The back story
Water kefir, also known as Tibicos, is made by a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeasts (SCOBY) that exists in little nuggets, known as water kefir grains. During the process of making water kefir, these microbes break down any carbohydrate-rich liquid (sugar water, fruit juices, coconut water) to produce mainly lactic acid, carbon dioxide and some B vitamins.
So, the sweet sugar water with which you start the process, gradually becomes less sweet, more sharp, more bubbly and full of beneficial bacteria - chiefly lactic acid bacteria. The point at which you halt the process and drink it depends on your own personal taste. The longer you leave it, the sharper it becomes, due to the lactic acid-producing microbes.
Water kefir contains around 10-15 strains of beneficial bacteria and yeasts. For us, it is a healthy and refreshing drink. We drink sensible amounts of it and we enjoy choosing different fruit and herb combinations with which to flavour it.
There is plenty of information on the internet on varying styles and approaches to fermenting water kefir. The Wondergut Website Resources Page has links to the main websites I have used. Have a read. Have a go and discover which flavour combinations you prefer.
A plastic sieve.
A funnel. I have found that one with a close weave in-built sieve (available on the Happy Kombucha website) has been very useful.
A number of differing sized Kilner jars – the size you need will depend on the amount you are consuming! I need more than one Kilner jar because as I strain the first batch, I am reloading for the next batch.
A number of BREWING bottles – having had a Kilner bottle explode on me once I sealed the lid for the water kefir to mature, I now only use BREWING BOTTLES for the shut lid stage (i.e. when there is likely to be a build up of carbon dioxide from the fermenting process). Kilner bottles aren’t strong enough – as I discovered – the hard way!! Having said that, fermenting expert, Sandor Katz, now uses plastic bottles to avoid the risk of injury and I am considering doing this myself sometimes, too.
Water – ideally filtered (fluoride and chlorine are not great for kefir grains).
Sugar – I have used demerara – brown sugar apparently has more minerals in it and the grains need minerals.
A mineral source for the grains – I use unsulphured apricots.
THE VARIABLES INVOLVED IN FERMENTING Water KEFIR
Temperature – the warmer it is, the faster they will ferment.
Time – the longer I leave the brew, the less sweet the kefir is because the grains (bacterial and yeast communities) digest the sugar and produce lactic acid. I don’t leave them for so long that they run out of food substrate.
Amount of water - ideally filtered water to avoid chlorine.
Amount of sugar – this is the food source for the grains.
Amount of grains
Mineral supply - this comes from the sugar, the water and the unsulphured apricot I add (other people use other sources). Too many minerals can be problematic, as can too few.
If things don’t quite work out and I can’t see bubbles forming on the surface over time, then the chances are that one of my variables needs tweaking
Oxygen - the microbial activity involved in water kefir is anaerobic but you don’t need to worry about submerging the grains to cut off the oxygen supply – it is sufficient that the grains are in the sugar water. I do close the lid on the kilners though, but in such a way that still allows for the release of the CO2 produced during the fermentation process.
Cleanliness - I am not obsessing about the cleanliness of utensils. I either hand wash them in hot water or wash them in the dish washer.
4 cups (American measure) of filtered water.
1/4 cup brown sugar.
1/4 cup kefir grains.
1 unsulphured apricot (mineral source)
Or any multiple of the above depending on your consumption rate!
Put the measured water and sugar into a Kilner jar and dissolve the sugar. Then add the water kefir grains.
Add a Mineral Source – e.g. one unsulphured apricot or a couple of blueberries or some people like to add a bit of boiled egg shell – these supply the grains with minerals. I don’t add loads of fruit at this stage because the aim here is mineralisation, not adding flavour. Also, you end up having to pick the fruit out of the grains at the end, which is dead annoying.
