Kombucha vs. Water Kefir
They’re both sweet-sour slightly bubbly drinks. They’re both full of probiotics. And they’re both made by using strange-looking blobs of yeast and bacteria to ferment sugary liquid. So what’s the difference between kombucha and water kefir?
Different Colonies . . .
The kombucha SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) is made up of millions of microorganisms that create their own “home” using strands of cellulose (a type of edible fiber). They group together in a large cluster, generally at the top of the liquid they’re floating in, and take the shape of the container. In other words, if you’re using a round container to store your SCOBY, it will have a round shape.
Water kefir grains are also colonies of bacteria and yeast in cellulose, but they tend to grow in clusters or clumps, not in one large mass. They float in liquid rather than always rising to the top.
The specific microorganisms are different as well.
Water Kefir Colonies:
- Lactobacillus bacteria
- Streptococcus bacteria
- Saccharomyces yeast
- Candida yeast
- Acetobacter bacteria
- Gluconobacter bacteria
- Saccharomyces yeast
- Zygosaccharomyces yeast
They are both symbiotic colonies, because the yeast and the bacteria work together to culture and ferment the sugars in the liquid. The yeasts break down the sugars and create ethanol and carbon dioxide (CO2) and the bacteria take the ethanol and the extra sugar and transform them into probiotics and organic acids.
Different Liquids . . .
The history of kombucha is tied to the history of the Camellia sinensis plant, the shrubby bush whose leaves and buds are dried and used to brew tea. The microorganisms evolved to feed on the phytonutrients in those tea leaves. When you work with a SCOBY, you need to make sure that it has enough regular doses of strong brewed tea to keep it healthy, even if you use the SCOBY to make kombucha using herb tea or other ingredients. The SCOBY also need the nutrients and energy from sugar to grow and reproduce.
It’s not clear where water kefir comes from originally, though people generally trace it back to 19th-century Mexico, 18th-century India, or 17th-century Central America. Water kefir grains are perfectly happy with any type of sugar, though they grow best in mineral-rich sugars like unrefined palm sugar or raw cane sugar.
Different Brewing Times . . .
One big difference between water kefir and kombucha is the length of time it takes to brew a batch. The SCOBY will take between 7 and 30 days to finish fermenting the liquid, or an average of about two weeks. The water kefir grains, on the other hand, only take about two days to ferment their sugary liquid.
One way that these two types of colonies are the same, though, is that once you’re done brewing your kombucha tea or your water kefir, you’ll have even more microorganisms than when you started. The kombucha SCOBY will create a “baby” SCOBY with every batch, and eventually it will be big enough that you can separate the baby SCOBY from the mother and you’ll have two SCOBYs for brewing. Water kefir grains also keep reproducing and multiplying, forming individual grains. You’ll notice that each time you strain out the water kefir grains from the liquid, you’ll have slightly more. You can eat the extra grains, use them to ferment more batches of water kefir, or give extra kefir grains to your friends.
Different Flavors . . .
The Acetobacter bacteria in the kombucha SCOBY produce acetic acid, an organic acid that is very sharp and vinegary in flavor. In fact, vinegar itself is primarily acetic acid. Most people describe the flavor of plain, fresh kombucha tea as “slightly sweetened apple cider vinegar” and the flavor of plain kombucha is often too sour for children, who prefer a more sugary drink. Many people add fruit juice or sparkling water to their kombucha to dilute the acidic kick. Doing a second fermentation of kombucha tea will also generally reduce the acid by giving the tea a chance to mellow and develop a deeper flavor. This is also a good time to add different ingredients that change the flavor of kombucha to something kids will like.
Water kefir has a milder flavor because the organic acids produced by the bacteria are not the same strength as acetic acid. Like kombucha, you can let water kefir brew until it’s more sour, or stop the fermenting process while it’s still sweeter. People generally add flavoring ingredients to water kefir because it’s fairly bland other than its slightly sweet, slightly sour, slightly “fermented” taste.
