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FAQ: Upkeep and Contamination
Questions in this Section:
Do kefir grains need to be fed every day?
What is the purpose of the lemon and the dried fruit?
Is it ok to use waxed/conventional or bottled lemons vs organic?
Should sulfates and other preservatives on dried fruits be avoided?
How do I de-chlorinate my water?
What about reverse-osmosis water?
Can you use fresh fruits, vegetables or grains (such as rice) in the ferment?
Does ginger help your kefir grains?
Should you include some of the last batch in the new batch?
Can you substitute the previous batch kefir or vinegar for the lemon?
Should I add minerals such as baking soda or calcium to the ferment?
Do you have to wash or rinse your grains?
What if I forgot to strain my kefir when it was ready?
What if I forget about my kefir and its really old?
What should kefir grains look like?
How fast do kefir grains grow?
Should kefir grains float?
Do kefir grains change shape?
What causes grains to change appearance or shape?
Why is my kefir slimy, scummy, foamy, filmy, or thick?
Why is my kefir extremely sweet or flat?
Why does my kefir smell like nail polish remover or vomit?
What if I used dried or fresh coconut and it tastes very sour?
What is the white fuzzy or brown film on my kefir?
How do you know if the grains are 'healthy'?
How do you know if its contaminated?
What if I suspect my kefir has been cross-contaminated by another culture?
What are the seasonal differences in Kefir (summer vs winter, etc)?
Do kefir grains need to be fed every day?

Water kefir needs to be fed at least every 48 hours (every other day). Kefir grains need to be strained every 24-48 hours (24 hours being hot summer weather, most of the time they can go to 48 or even another day in the cold winter months) and put in a fresh mix of water and sugar. If you or your grains would like to take a break, stick them in the fridge, refreshing them weekly with fresh water and sugar or simply put them in their finished kefir juice for up to a week or two. This can be done for a couple weeks, then they should be brought back out to room temperature. If you need a longer break, view our section on storage.

What is the purpose of the lemon and the dried fruit?

The lemon and dried fruit have traditionally been used in the recipe for ages. As with many things from the past, people used what they found worked, and we are now able to scientifically define why. The lemon serves as a natural ph buffer, lowering the ph to protect the water kefir from foreign and competing contaminants. Lemon peel also is high in calcium, a main mineral for the grains. The dried fruit serve as an added source of sugar and the various minerals found within them (including a good dosage of potassium and magnesium). It is interesting that just as with us, it is also important for kefir grains to receive a large amount of calcium, potassium and magnesium (and other trace minerals). Some dried fruits seem to work better than others. Raisins are the traditional fruit of the recipe, but dates, figs, apples, apricots and coconut among others also work very well.

Is it ok to use waxed/conventional or bottled lemons vs organic?

It is ok but not recommended. If you only have access or a budget for conventional lemons though, simply peel it - this gets rid of the bulk of wax and any other preservatives or pesticides that may be coating the lemon. Be sure to wash the lemon with hot water and scrub off any dirt etc if you are not peeling it (organic doesn't always mean clean or safe either).

Should sulfates and other preservatives on dried fruits be avoided?

Yes, it should be avoided, but it is not detrimental. Green/golden raisins tend to have more preservatives in them - so be aware when buying to check for that. In our observations it seems to only slightly impair the ferment - around 0-10% difference is noted when comparing a conventional raisin with an organic preservative free raisin. Sometimes we cannot tell the full range of effects (or no effects) that something may have, so we always suggest to try to stay away from sulfates and sulfites if possible - fresher and more natural is always better however you look at it.

How do I de-chlorinate my water?

You can let your tap water sit out in an open container for a minimum of 6 hours (chlorine will fully evaporate in an open container within 6 hours according to the city works department site) with most recommendations set a little longer at 12-24 hours (according to some aquarium and tropical fish experts). Chloramine is another form of chlorine that will not evaporate - if you're concerned about this you can find out from your local water department whether they treat your water with this. If you're worried about the cleanliness of your water or other contaminants besides chlorine, boiling kills off most types of organisms and is the most recommended purification technique in this case. Boil the water at full rolling boil for 1 full minute, then let it cool (if you are more than one mile above sea level boil 3 minutes longer).

