**Update! Wow, after just a few hours of being up, I’ve received a number of comments about how this might scare people away from fermenting. No!!! Please, please don’t read that into this. Most people find water kefir to be one of the easiest ferment. This post is meant for those of us who have had trouble getting it to work. I felt like a ferment freak failure because it wasn’t as easy for me as it is for what seems like everyone else on the planet. These problems are common enough to warrant this blog post.**
Sometimes fermentation is a lot of trial and error, success and failure. Brewing water kefir, for me, has been the most challenging ferment. Most people I talk to have no problems with water kefir at all but many like me just can’t seem to get it to work. At least consistently for more than a few months. I have successfully killed of countless batches but each time I’ve had a batch die, I’ve learned something new.
The main thing I’ve learned is I’m stubborn. I WILL figure out water kefir and I WILL make it work, so help me God.
The following information is based purely off of my personal experience with water kefir. Chances are it’ll be different for you. Water kefir seems pretty sensitive to certain climates, different water, difference minerals and who knows what else. Water kefir is like a high maintenance girlfriend to me.
What is Water Kefir?
Before we get started, some of you might be wondering what water kefir (WK from here on out) is. Here is an article I wrote a while ago on WK http://naturalhealthgazette.com/featured/water-kefir/. The gist of it, WK is a fermented drink made with sugar water and water kefir grains. They are different from milk kefir grains. WK grains are not grains at all. Grain just refers to their appearance. They look like translucent crystal. The crystals are composed of bacteria and yeast held together in a polysaccharide matrix called kefiran. They eat the sugar and create lactic acid and a small amount of alcohol. The ending product is rich in probiotics, slightly sour and fizzy. The longer you ferment it, the less remaining sugar and the more sour it becomes. It makes an excellent replacement for soda and is great option for those who are dairy intolerant. Below is my basic recipe.
- 1/4-1/2 tsp molasses or a few drops Concentrace
- 1/4 cup white sugar*
- 1 cup hot water
- About 3 cups cold water
- 1/4 cup water kefir grain (approximate, doesn't have to be exact)
- fresh ginger, lemon slices, raisins (optional)
- Dissolve the sugar and molasses in 1 cup of hot water, stir in enough cold water to make 1 quart sugar water solution.
- Add water kefir grains and ginger/lemon slices/raisins if using. Cover and if using a jar with a water airlock, don't forget to fill the airlock with water.
- Let set at least 24 hours. Taste. If it's still very sweet, let set for another 24 hours.
- Once the water kefir is at your preferred sweetness level, strain off grains and start again.
- Flavor water kefir with juice, dried or fresh fruit, spices, herbs. Experiment and have fun.
- *White sugar is perfect fine to use with WK. Sucanat, rapadura, coconut sugar do work but the taste of the resulting water kefir is nasty.
WK likes to be kept cooler than other ferments. This baffles me because WK supposedly originated in Mexico. You’d think the opposite would be true but that has not been my experience. When water kefir gets above 75F, it just doesn’t seem happy and doesn’t reproduce (again, this is just my experience). Above 85F and it starts dying off. If you notice your grains seem to be getting smaller and a lot of debris collecting on the bottom, your WK might be too hot and dying.
If you get to the point where your grains are actually disappearing, it’s time to give your grains a rest. Which brings me to my next point…
Let Those Babies Sleep
Water kefir needs a break once in a while. If you find your grains are decreasing in size or taking longer than normal to ferment, give them a rest. Place your grains in an airtight jar covered with a quart of water with 1/4 cup sugar. Add minerals if needed (more on that next). Let them sleep for at least a week, up to 3 weeks. To start brewing again, just pull them out of the fridge and add new sugar water.
I keep 2 batches of water kefir grains now, one resting and one active. Every few weeks I switch them out.
Minerals have been the biggest trial and error for me. Everything I’ve read online says, “More minerals!”
My WK is lazy… More minerals!
My WK isn’t fizzy… More minerals!
My WK isn’t reproducing… More minerals!
My WK is disappearing… More minerals!
More minerals is not always the answer. Sometimes too many minerals creates the same problem. You need to find a happy medium. Most people do need to add some minerals to their water, especially if you are using distilled water. 1/4-1/2 tsp of molasses, 1/2 of a clean egg shell, a few drops Concentrace *affiliate link*, is usually all that is needed. Unless you are using well water. I use well water filtered with a Berkey and my water is evidently very rich in minerals. Adding more minerals made my WK sad. I now don’t add any minerals to my sugar water. It’s just filtered water and sugar. That’s it.
So if you’ve tried everything else and your WK is still sad, try eliminating added minerals and see if that helps.
Keep a Back Up
Always have back up grains on hand. I’ve found the best way to save grains is to dehydrate them and store them in the fridge or freezer. Just a few weeks ago I had a batch that got contaminated with kombucha (totally my fault, I didn’t clean the jar out well enough). That batch got fed to the chicken and a new batch was started up. No prob. And since I had the batch resting in the fridge, I didn’t even have a hiccup in my WK production.
To dehydrate some grains in a dehydrator, spread them out thin on a non-stick sheet *affiliate link* or thin tea towel/piece of muslin and dehydrate on the lowest setting. This should take less than a day.
To dehydrate without a dehydrator, spread thin on a non-stick sheet *affiliate link* or thin tea towel and place in front of a fan on low. Have it just blow over the top, not directly on the grains, to keep them from blowing away.
Dehydrated grains can keep in the fridge or freezer for a good year.
Alternatively, you can freeze the grains without dehydrating them. They will keep many months in the freezer.
Let it Ferment Longer
I might lose some of my die hard WK freaks with this one. Everything I’ve read online says to let WK ferment for 24 hours and if you go longer than 48, you’re going to kill your grains. That’s not necessarily true. Don’t worry about the time, worry about the taste. If it’s been 2 days and your WK is still sugary tasting, it’s not done fermenting. Give it more time. You won’t hurt your grains as long as there is still some sugar in the water. Keep tasting it until it is to your liking. Sometimes it takes 5 days and that is ok.
But, if you WK consistently takes 4 days or more to ferment, they are getting lazy and need a break. Let them rest in the fridge like earlier stated.
Continuous Brew Water Kefir
I’ve been applying the same theory of a continuous brew for kombucha to water kefir and my grains have never been happier. Rather than straining off all the liquid, I leave about 25% of it in the jar. The difference this made for me was in the amount of time it takes to brew water kefir. Before doing this, I would strain off all the liquid and it would take 3-4 days to fully ferment. If I leave 25% of the liquid, I have fully fermented water kefir every 24-48. Also, my grains multiply faster doing this. For the first time ever I have WK grains enough to share.
Anaerobic or Not?
While I can’t say for sure whether WK should be kept strictly anaerobic (there is a lot of conflicting information out there), I can say it from my own personal experience that my WK brews better in an anaerobic jar with an airlock. Brewing it anaerobic will not hurt the grains and keeping the air out prevents it from getting contaminated. If you keep your open WK too close to your kombucha, you’ll end up with kefir kombucha. Is that a bad thing? I personally think it is. WK is more probiotic rich than kombucha. A lot more rich. Kombucha has it’s own benefits but as far as probiotic power, WK wins. Kombucha is pretty invasive so rather than having the best of both worlds, you might end up with the worst of both worlds. You gotta keep ’em separated. Hey, hey!
The Best Way to Kill WK?
Don’t store your water kefir in the oven. I killed two batches that way by forgetting and cooking them. This was back when I thought WK needed to be kept warmer. I put them in the oven with the oven light on to keep them warm. Now I know that is not needed. They are perfectly happy on the counter in my cold kitchen.
This seems to be one of the biggest controversy about WK because contrary to what you might read elsewhere, it’s actually pretty easy to make WK alcoholic. There will always be some alcohol, it’s impossible to keep all of it out because the by-product of yeast fermentation is alcohol and yeast is part of WK. The good news is, it’s also very easy to keep it from getting too alcoholic. The amount of sugar you start with will determine how much alcohol is in your WK. I’m not going to go into huge detail, you can read more about alcohol and WK here: Hard Cider or Sparkling Apple Cider. The gist of it is, use no more than 1/4 cup of sugar per quart of water and you will be fine. Alcohol will not get higher than .5% which is about what a non-alcoholic beer would be. I feel perfectly comfortable giving my children water kefir made like this.
**Warning** Do not make WK with pure juice! Most juices contain about twice as much sugar as WK needs. Dilute your juice to one part juice, one part water and you’ll be good to go. Don’t dilute it and enjoy a lovely hard cider, just don’t give it to the kids.
Where do I Get WK Grains?
If you are lucky enough to have someone near you brewing water kefir, ask them if they have extra grains to share. Alternatively you can purchase them online. Kombucha Kamp and Cultures for Health carries grains. Kombucha Kamp ships fresh grains and Cultures for Health ships dehydrated grains.
Happy fermenting! I hope WK isn’t as much of a challenge for you as it has been for me.
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