Sugar-water kefir

12 September 2010 § 14 Comments

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Close up of sugar-water kefir by fabrivelas on Zooomr
This summer I got some sugar-water kefir crystals from the South of France. They have been living there for years of spring water, brown bio sugar and figs. The batch I got have been continuing eating the same ingredients apart from the water which is filtered tap water and mostly rapadura instead of crystallised sugar. I also like to give my kefir ginger, which it seems to like very, very much.
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Sugar-water kefir with cent coin by fabrivelas on Zooomr
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Sugar water kefir in strainer by fabrivelas on Zooomr
As you can see, kefir is not very difficult, it supports a metal strainer contrary to information found elsewhere on the web. The largest crystals that I have seen so far are the size of a little larger than a cent.
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Close up of 5 grains of sugar-water kefir by fabrivelas on Zooomr
In 24 h the amount of kefir doubles on good days. It is quite impressive. The taste of kefir crystals is rather neutral.
This is how I keep the kefir:
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Storage of the sugar-water kefir by fabrivelas on Zooomr

Sugar-water kefir (tibi) forms on the leaves of the Opuntia cactus (orig. Mexico) as hard granules (Lutz, L.: Recherches biologiques sur la constitution du Tibi. Bull. Soc. Mycol. France 15, 68-72 (1899), and Stacey M. and Youd, F.R.: A note on the dextran produced from sucrose by Betacoccus arabinosaceous haemolyticus Biochem J., November 1938; 32(11): 1946–1948.

These two references seem to be the only ones referring to the origin of the sugar water kefir (tibi) grains which seems a bit strange given the age of the publications. I cannot recall seeing tibi on my grandmother’s Opuntia when it was still living (1990s), but I did not really look for them either.

German resumée of the Lutz article:

Lutz, L., Recherches biologiques sur la Constitution
du Tibi. (Bulletin de la Societe Mycologique de France. 1899.
p. 68-72.) 

Unter „Tibi" versteht man kugelige, durchscheinende, wie gekochte
Reiskörner aussehende Massen, die sich in Mexico auf den Opuntien
finden. Sie variiren von der Grösse einer Erbse bis zu der eines
Stecknadelknopfes. In zuckerhaltigem Wasser rufen sie Gährung hervor;
es entsteht ein wohlschmeckendes leichtes Getränk.
Bei der mikroskopischen Untersuchung zeigen sich die Tibikörner
aus Bacillen, Spirillen und Hefen zusammengesetzt. Wenn das gegohrene
Getränk eine Zeit lang ruhig steht, so bilden sich an der Oberfläche
Zoogloeen, die aus Bacillen und Spirillen bestehen. Es ist nicht
schwer zu sehen, dass beide nur Entwickelungsstadien einer Art sind,
indem die Spirillen bald in Bacillen zerfallen. Zur Isolirung der Organismen
empfiehlt es sich, das Getränk zu benutzen und zwar sind flüssige Cultur-
medien geeignet. Indessen hat Verf. die Isolirung auch auf Kartoffeln
durchgeführt.
Man erhält dann einen Kapselbacillus, der sehr variabel in der
Grösse ist (von 1,5 bis 3,3 µ Länge). Die Spirillenform kann die
Länge von 250 — 300 µ erreichen. Der Bacillus ist obligat aërob und
wächst leicht im Tibigetränk, auf Möhren, Opuntia und Heuinfus.
Dagegen wächst er schlecht in Bouillon. In neutraler Raulin'scher
Nährlösung wächst er ebentalls. Von festen Substraten zieht er
Kartoffel vor und Gelatine mit den oben genannntee Flüssigkeiten.
Der Bacillus ist beweglich, producirt kein Indol und färbt sich nicht
nach Gram.
Die Hefe lässt sich leicht in flüssiger oder auf gelatinirter
Raulin'scher Nährlösung züchten. In Möhren und Opuntiainfus
wächst sie ebenfalls. Kartoffel und Möhren sind zusagende feste Nähr-
böden. Die Sporenbildung gelingt in einer Lösung von Candiszucker in
destillirtem Wasser. In jeder Zelle bilden sich vier abgerundete Sporen,
die leicht wieder auskeimen.
Um die ursprüngliche Symbiose in den Körnern wieder herzustellen,
verfährt man so, dass man in Möhrenabkochung den Bacillus impft.
Nach einigen Tagen zerreisst man durch heftige Bewegung des Cultur-
gefässes die Bakterienhaut und impft die Hefe ein. Es bilden sich nun
Körner, indem die Bacillen die Hefezellen einschliessen. Durch vor-
sichtige Zuckerzufügung lässt sich der Process sehr lange fortsetzen.
Beide Organismen vermögen zusammen die Gährung einzuleiten und zu
unterhalten, während einer allein es nicht kann.
Es ist wahrsclieinlich, dass beide Organismen neu sind. Bevor
Verf. aber eine definitive Beschreibung giebt, stellt er weitere Unter-
suchungen über ihre Eigenschaften und die von ihnen erzeugte Gährung
in Aussicht.
                                                       Lindau (Berlin)
(from a summary in: Beihefte zum Botanischen Centralblatt, Cassel, vol 9 (2), 1900, Verlag von Gebründer Gotthelft.)