Leave The Brew With The Kilner Jar Lid Shut With The Rubber Seal On – the rubber seal on a kilner jar ensures that the kilner jar is not airtight – use these, rather than jars where the lid seals the jar. If you are anxious about CO2 build-up, you can just remove the rubber seal to ensure there is a big gap for the CO2 to escape your kilner. There is a lot of fermentation going on at this stage and carbon dioxide is a by-product which needs to be able to escape. Check your kefir regularly (when you remember) and pop the lid open just to be sure there is not too much CO2 building up, then close the lid again. This is called “burping.”
I Leave Mine For Around 48 hrs – you should see some bubbles form and some of the grains might float to the top during this time.
Leave Somewhere Warm-ish And Ideally In View – 68 – 70 degrees F (around 21 degrees C) is the ideal. The colder it is, the slower they will ferment, the hotter it is, the quicker they will work. I keep mine in view so that I don’t forget about it in the bun fight that is family life.
After 48 hrs Strain Off The Grains With A Plastic Sieve – you will probably have more than a 1/4 cup of grains by then as they grow! Repeat the above process with 1/4 cup of grains to make the next batch. You can eat the spare grains (!) or give the grains to your friends. Spread the kefir magic. Our dog adores eating them too, so that is another disposal method. You can also freeze spare grains, so as to ensure you have a spare batch in the event that the worst happens and you accidentally throw them away/kill them.
With The Kefir I Have Made, I Like To Do A Second Ferment – I take the kefir (the filtered fluid minus the grains) I have made and put it back into a Kilner jar, add fruit and herbs of my choice (or more often the choice of the kids) lemon and ginger, raspberry, passion fruit – whatever you fancy.
Leave This Second Ferment Somewhere Warm For Another 24hrs – again, I shut the lid for this stage of the process (but still using a kilner jar which allows for CO2 release) and I will occasionally pop the lid to release any CO2 when I remember because there is still a great deal of fermenting taking place. The result is delicious fruit flavoured kefir. And no explosions.
After 24 hrs, I Sieve Off The Fruit (Eat It?) and funnel the kefir into a brewing bottle or a plastic bottle – close the lid and put it in the fridge for drinking. Or I keep the bottle in the kitchen to allow for further maturation of the kefir to take place for a few days. At this point, your kefir will become nicely carbonated but this also means the bottles need to be “burped” regularly to release the C02 that builds up. I now only use brewing bottles for this stage, because they are made of thick glass to cope with the build-up of C02. Alternatively, consider using plastic bottles. When the bottles go in the fridge and there is no fruit or grains in the kefir, the rate of fermenting drops so there is less risk of excessive C02 build-up. However, you will still need to “burp” the bottles regularly.
If the brew is still very sweet when you taste it, that means the variables aren’t quite right – not enough grains or too much sugar or, if you are happy to vary your brew time (I keep this constant), not enough time for the grains to digest the sugar. Personally, I am defeating the aim of supporting the gut health of my family by making this if the result is them consuming a sugary drink. For me, the brew is ready when it tastes of the fruit I have put in the second ferment, it is fizzy but it is NOT sweet. Be aware though, if you leave it too long in the bottle, the yeasts present can produce alcohol – the levels are generally minimal but it is worth knowing!
Burp The Brewing Bottles – the really important thing to remember is that carbon dioxide is a by-product of the fermenting process so “burp” the bottles regularly (even if they are in the fridge) to avoid the gas building up and exploding the bottle!
If I go away, I either take my kefir grains and kit with me or I put the grains in a big mix of their usual sugar/water proportion and leave in fridge in a kilner jar.
We are all individual – this is the basics of my practice but this wonderful process is totally interactive and involves each of us working out what volume/rate/fermentation time/flavor best suits us and the environment in which we are doing it. That takes a bit of experimenting and it involves trusting our senses of taste and smell and adjusting our process to suit us. This has been a really joyful experience for us – especially when I opened a bottle with the kids and the escape of carbon dioxide blew my hair straight up vertically.
There is so much information online – enjoy falling into the internet black hole that is fermenting websites. You will see that there are so many different ways to ferment kefir – enjoy finding your own.