Last Updated Jan 5, 2019
Kefirs are cultured drinks produced by lacto-fermenting certain liquids for a short 1-3 day period of time. Among the list of fermented foods, they are one of the easiest to make from scratch, requiring only a few ingredients and minimal skill level.
When it comes to water kefir vs milk kefir, both can be health-enhancing drinks to consume for most people. However, each variety of kefir is made somewhat differently, utilizing unique cultures that provide slightly different end results.
If you're someone looking to add kefir into your daily regimen, you might want to learn more about these cultured drinks to see which one may be best for your current health objectives.
The term "kefir" has several pronunciations depending on your country of origin. Most people in the Western U.S. call it KEE-fir or sometimes KEFF-er. The original Russian pronunciation however is KUH-fear.
On this page, we are primarily discussing the difference between traditional-style water kefir vs milk kefir when making homemade artisanal varieties of this beverage. Both are made from SCOBY grains, similar to how kombucha is fermented. The term SCOBY being short for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, not to identify one particular ferment.
But, before we discuss the top differences between water kefir vs milk kefir, we'd first like to clarify the distinction between powdered kefir starter cultures and commercial based kefir products.
The use of kefir grains, in both water and milk variations, is the traditional way to make milk kefir or types of water kefir, also commonly called "tibicos."
In recent times, especially is the last decade, kefir powdered starter cultures have become a popular way to make homemade kefir without having to use heirloom SCOBY grains. Although these types can be more convenient and used interchangeably between water kefir and milk kefir, they only contain SOME of the beneficial strains, not the diverse amount found in "true" grain-made kefir ferments.
While the kefir created from quality powdered starter cultures, like the one from Body Ecology, can be reused for a number of batches, eventually it will lose its ability to culture the liquid substrate.
By comparison, the grain cultures used to make traditional-style kefir are actually referred to as a type of "evolved life form" and living matrix of microbes that, when properly cared for, will proliferate and in-effect live indefinitely. So yeah, they are a bit different!
Though powder-made varieties have their place, for the serious kefir consumer, traditional-grain based kefir can be a better, more cost-effective probiotic-diverse option to powder starters.
Kefir grains are considered "heirloom" forms and are more of an artisan variety not used on a commercial scale as they are harder to maintain and regulate for production purposes. Commercial kefir products, both milk and water, are therefore most always made using dried probiotic powder starters.
While both go by the name "kefir" and are cultured from SCOBY grains, the two are not actually directly related.
Milk kefir is believed to have its origins from the Caucasian mountain regions and has a long history of use in Russia, the countries Georgia and Turkey as well as other regions of Eurasia and Central Asia. Milk kefir grains themselves look a bit like small off-white cauliflower florets and have a dense rubbery texture. They vary in size but are generally larger than water kefir grains.
Water kefir or tibicos grains also vary in size but are nearly translucent, like tiny crystals, and tend to be smaller than milk grains. They also have an irregular less rounded shape in addition to a softer gummy texture.
The obvious difference between water kefir vs milk kefir is that they are used to culture different liquids. If you've ever tried to use water kefir grains to ferment milk, you may have come to this realization.
Milk kefir grains are used specifically to culture milk, traditionally dairy milk is used but vegan milks can also be substituted. To keep most milk kefir grains alive and thriving, however, it is necessary to periodically use a dairy milk source. We personally prefer using raw organic grass-fed cows milk over pasteurized.
Water kefir is strictly used to ferment carbohydrate-rich sugary liquids, such as coconut water, fruit juices, or water that has been mixed with a sugar source. The water used when making kefir works best in spring water or water that has minerals added.
Typically, 2 Tablespoons of water grains and 1 Tablespoon of milk kefir grains are used for about one quart of liquid.
The visual distinctions between the two grains are of course associated with the different blend of yeast and bacterial microbes they are made of, probiotics that will further inoculate into the fermented liquids.
Both milk and water varieties are considered "wild" cultures, in that they can take on other species over time. Grains may therefore vary from one to the next in overall composition. To keep your homemade ferment free of other species, you can use an air-lock cap as kefir’s don’t require oxygen to ferment.
Generally speaking, milk kefir grains are known to contain larger ratios of the Lactobacillus species. Here are some species found in milk kefir grains. (Source)
L. delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus
L. delbrueckii subsp. delbrueckii
L. delbrueckii subsp. lactis
L. keﬁranofaciens subsp. keﬁranofaciens
L. paracasei subsp. paracasei
L. lactis subsp. cremoris
L. lactis subsp. lactis
L.mesenteroides subsp. cremoris
L. mesenteroides subsp. dextranicum
L. mesenteroides subsp. mesenteroides
Water kefir, as we mentioned, also goes by the name "tibicos" and there are many tibicos varieties all over the world that are made from diverse strains unique to particular climates and other environmental conditions.