What about reverse-osmosis water?

Reverse osmosis water has in most of our observations led to eventual kefir grain death even. It just doesn't contain enough of the various and vital minerals found in normal tap, spring or mineral water. It is what we like to call 'processed' or 'refined' water, basically an empty water devoid of its normal nutrients and properties, much like white sugar is compared to whole cane sugar. It's an unbalanced and empty nutrient.

Can you use fresh fruits, vegetables or grains (such as rice) in the ferment?

Yes, we have actually found our kefir to take to carrots a bit at times. Root vegetables have a high sugar and mineral content (like ginger, which is a root) and kefir sometimes will benefit from a couple fresh slices of carrots or ginger. Brown rice also seems to be compatible with kefir grains, and we would imagine many other grains to be as well (in their whole form - not white rice for example). Try experimenting with your extra kefir grains and see what they like! We don't recommend nuts because of their high oil content. Vegetables like garlic and onion have irritating compounds for the grains as well, and most likely will not be beneficial.

Does ginger help your kefir grains?

Some people have noticed good growth with freshly peeled ginger slices, candied ginger, or ginger juice. In some cases this may be because the grains are actually ginger beer grains and not water kefir (they look extremely similar). Since even within the water kefir grain species, grain 'families' can differ, you will have to experiment for yourself to see if your water kefir likes it. And just because it doesn't show any indication of liking it at one point, you may notice it take off and grow rapidly at another time (water kefir is always in flux and changing). We have found it fascinating that water kefir tends to also have cycles of preferences - for example, just as someone might really have a banana craving for a couple weeks, and then tire of it and move on to another snack, water kefir also likes variety. It seems that they are most healthy when exposed to a wide range of nutrients, and are also resting from other nutrients (and then returning to them). For example, you may give them apricots for a couple weeks, then dates, then figs, then ginger slices, then repeat.

Should you include some of the last batch in the new batch?

Once your grains are strong and growing and fermenting successfully and consistently, it is not necessary to always use a lemon. Instead, you can use about 1/8-1/4 cup of the kefir from the last batch as your 'acidic' ph lowering tool (per quart water). Since in the past this was most likely done as a continual ferment (a ferment that you drink out of and then replace that amount with fresh water and sugar, never straining the grains out) this would have been the case that enough of the liquid was already low in ph to protect the ferment. But it is in fact not necessary to do this either if your grains are proving to be healthy and productive. In some cases this can add too much yeast and cause a foamy ferment. If you notice your grains not growing as well, or too much foam on the top of the water, then cut back or skip this procedure for awhile.

Can you substitute the previous batch kefir or vinegar for the lemon?

Yes, the previous batch of kefir will act as a ph lowering aid, just as the lemon would have. Sometimes this can cause an increase in yeastiness and foam at the top because you are carrying over more bacteria and yeast (live and dead). The other thing you may be missing out on is the added nutrients from the lemon, such as the calcium in the rind. However there are most likely other beneficial nutrients in the 'starter' liquid too - the best of both worlds is to switch between the two. Water kefir has shown us time and again that it does actually get tired of one way, perks up from a change, and then is ready to return to something else. When your water kefir is showing a strong healthy growth rate and kefiring ability, it may even benefit from a break from either - there are many, many people who opt out on even putting the lemon or starter liquid in, and have no problems whatsoever.

Should I add minerals such as baking soda or calcium to the ferment?

Yes, sometimes the grains needs call for added minerals. This is most usually the case when they seem to be lagging a bit and could use a boost. If you are giving them mineralized or hard water, lots of unrefined sugar (like rapadura, Rapunzel, etc) then the issue may not be minerals. It is always worth a shot to see if your grains will benefit from a pinch of baking soda (about 1/8 teaspoon per quart). Don't use baking powder. Sometimes they can also benefit from a likewise pinch of calcium carbonate from sources like dolomite (shell), boiled and sanitary egg shells, or supplemental powders you can find in your local grocery or health food store or online. If the water becomes murky, thick, slimy or the grains do worse, then it's an indication that there are already plenty of minerals and no more are necessary at the moment.

Do you have to wash or rinse your grains?

