Guest Posting: Kombucha 101 – Sugar, by Tadeusz Zagrabinski
In this Kombucha 101 series, Tadeusz writes about the importance of all individual ingredients that are traditionally used to make kombucha. The first part discussed tea. The second of the series describes the varieties of sweeteners that can be used to ferment kombucha. He explains why organic Demerara is the sugar of choice for his kombucha.
Sugar is just as important as tea for kombucha fermentation.
Without sugar, there would be no kombucha.
For many people, sugar is just sugar, and by sugar, they mean the highly refined white substance that people use to sweeten their tea (or coffee) for baking or cake making.
But sugar is a lot more complex than that.
Standard sugar, as we know it, comes out of basically two sources: sugar cane or sugar beets.
In the refined form, nutritionally they are almost identical. Refined sugar is basically pure sucrose. In the food world, nothing that has been refined is healthy. And that is true for every substance, be it sugar, flour, salt, oil, etc. So being refined is one problem. The other, bigger problem is refined and standard.
By standard, I mean non-Organic.
So why is this a problem?
Pesticides, including the infamous Glyphosate (see Roundup), are used on standard crops. Another problem is the use of GMO crops. So the standard sugar can come from genetically modified sugar beets or genetically modified sugar cane. In countries like the US, it is estimated that about 55-60% of sugar comes out of sugar beets. 95% of sugar beet production comes out of GMO modified beets, see here.
Coming either from beets or from cane is one distinction.
The other distinction is white sugar and brown sugar. On the surface, it seems to be simple, but again, a lot of people do not understand this the way they should. White sugar can come out of sugar cane or out of sugar beets. In either case, it is obtained through the refining process in which both the molasses and the impurities are removed.
In the case of sugar cane, sugar is further processed with bone char to make it look whiter. And yes, charred bones of animals are most often used for that process.
Sugar out of beets does not have to undergo the same process, as it does not contain similar dark molasses as cane sugar does.
Brown sugar, on the other hand, can only be made out of sugar cane naturally. In case you are able to find brown beet sugar, you should know that it was made by the addition of sugar cane molasses to the refined beet sugar.
Brown cane sugar can be of two types. It can either be naturally brown, when some part of the molasses was not removed from the sugar, or like in the case of most brown sugars, the molasses were first removed and then they were added back to the commercial white sugar. Obviously, out of those two varieties, the former is better, as it will also contain some trace minerals and because it was not overly refined.
Brown sugar can contain various amounts of molasses, and that will make that sugar look differently, ranging from pale brown up to very dark brown color. Naturally brown sugars can be found in three different forms: powders, crystals or blocks in various shapes.
As pictured, jaggery is an example of an Indian unrefined brown sugar. Piloncillo (or Panela) is its South and Central American equivalent.
Muscovado can range from partially refined to fully unrefined sugar. And it’ll be in the form of crystals. Whole cane sugar will be in the form of a powder, a lumpy powder.
Our favorite for kombucha making is Demerara sugar. Organic (BIO) Demerara was the sugar of choice for us from the very beginning.
We wanted to have sugar that is minimally refined (that is, in which some of the molasses are removed, but not all of them). Demerara was just what we were looking for.
“Demerara sugar is a raw sugar extracted from sugar cane. It is minimally processed, so it has a golden-brown color and large grains that give it a crunchy texture. Demerara sugar originated from the British colony of Demerara, now called Guyana.” (for more, see here)
For us, it has the perfect amount of molasses. It is still unrefined, and it is Organic (BIO).
Sugars, in which the molasses content is very high, are not well suited for kombucha making, as the flavor of those molasses will come out too strong and it can overpower the original flavor of kombucha. When sugars without molasses are used (especially refined white sugar), then kombucha has no complexity. White sugar obviously works well for kombucha making and many people, and most of the commercial kombucha brewers will tell you that this sugar is the best for the culture (SCOBY).
But you should keep one thing in mind: white sugar is very addictive (it was even compared with cocaine) and that you can make a white sugar junkie out of anyone (bacteria included).
The truer reason why white sugar is used in kombucha production might lie in the financial aspect. White sugar is the cheapest, and like I mentioned above, it is neutral in taste compared with darker sugars. The argument that sugar is only for the culture also does not make much sense, as a part of this sugar is still present in the kombucha and it will be consumed with that kombucha.
We took that into account, and that is also one of the reasons why we picked Demerara as our sugar of choice. Even though price-wise, it costs twice as much as the Organic (BIO) white sugar.
Obviously, Organic white sugar, is a far better choice than any standard white sugar.
Besides the most common cane and sugar beets, there is still another substance out of which sugar is made.
It is called coconut palm sap, out of which coconut sugar is made (for more, see here). This type of sugar is also more nutritious when compared with other sugars. But it is also a lot more expensive.
The same goes for Maple sugar, made from the sap of the Maple tree.
