Water Kefir – A Simple & Refreshing Probiotic Soda (With a Step-by-Step Guide)

Water Kefir - A Refreshing, Simple-to-Make Probiotic Soda (With Step-by-Step Photos!) at The Nourishing Gourmet

Water kefir is a lightly sweet and refreshing tonic, bubbling over with healthy bacteria (You can read about the health benefits of fermented foods here) .  The taste is pleasant on its own or it can be elevated with an endless combination of flavors.  Spicy lemon ginger and cultured grape soda are pictured here (our current favorites!)

As part of the 21 Steps to a Nourishing Diet Series, water kefir can be a nice segue into home fermentation.  This cultured drink is very inexpensive to make, virtually fail-proof and packs a healthy wallop of probiotics.  I can’t think of an easier, more instantly rewarding way to start fermenting.

Basic water kefir is made by dropping water kefir “grains” (which are not really grains at all but a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast or SCOBY) into sugar water and allowing it to ferment on the counter for a few days.  The grains (which look like small, clear jellies) can be used over and over indefinitely, and usually multiply, allowing them to be passed on to others.

Our experience with water kefir

My family started drinking water kefir about a year ago.  At the time, I was getting into home fermentation in an effort to get a wider range of probiotics into our diet.  Probiotic-rich foods not only create a more favorable balance of gut flora, but amazingly, the bacteria work to physically repair the gut lining.

After purchasing a crock, I successfully (and to my surprise, quite easily) made this No-Pound Old Fashioned Lacto-Fermented Sauerkraut.  I was preparing to embark on Continuous Kombucha Brewing when some water kefir grains dropped into my lap at the playground of my son’s school.  Not literally, although wouldn’t that be something!  They came freshly prepared by a friend in a wide-mouth quart-sized mason jar (as pictured in “step 1″ below).

Several days later, I nervously strained the finished water kefir and reused the grains to make my first new batch.  Within hours it started coming to life.  I relaxed as the mixture bubbled away happily in a dark and formerly stagnant corner of my kitchen counter.  It was fun to check in now and then, giving the mason jar a little twist to encourage bubbles to surface (I read later that this is a good thing to do if you think of it.)  Plus, the taste was quite pleasant!

My children and I benefited right away.  My 2-yr old daughter had recently snubbed her nourishing diet for a phase of picky eating that was starting to affect her digestion.  Her digestion normalized after the first round of water kefir.  I was also thrilled to be getting probiotics into my son again, who at the time did not like soured milk products or sauerkraut.

My husband obliged but never really noticed any benefit.  If anything, he felt better without it, so he gave it up after a while.  Lately though as I’ve been experimenting with new flavors, he’s been giving it another try.  I’m wondering if the added complexity of flavored water kefir (the tang of cultured grape or the sour-spicy combo of lemon-ginger) will allow his body to receive it better.  Taste does impact digestion.

Follow these step-by-step photos to brew your own water kefir 
(see recipe for exact measurements and variations)

  • If you receive grains from a friend, they will likely come mid-ferment as shown in Step 1.
  • If you purchase dehydrated grains from a place like Cultures for Health, you will receive detailed instructions on how to rehydrate them, which will probably be very similar to the diagram below, but it may take a few rounds for the grains to recalibrate before your water kefir is enjoyable.

How to Make Water Kefir

Questions and Answers about Water Kefir 

What types of sugars can I use?  What about coconut palm sugar, honey and maple syrup?

  • Unrefined cane sugar is recommended with molasses (added and/or still intact) to provide minerals that the grains need.  Lately I have been use sucanat (#affiliatelink) and my grains are thriving.  However, I started with organic cane sugar (fine granulated) and that also worked well and is more cost effective.  *With sucanat, I use a generous 1/4 cup + 1t molasses and ferment for 48 hours.  With organic cane sugar I use a level 1/4 cup + 1t molasses and ferment for 72 hours. 
  • It is possible to use coconut palm sugar, honey and maple syrup as well (substituting equally) but over time the grains will weaken as the sugar makeup isn’t optimal.  This should only be done when you your grains have multiplied and you have extra to experiment with.  I recently experimented with honey and it made a nice drink, though the grains did not multiply as they usually do.  Maple syrup may work better because it is typically not as antimicrobial as is honey.