Lutz writes also in 1906 about the symbiotic associations of saccharomyces Radaisii here is a summary of his article:

Lutz. — Associations symbiotiques du Saccharomyces Radaisii (Bull. Soc. inje. l906, p. 96). 

Le Tibi, dont on se sert an Mexique pour obtenir une liqueur fer-
mentée, est constitué par des masses sphéroïdes dont le centre est
occupé par le Saccharomyces Radaisii et la périphérie par le
Bacillus Mexicanus. Le rôle de ce bacille consiste uniquement
à préserver contre le contact de l'air le Saccharomyces, qui est un
organisme anaérobie. 

L'auteur a, en effet, réussi à opérer une symbiose analogue en
associant ce Saccharomyces au Bacillus subtilis. Ce dernier bacille
enveloppe de toutes parts le Saccharomyces qui, ainsi préservé
contre le contact de l'air, végète et fonctionne comme ferment. 

La seule différence importante que l'on constate, suivant que l'on
emploie l'un ou l'autre bacille, est le développement, avec le Bacil-
lus subtilis, d'une odeur marquée rappelant la groseille. Ce « bou-
quet » peut d'ailleurs être extrait par agitation avec de l'éther et
évaporation du solvant. 

Dans un précédent travail (1), M. Lutz avait déjà constaté que le
Saccharomyces du Tibi, cultivé sur divers milieux sucrés, pousse en
aérobie et ne produit aucun dégagement de bulles gazeuses; qu'au
contraire, en milieu gélatine (bouillon do carotte gélatine placé
dans une étuve à 30°, de manière à conserver l'état liquide), ce
Saccharomyes produit une fermentation active. 

Le rôle des deux organismes du Tibi est ainsi expliqué. En
culture aérobie, la levure vit aux dépens du sucre ou de toute autre
matière carbonée : l'oxygène lui vient abondamment de l'air et elle
n'a nul besoin de brûler le sucre pour s'en procurer. En culture
anaérobie, au contraire, elle fait fermenter le milieu et décompose
le sucre pour y puiser l'oxygène nécessaire à sa vie. 

Rappelons à ce sujet que d'autres ferments (Saccharomyces) vi-
vent en symbiose avec des Bacilles, par exemple celui du Képhir
{Rev. mycol, XIV,161, du forment de la bière de Gingembre
(XV,33) et celui du Leben d'Egypte (XXV, p. 55). (1) Lutz. Nouvelles recherches sur le Tibi. (Bull. Soc. mycol. 1899, 157).

from REVUE MYCOLOGIQUE JANVIER 1906 (28th year, number 109).

