Introduction: How to Make Authentic Water Kefir

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Water Kefir (pronounced keh-FEER) is not as well known as milk kefir. But it is the same concept - symbiotic grains of bacteria and yeast that ferment a specific liquid - in this case, a sugar-water-fruit liquid. It produces a mild, light and refreshing, slightly carbonated beverage. The basic flavor is likened to a weak cola or apple cider, but most people add molasses, fruit, vanilla beans or other flavors. With so many options the final flavor is really up to you (our favorites being lemon-ginger, dark cherry and concord grape).

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

Water kefir is pretty simple to make, you may find you already have most of what's needed:

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.

Step 2: Deciding on Dried Fruit

Dried fruit lends further mineral and nutrient support and great flavor. It's especially helpful if you're using only white sugar.

Dried unsulphured fruit is best. Avoid sulphured fruit (a preservative added to many dried fruit that can suppress or even harm the grains). A handful of dried fruit per quart (4 cups) is sufficient.

Amount of fruit: You can visually get an idea here of about how much a 'handful' is. You can get by with less than this, too. The fruits pictured work well with water kefir, either by helping nourish the grains, lending a great flavor, and in many cases, both.

NOTE: We have found some fruits like dried strawberries just don't do much for the flavor or the grains. Raspberries on the other hand, work very well for flavor. Keep in mind some of these fruit will dye your grains a bit! Banana can be ok, but is sometimes a bit 'oily' and doesn't lend as much flavor as you'd think.

View all three pics below for some fruit ideas and tips.

Step 3: Preparing the Grains

Now its time to prepare your grains to be fed.

A. If you've just received your kefir grains in the mail, store them in the fridge until you are ready to feed them.

B. To prepare your grains, strain off and discard any liquid they came in. Sometimes they are 'naked' and thats ok too - either way, give them a quick rinse with spring water if they've been in transit for a couple days. The easiest way to do this is to place them in a clean bowl with the spring water or milk after they've been strained and gently stir them to dislodge any cream stuck to them. Strain and repeat if desired. Do not worry too much about getting them pristine - a gentle rinse is sufficient.

*If your grains are dried, simply place them in your fermenting jar. No rinsing is necessary. They will take a little longer (2+ days) to make a good water kefir, since they need to activate and balance from their dried state.

C.Place the grains in your fermenting jar. Make sure its big enough to hold all the water you will be adding (1 tablespoon grains per 1 cup water), plus extra head space (you don't want to fill to the brim). 

Below are a couple pics of live grains, and then two of dried.

Step 4: Feeding the Grains

Now that your grains are strained and gently rinsed, they are ready to be fed.

A. Simply add some sugar straight into the jar (1 tablespoon per 1 tablespoon of grains, roughly). Some good sugar blends include:

-all white sugar + a handful of dried fruit
-40-80% white sugar + remaining % unrefined sugar
-80% white sugar + 20% molasses
-a blend of white sugar, unrefined sugar, and dried fruit

HONEY: You can try honey but it is cautioned that due to its antibacterial properties(especially raw), and different ratios of sugars (higher amounts of fructose than sugar) it may weaken the grains. We highly recommend experimenting, there are SO many sugar and dried fruit options. But, we stress waiting to do so until you have enough extra grains to experiment in a separate jar. Check out our section on sugar types in our Water Kefir FAQ for more sugar ideas and info.

*Make sure the jar is big enough to have atleast a couple inches space between the water and the lid. A quart jar typically works well if you are working with 4 tablespoons of grains or less. Also make sure there is no soap residue - antibacterial soap will damage the bacteria in the grains.

*Temperature can affect the ferment speed and thus the grains need for sugar. They may require more sugar in the summer, and less in the winter.

B. If you decided on using dried fruits, you can add these now, or after stirring the sugar.

C. Now, add the water. Be sure to allow some space at the top (don’t fill to the brim). Cold, cool or room temperature is best (never hot). Stir with a wooden or plastic utensil until the sugar is mostly dissolved. If you are adding a lemon wedge, its easier to do so after stirring.

D. Lastly, add in the lemon wedge if desired (anywhere from 1/8 of a lemon to a half lemon). If you're unsure what may be on the lemon (wax, chemicals, etc), simply peel the skin off. It's not necessary to squeeze the lemon, but you can do this at the end when you are ready to drink, if you prefer a stronger lemon flavor.

 View all the pics below to see the steps:

Step 5: Cover and Ferment!

Now your work is done, and the kefir grains' work begins!

