Zingy and slightly sweet but also tangy with a hint of fizziness water kefir is refreshing and fun to sip on.

waterkefirWater kefir is made from water kefir grains, also known as balm of Gilead, California bees, and Japanese beer seeds are a “symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria” that live and grow in what is called a microbiogleae. Their scientific name is Tibicos and they basically look like little yellow, gummi crystals. Water kefir grains are not the same as the kefir grains used to make dairy based kefir, although they do contain some of the same types of gut friendly bacteria, such as bifico bacterium, lactobacilli and a host of other Bacillus relatives. It’s challenging to isolate exact cultures because they change with environmental influence during the fermentation process. Interestingly, researchers seems to be in disagreement about exactly where water kefir grains come from; several sources speculate they come from the ‘leaves’ of a cactus fig plant but others disagree.

For all their mystery, water kefir grains are pretty interesting and easy to work with if you are trying to increase your intake of probiotics and belly friendly foods. They are especially desirable for people with dairy issues because they provide very much the same bacteria without the dairy. Here’s a quick and easy water kefir recipe:

Melt the sugar in two cups of heated water then pour into a jar large enough for six cups of water. Add the rest of the water, the figs, the trace minerals, the lemon (or lemon juice) and finally the kefir grains. Secure a cheesecloth over the top of the jar so nothing can get in but the mixture can breathe and ferment. Let sit in a quiet location for two or three days depending on how fermented you would like the drink to be. The longer the fermentation the less sugar and more bacteria, however studies show that past 72 hours it begins to become higher in acetic acid and other volatile compounds that detract from the flavor and the beneficial bacteria. The optimal fermentation time is between 24-48 hours.

Once the desired fermentation time has passed, place a strainer over a bowl and drain off the liquid from the grains and other ingredients. Remove the figs (they are tasty even if they look funny) and rinse the grains with filtered water. You can either store them or put them right back into a new batch of kefir. If you store them for just a few days then you can do so by adding a little bit of sugar to some of the liquid you just made and keeping them in a jar in the fridge. If you want to store them for longer, you can freeze or dehydrate them.

Okay so now you have a jar of lovely kefir… you can enjoy as is or if you want to make fizzy soda you can place a lid on the jar and let it sit out for a day or two. This increases the natural carbonation. This is also a good time to flavor your kefir if you’re interested in making it into a “cider”. I just made a batch of apple ginger. I minced about an inch of fresh ginger and chopped ½ of a fuji apple, tossed them in the kefir, put the lid on and let it all sit for two days. It’s fizzy and yummy!

From a health perspective, while there is limited research out there, the research that is in peer reviewed, scientific journals is really pretty cool. Studies have shown that just a tablespoon a day of this awesome little fermented beverage can help keep your gut bacteria happily populated with digestive good guys. Other studies have found that ingestion of water kefir beverage has been beneficial in the prevention of multidrug-resistant myeloid leukemia, as well as a preventative and chemotherapeutic intervention for various cancers. Still more research suggests that daily intake of beverages containing lactobacilli are beneficial in the prevention of periodontal disease. Don’t forget also that a balanced gut microbiome means balanced mood, increased cognitive function, enhanced immune system function, digestive wellness, and just all around goodness.

One caveat: most store purchased kefirs are required to be pasteurized with flavor and ingredients added back in after pasteurization; unfortunately this tends to increase the sugar content and decrease the happy bacteria content. If you drink fermented beverages, it is well worth making your own. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s cost friendly once you have the grains.

You can also use your water kefir grains in things like coconut water. I have not tried it yet but here is a great resource if you’re interested:Coconut Water Kefir by Yemoos

One last caveat: These are meant to be tonic drinks, sipped in small quantities for health and wellness. They are not big gulps, sodas, supersized soft drinks…. More is not better; just enough is just right.