Guest Posting: Kombucha 101 – Tea, by Tadeusz Zagrabinski
In this Kombucha 101 series, Tadeusz writes about the importance of all individual ingredients that are traditionally used to make kombucha. Part 1 of the series describes the importance of tea in the traditionally brewed kombucha, and other substances that can be used to make kombucha instead of traditional tea. He also reviews the best teas for superior-tasting kombucha, and what to keep in mind when buying tea.
Tea is essential for the traditionally brewed kombucha.
By tea, we obviously refer to the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.
The earliest recipes that can be found called for black tea. As a matter of fact, black tea was used for a very long time for many reasons. In European countries, like in Germany, for example, black tea was always the most popular and most available tea. So was the case with Russia.
The wide availability made the tea affordable, so that would be one reason why it was used.
Another reason was the high caffeine and tannin content that black teas have. Both of those factors help with better fermentation and overall with a better health of the culture (SCOBY).
Since kombucha was considered to be a highly medicinal drink for quite some time, there was a very specific recipe from which it was not recommended that one should stray away.
Many doctors, including a German doctor Sklennar (see History of Kombucha p.2 here), considered black tea to be optimal to achieve specific results. Also, many older books from late 1980s and early 1990s did not recommend using any other tea, than the black one.
The optimal recipe was: black tea and 100-150 gr of sugar per liter.
Also, when we take the Chinese name for kombucha, “hong cha jun” (红茶菌), which can be translated into “red tea bacteria“. So Hong Cha is actually a Chinese or Taiwanese red tea,which in the West is considered to be a black tea.
This whole concept can be confusing, but it is pretty well explained in the blog entry “Hong Cha? No, I wanted Black Tea“, which can be found here.
We have made kombucha with a Taiwanese Sanxia Hong Cha before and it was well worth it, even though the price of the tea was over 300 Euro per kg, at that time.
Needless to say, you will find Hong Cha as a separate tea category, with skillfully highly oxidized teas that usually cost a good amount of money.
To read about our Sanxia Hong Cha Kombucha, please click here.
Black tea is definitely a good tea to make kombucha with. Especially a high quality black tea.
Kombucha made with those teas is very complex in flavor. In many cases its flavor profile can carry a resemblance to a good quality red wine, without alcohol though.
Take our recent special, Black Jungle Tea Kombucha, made with a high quality Taiwanese tea from the Sun Moon Lake area, in which the malt and fruit notes of the tea come out so nicely in the kombucha.
Some other high quality black teas that we have used before that made an excellent kombucha were Chinese Keemun Mao Feng and Nilgiri South Indian Treasure.
Both highly recommended to if you are looking for an excellent kombucha.
There are also black teas that resemble more highly oxidized Oolongs than black teas. Some of them can be quite special.
We use one of them to make our Jun Chiyabari Bärbucha Kombucha. That one has strong malt and chocolate notes and it’s freshly made, it can serve as a liquid dessert.
That particular tea is a second flush black tea that comes from the famous Jun Chiyabari tea plantation in Nepal.
And the second one was Leafhopper’s Black which gave us a super delicious kombucha with strong honey notes. Those notes were the result of cicada bites, as this tea belongs to the category of bug bitten teas (in this case it’s a good thing).
And we should not forget about the humble Darjeeling, one of our Classic line kombuchas that is made by cold brewing second flush Darjeeling (black) tea.
This specific brewing process gives us even more fruity notes (like hints of raisins, dates or plums) that lie hidden in those tea leaves.
But black tea is just the beginning, if one wants to experiment with different teas.
All other types of tea work equally well with kombucha. And there are many of those types to experiment with. So let’s start with the opposite end of oxidation process, namely white tea.
White tea also makes a nice kombucha. But this kombucha is quite different.
For once, it will be much lighter than black tea kombucha. Also depending on the type of tea that is used, some additional mild flavor. To find out more about different white tea types and white tea history, please click here.
There are two types of white tea that are better known: Silver Needle (Yin Zhen Bai Hao) and White Peony (Pai Mu Tan).
We picked Pai Mu Tan to make kombucha with, as this tea has a fuller flavor and a greater potency.
The mild peony and floral notes stand out in a kombucha made with this tea, provided that the organic acids are not overly present yet.
White tea category is a challenge for kombucha making as most of the teas are very delicate in flavor. Plus they are also expensive.
The next category, green tea, has a wider selection to work with. Here one can find a really wide selection of teas that can come from either China, Taiwan or even Japan.
Green tea kombucha is light and very refreshing. It can be compared to a nice floral or fruity white wine (sans alcohol, obviously). This kind of kombucha will appeal to a really wide audience.
