probiotic effervescence: water kefir
One of my new favorite fermentation practices is making water kefir.
I think everything is better with bubbles.
I even bought myself a handheld carbonation machine a few years back so I could put bubbles in everything, but it had single-use CO2 cartridges, which seemed wasteful, and the alternative was the ubiquitous Soda Stream, which is made in Israel.
But I do love bubbles.
And now I've discovered effervescence by fermentation rather than carbonation!
There's a jar of kombucha perpetually brewing on my counter, and while I love kombucha for its tanginess, it's never quite as bubbly as I want it to be.
Enter water kefir: it's like probiotic soda, or champagne (without the alcohol). The fermentation process of water kefir transforms sugar water into a probiotic-rich beverage containing beneficial acids, food enzymes, beneficial microorganisms, and B vitamins.
I had been seeing posts about water kefir online, but I didn't know anyone who had made it - so I did some research, ordered myself some tibicos - those are the microbes who make water kefir - and gave it a whirl. I'm hooked. It is sweet, a little sour, and so so bubbly.
What is water kefir?
Despite its name, water kefir is not directly related to kefir - the milk culture that most people are familiar with (similar to yogurt).
Water kefir is a cultured drink made through the fermentation power of tibicos, or water kefir grains. Tibicos are a kind of SCOBY (Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast) - but unlike the SCOBY that ferments kombucha - that placenta-like layered cap that some people refer to as the "mushroom" - tibicos are small gelatinous crystalline granules. They look like grains of rice made out of clear jello. They are, of course, not grains at all - much like the kombucha SCOBY is not a mushroom.
The microbial flora of tibicos consists mostly of lactic acid bacteria and some yeasts. It's the combination of the two together that makes the magic happen - neither could do it alone. The bacterium Lactobacillus hilgardii makes a polysaccharide gel that actually holds the community together - creating their gelatinous crystalline structure.
The name tibicos seems to come from Mexican culture - where they naturally occur under the skin of the Opuntia cactus fruit (Katz, The Art of Fermentation). There's also some discussion of water kefir-like beverages hailing from Switzerland, Tibet, Ukraine, and the Caucasus Mountains.
Tibicos are similar to the SCOBY that is used for Ginger Beer Plant, though they look a little different (GBP is more round, murky, and tinier - while tibicos are larger, more jagged, and clear), and tibicos ferment faster than ginger beer plant so they need to be fed more often.
How do you make it?
Tibicos can ferment pretty much any kind of sweetened liquid - including fruit juices, coconut water, soy, almond, and rice milks - but the basic recipe involves sugar water.
The first thing I should say here is that tibicos are voracious little eaters, and their fermentation cycle is fast. If you're used to brewing kombucha this will feel like a shift. I typically leave my kombucha alone for a week or even several weeks if I forget about it, but water kefir needs attention. Prepare yourself for a daily routine to take care of your tibicos.
The primary fermentation process happens within a day or two - depending on your weather. Here on Oʻahu I typically leave the water kefir on the counter for one day to ferment, then strain, bottle and flavor and leave it for another day to carbonate on the counter before refrigerating.
1/4 cup tibicos
I ordered my first batch online, but they proliferate as they go, so if you know someone who is making water kefir see if they can share some with you.
1/4 cup organic cane sugar
You have a lot of sweetener options here, including unrefined and raw sugars, molasses, etc. Tibicos like a mineral rich environment, so I try to add in some minerals periodically by including some coconut sugar or molasses - though I personally don't like the caramel taste that it produces, I prefer the straight cane sugar for its ability to let the flavor through, so I switch it up. They also seem to like the fructose in fruits so sometimes I'll add a slice of citrus or a fig in there to keep them happy. They especially love ginger, ginger makes them dance. What you don't want to use for sweetener is honey, because of honey's antimicrobial properties.
1 quart of water
Since tibicos like minerals, this is one instance where hard water is your friend. I use tap water filtered through a carbon filter, which as far as I can tell - filters out chemicals like fluoride, chlorine, and pesticides while leaving the trace minerals in there.
