I scheduled this post on my calendar the week that I brought home water kefir grains. I imagined that I would be posting a beautiful tutorial about how to start your own water kefir and you all would be so impressed with my oh-so-healthy hippy mama-ness and my excellent flavor combinations and pretty bottles all lined up in a row.
And then reality intervened. I’m 3 weeks into this project and I don’t actually have one successful batch of brewed water kefir to show you.
Let me back up. It all started with an article I wrote back in June about canning and preserving that will be published next month. A couple of the people I interviewed talked about fermenting various things, like pickles, cabbage, milk, and water. Water? In my general research, I kept coming across water kefir, which I hadn’t heard of before. Suddenly I’m running across water kefir everywhere, just like suddenly I started seeing babies everywhere the week after I got two lines on the pee stick.
Like milk kefir, which I’m familiar with from my childhood, water kefir is fermented with starter bacteria, in the form of grains or crystals. You start with sugar water and after the little bacterias are finished eating the sugar, the remaining liquid is light and slightly fizzy, filled with healthy probiotics, and not very sweet. A lot of people drink it as an alternative to soda. We don’t drink soda anyway, but I tried some lemon-ginger kefir water that I found at my local health-food store and really liked it. I’m aware of how good probiotics are for the body but I don’t really like kombucha and milk kefir is just too rich for me to drink regularly. But at $3.50 a bottle on sale, drinking purchased water kefir was not going to be sustainable habit either.
How hard could this be to make myself, right? It is just fermented water. I live in Santa Cruz and almost everyone I know has something or other fermenting on their kitchen counter. On purpose, even!
I found some dehydrated grains and followed the instructions to rehydrate them. I searched through a few blogs and found a straightforward recipe for a first and second ferment cycle that looked like it would produce something very similar to what I had been buying. I filled up my special half-gallon Ball jar with sugar water, poured in my little grains (I can’t help but imagine them with smiling little faces after all the time I have recently spent researching on this web page) and sat back to wait.
After one 48-hour cycle nothing much had happened, but I had read it might take a couple of cycles for dehydrated grains to really “wake up,” so I poured out that batch and put the grains in fresh sugar water. This batch I let go a little too long and it started to smell bad. So that one got poured out, too. The third batch seemed ok. It smelled slightly yeasty, which I had read was expected, and it tasted ok. But no fizz. I strained out the grains and moved them to a new jar of sugar water and started a second ferment cycle by adding a bit of juice to the kefired water and putting them into sealed bottles. Two days later and still no fizz. And the water seemed thicker than I remembered the stuff from the store being. The consistency was kind of like maple syrup. It didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t really taste good, either. But I blamed the juice, which I didn’t even really like plain. I threw out that batch, too.
I persevered. Every two days last week I started a fresh batch of sugar water and moved the grains to it. I bottled up the finished water for a second ferment cycle, then moved the bottles into the fridge after another 48 hours of brewing. I did start getting a bit of bubble in the second cycle, but the water was still thick and just not what I was expecting. And my grains were not multiplying. Every resource I’d seen indicated an indicator of a healthy colony is that the grains multiply like crazy
Finally, last night, I decided that I was doing something wrong. I poured all of my syrupy not-water-kefir down the sink and turned to Google for some deeper research.
The problem with using the internet for research is that there is just so much information out there. I found many more recipes that differed in slight, but possibly important ways from the one I had started with. One said you should never use filtered water but instead use tap water and boil it first if your city uses chlorine. Another said always use filtered water because tap water contains chemicals that are bad for the grains and they can't be boiled out. One said always rinse the kefir grains between batches, another said never rinse them. One said never use refined white sugar to make the sugar water and another said that white sugar is the best “resting” sugar and you should use it every 3-5 cycles to let your grains regenerate. Some said the initial ferment should be in an open container and other said it should be tightly lidded. Some recipes said that you must use a quarter of a lemon and a handful of raisins in the initial ferment and others said that you shouldn’t put anything other than sugar in that ferment and that all flavorings should be added to the second ferment cycle. One resource seemed to indicate that the thick water was a result of too many minerals in the source water and another said to add a scoured eggshell to the batch (a common source of minerals) if the kefir was coming out thick.
So now I’m overwhelmed with information but still don’t have a solution. This morning I started a new batch with half sugar and half maple syrup in the same kind of water I had been using before and rinsed the grains really well in clear water before transferring them. I’m going to cycle the batch every 24 hours for three days and then try another 48-hour ferment with filtered water and a quarter of a lemon to see what happens. If that doesn’t work I’ll try without the lemon but with eggshell or mineral drops.
And if that doesn’t work, I’m going to chuck these grains and start over again with a fresh batch.
All I can say is that right now I’m feeling like a bit of a failure as a fermenter!
Have you made water kefir? Do you have any advice for me?