Water Kefir Grains (tibicos, sugary kefir grains) are a culture of bacteria and yeasts held in a polysaccharide biofilm matrix created by the bacteria. As with milk kefir grains, the microbes present in water kefir grains act in symbiosis to maintain a stable culture. Water kefir grains can do this in many different sugary liquids, feeding off the sugar to produce lactic acid, alcohol (ethanol), and carbon dioxide gas, which carbonates the drink.
Jump to a section…
- Making Water Kefir
- Rehabilitating Water Kefir
- Making a Resting Solution
- Rinse the Grains
- Rest the Grains
- Get the Grains Back to Work
- A Bit More About Kefir…
- Origin of Kefir
The basic preparation method is to add water kefir grains to a sugary liquid and allow it to ferment 24 to 72 hours, depending on temperature and desired taste. In cooler temperatures, the mixture may require up to 4 to 5 days to ferment. It’s “done” when it has the desired level of sweetness. A typical recipe might contain the water kefir grains, a citrus fruit and water. It is important to use ingredients that will not inhibit the fermentation, such as chlorine in tap water or preservatives in dried fruit (sulfites). The fruits used may be changed and mixed to create different flavors.
Additional precautions should be taken to keep the cultures healthy. The use of reactive metals such as aluminium, copper, or zinc should be avoided. The acidity of the solution can cause these metals to corrode. Stainless steel, plastic, non-lead-glazed ceramic or glass containers can all be used for storage.
To dehydrate grains, spread them out in a single layer on a paper towel or muslin-type cloth, and cover. If you have a surface you can put the paper towel/ cloth on that will allow air to circulate around them, that also works well. It takes a few days to a week for the grains to dry.
Making Water Kefir
The following recipe includes raisins, ginger and lemon. You can create a batch without these additional ingredients, but this recipe produces an amazingly light flavor.
- 1/3 cup water kefir grains
- 3 tablespoons organic raisins (only use unsulphured dried fruit)
- 1/2 cup organic sugar
- 1/2 organic lemon
- 1 thin slice fresh ginger (peeled)
- 1 to 1 1/2 quarts chlorine-free water
- Dissolve sugar into water. Do not use honey in place of sugar. Honey has antimicrobial properties and will damage your water kefir grains or delay their proliferation.
- Add water kefir grains, raisins, half a lemon and slice of ginger to the mixture of sugar water in a 1/2 gallon mason jar.
- Allow your water kefir to brew in a lidded mason jar at room temperature for 24 – 72 hours depending on the strength you prefer and the temperature of your home. The warmer your home is, the faster water kefir will brew.
- Strain the water kefir grains, raisins, lemon and ginger from the water kefir and bottle the liquid into smaller containers using a non-metallic strainer.
- At this point you can flavor them. I’ve added acia brewed tea that was cooled. Vanilla bean, berries,.
- Allow the smaller bottles to sit out for another 24 – 48 hours to continue fermentation and produce natural carbonation.
- Serve cold over ice and enjoy!
- Water kefir is very versatile. This basic recipe can be altered slightly to introduce different beneficial herbs or flavors to produce a wide array of probiotic beverages. Try replacing the ginger with fresh mint, anise or cardamom or replace raisins with dried strawberries are quite good too. I’ve even used dried cherries dried cranberries.
- Just don’t add dark straining ingredients to the first brewing because the grains will pick up the color.
Rehabilitating Water Kefir
Water kefir is a delicious and refreshing drink, loaded with probiotics and easy to make. Under ideal conditions, you can put a couple of tablespoons of water kefir grains in a quart of sugar-water, coconut water, or fruit juice, let it sit for a day or two, then strain, add flavoring, and let ferment for a few more days. The result will be a light, slightly fizzy drink that kids and grownups love to drink.
However, there are a few problems that can come up when the grains are stressed from overcrowding, lack of nutrients, or contamination. These problems include:
- Slimy grains
- Syrupy kefir
- Strong odor (sulfuric, rotting fruit, “stinky feet”)
- White film at the top of kefir
- Diminished volume of grains
These problems can be a result of the kefir not properly re-building themselves, which is a result of undernourishment. Or, it can be an imbalance in the bacteria and yeasts in the culture, which can come from undernourishment, or overnourishment, or just the wrong ingredients.
Kefir grains need not just sugar as food; they also need minerals. It’s very easy to supplement with minerals when needed. However, while minerals are essential to the good health of water kefir grains, they can also get too many minerals, or an imbalance. Or, they can change their requirements for minerals: having had enough of one mineral, they may now need a different one!
Often water kefir grains will benefit by a short time “on vacation” so they can re-balance and. So while adjusting the ingredients in your water kefir can be helpful, sometimes it’s a good idea to let the grains rest a little as well.
Here’s how to give your grains a “rest and recover” treatment that will get them back on the road to robust productivity.
Making a Resting Solution
Start with fresh, clean water. Make sure it does not have fluoride in it. If your tap water is fluoridated, it is not likely that an ordinary house filter will remove it. You will have to use bottled spring water, or get a filter specially designed to remove fluoride. Chlorine can be removed by filtering, evaporation, aeration, or boiling. Chloramines, used instead of chlorine in some municipalities, must be filtered out.
Bring the water to a boil and let it cool for five or ten minutes. (If you boil for 20 to 30 minutes, it will also remove the chlorine.) You will need a quart for the resting solution, plus a quart or more for rinsing the grains.
