I’ve been culturing kefir for years. I started with milk kefir and added water kefir. I’ve been doing it so long, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the whole thing. So I was quite surprised when, a few months ago, my water kefir started doing strange things. It stopped growing. It turned sludgy. Then it turned slimy. I mean really, really slimy, like something out of a Ghostbusters movie (there’s somethin’ strange in the neighborhood…). My kids, who usually clamor for kefir, refused to drink it. Which was fine because it didn’t pour. It oozed (there’s somethin’ strange and it don’t look good…).
I was afraid I had killed my water kefir grains, but I wasn’t sure what I had done, or if I could revive them. After careful consideration, I realized that my kefir began to die shortly after I changed the water filter in my refrigerator. Prior to that, I had used only store bought spring water or boiled tap water for my kefir. I thought filtered water would be better for my kefir grains, so once I replaced my outdated water filter, I started using the fridge water exclusively. Turns out, this is a big no-no. Water kefir does not like filtered water of any kind. Who knew? I switched back to boiled or bought water, and my kefir began reviving immediately. The grains began to float and multiply once more, and the slimy water became a thing of family legend and lore.
In the process, I learned a thing or two about these beautiful, living organisms that I didn’t know before. If you’re experiencing trouble with your water kefir, the following insights might help you keep them happy:
*Do not use filtered water for kefir (I believe I’ve covered that one already).
*Kefir is a living organism, and as such, its needs can change. Happy kefir will grow, sometimes rapidly. Monitor your kefir to be sure that it is always growing. Sometimes growth is obvious, particularly during warm spells when the kefir can double or triple every two days. But in the winter months, kefir growth can slow down significantly. I measure my kefir grains after each batch to ensure that they have not stopped growing. Additionally, the grains should bob and float, then sink as they break apart and double. You should also see lots of bubbles when you gently shake the jar. A lack of any of these things means something is amiss.
*I always used raw sugar for my kefir water, but in the winter months, when the temperatures are much cooler, your kefir grains might need refined white sugar because it’s easier for the kefir to digest. The same is true if your kefir has been distressed due to overculturing or neglect. You might need to feed your kefir a diet of white sugar water for a bit.
*If you use white sugar, be sure to add a little molasses to the water because white sugar is devoid of the minerals kefir loves. I also add a pinch of baking soda. If you use raw sugar, don’t add the molasses as the kefir might not be able to process all the minerals. Not being able to process all the minerals=slime. Ew.
*A slice of lemon in the kefir water helps to balance the Ph of the water. Don’t overdue it, however, and don’t be tempted to add fruit juices to the initial ferment. Acidic water will kill the kefir. Save the fruit or flavorings for the second ferment after the grains have been removed.
*If your kefir water turns slimy, do not drink it since the balance of yeasts and sugars is off. It probably won’t kill you, but you don’t want to mess with bacteria. Slimy kefir is likely due to overmineralization in the water. Rinse the kefir grains well (I soaked mine for a few hours in plain water, then rinsed several times) then start a new batch of kefir using white sugar and molasses. If you use a bit of egg shell in your kefir water, omit it for the first batch.
*In the cooler months, your kefir may slow down or stop reproducing. Try to find a warm spot for it (on top of the refrigerator, or in the oven with the pilot light on—just don’t forget and bake it!). You can even put it on a heating pad turned on low. The extra warmth will give the kefir an energy boost. Don’t put the kefir in the sunlight, however, as UV rays are harmful to the bacteria.
*Don’t neglect your kefir! If you allow your kefir to overferment, it will starve. During the summer, kefir will burn through the sugar water quite quickly. In the winter, you might be able to let your kefir sit up to a day longer than normal. The key is to taste the kefir water. When it no longer tastes sweet, it is done. Strain the kefir grains out and put them in a fresh solution. Put the kefir water in a fresh bottle along with any flavorings and allow it to sit for a second ferment. This second ferment can last as long as you like, since you’re not in danger of killing any grains.
*It’s smart to store up some back-up kefir grains in case something catastrophic happens (like Slimefest, 2011). Kefir grains may be frozen or dehydrated with great success. Replace back-up grains with fresh ones every six months or so to ensure viability. It may take a few fermentations to get the frozen or dried grains back up to speed, so be patient. Kefir is remarkably resilient and it will come back if you care for it!