Cultivating Water Kefir

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bphotoart-water-kefir-experiment-Over the past few years, I’ve learned how to cultivate different fermented foods — sauerkraut, sourdough starter (for bread), kombucha, milk kefir, and now water kefir.  My toddler, Toby, has enjoyed helping with these processes.

I’ve found milk kefir to be the easiest of the fermented beverages to maintain, followed by kombucha.  Water kefir, thought, I found more tricky.  I think the original water kefir grains (not really grains, but that’s what the lumpy starter is called) weren’t hardy enough — but as is usually the case, the third time proved to be the charm.

After “killing” two sets of water kefir grains, I gave my water kefir making attempts a break.  Then my mom went off dairy and mentioned to me she would miss having milk kefir every morning.  So, for Christmas last year, I acquired a third set of water kefir grains.  Since they came a bit early, I ended up cultivating them myself, and giving her a whole starter of her own (plus some water kefir ready to drink!).

And that’s where this activity comes into play.

I had a learning curve with water kefir, because it was different than milk kefir.  With milk kefir grains, you just dump them in fresh milk, let the concoction sit for about 24 hours, and then strain out the grains from the milk-turned-kefir, and start again.

But with water kefir, you need to use sugar water.  The water kefir grains digest the sugar and turn it into probiotic goodness (similar to what the milk kefir grains do with the lactose in milk).  But the trick is this.  Water kefir grains like minerals too (which is the opposite of my kombucha starter — it dislikes minerals).  So, through trial and error, I discovered that my water kefir grains thrived in brown sugar water more than in white sugar water.

And I was curious how much of a difference it made.

So Toby and I performed an experiment.

Over the course of a week or two, we fed several different types of sugars to water kefir grains, and observed how quickly the water kefir grains multiplied (that’s one of the benefits of this, once you have your own starter, you’ll have plenty of new to share with your friends and family!).

We weighed out equal amounts of water kefir grains, and put them into four different mason jars (pint size).

Our control group was given nothing but plain filtered water from our fridge.  The remaining three groups each got white sugar, brown sugar, or unrefined turbinado sugar — dissolved in the same amount of filtered water as our control received.

After four days, we checked on the water kefir grains.

We did taste test the different water kefirs (though not the control group).  The molasses flavor was most pronounced in the turbinado, followed by the brown sugar.  We also strained out and weighed the water kefir grains from each of our mason jars.  It was interesting to see which had grown the most.  Those that we fed turbinado sugar grew the most, followed by brown sugar, then white sugar.  And our control group in water?  Those grains actually withered and shrunk (aka “died”).

We repeated the process for another four days, but unfortunately my kitchen elf must have run off with the sticky note containing the final weights of each set of kefir grains.  So I can’t share the number with you — but I can tell you that the trend continued.

So, based on our experiment, I can tell you that our water kefir grains were happiest with the most unrefined sugar.  Water killed them.  They survived with white sugar, and even multiplied, but to really boost their numbers I’d definitely use brown sugar or unrefined sugar.

Here are some pictures from our experiment…

Here's what water kefir grains look like.  Kind of like cottage cheese clumps...
Here’s what water kefir grains look like. Kind of like cottage cheese clumps…
Toby scooping sugar.
Toby scooping sugar.
Toby was excited to do this experiment!
Toby was excited to do this experiment!
We labelled each of the mason jars with the type of sugar the water kefir grains would get.
We labelled each of the mason jars with the type of sugar the water kefir grains would get.
Toby thought about which one would grow best.
Toby thought about which one would grow best.
I let Toby do the measuring and dumping...
I let Toby do the measuring and dumping…
We used different spoons to dissolve the sugars into their respective waters.
We used different spoons to dissolve the sugars into their respective waters.
Toby added water and stirred everything equally.
Toby added water and stirred everything equally.
The water kefir was put into mason jars and labeled for our experiment..
The water kefir was put into mason jars and labeled for our experiment..
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Finished water kefir, ready to drink!
Here are the visual results of the first four days' fermentation.
Here are the visual results of the first four days’ fermentation.
We weighed the water kefir grains...
We weighed the water kefir grains…
Like good scientists, we recorded our findings...
Like good scientists, we recorded our findings…

I’m sure we could have been a little more efficient in our experiment, but the whole point of this was to get my toddler thinking about what might happen.  He enjoyed checking on our experiment, and was excited to help weigh the water kefir grains.

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