In our selection, we do have a few kombuchas that are strictly green tea based. Some of them have an extra flavoring agent added, like various flowers in our Morgenduft Kombucha, or Bergamot oil (and calendula flowers) in our Lady Grey Kombucha. We also had to have a kombucha that would jasmine flavored – our Jasmine Kombucha – made with a cold brewed Jasmine Mao Feng.
Cold brewing this tea, preserves the delicate notes of Jasmine that this tea has.
Osmanthus Gui Hua, a green tea mixed with osmanthus flowers is another tea that we make kombucha with – our Osmanthus Kombucha.
That is a very light kombucha with sweet floral notes of osmanthus flowers.
All the above mentioned teas are an easy and predictable choice for a tea based kombucha.
Other green teas that are not flavored with additional ingredient(s) are more challenging.
Kombucha made with those teas has to accentuate the finer notes that are characteristic for a specific tea.
This particular tea has discernible, natural passion fruit notes and those notes come out even stronger after the fermentation process.
But Jade Silk is not the only unflavored green tea that we made kombucha with.
A good quality Pi Lo Chun (Bilochun) makes a very tasty kombucha, like the one that we used to make this Pi Lo Chun Bärbucha Kombucha.
Longjing (Lung Ching) is the tea of choice for our Jun Kombucha.
But we used it also as a special.
Other good choices for excellent kombucha would include teas like Anji Baicha, or even some Japanese teas, like Kukicha. We made a kombucha out of it a while back.
Good quality Sencha, Gyokuro or Kabusecha would also be good choices for a fine kombucha.
Genmaicha makes a great kombucha, too. We had it couple of times already as a special and many of our customers loved the sweet notes of roasted rice that make up this tea, along with good quality Sencha.
As a matter of fact, there are many less known good quality green teas out there. If they stand out flavor wise, then they should also stand out as a kombucha.
Oolongs are probably the most exciting category of teas to make kombucha with. Good quality Oolongs might not be cheap, some are actually quite expensive. But kombucha made with a good quality Oolong can be really super delicious.
Oolong teas can vary from light and green, delicate High Mountain types, like the Taiwanese High Mountain Oolongs, to heavily roasted Dong Ding Oolongs, also from Taiwan.
The complexity and flavor profiles will also vary, depending on the type of Oolong that is used.
In our selection we feature two different Oolongs to make two of our different kombuchas.
One of them is called Lan Gui Ren, or Ginseng Oolong.
It is an unusual Oolong, where the tea leaves are rolled and are coated with Ginseng powder. We picked this Oolong for extra health benefits.
The other one is a Dan Cong, also known as Rock Oolong. This one comes from famous Phoenix mountains in China and it is the base for our Black Phoenix Kombucha.
This tea has some natural citrus notes with hints of passion fruit and papaya. And those notes make this kombucha even more complex in flavor.
Those two Oolongs we use all the time, but we have even more fun with Oolongs that we use in our specials.
Currently, at the time of this writing, we have a Magnolia Oolong Kombucha as a special.
In Magnolia Oolong, the tea leaves are mixed and dried with Magnolia flowers. Those flowers are later removed, but the incredible scent stays on the tea leaves.
Tie Guan Yin, or the Iron Goddess of Mercy is a famous Oolong from Anxi. Those Oolongs can either be green or roasted. Either one of them makes an excellent and complex kombucha.
We normally use the green Tie Guan Yin.
Oriental Beauty is another famous Oolong. This one is produced both in Taiwan and in China. Either one of them is a great choice to make kombucha. We used a Taiwanese Oriental Beauty.
Dan Cong Oolongs are quite expensive, but recently we used one that is rare and thus less known.
It is called Ao Fu Hou. This one is characterized by its particularly fruity aroma and a subtle fragrance of flowers. And those notes came out so nicely in the kombucha that we have made.
A good example of a heavy roasted Oolong is the Taiwanese Black Oolong
How our kombucha came out, when we used this Oolong can not be better described than by Angie, from Deerland Tea
“It’s very fruity and has beautifully transformed the signature aroma profile (ripe fruit, nectar, plum, pineapple, apple) of our black oolong through fermentation and given it an extra layer of bubbly sourness. At some point I thought I was drinking Riesling Sekt.”
All we can say is that it was delicious and we will definitely make it again! And we will be experimenting with other Oolong teas, as they always make super tasty kombucha.
Pu-erh tea is a variety of fermented tea, but the fermentation process refers to microbial fermentation. Pu-erh is a very complex tea. There are two styles of producing Pu-erh. The longer production method produces Sheng (or raw) Pu-erh and the shorter one produces Shou (ripe or cooked) Pu-erh.
