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Tea and Kombucha – What to Use and What to Avoid

Tea is THE MOST POPULAR beverage in the world. Humans drink more tea than all other beverages combined including soft drinks, coffee and alcohol. So, it makes perfect sense that one of the chief ingredients of Kombucha is tea.

But, what is tea? We hear about green tea, chamomile tea, peppermint tea, genmaicha, rooibos, honeybush and Lipton’s tea to name a few. Perhaps any plant that is soaked in hot water to create a beverage can be called tea? It may seem that way, and for day-to-day conversation there’s nothing wrong with that definition.

However, many “teas” do not contain what Kombucha needs to brew successfully, especially over time. Moreover, some plants may harm your culture and retard the formation of healthful elements in your homebrew.

Let’s take a closer look at the best types of tea for long term brewing of Kombucha.

A colored drawing of camelia sinensis shows the differnt parts of the plant.

Camellia sinensis provides nitrogen to the SCOBY

What is tea?

The Latin name for the tea plant is Camellia sinensis.  All types of tea – white, black, green, oolong, and post-fermented teas (such as pu-erh) etc. are derived from the same plant.  The different types are primarily determined by how they are processed.

Traditionally, Kombucha has been brewed with black tea (known as “red tea” in China, named for the color of the resulting brewed liquid rather than the color of the leaves themselves).  Research has shown that green tea produces the healthiest looking culture. The most common recipe for brewing Kombucha includes a combination of green & black tea.

Each type of tea has been shown to demonstrate specific healing properties which Kombucha’s fermentation process helps to unlock. With Kombucha’s help, the polyphenols & anti-oxidants become more bio-available, which just means they are easier for your body to absorb. Once again, Kombucha works with nature’s own systems to improve their efficiency. Symbiosis defined.

Why tea?

Tea contains several nutrients and compounds that feed the Kombucha culture including nitrogen, caffeine and theanine to name a few.  Along with the sugar, tea is the main fuel source for the SCOBY.  When you brew Kombucha with herbal infusions (also called tisanes), you may get a delicious, healthy fermented beverage, but over time, due to the lack of necessary nutrients, the culture will atrophy and eventually die.

A cute illustration of a blue teapot says, "Tea: it tastes just like hot water that used to have some leaves soaking in it."

Courtesy NatalieDee.com

That isn’t to say that advanced brewers shouldn’t make herbal “kombucha,” but in order to protect the health of your culture it is recommended to either add some actual tea to your herbs or alternate batches with the tea plant to reinvigorate the culture.  Beginners are advised to stick to tea until you have enough large healthy cultures in your SCOBY Hotel to brew experimental batches.

I have four criteria for purchasing tea: loose leaf, bulk, organic, Fair Trade (whenever possible). Loose leaf & bulk means less less packaging (more green) and less expensive (more green). I make the personal choice to pay out some of those savings to select organic and Fair Trade. I value knowing that pesticides won’t be passed on to me and that the laborers were paid a living wage for their work. The more often I make conscious choices, the more impact I have in creating an ethical global society.

Here is a short breakdown of the different types of tea that are included in my special Kombucha tea blend. I select each one for a combination of its healing properties and flavor profile.

White Tea

A close up of the white peony tea plant shows the brown stalks, green leaves and delicate white hairs.

White Peony - notice the white hairs

Specifically, organic white peony tea (白牡丹茶). White tea is harvested from the youngest, most delicate buds & leaves which are covered in fine white hairs and located at the top of the tea plant.  Once picked, they are allowed to lightly wither in the sun and then are gently dried to prevent further enzymatic oxidation (meaning to turn darker from exposure to the air, kind of like an apple).

This gentle drying process protects the delicate flavor of the tea and ensures that the highest amount of anti-oxidants are present in the beverage.  White tea produces a milder tasting Kombucha that is high in catechins. Here are just some of the health benefits associated with drinking white tea (it’s a pretty impressive list!)

  • reduces atherosclerotic plaques
  • reduces carcinogens and eliminates free radicals
  • reduces risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer (including tumor formation), diabetes
  • protects the skin from damage caused by UV light

Black Tea

Rich amber liquid pours and ripples into a white tea cup.

Black Tea leaves = "red tea" in Chinese

Black tea has a long history with Kombucha.  The literal translation of the Chinese word for Kombucha – 紅茶菌 – is “red tea bacteria” (read more about the many names of Kombucha).

Though it was once thought that black tea didn’t contain nearly the benefits of green tea, it has been discovered that despite a longer oxidization process, it is very healthy.

Black tea is higher in purines which aid blood circulation and encourage warming properties.  I blend in more black tea during the Winter to compensate for cooler temperatures.  Women especially may experience poor circulation in their extremities and drinking Kombucha made with black tea can improve that condition.

Some other health benefits of black tea are:

  • improves beneficial intestinal microflora
  • provides immunity against intestinal disorders
  • prevents tooth decay due to the presence of fluorine
  • normalizes blood pressure

No wonder Kombucha has such a host of healing properties. It is made from a beverage that already has amazing health benefits. Then Kombucha makes it easier for the body to absorb those benefits through the magic of fermentation and a little colony of special bacteria and yeast, which end up producing a bunch of vitamins and enzymes that weren’t there before as well. Bonus!

Green Tea

An old style Asian drawing of two men sampling tea while a woman or boy fans the fire.

Tea was first discovered by the Chinese emperor Shennong in 2737 BCE

Green tea is unfermented and delicately processed using sunlight, heating & rolling, which releases its essence. It is rich in catechin polyphenols, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Here are some of the healing properties attributed to EGCG:

  • inhibits the growth of cancer cells without harming healthy tissue
  • lowers LDL cholesterol levels
  • naturally anti-bacterial
  • boosts immunity

Kombucha cultures LOVE green tea and grow thick, healthy SCOBYs. According to Michael Roussin’s research, green tea turns Kombucha more sour in a shorter period of time making it an ideal tea for those who prefer a shorter brewing cycle.

**Bonus Definition – flush – tea is harvested 2 times per year. Each harvest is called a flush.  The leaves from the first flush in Spring have a different flavor and quality than those of the second flush in Summer.  Some types of tea also have an Autumnal flush.

All of these teas, in their seemingly unlimited varieties, have been shown to make healthy, delicious Kombucha and SCOBYs. Mix them and match them for a flavor combination you enjoy.

However, there are some teas to be avoided when making Kombucha.

Teas to Avoid

  • Flavored teas such as Red Zinger or Chai – these are often flavored using essential oils that may damage the culture.  There are varying opinions about Earl Gray as it contains oil of bergamot but several people have brewed Kombucha with it successfully.  You may not want to use it as your main tea but it adds nice flavor and body.
  • Herbal infusions – as mentioned previously, these do not technically contain any Camellia sinensis.  Some herbal infusions with high levels of volatile oils will retard the culture’s growth as they have a bacteriacidal effect (kill bacteria).
  • Strongly smokey teas such as Lapsang Souchong – while they won’t technically damage the Kombucha, the flavor is considered a poor match by most brewers.

Of course, now that I said don’t use these teas, everyone will want to use these teas and the comments will fill with people who have used them successfully. That’s one of the beautiful things about Kombucha: Experimentation!

Look for my next post about teas: Yerba Mate, Rooibos, Pu-erh and the wonderful world of Tea Tasting.

Hannah Crum, the Kombucha Mamma!Hannah Crum is The Kombucha Mamma, founder of Kombucha Kamp, Industry Journalist & Master Brewer, educating others about Kombucha since 2004. Connect with her on Google +