If there was one piece of advice I would give to my younger self regarding kombucha it would be: learn how to brew your starter tea perfectly!
I was struggling to get my kombucha tasting the same as the other master brewers in my community. I begged them to tell me their exact brewing length, what sugar they used, how much water, and everything else in-between. Little did I know, it was all in the starter tea.
The starter tea is the foundation of your kombucha brew. It sets the tone for the overall flavor profile. If your tea is lacking in any way, this is the first place I’d recommend looking.
If you become a master of tea your kombucha will finally have that full-bodied flavor profile you’ve been looking for.
Best Types Of Tea To Use For Kombucha
To understand what is the best tea to use for kombucha, we need to first understand why we use tea in the first place. Tea happens to be one of the most popular drinks on the planet second only to water. 80% of Americans are tea drinkers – a percentage that is even higher with millennials. It is consumed more than alcohol, coffee, soda combined. It’s consumed in almost every culture ranging from China, the Middle East, India, to Europe.
Why is it so popular you ask?
As it turns out, tea happens to not only taste great but is also incredibly good for you. It’s rich in polyphenols and other anti-oxidants which may reduce the risk of heart-attack and certain forms of cancer. It’s full of many different alkaloids and amino acids that help support your metabolism and blood-sugar levels. The different catechins in tea have been shown to increase endurance and promote the burning of body fat.
This is only a small sampling of the studies promoting the health benefits of tea. It’s not surprising so many of the same health benefits are found in kombucha.
So why is tea used in brewing kombucha?
If you recall, the brewing process requires a lot of resources to sustain the fermentation and bacteria cultures. Why we do supply a lot of the fuel through sugar, the tea in kombucha provides the essential minerals and nitrogen required for optimal growth. The scoby in kombucha evolved to grow in, or on, tea leaves. It’s a specialized group of yeasts and bacteria that evolved to feed on Camellia sinensis.
So What Tea Should We Use?
Technically speaking, tea comes from only one plant – Camellia Sinensis. Many different varieties are possible depending on how the leaves are processed. Some common varieties are black, green, white, oolong, and pu-erh. This is the style we want to be using for kombucha.
Many people think that you can use any style of tea for kombucha. This just isn’t the case. What usually comes to mind when people hear the word tea is actually some kind of herbal infusion or a tisane (pronounced ti-zahn). These include infusions made from leaves, bark, roots, berries, seeds, and spices. Some common tisanes are mint, chamomile, verbena, and rooibos.
For new brewers, I highly recommend you not use herbal or tisanes. These teas do not contain the nutrients needed to successfully brew multiple batches of kombucha. You may initially get a healthy batch with the first brew, but over time the bacteria cultures will weaken to a point where new cultures are not possible.
Furthermore, herbal teas may even contain harmful essential oils that may actually work against the good bacteria in the kombucha. This can prevent the bacteria from producing the important acids required for the unique taste. However, there are plenty of cases where tisanes and herbal teas can be used as a blend to flavor your kombucha in creative ways. We’ll get more into this below.
Beginners should only use tea from Camellia Sinesis for the main tea in kombucha
Black Tea – The Best Tea For Kombucha?
Most original kombucha recipes call for black tea. Black teas are fully oxidized; the same process that makes bananas turn brown is how tea leaves get their rich, dark color. This full oxidation is what gives black tea its intense flavor that can keep for years. When black tea is used in kombucha it provides a strong apple-cider flavor and a dark golden color (staining from the tannins.)
Black tea can handle a hotter temperature and longer steeping time. It’s usually recommended that the tea not be steeped for too long when used for kombucha to prevent the introduction of any unwanted bitterness.
Black tea is known for having high levels of both caffeine (up to 90 mg) and purines. The health benefits from black tea are as follows:
- It has been linked with improved mental alertness
- Lower ovarian cancer risk
- Possible decreased likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and heart disease
- Improves circulation and blood pressure
- Helps regulate digestion
When picking your black tea the quality and flavor will depend on the way it has been processed and packaged, how old the tea is, and whether the blend is mostly whole tea leaves. Your best bet is to smell the tea. An aromatic tea will be fresher and have more of the polyphenols and nutrients your scoby desires.