How much should I drink?

As you might imagine, there are no hard and fast rules.  We started out drinking an ounce or two after each meal.  This was a good way to see how our bodies responded to it.  You may want to start with even less if your diet doesn’t include a lot of fermented foods.  Now we are a little more erratic, but I’d say we have about 2-6 ounces on most days.  We sometimes take breaks by putting it into hibernation.  It’s always wise to listen to your body and practice moderation, even with the good stuff.

Can I take a break from making it?

Yes!  Grains can be put into hibernation mode or dehydrated.  To hibernate, just mix up a new batch (as pictured in “step 6″) and stick it in the fridge instead of leaving it out to ferment.  I’ve left mine there for almost a month with no problems but I’d suggest checking on them after 1-2 weeks as all grains are different.

I have yet to dehydrate our grains, but here is how to do it from what I understand.  Rinse the grains with filtered water and spread them out between two sheets of parchment and leave in a safe, but ventilated place to dry out at room temperature for 1-4 days.  You want them to be very dry.  You can also use a dehydrator.  They should keep for several months.

What is the alcohol content and is it safe for kids?  

The alcohol content is very low – well below 1% which is less than overripe fruit.  It climbs a little if using straight juice or when doing a second fermentation (as described in the recipe notes) but it would be a challenge to get even mildly intoxicated by drinking water kefir.

My children might drink it once or twice a day, in small 2-3 ounce glasses (less if it’s a second fermentation).  It is an individual judgement call as there are no strong warnings against giving it to children.  I did read once, in a book by Maria Montessori, that she did not recommend giving fermented drinks to children.  I assume she was referring to alcohol, but it did make me take pause.

How much sugar remains after fermentation?

This is taken from the Q & A section about water kefir grains from Cultures of Health. “The sucrose is converted to glucose+fructose. The glucose is used by the kefir grains for grain-building and reproduction, and the fructose remains in the drink at about 20% of the original level. The longer the finished kefir sits, the less sweet it will be, so some fructose is apparently converted in that process as well.”

Where did kefir grains originate? 

Water kefir is truly cosmopolitan.  From Italy to the Far East to Mexico, various names and twists exist.   It’s origins are unclear, but it is speculated to have originated in Mexico, where, according to research, “tibicos” culture forms on the pads of the Opuntia cactus (read more here).  Milk kefir grains, which have a different composition, likely originated in the Caucasus Mountains region.

Do you have any questions or an experience to share?  We would love to hear!

 

Basic Water Kefir Instructions (see notes for variations)
 
Author:
Recipe type: Beverage
 
Light and bubbly, water kefir is a simple and delicious way to balance and strengthen digestion.
Ingredients
  • ¼ - ⅓ cup unrefined sugar
  • 1t unsulphured blackstrap molasses (or your chosen source of minerals)
  • 2.5 - 3 cups spring water (leave enough room for your grains and extra space at the top for fermentation gas)
  • ¼ - 1 cup of water kefir grains
Instructions
  1. Shake up the sugar, molasses, and spring water in a wide-mouth quart-sized mason jar until dissolved. (You don't want your grains getting stuck in a bottleneck on their way out!) Leave an inch or two at the top to allow for the build-up of carbon dioxide.
  2. Add in rinsed grains and close the lid. Some people use cheesecloth with the mason jar band in lieu of the lid, but I've always sealed it. (If you purchased dehydrated grains, follow instructions for rehydration. The directions are similar, but it will take a few rounds to get them going before the water kefir is palatable.)
  3. Leave the grains to ferment at room temperature for 48-72 hours (2-3 days). It's good to taste a spoonful of the drink at 48 hours. If it is too sweet for your liking, let it go another day. It isn't recommended to go beyond 72-96 hours because the grains will weaken.
  4. Strain your finished water kefir and store it in the fridge. I use old juice jars or swing top bottles for this.
  5. Rinse your grains (filtered water is best, but tap is ok) and repeat. Again. And again...
Notes
Once you are comfortable with your grains and if they are multiplying well, split some off for experimentation and let the fun begin! There is no limit to what you can create.