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§ 14 Responses to Sugar-water kefir

  • So this is some sort of non-dairy probiotic culture. Never seen it before. How do you consume it?

    • fabrivelas says:

      Andreas, you just drink the fermented sugar-water. You can of course eat the kefir crystals, too, but they are a bit bland. If you add a lot of ginger, or powdered dried ginger, then it tasts like ginger beer (Jamaican style).

      • Can you please provide some basic care instructions? Are there any web sites with basic info that you would recommend? Thanks.

      • fabrivelas says:

        It is fairly easy. Take some kefir crystals, put them into a sealable jar (50 g for example), add some water (1 litre), and 5 tea spoons of sugar, with a dried organic fig and a quarter of an organic lemon. The quantities of kefir sugar and water are not crucial, you should experiment to get the kefir right to your taste. When the kefir crystals multiply then you might need to add more sugar to get the taste you like, there will also be less space for water in your jar. I tend to vary the quantity of sugar between 5 and 10 tea spoons of sugar (in a 1½ litre-sized jar) depending on the amount of kefir in the jar, when leaving for 24 hours. This quantity of sugar allows you to leave the mixture for 48 hours with tasty results. I prefer the kefir when there is hardly any sugar left, others tend to like it sweeter. I have the impression that kefir likes ginger, so give him some sometimes :-).
        Let me know about your recipe once you establish a routine.
        Oh, and for webpages, Wikipedia has some basic info. And more detailed info you can find at Dom’s Kefir page.
        Enjoy.

  • Andreas Jonsson says:

    Thanks for the info. My grains are still quite small. Yours look huge, compared to the coin. Also, my grains are more yellow, I think because I use raw brown sugar. I’m currently using 5% sugar and 5% Kefir grains relative to water amount (by weight), and it seems to work ok, fermenting the sugar withing 48 hours or so. I experimented with not adding any dried fruit, but the fermentation then stopped within a day or two. Interesting that this addition is so crucial for the development of the Kefir. I currently have a slight taste of onion or cabbage, so something is not quite right, still drinkable though. I’d rather address this flaw before adding flavour ingredients, such as lemon or ginger.

    • fabrivelas says:

      I think that when I took the picture I had used white sugar to use up of all the collected coffee house sugars I had collected. It seemed that kefir likes it a lot, and it becomes white. Now mine is brown too and my grains are not so big because now I am using rapadura (dried sugar cane juice) or brown sugar. Sometimes though, I still use white sugar when I have little packets left from a coffee shop, because I think that it does the kefir some good.
      For the preparation I tend to use a lot of grains (a quarter to a half of the container) with a lot of sugar (ten heaped tea spoons) for a one and a half litre sized container. This makes the fermentation fairly fast.
      The reason for the little growth, I presume, is the water, are you filtering it? It also might not be hard enough, so adding a pinch of bicarbonate of soda or/and an egg shell might be a good idea.
      When you say 5% is that 50 g/litre? How much is 50 g in tea spoons? As you know I don’t follow recipes literally, I use them as a guidance and then think that it is important that the kefir has lots to eat and lots of minerals for the structure.
      I hope that it recovers and multiplies.

      • If white sugar is so good, why bother with rapadura or other sugars?

        I filter my water (Brita active carbon) and leave it to dechlorinate over night, however, Toronto uses small amounts of chloramine in the tap water, which cannot be removed by those methods. Furthermore, until last week, our Brita cartridge was not mounted properly so the water bypassed the filter! In fact, after correcting this, my wheat sourdough has come to life! Hopefully the Kefir will like it too.

        Recipes online call for about 5-10% of grains, so your 30-50% must be eating the sugar real quick!

        Yes, 5% is 50 g/litre. I’m glad you asked for details-I spent some time thinking about this on the weekend. 1 tbsp ~ 15 ml, which gives you the following:

        Sugar: Density: about 0.8 g/ml (from the Web)

        Water Kefir grains: 1 tbs ~ 12 g, i.e. density is 0.8 g/ml (same as sugar!)

