Photo: Three 750ml bottles of starfruit lemongrass water kefir, a probiotic naturally carbonated bio-soda. Marginal cost to brew kefir pictured here is about $0.23.
How to Brew Water Kefir:
Water kefir, pronounced keh-fear, is a probiotic beverage that is naturally carbonated and can be flavored with beneficial herbs, coconut water, or fruit juice. Water kefir is similar to kombucha in that it is brewed with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). Clusters and colonies of bacteria and yeast form a microscopic insoluble polysaccharide matrix. The water kefir culture is commonly referred to as a ‘water kefir grain’.
The exact origin of the water kefir culture is unknown. In Mexico the tibicos culture comes from the Ountia cactus and the brewing grains are referred to as tibi. Water kefir culture from the Caucaus Mountain region can be found growing wild on reeds next to mineral-rich rivers. Water kefir culture is so mysterious because of the microscopic nature of the the SCOBY. The grains we brew with at Gingerhill are an heirloom strain from Cultures for Health.
Beneficial bacteria in this kefir culture may include:
Yeast found the water kefir culture may include:
Each water kefir culture is unique in color, shape, size, and taste and the bacteria and yeast that comprise each colony can vary. Water kefir can be found all across the world. Each SCOBY is special and therefore the fizzy bio-soda and culture used to brew it are known by many names such as: Aqua Gems, Bébées, Bees, Japanese Water Crystals, Kefir d'aqua, Kefir di Frutta, Tibicos, Wasserkefir.
The SCOBY reproduces naturally so it is a custom among brewers to give the extra grains away to friends and family who want to brew their own kefir. Gifting the grains is a way to honor the life force of the SCOBY in sharing the abundance that the culture provides.
Water kefir grains are self replenishing and will reproduce more culture but only at a rate that is sustainable for its environment. The kefir grains will not outcompete each other for food or for living space. The SCOBY consumes sugar and produces carbon dioxide, lactic acid, and ethanol. The kefir culture tends to prefer fructose over sucrose. This is apparent because you can see pronounced bubbling activity during the second ferment, described in detail in the How to Brew section.
Making water kefir at home is a great way to reduce trash. Homemade water kefir is a fraction of the cost of store-bought kefir and kombucha. Startup cost to home-brew water kefir can range from zero to about $35. If you upcycle brewing vessels and have a friend who will share second generation water kefir grains then you can start brewing with zero to little expense. If you purchase a kit from Cultures for Health the startup cost is about $35.
Here is a sample of the marginal cost to make 32 ounces of home brewed water kefir:
When we have an abundance of fresh fruit and herbs here at Gingerhill Farm, marginal cost to brew water kefir is about $0.003 an ounce because the only added cost is the price of sugar.
Most consumers are paying $4-$5 for a 16-ounce bottle of kombucha or water kefir beverage.
Therefore, consumers pay about $0.25 an ounce for commercially brewed probiotic beverages.
Consumers pay about 7 to 83 times more for commercially brewed probiotic beverages than home brewers.
When you brew your own probiotic beverages at home you can be assured that your brew contains only the best ingredients that you choose to include. Home brewed kefir can be bottled in upcycled, reusable glass containers so there is no extra trash created in the process.
It is common for commercial brewers to use plastic vessels and toxic cleaning chemicals in their brewing process. It is illegal for commercial brewers to brew or ferment using clay or glass vessels because of health and hazard concerns. Clay is porous and can harbor yeast and bacteria; which is actually a good thing if it is the right yeast and bacteria. Glass is a hazard when brewing because there is potential risk of explosion. Never overfill your vessels: always leave at least 25 percent volume of vessel for carbon dioxide.
How To Brew Water Kefir:
1- 1 quart sized mason jar
Piece of fabric or coffee filter
Rubber band or mason jar ring
1- 4 liter/ gallon sized mason jar or glass vessel with hermes swing top
Pyrex measuring cup
Upcycled glass bottles with corks or lids for bottling
¼ cup organic cane sugar. Do not use honey.
4 cups filtered water or spring water
3-4 tablespoons hydrated kefir grains
½ cup organic fruit juice, 1 cup fruit or ½ cup flavored simple syrup
For the First Ferment:
***Note: Do not use metal to handle kefir culture or water kefir. Water kefir is acidic and will react with metal with the potential to dissolve heavy metals into the brew.
In a quart-size glass mason jar, dissolve ¼ cup organic cane sugar in a small amount of hot water. This is Jar One, your first stage fermentation jar.
When the sugar is dissolved, fill the jar with cool filtered water. The solution must be at room temperature (68-85°F) before adding kefir grains!
Add the hydrated water kefir grains to Jar One.
Cover with a breathable cloth and secure with a rubber band. Yeast requires oxygen for it’s metabolic process. It is very important to keep your water kefir in a warm (preferably at 68-85°F) clean space with good air and positive energy.
Leave Jar One on the counter for 24-48 hours. The longer you let ferment, the more sugar ferments out. So remember to feed the SCOBY at least every 48 hours to avoid starving them.
For the Second Ferment:
After 48 hours, pour off the liquid from Jar One into a 1 gallon hermes jar, this is Jar Two. Be careful not to pour out the water kefir grains from Jar One. Reserve some liquid from your first ferment to give your next batch an active culture boost. This method is also known as back slopping.
Transfer the grains and backslop liquid to a new, clean quart-sized mason jar. This is the new Jar One.
For the second ferment in Jar Two it is critical to use a vessel that is especially made to withstand pressure from carbonation. A swing top jar with a hermes lid allows excess air to escape while keeping oxygen from entering the jar.
Add herbs, fresh fruit, or fruit juice to jar two. Be sure that you add at least ¼ cup of fructose or sucrose to the jar to continue to feed the SCOBY present in the liquid. Allow Jar Two to ferment for 48 hours or until it reaches a pleasant level of fermentation. Kefir SCOBY prefer fructose over sucrose and you will notice increased activity and production of carbon dioxide when fruit is added to Jar Two.
As you are learning the cycles and rhythms of brewing water kefir, be sure to taste your brew about every 12 hours.
Once the brew reaches a flavor the you enjoy, not too sweet but not too sour, then bottle and refrigerate the kefir. Pour the liquid from Jar Two into smaller glass bottles, leaving enough room for pressure from carbonation, and seal the bottles. Upcycled wine bottles with corks or upcycled kombucha bottles work great.
Label and date your bottles then refrigerate. The fermentation process will slow down once the liquid is refrigerated but carbonation and flavor will continue to develop.
Tending the Kefir Colony:
Continue the brewing process, about every 48 hours, by replenishing the kefir grains in Jar One with fresh, room temperature, sugar water. You will notice that kefir grains begin to multiply! So please share with your community.
If you are using filtered water then you will need to supply the SCOBY with a source of minerals. Added mineral supplementation can include ½ teaspoon crushed organic eggshells, ⅛ teaspoon unrefined sea salt, ¼ teaspoon plain baking soda, ½ teaspoon unsulfured blackstrap molasses or a few drops of liquid trace minerals.
For flavoring, you can get creative with herb and fruit combinations by making flavored simple syrups to add during the second ferment. For example, dissolve ¼ cup organic cane sugar in ¼ cup lemon juice, add 1 cup of crushed mint leaves, Add to Jar Two to create mint lemonade water kefir.
Tending a water kefir colony is an act of friendship. The colony depends on you to feed it. And it return, the beneficial yeast and bacteria contribute to your gut health.
Katz, Sandor. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. Chelsea Green Publishing Co, 2013.