Cultured juice sodas: take your finished water kefir (pictured in step 3) and add about ¾-1 cup of juice. I love using a quality, not-from-concentrate grape juice for this. Cherry would be wonderful as well. It is critical to leave even MORE room at the top because it is going to get VERY fizzy! Do not add the grains back in. Leave it to ferment on the counter for another 12-24 hours. (Sometimes I let it sit for only a few hours.) The longer it goes, the less sweet it will be. Refrigerate when you're happy with how it tastes. This is called a second fermentation.

You can also add juice straight to your finished water kefir (after straining the grains) without a second ferment. Pop it into the fridge, and enjoy as is. Try the juice of one lemon and a tablespoon of finely grated ginger for a beautiful probiotic lemonade! I've even heard of making cultured mojitos this way, by adding the juice of a lime and muddling some fresh mint.

Dried and/or fresh fruit: It's common to add dried and/or fresh fruit into the batch either before it ferments, or into the finished, strained water kefir. Pineapple, lemon slices and dried unsulphured figs are popular choices. Tepache is a traditional drink of Mexico made with pineapple, brown sugar and cinnamon.

Coconut Water Kefir: follow the instructions using coconut water instead of spring water. You will not need any sugar or molasses. Add the grains right in. The fermentation is MUCH faster. Check it in 6 hours and don't let it go for much longer than 12-15. Some may like the taste, but many will not. It is dry (unsweet) and quite yeasty. But this could be a great option for those avoiding sweeteners.

Cultured Herbal Teas: Steep herbs and/or spices in your spring water and let cool before following the basic recipe. Rosehip and/or hibiscus is delightful!

Dairy Kefir: Water kefir grains will weaken when used in milk (milk grains are best), but if you have extra grains and want to experiment just add the grains to milk with no sugar or molasses. Alternatively, you can add an ounce of finished, strained water kefir directly to milk. Check it after 24 hours or so.

Coconut Milk: This is also a fun thing to experiment with although it will weaken the grains over time. Transfer half a can of coconut milk into a glass container and add 2 tablespoons of grains. Taste it after 24 hours and keep it going if it's not tangy enough for you. The coconut milk can thicken during the process, especially after it is refrigerated and could be used to make cultured coconut whipped cream.

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Hello! My name is Natalia and I live in the “City in a Forest” (Atlanta, GA) with my husband and two children. I’ve been drawn to nutrition and natural healing since I was a young child, growing up in a Russian and Dutch home. I fondly remember my dad theatrically convincing me to love head cheese (with horseradish and lemon!) and learning to make herbal tinctures from my mom. During my teens and early twenties, I strayed to more faddish health trends, but the color returned to my cheeks only when I came back to a time-honored way of eating. There is no greater joy than passing the gift of nourishment to my family and although we haven’t yet made full circle to the head cheese, the roots have been planted. ;) A former health columnist and project engineer, I now teach Pilates & yoga and offer practical inspiration to others as they carve a path of good health... AnAppetiteForJoy.com

Comments

  1. Bethany says

    Looks great and I can’t wait to try it. Are the grains the same kind that somone might normally use for kefir with milk? Ie, can I take the grains I already have to make cows milk kefir and make water kefir with them? Thanks!

    We’re trying to not eat dairy for a few weeks, so this helps solve “how do we get probiotics in w/o yogurt or kefir?” Thanks!!

    • says

      Hi Bethany. Thanks, that’s a great question! Milk and water kefir grains are not the same. However, when I was researching, I came across an article where someone had converted their (extra) milk kefir grains to water kefir grains. She basically rinsed them very thoroughly with spring water and went through the water kefir process pictured above several times to recalibrate them permanently into water kefir grains. I’m not sure how their appearance changes, but it sounds like she had great success with it!

      Here is a link to the article: http://marly67.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/converting-milk-kefir-grains/

      I hope it works for you! This could be a great way for those who already have milk grains and no access to free water kefir grains to save a little money.

  2. Terri says

    I wonder why you rinse your kefir grains. I’ve heard the suggestion when things go wrong with them, but otherwise been told not to.