Some people like to do this, but it was never done traditionally and is not necessary at all. By nature, they are a symbiotic mass of microflora that has self-inoculating properties, protecting itself from foreign bacteria or yeast. The lactic acid it excretes also protects it from becoming contaminated. Many have observed that when they stopped rinsing their grains, they grew better and produced better kefir. This pertains to the jar as well - which does not need to be washed each and every time. Sometimes they can get a filmy coating on their surface that may indicate they need a gentle scrub and rinse (along with less minerals, fruit, or unrefined sugars too) though. If you wish to rinse them, make sure it is clean, non-chlorinated water. Simply run them under flowing water or swish them around in a bowl of clean water and drain off.

What if I forgot to strain my kefir when it was ready?

Kefir is very forgiving. Strain when you remember, and feed them normally. They may be extra happy and eat through the new sugar-water quickly, so keep an eye on them and strain when it tastes ready (whether its before or after the 24-48 hour mark). If its been more than a week they may need some time to re-balance, and you may want to wait to consume the kefir until after a couple of cycles/batches.

What if I forget about my kefir and its really old?

Kefir keeps a LONG time, like wine. It may even smell just like wine (or pickles). Sometimes you can revive neglected or forgotten grains. Simply seperate them sugar-water in a strainer, give them a rinse with some clean cold, preferably non-chlorinated water, and put them in a new batch of sugar-water. They most likely won't be that active, so a little batch is enough, you don't want to waste a ton of sugar and other ingredients until you see signs of activity. If they seem to process the water into kefir, then they may be viable to use - keep feeding and wait at least a few days if not longer (water kefir can take longer than milk kefir grains to revive) before consuming, to ensure the drink is balanced. As with all things, use your best judgement and common sense, if it smells badly or looks off, toss it and secure some fresh new grains from your back-up storage or a friend.

What should Kefir Grains look like?

Kefir grains look a lot like semi-transparent crystal gems. They can go through many phases through the seasons from being small and more uniform looking, or large and full of strange shapes, angles and bumps. They can even become lumpy like cauliflower, or very smooth like glass. They are always semi-transparent, but will be much darker if used with less refined sugar. Their color will also be clear unless used with less refined sugar, in which case they will be light to dark brown in color. They should be slightly bouncy and slippery (but not slimy or gooey like milk kefir grains) and can range from the size of a grain of rice to as big as 2 inches. Dried kefir grains color is also dependant on the sugar it was feeding on - ranging from a dusty clear color to a dark rootbeer brown. They are more fragile than milk kefir grains, and will crumble easily when squeezed (however it is not a problem to worry about, it will survive if squished - it is just that their structure has many clean breaks and soft bonds, unlike milk which is more rubbery, bonded and stretchy)

How fast do kefir grains grow?

Water kefir can reproduce rapidly under the right conditions and some luck. They will grow anywhere from 5%-400% within 48 hours. We've seen 5% in the winter and 400% in the summer, with other %'s everywhere in between (and not always with an answer as to why). Sometimes water kefir has 'lag times' where they will just slow down for one reason or another. In the winter they may have diminished growth because of the season. It is also interesting that smaller grains will reproduce much more rapidly than larger grains (this is because there is a greater surface area that can grab nutrients from the water).

Should kefir grains float?

Yes, sometimes. Most kefir grains encapsulate some of the carbon dioxide gas that the yeasts give off while fermenting. Also, some grains have less density than the liquid, and simply float. Some will be dense enough though (and manage to avoid capturing bubbles) that they remain on the bottom. Sometimes grains that have been subjected to severe freezer burn, high heat or their outer layer is too encrusted and hard from being dried (or old), also float (and they may not be able to be revived). It is best to see if these are able to propagate new grains (though they themselves may not recover) or toss them if no growth or kefiring is achievable with them. If they reproduce new grains, then you are good to go!

Do Kefir Grains change shape?

Yes, they actually go through seasonal changes just like a plant would. This is in response to the weather, temperature, amount of daylight being most likely a combination of all three. In the summer, kefir grains are typically smaller and more numerous and can sometimes be more bumpy too. This can also happen when there is overcrowding in the jar if its disintegrating due to kefir grain death (they will lose their structure and turn into sand-sized grains. In the fall or spring (or cooler environment) you will see them go through various stages of sizes and being smooth like glass or more bumpy as they adjust to the new season ahead. In the winter they tend to 'huddle together' and form larger and more irregular shapes with clean cut edges (like broken crystals).

