What's the difference between water kefir and kombucha? Both have excellent probiotic value, but water kefir has a much faster ferment and more mild flavor. Just like kombucha, it can be bottled to increase carbonation, and flavored. Kombucha takes about 5-14 days to ferment, whereas water kefir is ready within a day or two.
Water kefir is simply sugar-water that is fermented at room temperature with kefir grains for about 24-48 hours. It has many wonderful health benefits and can be better tolerated than a soda for diabetics because of its lower GL (due to its acidic nature). It's a wonderful alternative for those who are lactose intolerant or sensitive to casein in dairy. Water kefir is full of probiotics and can have just as many (if not different) benefits than traditional yogurt or milk kefir. The affordability of sugar and water makes it not only healthier than most beverages, but cheaper too. The reusable, sustainable grains also make it more economical.
Kefir has gained in popularity lately, due to interest in local, economical and responsible eating, combined with a greater awareness of the health benefits of probiotics.
But with that popularity has come a load of misinformation and deceiving products on the web. Authentic kefir can only be made by real kefir grains, not from any kind of packet or powder. Kefir available at the stores are simply imitations. This is due to regulations to ensure consistent products, ingredients, bottling procedures and to comply with packaging and shipping standards. As with most nutritious foods, real kefir can only be made and experienced at home.
Water Kefir's origins are a bit obscure, pointing towards either Mexico or Tibet (or possibly even Russia). Regardless, it has been around for centuries and has gone by many names including Tibicos, California Bees, and Japanese Water Crystals, amongst others. An old popular beverage in Mexico called Tepache is traditionally made with 'Tibi' (ie water kefir grains), pineapple and cinnamon. If you have more questions you can check out Yemoos Nourishing Cultures to see photos, FAQ's, health benefits and other information on water kefir.
Now, lets get started!
Step 1: Supplies and Ingredients
A. First, you will want some basic measuring cups and spoons - stainless steel or plastic is best.
B. Second, you will want a strainer on hand - fine plastic/nylon or stainless steel. Aluminum and other metals can leach when coming into contact with acidic liquids such as water kefir. Stainless steel is considered safe for short term contact.
*Strainers with large holes (like pasta strainers) don't work well - the smaller grains may pass right through into your kefir drink, rendering it somewhat unstorable - it will continue to ferment quickly in the fridge. Though its not a health hazard to drink them, you will lose part of your culture (and over-ferment your drink).
C. As for the jars and bowls, you will need a bowl to capture your strained kefir, a jar and breathable lid to ferment your kefir in, and a jar or bottle for storing your strained kefir in the fridge.
D. You will need a sterile wood or plastic spoon to help stir in the sugar.
E. You may want to have an unbleached muslin bag (or tea bag) that can hold any dried fruit you may be using (more on dried fruit in step 2). This is optional, as is the lemon and dried fruit.
F. Some sugar - White, brown or whole cane sugar (or a combination of these) - about 1 tablespoon sugar per 1 tablespoon of grains. Water kefir grains function best on a combination of white sugar and dried fruits, or a combination of white sugar and less processed sugar (brown, whole cane, molasses, etc). There are truly a variety of combinations you can try. Experiment and see which one tastes best to you! To familiarize yourself more with all the kinds of sugars available and what works for water kefir, read our section on sugar types in our Water Kefir FAQ.
G. And of course, some water - roughly 1 cup of water per 1 tablespoon of grains.
*Non or low-chlorinated, high mineral water is preferable. Minerals help your grains to function and properly metabolize the sugars. Filtered and distilled water are low in minerals and usually don't work well; if this is your only source of water, additional minerals may be necessary (more on this below in the guide). Tap water can work if the chlorine level is low enough. Letting it sit out (open, no lid) 24 hours allows chlorine to evaporate. Chloramine (another form of chlorine sometimes used to treat water) does not evaporate though. We recommend starting out with spring or mineral water and then testing on back-up grains with your tap or filtered water before using one type exclusively. Hold off on experimenting with other liquids such as juice or coconut water until your grains have become established and balanced in your home.