    • says

      Hmm… Terri. Good question! When I got the grains, that was what I was instructed to do. This is a robust and thriving batch and I think everyone who has received them is rinsing. I did ask if I needed to use spring water, but the person who gave them to me said that tap was fine for rinsing, but she was brewing in spring water. This may not be the case if a batch of grains is particularly sensitive to chlorine.

      Intuitively I feel that a quick rinse cleans the slate and allows them to better receive their new “food” (sugar/minerals).

      Maybe this is one of those gray areas that can help people with troubleshooting? For instance, if you are rinsing and your grains seem to not like it, try not rinsing (and vice versa?) I appreciate you adding to the discussion!

  3. says

    I love the thoroughness of this post! I suddenly have a renewed desire to start brewing again. I have grains that have been sitting in my fridge for an embarrassing amount of time, I want to find out if they are still alive…
    Grape and cherry sound like awesome flavors to start afresh with!

    • says

      Anna, that’s so funny! I guess we’ve all been there. Eternal little critters.

      I’m so glad you’re inspired to get them out again. Once you try the grape you’ll be very glad you did :)

  4. Annie says

    I, too, have grains in my fridge, and you’ve inspired me to take them out and revive them. I’m looking forward to delicious drinks in the near future. Thanks!

  5. Norma Tumberg says

    Interesting……… my water kefir grains love coconut palm sugar. THey bubble as never before and multiply too fast… I sometimes just use organic sugar to keep them under control.

    • says

      Norma, that IS interesting. Coconut palm sugar is one thing I haven’t personally experimented with, but now I’m looking forward to giving it a try. I bet it tastes great. And it is so rich in minerals, you probably don’t need another source, correct?

      How long do you leave it to ferment? Is it faster with the coconut palm sugar?

      • Norma Tumberg says

        Good morning.
        I use a bit of organic sugar with it also, the coconut sugar does give it a stronger taste. I let if ferment for 48 hours.
        Have a great day.

  6. Vicky says

    Do you have to use spring water, or do you think filtered water (like from my Berkey) would work alright? This might be a nice way to get my kids to drink kefir. They don’t like milk kefir and I think it loses too many health properties when I bake with it (as I am left doing when they don’t drink it ;) ). But I do sneak it into smoothies, which they drink. I will look into water kefir grains, as we go through lots of milk without even making it into kefir. ;)

    • says

      Vicky, I think that might work.

      From what I understand the Berkey removes fluoride well and that is one of the reasons tap isn’t recommended. The other reason is that tap water lacks minerals, so just be sure to add them back in with the molasses or whatever source you choose. I think it’s worth a shot! I guess worst case, you could switch them over to spring water quickly if they don’t like the filtered water. Or add a mineral concentrate.

      OR, if you want to stay on the safe side, start the grains in spring water until you get to know how they act & multiply in their ultimate environment. Hopefully they will multiply and you can use the extra grains to do a few rounds of experimentation in your filtered water to see the difference.

      If you think of it, come back and tell us how it goes! :)

  7. Melinda says

    I’m gathering from other questions that I can’t use my fluoridated/chlorinated tap water to brew water kefir. We have a basic filter on our refrigerator, but it doesn’t work right now and it is my understanding that it only filters our chlorine, not fluoride. How do you get your spring water?

    • says

      Yes, Melinda, that’s right. I’ve just been buying gallons of spring water from Whole Foods for 99 cents. We have a local service that delivers spring water in large glass jugs and ultimately I would love to do this!

  8. Betty says

    Just made my first batch of coconut water keifer, but think I goofed up. I added 1/2 cup of brown sugar to the coconut water and the grains. Did I mess my grains up or would it be ok to use them again? Thanks!

    • says

      You might experience some oddness with over mineralizing your grains since you added borwn sugar. Of course, brown sugar contains molasses which means more minerals.

      If you did add too many minerals, you may notice your grains or your finished water kefir being slimy or gooey. It is still fine to use, just make sure to cut back on the minerals for future batches so your grains can re-balance. As long as they are not dissolving and getting fine like sand, they will be OK for more batches.

    • says

      You might experience some oddness with over mineralizing your grains since you added brown sugar. Of course, brown sugar contains molasses which means more minerals.