Most of the black tea varieties come from China (the Yunnan province is known for producing some of the very best black tea,) India or Sri Lanka. It’s best to try out a few varieties to find out which tea you like best!
Green Tea – The Healthiest Alternative
Green tea is one of my favorite alternatives to black tea when it comes to brewing kombucha. Green tea leaves are not fully oxidized and are steamed to produce a lighter flavor compared to black tea. The color of kombucha and scoby tends to be much lighter (great if you are trying to sell your new scoby) due to the lack of tannins.
The flavor tends to be a bit lighter and can range from grass-like and toasted (pan-fired) to vegetal, and sweet. For those looking for more of a floral kombucha, you’ll want to try jasmine tea.
The brewing temperature of green tea needs to be lower to prevent bitter tannins from entering the brew
Healthwise, green tea is about 30% polyphenols by weight, including large amounts of a catechin called EGCG. As mentioned before catechins are natural antioxidants that help prevent cell damage as well as providing other benefits. Some other health benefits of green tea are:
- Boosts the metabolic rate to aid in fat burning
- Lowers your risk of cancer
- Lowers your risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Lowers your risk of Type 2 Diabetes
If you are someone who doesn’t like green tea you may be over-steeping the delicate leaves. It should taste sweet and vegetal — not bitter.
White Tea – Packed Full of Antioxidants
Even less oxidized than green tea, white tea has a very delicate flavor. White tea is harvested before the tea plant’s leaves open fully and is made from the youngest buds and leaves. The young buds are still covered by fine white hairs, hence the name “white” tea.
The leaves are handpicked and quickly dried so that they are not allowed to oxidize like black or green tea. Because of this lack of oxidation, white tea tends to have a lower caffeine content compare to green and black tea and can be a great alternative to those with caffeine sensitivities.
White teas can be brewed a bit longer and in slightly hotter temperatures than green teas. The flavor profile of the white tea can be described as floral, grassy, honey, fruity, delicate and sweet.
White tea produces a milder kombucha. Those used to black tea kombucha may find the flavor lacking. However, experienced brewers may appreciate the subtleties and complexities of the flavor. The health benefits of white tea include:
- White tea is loaded with a type of polyphenols called catechins
- Great source of fluoride that helps protect your teeth
- Polyphenols may lower your risk of insulin resistance
Oolong Tea – The Middle Ground Between Green And Black
Black tea is allowed to fully oxidize during processing whereas green tea is barely allowed to oxidize at all. Oolong tea (from the Chinese word for black dragon) falls somewhere in between and is usually described as a partially oxidized tea. It contains the benefits of both green and black tea. Containing both the rich antioxidants and detoxifying alkaloids.
The flavor profile of the oolong is determined through the style of the tea master. It may lean more toward a fresh green tea (less oxidized) and others toward a malty black tea (more oxidized).
Oolong tea is a great next step for those who want more complex flavors than the standard black tea
The kombucha that arises from oolong tea is a delicate blend of the tannic elements of black tea with the polyphenols in unoxidized green tea. Some describe it as the middle-ground flavor that pleases the palate.
Just a note – avoid over-steeping your oolong tea. Most oolongs are designed to taste best with multiple quick infusions.
The health benefits are similar to those listed above for black and green tea.
Pu-Erh Tea – Light and Fragrenent
Pu-Erh (pronounced poo-air) tea is one of the most unique teas used in kombucha. It’s grown in Yunnan Province in China’s southwest, where Han Chinese share borders with Burma and Laos. Similar to black tea, Pu-Erh contains high levels of polyphenols (flavonoids, catechins, and theaflavin), which are known for their antioxidant activity
Like the great wine regions of the world, Pu-Erh Tea production is highly regulated to ensure the highest quality and authenticity.
