Making kombucha tea requires five ingredients: water, tea, sugar, starter tea or vinegar, and a kombucha scoby (also known as a starter culture, mother, mushroom, etc.). The type of water, tea, and sugar used are important. Creating a safe batch of kombucha requires maintaining a proper level of acid from the start until the scoby begins to produce its own acids. The acid serves a critical purpose by warding off mold and invading bacteria as well as providing a proper fermentation environment for the scoby. Maintaining a proper level of acidity is dependent on the ingredients used and the health of the scoby. While a number of water, tea, and sugar options exist, some provide a more healthy environment for the scoby and a consistent pH level and therefore are more likely to yield a consistently safe brew. The brew should start with a pH of no more than 4.6, and the finished brew should have a pH level between 2.5 and 4.0 prior to consumption.
While tap water can be used, we recommend instead using filtered water free of as many contaminants as possible. Contaminants such as chlorine, chloramines, and fluoride can be detrimental to a batch of kombucha and the health of the scoby. Distilled water and reverse osmosis water can also be used to brew kombucha. Do not use alkaline water (processed through a water ionizer) or structured water to brew kombucha: it may damage the culture.
Brewing kombucha does require real tea (camellia sinensis) for both minerals and nitrogen. A number of varieties are available including black, green, white, pekoe, oolong, Darjeeling and more. We recommend using organic tea whenever possible to avoid exposing the scoby to pesticides. The type of tea you choose to use to brew kombucha can affect the health of the scoby as well as the taste of your finished brew.
Black Tea. Black tea consists of fully fermented tea leaves and has traditionally been used to brew kombucha. Black tea is most nutritious for the scoby and will promote the most ideal brewing conditions and maintain the most consistent pH level, all of which contribute favorably to the health of the scoby. Black teas such Ceylon, English Breakfast, and Darjeeling make a traditional amber-colored, bold-tasting kombucha. The taste profile is most commonly described as apple-like or fruity, reminiscent of cider. Depending on the specific variety of tea used, it is also possible for kombucha made with black tea to taste woody, earthy, or smoky. Please note: it is important to avoid black teas that contain oils such as Earl Grey tea, chai tea, flavored Ceylon teas, etc. While flavored teas are popular among some kombucha brewers, be aware that the oils contained in such teas are not only hard on the scoby but can also become rancid during the brewing process.
Oolong Tea. For a bit softer taste, try Oolong tea, which consists of partially fermented tea leaves (and can be categorized as both a black and green tea). Oolong tea provides an amber-colored kombucha with a somewhat fruity, somewhat grassy taste. Oolong tea is a favorite for kombucha brewing here at Cultures for Health.
Green Teas. Green teas are commonly mixed with black teas for brewing kombucha but can also be used alone. While not quite as ideal as black tea for fermenting kombucha, green tea provides most of the necessary nutrients and can be used in combination with black or herbal teas. Green teas tend to brew a little faster than black tea, and yield a lighter-color, softer-tasting kombucha. Jasmine green tea makes a particularly tasty kombucha.
Red Teas. Many kombucha brewers enjoy using Red Roobios. We do recommend using it in combination with black tea (25% black tea).
White Teas. White teas tend to make a very flowery and delicate kombucha. For the health of the scoby, it is best to use white teas in combination with black, Oolong or green teas.
Herbal Teas. Herbal teas do not contain the necessary nutrients to nourish the scoby and should be used in combination with black tea (25% black tea) to prevent problems for the batch and the scoby. While herbal tea alone will technically brew a batch of kombucha, it is much more difficult to control the pH level of the brew and the scoby will suffer nutritionally, both of which can result in an unsafe beverage. Beware herbal teas containing oils! They should not be used. (Examples include peppermint, chamomile, ginger, etc.)