In a quart-size mason jar, put 4 tablespoons of granulated sugar. The best type to use is an unrefined organic sugar such as turbinado, Sucanat, evaporated cane juice (unbleached), rapadura, etc. You can also use white table sugar. Don’t use honey, agave, coconut sugar, or any other type of alternative sugar. (Some of these are okay for culturing, but you want to just keep it simple for now.)
Now, depending on the mineral content of your water and the condition of your grains, you might need to add some mineral supplementation. Small, mushy grains can usually benefit from some minerals. Syrupy kefir is usually a result of too many minerals. If you have an idea of the mineral content of your water, add minerals to soft water, or leave them out of hard water.
You can choose any one of the following:
- 1/8 teaspoon unrefined sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon plain baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon unsulfured blackstrap molasses
- A few drops of liquid mineral supplement (such as Concentrace)
- 1 teaspoon oyster shell (sterilized, the kind that is used in aquariums), or sterilized, crushed eggshell (If you use oyster shell or eggshell, put it in a muslin bag so it doesn’t get mixed up with the grains.)
Fill the mason jar with the boiled water to about an inch or two from the top, and let it cool to room temperature. Set the rest of the water aside. When it is cool, you can rinse the kefir grains. (Alternatively, you can use just enough boiled water to dissolve the sugar, and fill the jar with cool, filtered water.)
Rinse the Grains
Ordinarily you should not need to rinse the kefir grains, but if they have gotten to the point where they are slimy or stinky, it’s a good idea to clean them off.
- Put some filtered or boiled, cooled water in a shallow bowl, and set up a plastic mesh strainer so you can put the grains in the strainer and have them bathed in the water.
- Stir the grains around in the strainer gently with your finger, brushing them lightly up against the strainer. This will clean off any loose yeast or contaminants off the surface of the grains without damaging them.
- Pour off the water, which will be cloudy.
- Repeat the rinsing a few times until the discarded water is pretty clear. Your grains are now “naked” and ready to rest.
Rest the Grains
Put the cleaned grains in the prepared solution, and cover the jar with a plastic lid. (If all you have is a metal lid, put a coffee filter over the top of the jar, then put the lid on top of that.)
Now put the jar of grains and water in the refrigerator and leave them there for at least three or four days. The cold will put the grains to sleep. They can stay in the refrigerator for as long as a month, resting and rebuilding.
Get the Grains Back to Work
After your grains have rested, you are ready to make a new batch of kefir.Set up the new kefir solution the same way you made the resting solution, with clean water, granulated sugar, and mineral supplementation if needed.
- Strain the grains out of the resting solution. If you want, you can save the liquid. If it has only been in the refrigerator for a few days, it will be mostly sweet water with some probiotics in it. If you left it in the refrigerator for a long time, it may be very lightly fizzy and can be treated like kefir. In any case, it should smell better than it did before you started. If the grains still seem distressed (slime, bad smell, or white film), make a new batch of resting solution and rest the grains again.
- Add the rested grain to the new kefiring solution. You should have between 2 and 4 tablespoons of grains to a quart of water. If you have more grains than that, you can either divide them into smaller batches and make more jars, or use a larger jar. Make sure you maintain the right proportions of sugar and minerals in the water.
- Cover the jar with a paper towel or coffee filter secured by a rubber band, and let the grains sit for 24 to 48 hours.
- The resulting kefir should be clean and fresh, and ready for you to strain off, flavor, cover, and let sit for a couple of days to ferment again.
- Badly damaged grains may require two or three cycles of rinse, rest, recover. The good news is that once they are fully recovered, you can continue to use them for many months to come.
A bit more about kefir…
Water kefir grains are currently known by a number of different names, to include tibicos, tibi, sugar kefir grains, sugary kefir grains, Japanese water crystals and California bees. You’ll also see references, in older literature asbébées, African bees, ale nuts, Australian bees, balm of Gilead, beer seeds, beer plant, bees, ginger bees, Japanese beer seeds and vinegar bees.
Water kefir grains are found around the world, with no two cultures being exactly the same.
Typical water kefirs have a mix of Lactobacillus, Streptococcus,Pediococcus and Leuconostoc bacteria with yeasts from Saccharomyces, Candida, Kloeckera and possibly others. Lactobacillus brevis has been identified as the species responsible for the production of the polysaccharide (dextran) that forms the grains. Pidoux (1989) also identifies the sugary kefir grain with the ginger beer plant. Certainly opportunistic bacteria take advantage of this stable symbiotic relation which might be the reason for the many different names/distinction in the scientific literature. Different ingredients or hygienic conditions might also change the fungal and bacteriological composition, leading to the different names. People who do not wish to consume dairy products may find that water kefir providesprobiotics without the need for dairy or tea cultured products, such as kombucha. The finished product, if bottled, will produce a carbonated beverage. Note that it will continue to ferment when bottled thus producing more carbonation—so bottles should be capped loosely and allowed to breathe, or they may become explosive.
Origin of Kefir
At least two references in the scientific literature relate to the origin of water kefir. According to one paper, tibicos forms on the pads of the Opuntiacactus (from Mexico) as hard granules that can be reconstituted in a sugar-water solution as propagating tibicos. Another paper refers to a specific bacteria cultured from known stocks with properties similar to those in tibi.