Pu-erh is also known to be in a pressed form (cake), although some Pu-erhs are available in a loose form called Maocha.
Pu-erhs have a great complexity in flavor and they have some earthy, cellar or even mushroom notes that not everybody enjoys. Although through kombucha fermentation some of those notes mellow down.
We use a Sheng Maocha Pu-erh from 2017, that comes from 200 year old trees. This particular tea makes an excellent and light Puerh Kombucha.
Judging from the amount of clicks on our post about Pu-erh kombucha, there’s a big audience that would like to experiment with this particular tea category.
As a special, we do occasionally make Shou Pu-erh kombucha. For that we use mini Tuo Cha, as seen in this vintage picture.
So different Pu-erhs are definitely worth checking into. Both, as cold brews and the traditional steeped way.
Yellow tea, Chinese huángchá (黄茶; 黃茶) is a rare and usually expensive variety of tea.
Here’s an explanation of what Yellow Tea is, taken from Times of India:
“Native to China, Yellow Tea is another drink that has slowly gained popularity across the world. This one is a little different in taste, as it offers a fruity and distinct after taste, smooth texture and a pleasing aroma. When it comes to benefits, it is somewhat similar to green tea. However, it is easier on the stomach as compared to green tea and other teas as well. The bright yellow colour of this hot drink is not natural and is attained through a process called ‘Sealed Yellowing’. Under this process, the tea polyphenols (catechins) are first oxidized to attain the yellow tinge and then further treated to preserve the colour and aroma of the dried leaves.”
We have Yellow tea in plans for future kombucha and we are very curious about the end results.
As one can see, there are almost endless possibilities for the Traditional Kombucha making.
Too bad that the vast majority of commercial kombucha brewers, as well as most of the kombucha home brewers, do not take the advantage of such a wide plethora of available teas.
Instead, they opt for making the so called soda kombuchas, flavored with fruits and juices.
Soda kombuchas, in which tea is only there because it has to be. And when that tea is cheap, and it’s conveniently packed inside the tea bags, it just can’t get any better.
Our recommendation is to use the best tea that one can afford. And by best teas we mean good quality loose teas. Relatively fresh, especially if they are green teas. Darker teas can get better when stored properly. If the cost is the factor then go for Organic (BIO), as cheap standard teas are usually loaded with chemicals, insecticides and fungicides and they might also contain a lot of fluoride.
And by best teas, we mean single estate teas from smaller tea farms. Those you can get directly from China or Taiwan. If that’s too tricky, then check out the online tea retailers. Their teas will always be fresher and better than the teas found in supermarkets or in Organic stores.
Those usually sit too long and they lose their aroma.
Tea that goes into tea bags is usually the worst quality, left over tea leaves that can not be sold as loose tea. And most of the tea bags contain plastic. But what is even worse, it’s those nylon mesh bags with tea inside. Even when they contain a better quality tea, you are getting a good mix of chemicals that the heat will release from those bags. Plus billions of micro-plastics that are released into every single cup of tea, as the not so new study finds.
But tea is not the only substance that sustains the SCOBY growth and contains the caffeine.
South America gives us couple of other wonderful substances that work well for kombucha.
Yerba Mate is one of them and its cousin Guayusa is yet another tea substitute one can use.
We used to make a wonderful Guayusa Kombucha for quite some time.
Coffee also contains a lot of caffeine and some people make Coffee Kombucha, although it can be challenging, taking into consideration the relatively high acidity of coffee. Cascara on the other hand, makes great kombucha and it’s a lot easier to work with.
We cold brewed Cascara for our kombucha.
When one has a bit of experience with kombucha brewing, it could be a good time to experiment with other substances that do not contain caffeine and do not belong to Camellia sinensis family.
A healthy and strong SCOBY with a good starter liquid can basically ferment any infusion. Especially herb infusions and so called herb teas (properly described as tisanes). Some of those substances will sustain the proper SCOBY growth and with some other ones, the SCOBY will have to return to tea in order to get some nourishment.
The herbs (botanicals) that do sustain the SCOBY growth include the following: Chamomile, Hibiscus and Chaga. Those we know for sure. There might be more though, that we are not familiar with.
We have a whole line dedicated to medicinal botanicals like that. It is our Special line and it includes the following kombuchas: Chaga (mushroom), Schisandra (five flavor berry), Jiaogulan (herb) and Hemp. All five of those botanicals make super tasty kombucha.
So again, many many possibilities for great kombucha.
After tea, it’s time for sugar!
This article is from Tadeusz’s Bärbucha Kombucha blog and appears here with his express permission.