Keep in mind that essential oils (also known as volatile oils) are often added to teas, but are generally harmful to the scoby and can become rancid during the brewing process. We recommend avoiding all teas and herbs containing these oils when brewing kombucha. In addition, teas that are smoked can be harmful to the scoby. If an oil-containing tea or a smoked tea is used, be sure to monitor the batch carefully for mold, test the pH level of the brew prior to consumption, and plan to discard the scoby after a batch or two. (In addition we recommend not using any new baby scobys resulting from these batches to make future batches.)
Caffeine: If caffeine is a concern, try using decaffeinated tea or use this method to bypass most of the caffeine: Prepare a cup of hot water along with your container of water for making kombucha. Allow your tea to steep in the cup of hot water for 30 to 60 seconds. Discard the cup of water. Then use those teabags to make the tea for your kombucha. Approximately 80% to 90% of the caffeine is released in that first minute of steeping.
While it can be tempting to try to find ways not to use sugar in recipes, sugar is required for the fermentation process and cannot bypassed or substituted. During fermentation, the scoby breaks down the sugar and transforms it into acids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and carbon dioxide (which accounts for the fizzy texture Kombucha is known for). Do not be tempted to use less sugar than called for. Upsetting the ratios will disrupt the fermentation process and potentially result in a beverage that is unsafe to drink. Keep in mind that at the conclusion of the fermentation process, kombucha contains only 1 to 2 grams of sugar or less per cup. Compare that to apple juice which contains 28 grams of sugar per cup. Longer kombucha fermentations periods may result in even less sugar so there is truly no reason to skimp on the sugar and risk creating a dangerous brew. If you are particularly concerned about the sugar levels in your finished kombucha, a hydrometer can be purchased from your local beer- and wine-making supply store or you can use an Accuvin residual sugar test kit.
Plain White Cane Sugar. Plain white sugar (the type you find at every conventional grocery store) is the easiest variety for the scoby to digest during the fermentation process, thereby creating a brew with the most consistent pH level. Unfortunately plain white sugar is not generally organic and may contain pesticides or be produced from genetically modified crops, which may be detrimental to the health of the scoby.
Organic Evaporated Cane Crystals. The organic equivalent of plain white sugar, OECC is a bit less processed and therefore not quite as digestible for the scoby, but still creates a brew with a consistent pH level. While not perfect, since it does not contain pesticides, GMOs, etc., it is very popular among kombucha brewers and is the sugar of choice here at Cultures for Health both for production of the kombucha scobys available on our website as well as for our own personal brewing projects.
Brown Sugar, Rapadura, Sucanat, Turbinado, Raw Sugar, Molasses. Sugars containing molasses (unrefined sugars) can be used to brew kombucha but are much more difficult for the scoby to digest and therefore may result in a less consistent fermentation process and resulting level of acidity. A poorly formed new scoby and excessive yeast sediment are common side effects. Please note: sugars containing molasses also yield a much less pleasant-tasting kombucha. We do not recommend using sugars containing molasses when brewing kombucha, but if you choose to use them, try boiling the sugared tea for 10 minutes prior to allowing the mixture to cool completely and using it to make kombucha. The boiling process is purported to break down the sugar, which allows the scoby to better utilize the sugar for fermentation. While not ideal, it may help a bit. If using one of these sugar types, we recommend obtaining and using a reliable pH meter or pH testing strips to ensure the pH level of your kombucha is between 2.6 and 4.0 prior to consumption.
Honey. Pasteurized honey may be used. Raw honey may successfully be used to brew kombucha, but we do not recommend it for a number of reasons. Raw honey has its own bacterial profile and may disrupt the balance of yeast and bacteria in the scoby. Additionally, raw honey may include organic material that might disturb the scoby or attract mold. Keep in mind that such disruption isn’t always obvious and may result in an unsafe batch the first time or several batches later.
Agave. Agave can be used but it yields a sour-tasting kombucha and is problematic for the long term health of the scoby. We do not recommend using agave.
