Water kefir is made from kefir grains, also known as sugar grains, tibicos, tibi, or Japanese water crystals.
Different countries call them by different names. In Germany they may be called Piltz; in Italy, Kefir di Frutta; and in France, Graines Vivantes. They have absolutely no connection to grain used for flour. The grains are made up various strains of healthy bacteria and yeast, held together in a polysaccharide matrix created by the bacteria. The symbiotic relationship of the microbes produces a stable growing culture. The microbes feed on sugar and produce lactic acid, alcohol (ethanol), and carbon dioxide, yielding a fermented carbonated beverage. The alcohol content is usually very minimal, less than 1 %. Yes, there is alcohol in water kefir. That is what fermentation is.
It is not completely clear where or when water kefir grains originated, but speculation points towards Mexico. According to some research, the tibicos culture forms on the pads of the Opuntia cactus as hard granules that can be reconstituted in a sugar-water solution as propagating tibicos. There is documentation from the late 1800s of water kefir grains being used in fermented drink made from the sweetened juice of the prickly pear cactus in Mexico.3
There are, however, stories that place their origin, or at least their use, in Tibet, the Caucasus Mountains, and the southern peninsula of the Ukraine. Pinpointing a place of origin is made even more difficult because water kefir cultures can be found throughout the world and no two cultures are exactly the same. Lack of recorded history also makes it difficult to place an origin date, but it seems likely these grains have been used for many centuries.
Water kefir is typically composed of both lactic and acetic acid bacteria. Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc are the lactic acid bacteria. Then there’s the Acetobacter, Gluconobacter and Gluconacetobater which are acetic acid bacteria. (Gluconobacter and Gluconaeceobater are much less common than Acetobacter.)
Recently Bifidobacteriaceae and Zymomonas were discovered in water kefir grains as a large percentage of the total bacteria. Streptococcus was identified in earlier research but has not been found in the newer studies.
Saccharomyces crevisiae and hanseniaspora valbysensis seem to be the two biggest yeasts, followed by other minor yeasts.
Elusive Little Rascals
These little mysterious troopers are gaining huge momentum in the world of fermentation. Even though they have been flying under the fermentation radar, they are about to make a huge resurgence into society based on their incredible health benefits and how quickly they ferment.
Whichever story you prefer about where they originated is your prerogative but one thing we know for sure is that the grains have been shared around the world in many locations for centuries. It is just now starting to be known and understood by a wider audience, as people search for healthy alternatives and more natural (and traditional) foods and beverages.
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Leeza Zurwick is the Founder of Happy Gut and has a deep passion for living off the earth and using fermented food as medicine. After being gifted some water kefir grains, she found it difficult to find consistent information on how to brew water kefir and she found it challenging to source the right brewing supplies. Through extensive research, trial and error, Leeza developed simple recipes and systems to ensure success and delicious results. After drinking water kefir daily, she noticed a significant reduction in bloating, clearer skin and her immune system was strengthened enough to not get sick, despite working in classrooms full of germy kids! Leeza launched Happy Gut in 2017 and made it her mission to share the age old wisdom, simplicity and incredible health benefits of live, probiotic rich, fermented Water Kefir.