      If you did add too many minerals, you may notice your grains or your finished water kefir being slimy or gooey. It is still fine to use, just make sure to cut back on the minerals for future batches so your grains can re-balance. As long as they are not dissolving and getting fine like sand, they will be OK for more batches.

  9. says

    Natalia,
    Do you think I would be alright using well water? We live in the country and are on a well versus those who use city water. I was in your neck of the woods just this weekend. We drove around Atlanta on our way to Columbus for our son’s graduation down at Ft. Benning.

    Thank you so very much for your thorough tutorial!

    • says

      Hi Peggy! You are so welcome. And congratulations to your son. What a huge accomplishment!

      Yes, well water should work beautifully since it has a higher mineral content. Thank you for bringing that up!

  10. Chelsi says

    I started with water kefir grains four days ago and haven’t had any luck with fizz or carbonation. Just a very sweet water. I started tightly covering during the first ferment, and only doing a 24hr first ferment… should I lengthen it perhaps? Using filtered tap water and normal white sugar, then fruit for the second ferment. Just wish I could get some fizz going.

    • says

      Hi Chelsi, so glad you are giving it a try! With a little tweaking you’ll get a better tasting drink.

      Yes, you should ferment it for longer. I’ve found that when I used the white sugar it takes about three days (72 hours) using 1/4 cup sugar. I’ve always used organic unbleached sugar because the bleach can harm the grains. That can also be an issue with using filtered tap water – the grains don’t like the chlorine/flouride in the water. Spring water is a good choice.

      You’ll also need to add a form of minerals to the water during the first ferment because the grains require minerals for “food”. I’ve always used a little molasses, but I’ve heard of people using dried fruit such as figs.

      Hope this helps! Good luck!

  11. Don says

    You had kombucha and kefir all these years. Only took care of yourselves. Parasites, living off of the wealth created by other people. If the choice of the future is mine, I chose that all life ceases, all unlife ceases and the universe becomes nothing. I hate you, just as much as I hate the murderers who poisoned the barbarian tribes for profit. Fuck Gaia, fuck your great awakening.

  12. Emily Flowers says

    So stoked to have found this comprehensive awesome post! Thank you.

    I have been brewing kefir water since February & thoroughly enjoying it! My grains are evolving & my volume capacity has increased.

    I’m using dates & raisins combined with organic raw sugar & ginger.

    The dates are shedding their skins & flaking through my grains making the process quite tedious to begin a new batch. I’m wondering if I might be able to place either the grains or dried fruit in cotton chef cloth to prevent the skins from mixing with the grains? Or must the grains directly contact the dried fruit?

    Blessings,
    Em

  13. says

    Emily,

    That’s what I would do. My first instinct was to say put the grains into the mesh but if it’s easier to do the fruit you could try that as well. Gently agitate the jar from time to time so that the water stays evenly saturated as it ferments. I might have to try it out soon since I’m curious to try your combination of dates, raisins and ginger! Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  14. says

    I’d love to try this sometime, though, since I recently killed my milk kefir grains, I think I’ll stick with just kombucha for now and see how long I can keep that scoby alive. :-)

    I really liked your comment about how taste affects digestion! It really bothers me when health food people are all about nutrition and pay NO attention to flavor, as though food is only a nutrient delivery system and not also intended for enjoyment. Do you know of any articles I could read that expand on that thought and go into more details about how taste and the eating experience affect how the body receives the food?

    • says

      Hi Raquel! I love that you zeroed in on that. This is something I was looking into a while ago so I don’t remember specific articles but here are some pointers and I bet you can find the info you are looking for.

      Look up the 5 Tastes. This is mostly associated with Chinese medicine. I think they are sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.

      The typical American diet is almost devoid of “bitter”. This is one reason why Swedish Bitters can work instantly for digestion. When the bitter taste hits your tongue it’s like your digestion moves immediately toward balance. There are medicinal qualities as well, but it often works on contact indicating that taste powerfully impacts digestion.

      Water kefir on its own is a bit sweet and not as complex as Kombucha. That’s why I thought adding tart grape might make it better on my husband’s digestion which doesn’t tolerate “sweet” well.

      Hope you find some good stuff! If you think about it, please come back and share!

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