Maple Syrup, Coconut Sugars, Rice Syrup, etc. While it may be possible to use these sugars when making kombucha, we recommend exercising extreme caution as good data does not currently exist as to their safety for the scoby either in the short or long term. If you decide to experiment using one of these alternative sugars, we urge you watch your batch carefully for any signs of mold or breakdown of the scoby. You should also obtain and use a reliable pH meter or pH testing strips to ensure the pH level of your kombucha is between 2.6 and 4.0 prior to consumption.
DO NOT USE: Corn syrup (or high fructose corn syrup), lactose, Sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, Neotame, xylitol, or stevia. None of these sweeteners can be utilized as food by the scoby and will be detrimental to the batch and harmful to the scoby, and will produce a beverage that is unsafe to consume.
Creating a safe batch of kombucha is dependent upon maintaining a proper level of acid, which allows the finished brew to reach a pH level between 2.6 and 4.0. While the type of tea and sugar used to brew the batch play important roles, the addition of an acidic liquid is also critical to the health of the scoby and the safety of the batch of kombucha. The most desirable acidic liquid to use when brewing a batch of kombucha is properly brewed kombucha tea from a previous batch. Ideally, approximately 1/8 of your batch of kombucha should be made up of acidic Kombucha tea from a previous batch (1/2 cup per quart or two cups per gallon). If you are new to brewing kombucha or your supply is running low, there are two options. The first is to use a bottle of raw kombucha tea (preferably unflavored) from your local natural food store. The second is to use vinegar, either white distilled vinegar or pasteurized apple cider vinegar. (Raw ACV introduces competing bacteria and is less likely to work properly.) Vinegar can make up all or part (used in combination with kombucha tea) of the acidic liquid portion needed to brew a batch of kombucha. Keep in mind that using vinegar can produce a harsher-flavored brew, so we recommend making only a small batch using vinegar, then using that as a starter tea for your next batch.
Also known as a starter culture, mother, mushroom, etc., the kombucha scoby is a collection of yeast and bacteria existing in a symbiotic relationship. A scoby looks like a slimy pancake or the top of a mushroom and is a necessary component to brewing kombucha.
Be sure to obtain your scoby from a reputable source. Friends and family are a great place to start if you have any current kombucha brewers among your acquaintances. If not, the other options including purchasing a scoby or growing one from a bottle of commercial raw kombucha. (Click here for more information on obtaining or growing a scoby.)
Size. The size of the scoby is not particularly important. A small scoby can brew a relatively large batch of kombucha.
Holes in the Scoby. Do not be concerned with holes in the scoby (which are common when the baby scoby fuses to the mother scoby during the fermentation process and must be torn apart). Also, using pieces of a larger scoby is acceptable as long as metal wasn’t used to remove the pieces from the larger scoby.
Coloring. The scoby should be primarily off-white in color or sometimes more tan. Blobs of brown or stringy brown particles clinging to the scoby are normal byproducts of the yeast. Do not use a scoby that has signs of mold (black, orange, green, or very white spots) or a scoby that has turned black (a sign the culture has died).
After you have been making kombucha for a while you may be tempted to stray from the guidelines presented here. Maybe you want to try making an herbal tea kombucha or brewing with molasses? If you choose to do so, we urge you to use good safety practices including:
- Watching your batch very carefully for signs of mold or changes to the scoby.
- Using a spare scoby and keeping a non-experimental one in reserve for backup.
- Not reusing mother scobys or new baby scobys from experimental batches.
- Obtaining and using a reliable pH meter or pH testing strips to ensure that your brew has a pH level between 2.6 and 4.0 prior to consumption.
- Using good judgment and never consuming any kombucha that looks, smells, or tastes unpleasant.
Please note: these ingredient recommendations are presented as suggestions only and do not substitute for using good judgment. No matter what ingredients or ratios you choose to use, regardless of whether mold is present or not and regardless of the pH level of the finished brew, we advise you to always use your best judgment when brewing and consuming kombucha and to never consume any Kombucha that looks, tastes, or smells unpleasant.