Water Kefir Grains
Water kefir or Tibicos are a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts held in a polysaccharide biofilm matrix created by the bacteria. As with kefir grains, the microbes present in tibicos act in symbiosis to maintain a stable culture. Tibicos can do this in many different sugary liquids, feeding off the sugar to produce lactic acid, alcohol (ethanol), and carbon dioxide gas, which carbonates the drink.
Tibicos is also known as tibi, water kefir grains, sugar kefir grains, Japanese water crystals and California bees, and in older literature as bébées, African bees, ale nuts, Australian bees, balm of Gilead, beer seeds, beer plant, bees, ginger bees, Japanese beer seeds and vinegar bees.
Tibicos are found around the world, with no two cultures being exactly the same. Typical tibicos have a mix of Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, Pediococcus and Leuconostoc bacteria with yeasts from Saccharomyces, Candida, Kloeckera and possibly others. Lactobacillus brevis has been identified as the species responsible for the production of the polysaccharide (dextran) that forms the grains. Pidoux (1989) also identifies the sugary kefir grain with the ginger beer plant. Certainly opportunistic bacteria take advantage of this stable symbiotic relation which might be the reason for the many different names/distinction in the scientific literature. Different ingredients or hygienic conditions might also change the fungal and bacteriological composition, leading to the different names. People who do not wish to consume dairy products may find that water kefir provides probiotics without the need for dairy or tea cultured products, such as kombucha. The finished product, if bottled, will produce a carbonated beverage. It will continue to ferment when bottled thus producing more carbonation—so bottles need to be capped loosely and allowed to breathe, or they may become explosive.
A very thorough website dealing with all aspects of keifr making and history is Dom’s Kefir. Visit Dom’s Kefir site. The most excellent Sandor Ellix Katz and his fermentation bible ‘The Art Of Fermentation’ is an excellent book with sections on water kefir and hundreds of other fermented foods and recipes. Sharon Flynn from The Fermentary in Daylesford has written an excellent book titled ‘Ferment for Good,’ which has an even better section on water kefir grains and recipes.
Kefir is easy to make if you can follow simple instructions and can do them every second day. Kefir requires a commitment of 5-10 minutes each second morning, it involves simply straining the grains out of the kefir and then re-adding them to a fresh sugar water mixture. The best thing about water kefir is that they FEED on sugar and turn it into gas and acids. So you do not have to worry that the end product is sugary, the sugar will be consumed by the bacteria/fungi.
If you need a break from making kefir, like when you go on a holiday, you can make up the same mixture but with 1.5 – 2 times the amount of sugar and then place container in the fridge for 1-2 weeks (in my experience). Longer term storage means they would have to be dehydrated.
When I first bought some kefir grains, they were sent from one of the southern states and I found they did well in winter but struggled in our hot summers. Since then I have been using water kefir for 3 years non stop and they have adapted well to our Sunshine Coast climate, though they still slow down in the hottest part of the year.
Water kefir grains (1 tbsp+ per packet) and an instruction sheet.
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