. . . But Essentially The Same Health Benefits
If you’re looking for a nutritious drink full of probiotics, you’ll be happy with the results from both water kefir and kombucha. The helpful bacteria in each will boost the overall health of your digestive system and help keep your “gut flora” in balance. The organic acids and nutrients contribute to better health in general.
Drinking kombucha tea increases the number of good bacteria in your digestive system. In addition, the acidity of the tea can support the action of your stomach acids, helping you break down your food more quickly. When food is broken down, it’s easier for your intestines to absorb more nutrients.
Water kefir has even more of the beneficial bacteria that will repopulate your intestines and improve their ability to absorb nutrients, but it does not have the extra acids that go to work in the early stages of digestion.
Water kefir’s high bacteria count make it a good way to help your body detoxify itself by improving your digestion. One of the main roles of the digestive process is to eliminate toxins while absorbing nutrients. When your digestive system is healthy, you’ll be healthier too, since your body will be getting rid of toxins. A blocked digestive system can lead to buildup of toxic materials in the nooks and crannies of your gut.
Kombucha is a powerful detoxifying agent because it works directly on the liver, and indirectly on the spleen, the gall bladder, and the pancreas. These organs filter out toxins from the blood. By supporting your digestive system, kombucha also helps clear up any issues related to an inability to move harmful materials out of the intestines.
Kombucha and water kefir both provide B vitamins along with a range of trace minerals, and dietary fiber.
Water kefir and kombucha help promote a better immune system by targeting problems in the digestive system. Your digestive tract and your lymphatic channels are closely linked, and when there’s a problem in your intestines, it’s communicated directly to your immune system. This can lead to chronic inflammation and an overproduction of white blood cells, both of which throw your body out of balance.
Many people credit both water kefir and kombucha with clearing up their seasonal allergies, and with reducing or eliminating the effects of food-related allergies. Water kefir is popular with people who have lactose intolerance, because it provides the probiotics in dairy without the need for using milk products.
Water kefir is completely caffeine-free. Kombucha does contain caffeine, although you can lower the caffeine in kombucha tea.
When you drink kombucha and water kefir, you’ll be hydrating your body, something that’s important for maintaining the health of your circulatory system and your tissues. Drinking more liquid will also keep you from feeling hungry; most people confuse the feeling of thirst with the feeling of hunger, and eat something instead of drinking a glass of water. If you’re trying to lose weight, drinking flavored kombucha and water kefir is a healthy way to stay hydrated and reduce the urge to snack.
Kombucha or Kefir: Which Is Right For You?
Since both kombucha tea and water kefir are great sources of vitamins, minerals, and probiotics that give you a range of health benefits, which one you choose is really up to you. As a matter of fact, there’s no reason why you can’t make and drink both!
- Here’s our guide how to make water kefir
- Here’s out guide how to make milk kefir
- Here’s our guide how to make kombucha
What’s more, since the microorganisms in each colony are different it’s a good idea to drink both kombucha tea and water kefir, so that you get a complete population of the beneficial bacteria and yeasts in each. If you like a little kick-start to your mornings, drink a glass of kombucha tea instead of coffee. You’ll jump-start your digestion and get a little caffeine boost, both of which will set you up for the day. For refreshment and hydration for the rest of the day, switch to the milder water kefir, or dilute the kombucha tea with fruit juice or sparkling water.
Your body knows which type of probiotic drink it wants, needs, and likes. Listen to your body and if you notice any reactions, reduce the quantity you’re drinking. Since these drinks are full of bacteria that go to work in your digestive system, you may notice some effects right away. Go slowly and build up your system with smaller, regular doses of kombucha and/or water kefir to avoid any problems.
NOTE: Before starting to drink either kombucha tea or water kefir, check with your doctor to see if they have any concerns about the effect on medication you might be taking, or if you’re pregnant or suffering from a serious medical