Many people are familiar with milk kefir grains, but what about water kefir grains? Where did that culture originate, and how does it differ from milk kefir? Although both products are made from “grains,” these are not actual grains like wheat or rye, but rather clusters of bacteria and yeast living in a symbiotic relationship and held together by a polysaccharide (dextran) produced by Lactobacillus higarii.1 These clusters of bacteria, yeast, and polysaccharide look like little crystals, or “grains” of jelly. The bacteria and yeasts in the grains utilize sugar to produce lactic acid, ethanol (a small amount), and carbon dioxide.2
Water kefir grains are known by a variety of names, but most commonly are called tibicos, Japanese water crystals, and California bees. They may also be referred to as Australian Bees, African Bees, Ginger Bees, Ginger Beer Plant, Sea Rice, or Aqua Gems, to name a few. Different countries call them by different names. In Germany they may be called Piltz; in Italy, Kefir di Frutta; and in France, Graines Vivantes. In Mexico, tibicos (or tibi) is used to make a fermented beverage called Tepache, made from pineapple, brown sugar, and cinnamon.
Because of the highly active nature of the bacteria and yeasts, there are many variations of the exact culture that produces the fizzy water kefir drink.
It is not completely clear where or when water kefir grains originated, but speculation points toward Mexico as the most likely place of origin. According to some research, the tibicos culture forms on the pads of the Opuntia cactus as hard granules that can be reconstituted in a sugar-water solution as propagating tibicos. There is documentation from the late 1800s of water kefir grains being used in fermented drink made from the sweetened juice of the prickly pear cactus in Mexico.3
There are, however, stories that place their origin, or at least their use, in Tibet, the Caucasus Mountains, and the southern peninsula of the Ukraine. Pinpointing a place of origin is made even more difficult because water kefir cultures can be found throughout the world and no two cultures are exactly the same. Lack of recorded history also makes it difficult to place an origin date, but it seems likely these grains have been used for many centuries.
Regardless of what name is given to water kefir grains, or the exact makeup of the culture, the technique for using them is basically the same throughout the world.
If you cannot tolerate dairy, or if you are just looking for an alternative to commercial sodas, water kefir beverages can be a fun, easy, and tasty way to quench your thirst while adding more probiotics to your diet.