Interestingly, Pu-Erh goes through its own fermentation process where the leaves are “cooked” in a pile that promotes the enzymic breakdown of the leaves. This process adds the complexity of flavor that is famous in the east. Known as a “living tea” due to the microbial activity during fermentation, the flavor profile is much milder than regular black tea.
However, the flavor can be slightly offputting for those unaccustomed. I recommend first trying out a cup for yourself before you go ahead and brew up your first batch ok Pu-Erh kombucha. You may want to leave this tea until you are more comfortable brewing kombucha and are looking to experiment with different flavor profiles.
A Quick Sweet Tea Recipe
Every batch of kombucha needs to start with a starter liquid. The best starter liquid is comprised of half “sweet tea” and half well-aged kombucha. The recipe provided below can be used to start your first batch of kombucha, top up your constant brew, or fill up your scoby hotel. The amount of sweet tea you need is going to depend on the size of your brewing vessel.
You will need the following:
- 1 gallon glass jar
- 6-8 quart stainless steel pot
- 1 gallon distilled water
- 6 tea bags
- 1 cup of evaporated cane sugar
- Heat 6 cups of the water to 212° F for black tea, 170° F for green tea, 185° F for oolong over medium heat in the 6-8 quart stainless steel pot.
- Remove the pot from the heat completely and add the tea. Stire well and cover the pot to keep the steeping temperature constant.
- Steep for 4 minutes for black nag green tea; steep for 5 minutes for oolong tea. Stire once halfway through the steeping process.
- Remove the tea from the pot (using either tongs or a strainer if using loose-leaf.)
- Add the sugar to the brewed tea and stir until dissolved.
- Add the remaining water to the mixture. The trick here is to cool the tea down quickly. Adding live kombucha to hot water can harm the culture.
The steep times for the teas are very specific. You can always adjust the time based on your personal preference. I recommend trying out a few different steep times to see the effect on the taste for yourself.
How Much Caffeine is In Kombucha?
I’m particularly sensitive to caffeine. If I have any past 2:00 pm then I will have difficulty falling asleep at night. So I’m sympathetic to those who are concerned with the caffeine levels in kombucha. While caffeine isn’t directly used by the yeast or bacteria during fermentation, it does provide a nice balanced supply of energy in the final brew.
So, how much caffeine is in kombucha?
If you want a full explanation of caffeine in kombucha read my post here:
The good news is, not very much. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to give an exact amount because it really depends on the type of tea you use and the different brewing processes.
There is a myth going around that the yeast and bacteria feed on the caffeine during the fermentation stage. This has been proven to be untrue. So, consider the amount of caffeine you introduce from your tea to be the amount of caffeine you will be drinking in the final brew.
The caffeine content is not reduced during the fermentation process!
So, if you take the average amount of caffeine black tea (approximately 50 mg) you would end up with 15.7 mg of caffeine per cup of kombucha. This is assuming you are using the most caffeine heavy tea. If you were to say use a less oxidized substitute (green tea for example) the caffeine content would be even less!
It’s also interesting to note that caffeine from tea is usually paired with an amino acid called L-theanine. L-theanine is known to balance out the caffeine to prevent the caffeine crash after the high.
After it’s all said and done what it really comes down to is how it affects you. Personally, I’m able to drink kombucha in the evenings without having any negative repercussions on my sleep schedule.
But what if you want to reduce the caffeine content even further? Well, this is when we start talking about blends!
6 Amazing Blends To Add To Your Kombucha Tea
After your first few batches of kombucha you may want to start experimenting with different flavors. The next step is to start trying out different blends of tea and tisanes. Once you wrap your head around the process, there are endless varieties you can play with.
The first rule of thumb is to always use at least 25% real “Camellia Sinensis” teas (see the best tea to use for kombucha section.) It’s even better if you can keep this number closer to 50%. The reasons being are as follows:
- herbal and tisanes don’t have the necessary nutrients to help boost the growth of the kombucha culture.
- herbal tea may introduce essential oils that can harm the bacteria in the kombucha
- herbal and tisanes occasionally bring in their own bacterial cultures that don’t always get along with bacteria in kombucha
That being said, it’s still very common for people to flavor their kombucha using different blends of teas and tisanes. Kombucha acts as somewhat of a solvent (for better or worse.) In other words, the bacteria and yeast in the kombucha create an environment where the organic molecules in other blends is broken down. This makes it much easier for your body to digest.
This means any of the health benefits of the blend are usually amplified when paired with kombucha. Sound like something you’d be interested in? Before you get started, make sure you have plenty of backup scoby in your scoby hotel. I’ve managed to ruin my fair share of scoby when trying out different blends.
In any case, here are a few basic blends you can play with:
1. Camellia Sinensis Blends
The first step I recommend testing out is trying different blends of camellia sinensis. While you may not get as striking a flavor difference as other blends, the different types of tea can lead to interesting flavor profiles. I recommend starting with either a 50/50 blend of black and green tea, or a 50/25/25 blend of black, green and white tea.
The flavor won’t be as strong as your regular black tea brew but the flavors will have a little more complexity. The 50/25/25 mixture is particularly smooth. You also get the mixed benefits of all three different types of teas. You get the strong tannins from the black tea, the leveling effect of the green tea, and the antioxidant punch from the white tea.
If you are looking for a well rounded, nutritious batch of kombucha, this is the best blend I can recommend.
2. Ginger Blend
Rhizomes do particularly well with kombucha. Especially ginger. I like to use a 50/50 mix of green and black tea for the starter liquid to balance out the strength of the ginger. Once you have brewed the kombucha as normal, place 1 teaspoon of grated ginger into the bottom of your bottle. Allow 1 to 3 days for the kombucha to carbonate.
If you don’t like the ginger pulp you can always use a strainer to remove it and re-bottle.
3. Yerba Mate
Some people may want more caffeine in their kombucha than less. If this is the case, I usually recommend brewing a Yerba Mate blend. Yerba Mate is made from the naturally caffeinated leaves of the South American rainforest holly tree. It’s considered to have the same amount of caffeine levels as coffee.
Unlike tea, yerba mate has a low tannin content so it can be strong like coffee without being oily and acid forming, so it is less likely to cause the crash and burn that is typical with a cup of coffee. It also contains high levels of polyphenols and other antioxidants. Some studies have shown Yerba Mate has anti-inflammatory properties as well as the potential to lower cholesterol.
The nutritional profile of Yerba Mate makes it a good candidate for a coffee substitute. If you are trying to kick the habit, this may be a good option!
Rooibos is a herb that comes from the shrub Aspalathus Linearis, which is only found on the slopes of Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The leaves of the plant are harvested and fermented to produce a reddish colored herbal tea.
It’s packed full of polyphenols, flavonoids, zinc, alpha hydroxy acid, and magnesium – all necessary for the overall health of your body. It contains powerful antioxidants, is low in tannins, and is naturally caffeine-free. Some say it contains even more health-promoting properties than green tea.
Its medicinal benefits have been confirmed by The US Department of Agriculture, which has affirmed that red rooibos tea is capable of reducing cancer, heart diseases, premature aging, and other serious conditions.
Rooibos kombucha has a slightly more earthy flavor and comes out a dark orange color.
If you’re not a big fan of ginger then cinnamon is my next recommendation for your first foray into blending kombucha flavors. I find it goes particularly well with apples, gingers, and cloves. The addition of a few short sticks during the second brew is enough to provide that hint of cinnamon.
Cinnamon also has the effect of lowering the acetic-acid content which reduces the overall strength of the kombucha flavoring – a great idea if you are struggling to introduce anyone to kombucha.
If you want an even sweeter kombucha, say for around the holidays, you can add the cinnamon during the first brew. Just make sure you are using a backup scoby from your scoby hotel.
Curious about how everyone has been getting that light pink color with their kombucha brews? Well here’s their secret: hibiscus. It’s slightly different from the other blends on the list because it actually uses the pedals of flowers instead of processed leaves. Hibiscus flowers come in many colors. They can be red, yellow, white, or peach-colored.
If you’ve never tried any, when brewed it produces a tangy, tea-like beverage. Some people have described the taste as tart.
Today, hibiscus is popular for its potential to reduce high blood pressure. Some studies have shown promise for both the tea and hibiscus plant extract to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
The good news is, you can use up to 20% hibiscus pedals in your tea blend without negatively affecting the kombucha
What’s Better for Kombucha: Loose Leaf vs. Bagged Tea?
I was surprised when I found out how big the difference was between loose leaf and bagged tea. The leaves used in most bags are actually the “dust and fannings” from broken tea leaves. This is a huge compromise in quality from full leaf tea.
Tea dust has lost most of its essential oils and aroma. When steeped, it releases more tannins than whole leaf tea, resulting in bitter brews. Tea bags are also produced on an industrial scale and may sit in a warehouse or on a shelf for months before you even get them.
Furthermore, the shape of the tea bags contract the leaves when they are trying to expand, preventing them from releasing their full flavor. Tea leaves need room to expand for full-bodied flavor. For these reasons, there are a lot of people who prefer to use loose leaf tea compared to bagged tea leaves. But this raises the question, how much loose leaf tea should I use?
How Much Loose Leaf Tes Should I Use?
I like to use one tablespoon of loose leaf for every 2 tea bags.
In other words, if the recipe I’m following recommends 16 tea bags, I will use up to 8 tablespoons of loose leaf tea instead. This is just a rule of thumb and should be adjusted for personal tastes and the style of tea you are using. The only real difference between the two is you will need a strainer when pouring your tea if you are using loose leaf.
The Biggest Mistake Brewers Make When Picking Their Tea
If there is one mistake that will completely ruin your batch of kombucha it’s using too much of the wrong type of tea. While generally pretty hardy, kombucha can easily be spoiled if you use the wrong ingredients. This mistake can easily be avoided once you learn the difference between actual tea and tisanes.
It’s actually very simple: real teas come from the plant Camellia Sinensis. Anything else cannot be considered real tea. Real teas would be things like black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea, etc.
You must have at least 25% Camellia Sinensis in your sweet tea starter liquid or else you run the risk of starving your kombucha
Your scoby needs that nutrients and caffeine from the tea to sustain its growth cycle.
Just using tisanes (things like rosemary, cinnamon, peppermint, blueberries, strawberries, chamomile, hibiscus etc.) may taste great in the end, but they will destroy your scoby.
It’s much more preferable to use any tisanes or herbal teas in the second brew. This protects your scoby from any harmful essential oils and you won’t run the risk it starving.
If you must use tisanes in your first brew, try and use a throwaway scoby from your scoby hotel.
Steeping Times – The Hidden Secret Master Brewers Don’t Want You To Know About
If there was one piece of information that really took my kombucha brews to the next level it was understanding steeping time. Different teas require different water temperatures and different steeping times. When I first started brewing my own tea, I would just boil a pot of water and leave the tea steeping until I remembered to take it out.
This led to years of not liking green and white tea. I just couldn’t seem to get acquired to the bitter taste!
Little did I know, if you steep these delicate teas too long it begins to release bitter tannins.
Brewing the starter tea is an art in its own right. But this one step can make or break your kombucha. The saying holds true here: “garbage in, garbage out!” Master brewers have very strict time limits, water temperatures, and steeping routines when it comes to their sweet tea.
The different steeping times for each tea is going to vary. I highly suggest you do 5 minutes of research before you steep your next batch of tea to double check you are hitting the mark. A handy thermometer is also a great tool in the kitchen I would have never thought of a few years ago.