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What is water kefir, how does it differ from milk kefir, and should you try it out?

"Milk or water kefir?," an online buddy asked when I excitedly mentioned a friend had gifted me kefir grains to make kefir at home. A true kefir virgin, I only really knew that kefir was a yogurt-type beverage sold in smaller bottles and for more money than the drinking yogurt so ubiquitous where I live. That jar with the "grains [...] composed of microorganisms immobilized on a polysaccharide and protein matrix, where several species of bacteria and yeast coexist in symbiotic association" [1] initiated me into the brave new world of cultures — a world where even water can apparently be fermented. 

There are plenty of reasons to drink milk kefir; among the surprising health benefits of kefir are antibacterial potential [2], better blood sugar control for diabetics [3], lowered cholesterol and triglyceride levels [4], a stronger immune system [5], potential weight loss [6], and even anti-tumor properties [1]. 

If, you have, like me, been consuming milk, yogurt, and other dairy products for — well, basically forever — making the jump to the decidedly un-yogurt but still dairy beverage that is milk kefir isn't exactly that radical. Water kefir, on the other hand, ventures more into the territory of, say, kombucha. I think I'm justified in saying that water kefir is a niche product that's not gonna appeal to just anyone. Even if you're curious, you probably need some more info about it before you're ready to make the step to try it!

What Is Water Kefir?

Water kefir is, like milk kefir, a fermented probiotic drink made with the help of so-called "kefir grains". They're not real grains, of course, but the symbiotic matrix of yeasts and bacteria we already mentioned earlier. While milk kefir grains feed on the milk you provide, water kefir also needs food — water doesn't contain much by itself, and doesn't of course actually ferment. Water kefir grains feed on sugar (ideally unrefined or organic), little bits of fried fruit (like figs or apricots), and sometimes a bit of lemon. [6]

Though water kefir contains fewer kinds of probiotics and yeast than milk kefir, it still has lots — one study found Lactobacillus hordei and Lb. nagelii, Leuconostoc mesenteroides and Lc. citreum, and numerous other friendly bacteria in three different samples [7]. 

Water kefir tastes slightly tart and may have mildy bubbly qualities, just like milk kefir, but additionally has a hint of sweetness. Those who consume and enjoy it regularly often say they prefer it to soda, and that comparison gives you a hint as to its general qualities. Unlike milk kefir, water kefir doesn't thicken, and its finished product should have the same consistency as water. 

Why Water Kefir?

Water kefir might be a weaker probiotic than milk kefir, but it'll still offer you many of the same health benefits. You may like to try making water kefir if:

  • You've fallen in love with milk kefir and cultured products in general, and would like to add a new toy to your spectrum of possibilities. 
  • You want the benefits of a daily probiotic drink but will not or cannot consume dairy products. Vegans would obviously fall into this category. Although milk kefir is actually suitable for many lactose-intolerant people and in fact increases lactose tolerance [8], those who have been told they have medical reasons to avoid any dairy products will also prefer water kefir.
  • You don't like the taste of milk kefir but do like water kefir. My son, for instance, dislikes the taste of milk kefir because it lacks sweetness. 

How Do You Make Water Kefir At Home?

You may find water kefir grains online for a price, or someone you know may have some. You can also buy commercial powdered water kefir starters in some places. These differ from the grains in that they don't last forever, and you'll have to rebuy when your starter stops culturing. 

If you've already got milk kefir grains, you're in luck — you can actually "convert" them to water kefir grains. (Note: It doesn't work the other way around and the process is decidedly a one-way street.) Rinse your kefir grains carefully in non-chlorinated water. Prepare a glass or plastic jar with four cups of mineral water mixed with a quarter cup of unrefined organic sugar and a pinch of salt. You may add small bits of dried fruit if you like, as well as a little lemon juice. Add your kefir grains, allow them to ferment for about five days, and then strain and discard the water. Repeat the process, at room temperature like you would with milk kefir, and your second batch will be drinkable. 

Since milk kefir grains gain mass really quickly and they may grow much faster than you can find people who want them, you really have nothing to lose in trying this out. If you don't like it, you can move on — and if you do, you've got a new tool in your arsenal. 

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