        For my own Kefir, I’ll give it some time, and investigate the carbonate additions if thing don’t improve.

      • fabrivelas says:

        I use rapadura, because I don’t like refined sugar. I make the kefir to drink it, not to grow the grains 🙂 Oh, and the egg shell is not important at all. I just use water, figs, sugar and lemon, now. And sometimes some fresh ginger because I think that the kefir likes it. There is a nice page speaking about the ginger beer plant, which might or might not be the same as the sugar water kefir grains. They do though behave in a similar way and have similar instructions to produce the fermented liquid.

        It seems that the ginger beer plants consists of a symbiosis of a fungus and a bacterium:
        1. the yeast: Saccharomyces florentinus (formerly Saccharomyces pyriformis)
        2. the bacterium: Lactobacillus hilgardii (formerly Brevibacterium vermiforme)
        with a cocktail of other yeasts and bacteria which seem just opportunistic interlopers.

        The sugar water kefir (tibi) has the same ingredients according to M. Pidoux
        (The microbial flora of sugary kefir grain (the gingerbeer plant): biosynthesis of the grain from Lactobacillus hilgardii producing a polysaccharide gel, World Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology, Springer Netherlands, pp. 223-238, vol 5(2), http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF01741847, 1989).
        or
        1. the yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae
        2. the lactic acid bacteria: Lactobacillus brevis and Streptococcus lactis
        according to Jürgen Reiß (Metabolic activity of Tibi grains, Zeitschrift für Lebensmitteluntersuchung und -Forschung A, Springer Berlin/Heidelberg, pp. 462-465, vol. 191(6), http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF01193095)

        There has certainly occurred cross-contamination of the two so that even in scientific studies the naming/distinction of the two can differ. I also wonder if different ingredients can change the fungal and bacteriological composition leading to the different names of the sugar water kefir that is tibi, tibicos, water kefir grains, sugar kefir grains, Japanese water crystals, California Bee (from wikipedia) and in older literature also known as Bébées, African bees, Ale nuts, Australian bees, Balm of Gilead, Beer seeds, Beer plant, Bees, Ginger Beer plant, Ginger bees, Japanese Beer seeds and Vinegar bees from Kebler (1921)).
        [Kebler, Lyman F. (1921) “California bees.”, J. Pharm. Sci., vol. 10(12), pp. 939-943, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/jps.3080101206%5D

        Even other names can be found here:
        http://water-kefir.blogspot.com/2005/12/amy-asked-other-names-for-water-kefir.html

  • I can’t find Rapadura here in Toronto, but I am using Sucanat now, which is the next best thing. It’s got lots of minerals, and my grains are now growing by 60-80% for 2-day batches. Alternatively when I use white sugar, adding a small amount of baking soda got the grains growing too. It is obvious that my filtered water is low in minerals. Adding molasses didn’t affect growth, which surprised me. Anyway, I’m quite happy with my brew now, I’m enjoying a lemon-flavoured fizzy ale just now. Mmmmm.

    Hey, thanks for detailed information. Yes, I have been confused by all these different names out there: water kefir, tibicos, etc.

    What can you tell me about the history of your Kefir grains? South of France I think you said? Anything else? Would be fun to know, as I am growing a relationship with this little thing. Dairy Kefir strains generally originate from the Caucasus or Mongolia I believe, but perhaps Water Kefir is different?

    Do you think that the character of the Kefir grains persists, or would it adapt over time to he local bacteria culture that it is in contact with through air, water and ingredients (compare with sourdoughs)?

    • fabrivelas says:

      Rapadura and Sucanat seem to be the same. I think both are dried sugar-cane juice. Water is quite hard here, even when I filter it, this explains why I don’t need to add any minerals.
      As I said, the Kefir grains come from Southern France, a village called Ponet

      It has been in used by the same person for over ten years. That’s all I know.

      Meanwhile there are three other places where it continues (3 in Brussels and 1 in Toronto).

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