There’s also a date sugar, but this one is very specific and since it’s made from dried dates. Because of that, it adds sweetness, but it does not dissolve, like regular sugars.
Besides all the above mentioned sugars, there’s a group of sweeteners that can also be used to make kombucha. They are in liquid form. Maple syrup is one of them. A light maple syrup would definitely make an interesting kombucha.
But again, unless you happen to live in Canada, the price would always be the factor.
The other sweetener is actually used to make kombucha. It is agave syrup. This one is sweeter than sugar, so less can be used. Unfortunately, the way it is processed, makes this sweetener worse than refined white sugar.
“This process — which is similar to how other unhealthy sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup are made — destroys all of the health-promoting properties of the agave plant.” (For more, see here.)
But far more worse than that is corn syrup, especially high fructose corn syrup. Unfortunately, it is the sweetener of choice for many standard drinks in countries like the US.
This about covers the sugars and sweeteners that can be used for kombucha brewing.
But there’s still one more. It’s been used by humans for thousands of years. But, it’s quite specific, as it can only be used to make one type of kombucha, namely Jun kombucha.
And, yes! It is honey.
Honey can also be problematic, as not every yellow liquid carrying the name “Honey” on the label is actually real honey. Like not all that shines is actually gold.
So the first and main distinction is raw honey vs. regular honey.
But in the regular honey category, honey can be processed to such an extent that it does not even resemble the original substance.
That is usually achieved by extensive filtration, pasteurization, and by mixing many low-quality honeys into one uniformed honey. During this process, various amounts of sugar or syrups can be added.
Because good quality honey can be expensive, and because of loose or almost none of the proper regulations in some countries, many fake honeys are made and sold. Those are usually nutritionally worthless, but a lot of people still think that they are using a better sugar substitute. Raw honey is the opposite. It can cost a lot more, but it is always worth it.
As always, we recommend the least processed foods, so raw honey from local beehives, which is minimally processed, will always be our recommendation for Jun making. Honey of this type has the most health benefits, and when properly used in Jun making, it retains all those benefits.
There’s a group of sweeteners that are used in food production, but they are not suitable for kombucha making, as kombucha culture does not recognize them as sugar even though they are sweet.
To this group belongs Xylitol, often described as birch tree sugar. What it is, in fact, is a sugar alcohol. It is not as healthy as it was first described. Many people can have reactions to consuming it. Luckily, it can’t be used.
Stevia is the second of those sweeteners. Although Stevia is a plant, the sweetener derived from it is suspected of causing gut irritation.
So it actually does the opposite to what kombucha is quite often synonymous with. And that is “gut health”! (for more, please click here)
The same goes for other sugar alcohols, including erythritol.
But those are usually used “post-production” commercially, to create those so-called “zero-sugar kombuchas.” In other words, a marketing gimmick, where the original sugar is fermented to zero, and then not-so-healthy fake sugars are added to “sweeten up” the drink.
But, I have already covered that in the “Real Kombucha” blog entry.
Water blog entry is next!
This article is from Tadeusz’s Bärbucha Kombucha blog and appears here with his express permission.
What about sweetening with fruit juice, like apple juice? Any pros and cons?
Hi Jeff! I personally do not have any experience with that. Technically it is possible. But then again, what kind of juice would you use? If it’s freshly squeezed, the sugar level will vary depending on the type of apples you would use. If it’s an already made juice, then it will contain additional sugar in it. Some fruits, even apples might not have the necessary amount of sugar needed. Would that juice be in the form of a concentrate?. The cons I see: Kombucha will taste like fermented apple juice (which might not be that bad, taste-wise) and it will be more expensive (juices usually cost more than sugar). So why use it? As far as GT Dave’s Kombucha goes (as this is the only one that I know, that is sweetened by a fruit juice instead of sugar), I can only speculate how it can be done. His labels state that Kiwi juice was used instead of sugar. When you check online, you will find out that a ripe Kiwi fruit contains about 9gr of sugar per 100 gr. I do not know what kind of juice they use for their Kombucha. Is it fresh, concentrated or sweetened? Only Dave can answer that. The same goes for the lack of Kiwi aftertaste and for no additional acidity that the fruit normally has.
This video by home brewer Kombucha Kev claims to have ‘cracked the code’ on GTs Trilogy kombucha sweetened with kiwi juice.
What about using Monk Fruit granulated sweetener?
I do not have any experience with this sweetener, but if what I read is correct, then the answer is no.
“During the production of monk fruit sweeteners, monk fruit extract is often blended with erythritol in order to taste and look more like table sugar. Erythritol is a type of polyol, also referred to as a sugar alcohol, that contains zero calories per gram.”
That’s a quote from Food Insight (https://foodinsight.org/everything-you-need-to-know-about-monk-fruit-sweeteners/)
FDA considers it to be GRAS only.
“The scientific opinion of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published in 2019 stated that data was insufficient at that time for EFSA to make a conclusion on the safety of using monk fruit extracts in foods”