A.Cover the jar with something breathable like a papertowel, coffee filter, or dish cloth.

*Avoid cloth with large holes - you want something breathable but not something that dust or fruit flies can fit through.

B. Simply place the jar in a cupboard or other area that has a relatively cool and stable temperature. It does not need sunlight (which can heat it too much, anyways). Indirect light is ok.

C. Let it ferment about 24-48 hours (the usual amount is 48 hours). Read on to determine when it's done.

Step 6: Ready to Strain

After 48 hours, you water kefir will be ready to be strained and fed once again.

When you are new to making water kefir, you may not know exactly what taste your looking for, but as you continue to make water kefir, you'll get a feel for when you need to strain the kefir. When it's over-fermented it tends to be sour and flat, while under-fermented water kefir tends to be too sweet. Somewhere right in the middle you catch a tangy, slightly sweet kefir (like a mild kombucha).

Many people expect water kefir to be very fizzy like a soda and are disappointed that it's so subtle. Carbonation takes place under anaerobic conditions (no air). You can easily increase the carbonation of you water kefir once you've strained it by bottling it in an air tight bottle (such as special beer and soda bottles). More on this in step 7.

TEMPERATURE: Temperature can greatly affect the speed of fermentation (it can take half as much time during the summer). Experiment and see what tastes right (and digests right) for you. They will not die if they're ready at 24 hours, but you strain at 48, so don't
worry too much!

A. Place your strainer over a bowl (stainless steel, wood or plastic -preferably with a pouring spout) and pour your entire water kefir ferment into the strainer.

B.Pick out any fruit or lemon. You can eat these (once your kefir is balanced), discard, or even keep in your bottled water kefir. You can also re-use fruit for one more ferment if
desired. If you used lemon, you can squeeze it into your strained kefir for a stronger lemon flavor if desired.

SURFACE: It's normal to see some grains, the dried fruit, foam and occasionally some 'scum' floating near the top (especially when using less refined sugars and/or dried fruits). It's also normal to see a perfectly clear surface, too. Sometimes this can indicate inactivity though - taste to see if it still tastes like flat, sweet sugar water - this indicates the grains did not convert much of the sugar.

View the pics below for what your finished water kefir may look like:

Step 7: Bottle Your Kefir, Flavor and Repeat!

Once your kefir is strained, you'll need to measure your grains and place your grains back into their jar . You can rinse or wash the jar if desired, but it's not necessary every time. Rinse or change jars once you notice excess build-up. The build-up can cause your kefir to ferment too quickly, or make it too yeasty. 

A. Measure out the amount of grains you want to use in your next recipe and place them back in your jar or a clean one. If your grains grew and you want to make more water kefir, you can add more sugar and water this time (and maybe a bigger jar) in the same ratios as used before!

B. Pour your strained water kefir into your storage bottle(s) or drink right away! Chilling it promotes the flavor to 'mellow' and blend a bit (in the fridge), which also allows it time to increase in B vitamins, folic acid (as well as carbonation) and to be flavored if doing so.

*Store your kefir in tempered glass jars or bottles if you can (designated canning or beer/wine bottles - which are less likely to explode) with atleast 1/2 inch of space between it and the lid. The carbonation build-up over time can lead to the jar exploding. To prevent explosions, you can store it with the cap on loosely, or simply 'burp' it once a day to allow any built-up air to escape (open the lid and close it again - this will not hinder the carbonation - it will still get carbonated).

C. To avoid harming the grains, a majority of flavoring is done in a ’secondary
ferment’. This is after the grains have been taken out and you are bottling. You can now mix in some fresh fruit, dried fruit, honey, fruit juice, veggie juice, maple syrup, or extract (about 1 tsp per 1-2 cups) to flavor! You can also experiment with your favorite bags of tea, herbs, candied ginger, vanilla beans, cinammon sticks, etc! There are truly endless ways to flavor your kefir. Allow the kefir to sit another day or two and ferment the newly added flavors. You can do this on the counter, or in the fridge, just make sure to 'burp' (open the lid) once a day, to prevent explosions (believe us, these do happen - carbonation needs a way to escape!). Burping will not hinder carbonation build-up either, you'll still get a nice fizzy drink. If you don't want it fizzy, put in your flavors and leave the lid on loose or put on a towel with a band for a lid. Grape juice is an excellent flavor to try out - just add 1/4 cup or more grape juice to your water kefir!

D. Now simply feed your grains again and repeat!

If you have more questions you can check out Yemoos Nourishing Cultures to see photos, FAQ's, health benefits and other information on milk kefir.