According to the Journal of Microbiology, water kefir grains have been identified to contain some of the following bacteria and yeast species. (Source)
Both water-based and milk-based kefir varieties are probiotic-rich drinks that help to colonize the intestinal tract and have a health-enhancing impact on maintaining balanced gut flora. (*)
This is a topic which is receiving a lot of attention these days and with good reason. Gastrointestinal microbiota that live in the human digestive tract are a "complex community of microorganisms" that when in proper ratio are known to have a huge influence on our human physiology and overall long-term well-being. Often referred to as the "forgotten organ", the metabolic activities performed by these intestinal microorganisms are often likened to those of any vital organ system.
The good news is that these "pro-life" gut flora can be nourished through dietary sources. It is often recommended to include a diverse variety of fermented foods in the diet to get a good cross section of different mircroflora, especially after a period of antibiotic use.
This may include periodic probiotic supplementation, however cultured food and drinks tend to be better overall sources. This is because they are "enzymatically" active and are also, according to a Body Ecology article, resistant to harsh stomach acid. (*)
Some health experts also believe that consuming ferments like water and milk kefir, with probiotic supplements helps to aid in their assimilation. We use the powder from probiotic capsules when making cultured vegetables, like kimchi, as well as cultured seed cheeses.
When comparing beneficial properties of water kefir vs milk kefir, milk kefir can offer a significantly higher number of probiotic strains than water-based kefirs. The average amount for milk kefir is between 30-50 as opposed to about 10-15 from the tibicos varieties. Water kefir however is identified to contain more strains than that of cultured yogurt and kefir made from powder starters.
Both types of cultured kefir are known to be well tolerated in contrast to other ferments. They can be a more suitable option for those with digestive sensitivities who might not be able to handle other ferments like sauerkraut, rejuvelac or kombucha.
Generally, milk kefir is better for those recovering from a candida infection, whereas water kefir may potentially contain sugar content if not completely fermented.
The taste and textural qualities of water kefir vs milk kefir are quite different in our opinion.
Milk kefir has a very thick and creamy consistency and with a tart sour taste similar to yogurt. It is not sweet but can have a mild effervescence.
Milk-based kefirs get there notably thick characteristic from a substance known as kefiran, a water-soluble polysaccharide that congeals with other species during fermentation, gelatinizing the liquid and creating a creamy texture.
Water kefir is usually sweet with a slight tang and fizziness. Taste can vary however depending on fermentation time and ingredients used. Sometimes different combinations of sugars and fruits are also incorporated. Final ferments can have a slightly thicker quality with some cloudiness.
These two types of kefirs of course can be flavored with natural sweeteners or blended with fruits like berries or even various herbal spices if desired.
Water kefir is a probiotic-rich beverage that also makes a great alternative to sodas. It can be fermented to produce different levels of fizziness similar to carbonated soft drinks.
For those looking for a dairy-free replacement to cow or goat milk
kefirs, water kefir can be an excellent choice. Water kefirs are additionally lower in calories in contrast to kefir made from dairy milk, nut milks and soy milk. They can be a better choice for those looking to reduce body weight and daily caloric intake.
Both dairy milk and vegan milk sources also come with their list of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. The process of lacto-fermenting them with kefir grains, additionally makes these nutrients more bioavailable as they are in essence "pre-digested."
Dairy milk, from cows, goat or other animals, is identified to be a good dietary source of certain bone building minerals like calcium. Cultured milk kefir is therefore known to enhance calcium absorption, and in some research short-term use was associated with an increase in hip bone mineral density in patients with osteoporosis.
Kefir fermentation is also known to reduce the lactose content in milk, since that's what the grains feed off of. It has thus been purposed to be more suitable for those with lactose intolerance. (*)
When making both types of homemade kefir from SCOBY grains, we have personally experienced that milk-based kefir tends to be less finicky about maintaining a consistent temperature and is relatively easier to culture than kefir made from sugar water.
Milk or water-based kefir, in our opinion, works best as a "probiotic supplement" when consumed first thing in the morning or 2-3 hours before or after meals. We recommend consuming it in small shot glass size amounts if you're new to drinking it, then eventually increase amount.
Both varieties, however, can also be added to blended drinks and protein shakes mixed with other superfoods or ingredients.