The history of water kefir is not well known. It's hard to say just how far back mankind has been using these grains because of a lack of recorded history, but it is at least many centuries if not longer. Though similar to milk kefir grains, one cannot be made from the other, they are distinct and separate cultures with separate (and largely undocumented) histories.
According to a combination of research and speculation, its origins most likely point towards Mexico, where in 1899 M. L. Lutz documented its existence in the naturally sugar-saturated water of the Ountia cactus (the prickly pear).
There is also a similar story of water kefir originating in Tibet, when monks gave Mother Teresa of Calcutta the grains as a gift. Another story suggests that they were introduced to Europe (the Ionian Islands) and the west by the British Soldiers after the Crimean War in the 1800's. This story however most likely refers to the Ginger Beer Plant which is extremely similar to water kefir, but a separate culture. Some suggest that one might have even evolved from the other long ago. Water kefir has also been reportedly used in close vicinity to where milk kefir grains originate, in the Caucasus Mountains.
Water Kefir also goes by many other names including:
• Tibicos (Tibi)
• Japanese Water Crystals
• Japanese Beer seeds
• Graines Vivantes (French)
• Sugar Kefir Grains
• Piltz, (German)
• Kefir di Frutta (Italian)
• Aqua Gems
• Sea Rice
• Sugary Fungus, Graines Vivantes
• Kefir d'acqua/aqua
• Kefir d'uva (grape juice is used)
• African bees
• California Bees
• Australian bees
• Vinegar bees
• Ginger bees
• Ale nuts
• Balm of Gilead
• Beer seeds
• Beer plant
• Ginger Beer plant (though not to be confused with actual GBP, which is a different strain). Bakers yeast in sugar water is also referred to as Ginger Beer Plant. Overtime the name has come to represent the process and drink more so than the culture that creates it, which causes some confusion.
• It can also be referred to as the Tibetan Mushroom, which is also interchangeably used to refer to milk kefir and kombucha.
It has been popular for many years in Mexico to use Tibi (water kefir) to make Tepache (pronounced tuh-PAH-chay) which is a pineapple-brown sugar-cinnamon beverage fermented by the grains. In other cultures, the traditional recipe has been to use a wedge of lemon, raisins and some sugar which the grains ferment. Kefir d'uva is also popular - it is simply fermenting grape juice with the use of water kefir (or milk kefir) grains.
Whichever story you prefer, 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. And that is the story of water kefir, albeit somewhat short and shrouded in mystery!
Learn More About Water Kefir: