Ingredients 101: Tea
Kombucha is made with 3 simple ingredients (tea, sugar and
water), plus the addition of kombucha culture (a SCOBY and
starter tea). Since it’s got so few components, it’s really
important to make sure you’re using the right ingredients
that kombucha needs to thrive.
Long story short: Plain, black tea is best for your kombucha.
It provides the best nutrients and poses the least amount of
potential issues for kombucha brewers.
What is “real” tea?
Most people don’t realize this, but all real tea comes from
one single plant species: camellia sinensis. So what counts
as “real” tea? Black, oolong, green, white and pu-erh tea all
come from the camellia sinensis plant and are therefore
considered “real” tea. The differences in color or flavor are
simply results of how they’re processed (or oxidized or fermented).
These are the types of teas that kombucha thrives on. Camellia
sinensis leaves contain the polyphenolic compounds (commonly
and mistakenly referred to as “tannins”) that kombucha cultures
derive their nutrients from. Those compounds are what the yeast and
bacteria eat to turn your sweet tea into kombucha. Black teas, which have
been oxidized more than green, white or oolong teas, contain the most
polyphenolic compounds. That means more food for your kombucha culture to eat.
What about flavored teas? Or herbal teas?
For the strongest, healthiest kombucha, you’ll want to make sure to use only pure tea without
any flavorings, essences or oils added to them. Even if they’re “natural” flavors, they could
weaken your kombucha SCOBY over time, so it’s best to steer clear.
What isn’t real tea? Herbal “teas” like mint, chamomile, or rosehip “teas” are not really
teas at all — they’re tisanes or herbal infusions. For the most part, these types of teas are
not suitable for fermenting kombucha because they do not provide enough nutrients for
the kombucha culture. There are exceptions to this rule. For instance, many home brewers
successfully use hibiscus flowers (in the photo on the right), yerba mate or rooibos.
They either use those on their own during first ferment, or blend them with black tea.
It’s totally OK to experiment once you’ve got the hang of the process and have plenty of
backup SCOBYs on hand! Learn about SCOBY care here.
But before you start experimenting with interesting first fermentation ingredients, you’ll want to ensure you’re doing right by your kombucha and making the strongest possible brew for yourself that isn’t susceptible to mold or other issues. My mantra here at YBK is borrowed from Pablo Picasso: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” So my recommendation to new brewers or brewers who want a consistent, healthy brew is to stick to the basics and pure ingredients for first fermentation. Then, just flavor during second fermentation in the bottle to keep your SCOBYs are pure and healthy as possible. Once you’re a “pro” and have a good understanding of the process, then by all means, experiment!
You’ll need to read ingredient labels very well to make sure your tea contains only pure tea leaves and no flavorings. (Even common blends like Earl Grey contain bergamot flavorings which could degrade your SCOBY.)
Why is black tea best for kombucha?
I personally believe that the best tea to yield the best, most consistent kombucha is real tea, and specifically plain black loose-leaf tea. I’m partial to this Organic English Breakfast Tea or this Non-Organic English Breakfast tea*. English Breakfast contains a blend of black teas -- usually Assam and a few other types of black teas (but no flavorings) and yields really good flavor in my kombucha. It lends itself very well to fruit flavorings during second fermentation. Plus, it's really affordable per pound.
Black teas are also hardier than other teas, so they can handle long steeping times (which kombucha needs) without getting too bitter. (That’s assuming you’re using good quality tea.)
It’s also worth noting that this “black tea is best” rule really only applies to first fermentation. After you’ve successfully undergone first fermentation, you can flavor your kombucha with whatever you like — even flavored teas! Learn more about flavoring here.
Gotta have the green?
If you'd like some green tea options to try, these are my favorite for brewing kombucha: Organic Gunpowder Green and Non-Organic Gunpowder Green.* If you find that when brewing with green tea, the flavor is too bland or vegetal on its own, you can mix in some black tea to help offset that.
Loose-leaf tea vs. tea bags
I prefer loose-leaf tea over bagged tea because:
Loose-leaf teas tend to be better quality all-around. Tea bags often contain poor-quality or small, chopped-up pieces of tea which can lead to bitter brews if you steep them very long. (And remember, with kombucha, you want a long steep time so you can extract as many nutrients from the leaves as possible.) I happen to believe that quality tea should look like leaves, not dust in a bag, but hey -- that may just be me!
Loose-leaf teas are generally a better deal than good quality bagged teas. You get more bang for your buck with good quality loose-leaf bulk tea.
Loose-leaf teas are more environmentally friendly (no need to waste paper, staples, etc.).
Poor-quality tea bags can often contain bleach or other chemicals in the paper/fabric of the tea bag itself. Manufacturers are often not required to put those “ingredients” on their labels. So you never know what chemicals you might be leaching in your tea from that tea bag you’re steeping.
But I know that there are many good quality tea bags out there as well, and I understand that they’re much more convenient. I happen to find that the increase in quality is well worth the extra effort involved with loose-leaf tea, but you’re of course more than welcome to decide for yourself what works best for your brew!
If you find a brand of tea bags that you like, do what you’ve gotta do for your bucha! Just cut the steeping time in half to accommodate for the smaller tea pieces in the bags and avoid bitterness.
What determines tea quality? How much should you spend on "good quality" tea?
I'm often asked what determines a good quality tea. But very similarly to wine, quality tea can come in different forms and it all depends on the region it was produced, the particular tea farm that picked the tea, how it was processed and how it was shipped to you. I consider myself a bit of a tea enthusiast (so much so that I've got a botanical sketch of a tea plant tattooed on my arm -- yes, really). So I find myself tasting hundreds of different types of teas at various price points.
I often use loose leaf teas that are in the $15-25 per pound range for brewing kombucha. Any pricier than that, and I don't really see that much of an increase in flavor that makes the extra cost worth it. And in a few cases, the expensive teas turned out better when drunk straight (unfermented) and developed flavors I wasn't really a fan of after I fermented them.
Since the very rare, limitedly-produced, single-estate teas I drink are often delicious enough to be drunk straight (without any additions or without fermenting it into kombucha!), then I often save those just to drink straight up. I don't bother fermenting them into kombucha knowing that the fermentation process can mask the nuanced, complex flavors or very high quality tea. I've tried all types of tea for kombucha -- white, black, green, oolong and pu-erh tea -- and I've tried teas at various price points. But I keep coming back to these two teas (for the reasons I list above): Organic English Breakfast Tea or Non-Organic English Breakfast tea.*
The truth is that many rare, single-estate teas are best drunk straight up on their own, without letting fermentation mask their complex flavors. As much as I love kombucha, I'm not dropping serious $$$ on expensive, top-quality tea if most of those flavors will be masked or diminished by the fermentation or the fruit flavorings. To me, that's almost as unthinkable as adding sugar and fruit to a rare, aged bottle of fine wine and letting it sit for a week or so before drinking it. Yikes!
But in the end, use whatever tea you prefer! If you find a brand or a type that you like and works well with your culture, that's really all that matters!
*On this page, you’ll find some affiliate links to sources where I’ve purchased my ingredients/materials that I use. I may get a small cut of Amazon's profit for finding + recommending them to you. It won't cost you any more than you’d normally pay for them. I went through a lot of trial and error to find low-cost, high-quality options to save us all money. But feel free to purchase from wherever you like!