Sweet, tart, and delightfully effervescent, water kefir (also known as tibicos) is a naturally fermented drink that's rich in beneficial bacteria. Its delicate flavor and natural fizziness make it an excellent substitute for sodas and soft drinks. You can make it at home with a few easy steps.
What is water kefir?
Water kefir, or tibicos, is a traditional fermented drink made by culturing water, sugar, and fruit with a starter culture. The starter culture contains various beneficial bacteria and yeasts that produce a slightly tart, effervescent drink.
While its specific origin is unclear, researchers suspect that water kefir originated in pre-Columbian Mexico. It is still used in Mexico today in some preparations of tepache - which is a lightly fermented drink often made from corn or pineapple.
Water Kefir Grains (Tibicos)
Like kombucha and milk kefir, you need a SCOBY or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast to culture water kefir properly. The bacteria present in this culture produce small, gelatinous crystals called water kefir grains or tibicos.
And those little crystals turn sugar water into a bubbly, fermented drink. Most importantly, you can't brew the drink without them.
These tiny, crystal-like grains can form naturally beneath the skin of prickly pear cactus fruits (1). Further, it’s likely that early brewers captured tibicos from the wild and then cultivated the culture through domestic brewing.
Rich in Beneficial Bacteria
Like all cultured drinks, water kefir is naturally rich in beneficial bacteria and yeasts. And for people who are dairy-free and who cannot eat milk kefir or yogurt, it's an excellent source of probiotics
Researchers have studied the microbial composition of water kefir since the late 19th century(2). And water kefir cultures typically contain nearly 60 strains of lactobacillus bacteria, yeasts and other microbes(3). That's more than yogurt, but less than milk kefir.
The exact bacteria and yeasts found in your tibicos grains vary from culture to culture. Each culture is dynamic, and the microbes native to your kitchen will influence the culture's full microbial makeup. Although some strains of bacteria and yeast are common to almost all water kefir grains, like lactobacillus hilgardii and saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Is it good for you?
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 slightly.
- Gut Health. Water kefir is particularly rich in probiotics. In other words, it’s those beneficial bacteria that help to support gut health.
- Cellular Health. Some research shows that water kefir supports healthy cells and may have anti-carcinogenic properties (4).
- Oral Health. Fermented tonics may help to support oral health, too (5).
Of course, while water kefir can be beneficial for many people, it can also be a poor choice for others. It still retains a fairly high amount of sugar, even though probiotics convert some of that sugar to beneficial acids. So for people who struggle with blood sugar regulation, fermented vegetables make a better choice.
Probiotic-rich foods and drinks can have a laxative effect, especially for newcomers. So, if you’re just starting out, try drinking only 4 ounces at a time - or about half a cup. And then pay attention to how you feel.
Water Kefir and Alcohol
Like all fermented beverages, water kefir contains a small amount of alcohol - around 0.5% to 0.75%. To clarify, that's about the same amount that you'd find in over-ripe fruit or in kombucha.
Once you get the hang of brewing your water kefir, there's a few things you can do to make sure you have a consistently good drink every time.
- Use filtered or dechlorinated water. Chlorine is strongly antibacterial. And so it can damage your tibicos grains over time.
- Use an unrefined cane sugar like jaggery, panela or rapadura. Water kefir thrives in a mineral-rich environment, and unrefined sugars are rich in minerals.
- Use a caloric sweetener. Your culture needs sugar in order to thrive. While unrefined sugar works best, you can also use white sugar, molasses, honey and coconut sugar. Avoid noncaloric sweeteners like stevia and xylitol.
- Add a liquid mineral supplement if you use white or refined sugar to give your culture the minerals it needs to grow.
- Add dried fruit like figs or raisins to your brew. Dried fruit gives your grains much-needed minerals and will float when the kefir is finished.
- If you want to take a break, store your grains in a jar in the fridge covered by sugar water. Change the water every two weeks.
- Stir thoroughly before bottling it to distribute the yeasts. Yeast activity is what gives you great bubbles. Evenly distributing the yeast among your bottles will give you better and more consistent results.
How to Make Water Kefir
To make water kefir, you'll need to mix sugar and water together, and then cool it to room temperature before adding your grains. Drop in some dried fruit for minerals, and allow it to culture at least 24 and up to 72 hours before straining and bottling.
Water Kefir Recipe (Tibicos)
- 1 cup fruit juice or other flavoring
- Bring the 1 cup water to a boil over medium-high heat, and then stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Pour the sugar water into a quart-sized mason jar, and then pour in 3 cold water. Allow the sugar water to cool to room temperature.
- Spoon the water kefir grains into the room temperature sugar water. Drop in the fig and lime. Let it culture at least 24 hours and up to 72 hours.
- Strain the kefir through a nonreactive strainer into a pitcher. Discard the spent lime and fig, but reserve the water kefir grains.
- Store the reserved kefir grains in sugar water in the fridge up to 2 weeks.
- Serve the kefir right away, or continue with the secondary fermentation below.
- For the secondary fermentation, pour 1 cup fruit juice into the kefir. And then pour the flavored kefir into flip-top bottles, 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.
Where to Buy a Starter
To brew water kefir, you'll need to pick up a starter culture. And the easiest place to find them is online. Below is our favorite place.
Want to take it to the next level? Try this version.
Cherry Water Kefir
Once you master the basic recipe, you can start to add fruits, herbs and juices to flavor your kefir. Here's a simple recipe using summery sweet cherries.
Try these fermented drinks next
- Katz, S. 2012. The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing.
- Lutz, M.L., 1899. Recherches biologiques sur la constitution du Tibi. Bulletin de la Societe Mycologique de France 15, 68–72.
- Gulitz, A., et al. The Microbial Diversity of Water Kefir. 2011 Apr.
- Zamberi, N. R., et al. (2016). The Antimetastatic and Antiangiogenesis Effects of Kefir Water on Murine Breast Cancer Cells. Integrative cancer therapies, 15(4), NP53–NP66.
- Chatterjee, A., et al. (2011). Probiotics in periodontal health and disease. Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology, 15(1)