Monday, March 12, 2012

Keeping The Colony Happy

Making Water Kefir Soda
In addition to my oft-neglected sourdough starter ("Edwina"), I have for the past six months been caring for and benefiting from, a different kind of bacterial colony... Water Kefir Grains. Never heard of 'em? Don't worry, I hadn't either. But now (thanks to this gracious lady), I am involved in a mutually beneficial relationship with what amounts to a science experiment. You see, I feel responsible for the well-being of my colony, like I would with a bowl of goldfish. But in a way that goldfish never could, my little colony is responsible for my well-being too. Intrigued  yet?

More fun than a barrel of Sea Monkeys
There is so much info on the web about water kefir that I won't spend time or space here reiterating it. I will however link to some info at the end in case you're still curious and want to read more about it. In a nutshell, water kefir is a type of SCOBY... a Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. Now before you get scared off... just think "probiotics". You know, the good/friendly/beneficial bacteria that are so good for your gut and immune system. That's what water kefir is: pure probiotic goodness.

I see so many products trumpeting "Now With Probiotics!!" on the packaging, not to mention the probiotic supplements that you can buy (I shudder to think of what they would cost to take regularly). The beauty of these little water-babies is that you only have to buy them once. That's it! Feed them and care for them and not only can they be used over and over again, but if conditions are favorable, they just may even multiply so you can share them with friends.

Temperature And Temperament
My water kefir colony is a happy one (I can just tell), and yet they've only doubled once in the six months that I've had them. From what I've read, it's probably the temperature of my house (mid-to upper 60's). It's within the range for kefir grain general happiness, but a few more degrees warmer would probably be optimum. Around 70-75°F and they'd probably go bonkers.

Nevertheless, every two to three days I get about a quart of kefir water that's absolutely brimming with probiotics. We've been drinking this stuff every day for the past six months and I bet we have the healthiest guts around. I'm not going to make any miracle claims here though. Neither of us had any known gut-issues prior to our kefir-conversion, so I can't offer any testimonial in that regard.

What I can do is describe my process for feeding, caring, and consuming these little critters. They live in water, eat sugar, release gas, and generally live a pleasant and buoyant little life. In the beginning I was obsessed with all the rules and instructions, but eventually I settled into a routine and now it's all smooth and (fairly) predictable. The real trick, was how to do it on an extremely low budget. There are lots of different approaches, but I needed to be able to keep the water kefir going without incurring too many extra costs and this is what I came up with...

My Water Kefir Set-Up & Routine

  • Two quart-size Mason jars (no lids)
  • Piece of cotton cloth (paper towel or a paper coffee filter will also work)
  • Rubber band
  • Two funnels (a narrow-necked and a wide-mouth canning one)
  • Reusable plastic mesh coffee filter (or small plastic mesh strainer)
  • Two 34 oz. swing-top (Grolsch-type) bottles
  • Water kefir grains
  • Tap water
  • White sugar
  • Real fruit juice (try and find juices or nectars that don't list "water" as an ingredient)
  • Molasses, brown sugar, dried figs, or sea salt
A Week In The Life:
Starting with active kefir grains ready for new sugar-solution and a quart of de-chlorinated water...
Day #1: Fill one of the jars half-full with the water. Add 1/4 cup sugar and swirl around until dissolved. Finish filling the jar up to the "shoulder" (widest part of the jar before it narrows to the neck). Add the kefir grains and cover the top of the jar with the cloth, securing it around the neck of the jar with the rubber band (this is the primary fermentation). Fill the second mason jar with tap water and place next to the kefir jar.

Day #2: Rest while the water kefir grains eat hearty. Wiggle the jar when you pass by them during the day and watch the bubbles just for fun.

Day #3: Place the narrow-necked funnel in a swing-top bottle. Place the plastic filter or strainer in funnel and pour the kefir liquid and grains into the strainer. Using the water from the second mason jar repeat all the steps from Day #1 using the wide-mouth funnel to pour the kefir grains in the strainer back into the jar with the new sugar-water. Now top up the kefir water in the swing-top bottle with fruit juice, cap it, and set it next to the other two jars (this is the secondary fermentation).

Day#4: Put the swing-top bottle of kefir juice into the fridge. It's ready to drink but tastes best cold.

Day #5: Same as Day #3, but using the second swing-top bottle.

Day #6: Same as Day #4.

Day#7: If you've only got two swing-top bottles (as I do), it's time to finish drinking up any kefir juice that's left, wash the bottles out with hot water and get on with repeating the steps from Day #3 onward.

More Tips On Care & Feeding

The Sweet Life
While natural/minimally processed sugar is best for them, they'll do fine on white sugar. They will simply need a half-teaspoon of molasses added to the sugar solution every so often to replenish lost minerals. To save time (and molasses) I will occasionally just feed them with brown sugar. You could also drop in a dried fig (one will last through 3 batches) or a little pinch of sea salt instead. Any of those will give them a nice boost in minerals and cost very little. Just like with a sourdough starter, if it's unhappy...  it won't be shy about letting you know.

Water World
These little guys are picky about their living conditions. Tap water is too chlorine-y, but filtered, reverse osmosis, and distilled water are lacking in minerals. So, since I'm not going to go buy special water for this, the best option is to use the tap water and remove most of the chlorine. I tried boiling it for 15 minutes, but it took too long to cool (and I'd forget to do it early enough). I tried whirling it in the blender for a couple minutes, but I hated dragging the blender out every other day. Third option... let the open container of water sit out for 24 hours. That I could do. Or could I? Ahem, cough. Then I hit on the perfect solution (for me anyway)... fill a second jar with water and set it next to the kefir jar. It will sit out for 48 hours instead of 24, but it seems to work fine and most importantly, I'm not forgetting it anymore!

Time Out!
If after a time, you find yourself dreaming of how to get rid of the little darlings, it would most likely be because you got overwhelmed with their demanding nature. CHANGE MY WATER NOW! FEED ME, FOOL! It's understandable. The good news is that there are ways to take a break from the kefir-constant life and start back up again when you're ready. There is a refrigerator-method for up to a week, and a dried-method for longer periods. I've not tried either yet, but I know the day will come when I'll have to go away for more than two days and it would be slightly impractical to bring an open jar full of probiotic liquid with me. Easiest method of all... find a trusted friend who wouldn't mind kefir-sitting while you're away. If ultimately you are convinced that kefir-keeping isn't for you, rest assured that a note on the bulletin board at your local health food store or on an online forum (heck, even Craig's List), will be sure to bring you a grateful taker.

Water Kefir Links
Thirsty for more info about water kefir grains? Get the lowdown from these helpful sites/blogs:
One final note...
Water kefir keeping can seem overwhelming at first, but it doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. In a perfect world we'd use the purest waters and the most unprocessed sugars, and we'd ferment our kefir grains with fresh ripe organic fruits grown locally.... but that's not my reality. If it's not yours either, don't let it stop you from making water kefir at home. Six months into it (with tap water, white sugar, and fruit juice) and my colony is a happy one. My sourdough starter, well, currently not so happy. But that's another subject altogether......

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  1. great and informative post!! Much thanks!

    1. Thanks Lise! Can you believe, that was the condensed version? :)


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