You can also add minerals in by placing a small piece of (or powdered) eggshell or coral that's been boiled or baked to sterilize. Some recipes suggest adding Concentrace, which seems to be trace minerals extracted from seawater (though I've never tried it myself).
There are two ways I've used to dissolve the sugar water. One is to add your 1/4 cup sugar to a quart jar and pour about 1/2 cup of hot water on top and swirl until it dissolves, and then top it off with cold water to bring it down to room temperature - you don't want to boil your tibicos! The lazy way is to add the sugar and water to a blender if you have one, and let it spin until they dissolve. Once the water is cooled to room temp, go ahead and add your tibicos, and if you want to add a slice of lemon and/or a fig or slices of ginger at this time go ahead.
Now there's two ways of fermenting - with the lid on or letting it breath - both work. Tibicos can handle anaerobic and aerobic conditions. I prefer to do my primary fermentation with the lid screwed on, because it makes for a fizzier drink. If you go this route, make sure you leave a good inch or more of headspace in the jar - it will be building up pressure quickly, and you don't want to risk exploding your jar. Many people recommend fermenting in plastic until you get the hang of it, but I'm throwing caution to the wind because I don't like plastic. I haven't (knock on wood) had any explosions yet, but I do recommend "burping" your jar every few hours if you're worried about it.
If you choose to let it breath, you'll want to cover the jar with a piece of loose weave fabric, cheesecloth, or coffee filter, and secure it with a rubber band around the mouth of the jar.
Either way, let it ferment on the counter for 24-48 hours. After a while you'll start to see the tibicos start "dancing" in there - riding the currents up and down the jar, having a good time. Go ahead and taste it - if it's too sweet let it keep fermenting, if it's too sour you may have let it go too long, and if it's juuuust right - it's time to bottle.
Strain out your tibicos using a non-reactive strainer. The acids from fermentation can react with metals like aluminum, copper, iron, brass, and zinc, to leach metal ions into your ferment, and you donʻt want that. Good quality stainless steel is probably fine, but I use a ceramic strainer just to be safe. There's no need to rinse the tibicos between batches.
At this point you can add any flavoring you like. I've tried: fresh and frozen fruits and berries, fruit juice and puree, fresh and dry spices like juniper, black pepper, sage, rosemary, ginger, turmeric, vanilla, I've even added sauerkraut juice as a double-probiotic flavoring - the possibilities are endless and so fun to play around with. You can also flavor your sugar water during the first fermentation, with the tibicos, but I prefer to add flavoring after so that my tibicos don't retain the residual flavor and I can switch it up each batch.
I bottle my water kefir in swing-top glass bottles, and let them carbonate on the counter for another day. You'll want to leave the neck empty to allow space for the carbonation to happen. I notice that the flavoring really affects how fizzy it gets - things like soursop are super explosively effervescent, and it takes real patience to open the cap slowly enough to avoid a geyser.
After the secondary fermentation, you can refrigerate the bottles. They hardly ever last more than a week in our house, because they are so delicious, but I do notice that if you leave them for more than 10 days or so they start to lose their bubbliness and sediment starts to form at the bottom - as the SCOBYs lose their steam.
I really appreciate the routine that the tibicos have trained me into - it's a daily rhythm that we've developed together, and I enjoy the balance and abundance it brings.
Tibicos are pretty delicate little critters - if you leave them fermenting too long they will kill themselves off from too much alcohol. You'll know because they won't make your drinks fizzy anymore and it will stay sweet instead of souring.
If you need to take a break from the water kefir routine, you can store them in sugar water in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, or dehydrate them for future use.
I've been sharing out tibicos with friends here since I started making water kefir - depending on what you feed them and how happy they are, they'll double in volume every couple of weeks or so, so there's lots to share. It's so exciting to be getting reports back from other people's experiences with tibicos and extending the water kefir fermentation practice.
Have you tried making water kefir? Leave me comment and share your experience!
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