What causes grains to change appearance or shape?

A change in temperature, season, water, or space/water quantity, type of dried fruit and type of sugar can all affect grain appearance and shape. Pressing or squishing them (or blending them) can also change their appearance for awhile. Because of the different minerals available in different waters, fruits and sugars, grains can change appearance or shape. Changing temperatures can also dramatically change the shape of kefir grains. Also, the amount of nutrients available will have an affect (more alkaline being desirable- which means heavier minerals) on the grains. Milk kefir is more systematic it seems, while water kefir takes more intuition and observation since they always seem to be in a state of flux.

Why is my kefir slimy, scummy, foamy, filmy, or thick?

Kefir should not be gooey, slimy or in any way thick. It's ok if there is some 'goo' around the dried fruits or when you squeeze the dried fruits - this is a reaction between the bacteria, yeast and fruit sugars. The water should always be the consistency of water though. Sometimes an overload of minerals such as way too much baking soda or calcium, can react to make a thick water - we don't advise drinking this either. Foamy is much more typical and not something to worry about. This is just the by-product of yeast activity and usually non-digestible materials in the sugar. This happens most often with rapadura. We do not see this nearly as much with brown sugar or molasses - which are both low to zero in residue. The rapadura most likely contains some fibrous residue particles within the sugar since it is very unrefined. Even if the foam is a bit scummy (brown 'goo' threads attached) just scoop it off the top and proceed to straining as normal.

Why is my kefir extremely sweet or flat?

If it tastes like sugar water without any hint of vinegar and its very sweet and flat, this indicates that a fermentation didn't take place, or was so minor that it's not noticeable. Check the other information here for what might be wrong.

Why does my kefir smell like nail polish remover or vomit?

Acetone which gives off the 'nail polish remover smell' ;is a normal process of fermentation and is present in very small amounts (and is not dangerous). But once your brew smells strongly of this, it is best to continue to ferment as usual, but not drink the kefir. Most times it will go away on its own (as it is usually a temporary imbalance in the yeast and bacteria). If not, it is best to discard the grains and start anew. This can happen when over-active yeast uses the dissolved oxygen too rapidly and are not completely fermenting all the sugar (which can allow it to be too available to other invading bacteria and yeast). Most of the invading bacteria that can cause problems do not tolerate too low of an acid environment (ph 2-4) High Butyric acid levels (also present in small amounts naturally) smell like vomit. These can found quite often on dirt or tea leaves (generally a quite common bacteria) and will most likely pass once you get your ferment in a safe ph level for a couple ferments.

What if I used dried or fresh coconut and it tastes very sour?

This is a very interesting backwards way of finding out if the coconut you used was rancid! Sometimes it can be almost impossible to tell, especially if you are using dried coconut flakes, which all look the same and smell pretty much the same. Fresh coconut and coconut water is usually grey or pink if its rancid or gone bad. But if your ferment turns out to taste like sour gummy bears (more sour than even what a lemon would usually impart in the kefir), then your coconut was rancid. Try to secure a source of fresh dried coconut - if its from a bin at your local store it may be more likely to go rancid then if its freshly packaged in individual bags.

What is the white fuzzy or brown film on my kefir?

Although this is not desirable, it is not dangerous. This is simply a Mycodermia - basically a fungi skin (created by yeast and bacteria within the kefir). This is typically found on the surface of wine that has been exposed to too much warmth and air, and is referred to as 'Flowers of Wine'. Because of this, many people now refer to the same phenomenon in kefir as 'Flowers of Kefir'. This film is non-pathogenic and regarded as generally safe. Technically speaking it is yeast forming certain pseudo-mycelium which mimics the look of fuzzy mold (but it's not mold). It usually happens as a result of one or a combination of the following: higher temperatures or tropical climates, too many grains in too little water (which will increase the activity of the yeast), lack of regular water changes and/or letting the kefir constantly over-ferment before changing it to new water. Sometimes it will form on ripening kefir. In this case, you can help discourage the mycodermia from forming by putting an airlock on the lid since the mycodermia thrives on oxygen. If you are up to it, some people even skim this film off their kefir to use as a leavener in breads, since it is safe and edible and provides a great active riser for a sourdough-like bread.

