers a cleaner taste and clearer drink, mineral-rich unrefined cane sugars (like jaggery or whole, unrefined cane sugar) work well. Concentrace, a liquid mineral supplement, also works well to support the health of the water kefir grains by providing them with plenty of minerals.
Equipment for Brewing Water Kefir
To brew water kefir, you’ll need a jar with a loose fitting lid or a bit of cheesecloth. I use mason jars like these. For secondary fermentation, a process that gives water kefir its characteristic fizz, I recommend flip-top bottles.
- ¼ cup water kefir grains (available here)
- ¼ cup organic cane sugar
- 2 dried, unsulphured figs
- 1 lemon, cut in half
- dash concentrace (available here), optional
- ½ cup fruit juice OR 2 tablespoons organic cane sugar
- Bring about 6 cups of filtered water to a boil, then stir in the sugar. Continue stirring the sugar into the hot water until it dissolves, then allow it to cool to room temperature.
- Place the water kefir grains into a 2-quart jar, Pour in the sugar water, and drop in the figs and lemon. Add a dash of concentrace or other liquid mineral supplement, if desired. Cover the jar loosely with a lid, or with cheesecloth secured with cooking twine to allow air in but to prevent stray debris from spoiling your water kefir. Allow the water kefir to ferment for 2 to 3 days. The longer it ferments, the stronger its flavor will become.
- When the water kefir acquires a flavor that suits you, strain it through a nonreactive (plastic, wood or stainless steel) strainer into a pitcher. Discard the spent lemon and figs, but reserve the water kefir grains which can be immediately recultured or which can be stored in water in the fridge for up to 1 week.
- While the water kefir can be enjoyed as it is, after its initial fermentation, you can also ferment it a second time. Secondary fermentation allows you to flavor the water kefir, and the secondary fermentation process, which occurs in a tightly capped bottle (like these) allows carbon dioxide to develop, producing a fizzy water kefir.
- For the secondary fermentation, pour either ¼ cup fruit juice of your choice or 1 tablespoon organic cane sugar into each of two flip-top bottles (like these). Then pour the water kefir from the pitcher into the bottle, filling them within ½ inch to 1 inch of their openings. Seal the bottles, and set them on your countertop to ferment a further 18 to 24 hours, keeping in mind that warm temperatures will speed up the fermentation process while cool temperatures will slow it down. Transfer the bottles of water kefir to the fridge for 3 days to allow the bubbles to set. Open carefully over a sink, as the liquid in the bottle is under pressure, and when you release the bottle's seal, the water kefir may fizz and foam.