How do you know if the grains are 'healthy'?

Kefir grains are very resilient and will strive to maintain their health at all times. As long as your grains are converting the sugar-water mix to kefir that is not 'off' they are just fine. They may get stressed or be responding to seasonal changes and change shape or smell a bit (more yeasty or increase/decrease in size). They are constantly adapting and working in tandem with their environment and it's not a concern if they don't look the same in winter as in summer - this is a result of their ability to adapt (different strains do well at different temperatures, making kefir an amazing symbiotic blend that is able to survive at many temperatures). They range from clear to an opaque dark brown in color depending on the sugar and dried fruit it is with (some fruits like figs will be pink). Even when they are not growing they can still often produce a healthy drinkable kefir, though its best to give them optimal conditions so they can grow.

How do you know if its contaminated?

It's very difficult to have truly contaminated kefir due to the very nature of the billions of cultures in contains. If however it is contaminated, it will be an off color, thick texture to the water and/or off smell and you will be able to recognize this (it will not be subtle). In most cases it will just be a fuzzy spoilage mold of some sort (the same stuff that grows on everything else that spoils). Avoid spoiled fruit or sugar that you may be scooping dirty or food-covered spoons into the bag. Also, fermenting too little grains or too much sugar may encourage the bad bacteria to compete and out-do the small amount of grains (and too warm of a room can encourage this further). As long as you are using clean utensils, washing your hands, keeping the room temperature reasonable and maintaining reasonably clean jars (its ok to re-use them for a few weeks before washing), following the recipe and covering the jars properly there is little risk of contamination.

What if I suspect my Kefir has been cross-contaminated by another culture?

This can occasionally happen, especially with viili culture, which happily mingles with kefir (usually milk kefir). You must ensure that all supplies are used strictly for water kefir, or at the least thoroughly cleansed (and rinsed of all soap residues too) between each use. If your kefir has been cross-contaminated, strain the grains rinse them very thoroughly under clean, cold, preferably non-chlorinated water, rubbing them gently between your fingers to get all outer residue off the grains. At this point you can place them in a water fast for 24-28 hours (just put the grains in clean, cold water) in the fridge. Strain them, give them another rinse, and resume fermenting in sugar-water. This process may need to be done a couple or more times before all signs of cross-contamination are gone (and to ensure they don't return).

What are the seasonal differences in Kefir (summer vs winter, etc)?

Kefir, like all living organisms, goes through intricate and subtle changes with the seasons, climate, temperatures and environment it is in. Just like you can mark the seasons with a tree budding, growing, turning colors and discarding its leaves, kefir also will constantly be in flux and going through seasonal patterns. Kefir will ferment much more quickly in the summer and warmer temperatures. It may especially be inconsistent during spring and fall, or whenever there is a large disparity of temperatures (such as a cold night and hot day). Kefir will tend to be more mild in the winter and cooler temperatures (and more zesty and sour in the summer). Part of the beauty of the symbiotic nature of kefir is that each strain has a certain strength and weakness. Together, they are able to ferment at a wide range of temperatures. Keeping this in mind, you will realize that because of this, a certain temperature will allow some strains to perform much better, while others may be temporarily suppressed. This contributes to the differing tastes of kefir throughout the year. Water kefir tends to be in flux even more than milk kefir - changing shape and taste quite often - even when you are not sure what to blame it on. Give it a couple weeks and it will come around again usually to something you're more familiar with. For one reason or another water kefir tends to have 'down times'. It may just seem to lag and falter for a few weeks, and then pick right up again, suddenly reproducing 100-400% growth. We've found that kefir grains will still reproduce and ferment in very cold temperatures of 40-60 degrees. And we've found that trying to heat them does not seem to encourage them a whole lot in some cases. You will have to experiment for yourself come winter time in your home! We've noticed that our grains prefer easier sugars in the winter that will dissolve and digest more quickly (like white sugar with molasses) and more slower digesting sugars in the summer (like rapadura with white sugar).
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