Sugar is truly a wondrous, misunderstood building block of life. It is nature’s gasoline: real, honest and pure energy, and when delivered in an easily digestible form, incredibly efficient!
And yet, is there a necessary-for-life substance in our society with which we have a more tortured relationship than sugar? How did we end up in such a BATTLE with something we desperately need to survive? I have some ideas, but as always, the answers to “how” are not as important as the answers to “what now?”
Pounding candy bars and soda pop is a rite of childhood that is born directly from the needs of the body. Kids are growing and they need energy. That’s how horrible/wonderful products of my youth like FunDip or Pixy Sticks became my favorites.
As I grew up, I started taking my alcohol with lots of sugar. Dessert was my favorite meal. Snacks took their toll.
But then something funny happened on the way to the Kombucha Forum. As my Kombucha consumption became more regular, I noticed that my sugar cravings were decreasing. At the same time, the “sour” taste of the Booch dissipated and became more natural to my palate.
These days, my sugar cravings are entirely mental. Once I have dessert in front of me, I rarely eat more than a few bites. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is *strong* and doesn’t want anything to do with that insulin spike. This is one of the greatest Kombucha benefits I have experienced.
That is why misgivings about Kombucha & Sugar are mostly misguided. Without the sugar, there is no fermentation, and without fermentation, there’s no good stuff to feed your body.
So let’s ask Wiki before we get started. Hey Wiki, what’s sugar?
Sugar is a term for a class of edible crystalline carbohydrates, mainly sucrose, lactose, and fructose characterized by a sweet flavor. In food, sugar almost exclusively refers to sucrose, which primarily comes from sugar cane and sugar beet. Other sugars are used in industrial food preparation, but are usually known by more specific names—glucose, fructose or fruit sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.
BONUS FACT: Sugar cane originated in India and the English word for sugar comes via Arabic سكر sukkar from Sanskrit शर्करा sharkara
Okay that sounds about right. Here is a simple Sugar FAQ to settle your nerves once and for all about Kombucha & Sugar:
1. Do I have to use sugar? I never consume sugar so it puts me off Kombucha.
The sugar in Kombucha is for the culture to consume, not for you. When done fermenting, there will be about 2-6 grams per 8 ounce glass of unflavored Kombucha. By contrast, an 8 ounce glass of orange juice has about 24g of sugar. Natural carrot juices have 13g per 8 ounces. If fermented longer, say for 3 weeks or longer, sugar levels in Kombucha may be even lower – Recommended for diabetics and others with low sugar tolerance.
2. Why does Kombucha need so much sugar?
Without sugar, Kombucha cannot ferment. Sucrose is most easy to digest by the yeasts; they consume the sugar and put out CO2 (carbon dioxide, i.e. the bubbles in your booch) & ethanol (alcohol). Which is nice.
BONUS FACT: Then, as part of the symbiosis, the bacteria consume the ethanol and express the healthy amino acids, trace vitamins and minerals.
3. Do I have to add all of the sugar?
Yes. The standard Kombucha recipe is 1 cup of sugar per gallon. Too little and you are inhibiting the brew’s normal healthy development; no SCOBY, no acetic acid. Too much and the yeasts will either a) “flush” and overrun the bacteria, or b) fall completely asleep and do nothing.
4. What type of sugar should I use to brew Kombucha?
This debate can be heated, but it’s really simple. Most sugars are fine for Kombucha (with a few exceptions, see below), but there are preferred choices:
- Plain White Sugar– the Kombucha culture consumes this easiest. Use only “cane sugar” to avoid GMO beet sugar. Concerns about trace toxins in white sugar processing should be considered.
- Evaporated Cane Juice – My personal choice. Cleaner process but slightly more difficult for the Kombucha to consume.
- Brown Sugar – Harder for the Kombucha to break down, it will also change the flavor significantly. Experimental batches only.
- Honey – A wonderful choice but DO NOT USE RAW. The bacteria will disturb the Kombucha SCOBY balance and could brew up a dangerous concoction.
- Agave – Can turn the brew more sour, so use less. Must be combined with another sugar type that contains glucose for the long term health of the culture.
For more details including ratios for how much to use per gallon, check out Types of Sugar to Use for Brewing Kombucha.
BONUS FACT: Evaporated Cane Juice and brown sugar have higher levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. These healthful elements are passed on to the Kombucha drinker.
5. What types of sugar must be avoided when brewing Kombucha?
- Raw Honey – The naturally occurring bacteria will battle the SCOBY for dominance. It sounds bad because it is.
- Stevia – Stevia is a plant sugar and will not ferment.
- Xylitol (and it’s precursor Xylose) – What makes Xylitol great for chewing gum and teeth is that it’s “non-fermentable,” which makes it useless for the booch.
- Lactose – Kombucha is not lacto-fermentable.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup -Must I explain? Your body can’t even break this stuff down.
- Any Artificial Sweetener – I have heard some crazy ideas: Erithritol, Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin?! Someone asked if they can use Mountain Dew as starter. No. No you cannot.
BONUS FACT: High Fructose Corn Syrup caused a higher incidence of obesity and metabolic diseases in rats than sugar (sucrose) in a study done last year by Princeton.
6. Can multiple types of sugar be combined into one Kombucha brew?
Absolutely! Just as with tea blends, sugar blends can add flavor and depth to your brew. Have fun and experiment!
7. Organic? Fair Trade? Do these things matter?
Not to the Kombucha. Only to me. I make these (slightly more expensive) choices for my physical and mental health. However, no one should ever put off brewing Kombucha for fear of expense. Lipton tea bags and plain white sugar will get the job done just fine.
8. What if I forget to add the sugar? Can I add it after without harming the SCOBY?
Yes. If it has only been a few hours to a day, remove the SCOBY, add the sugar to the brew, stir and then return the SCOBY to your vessel. The sugar will be consumed by the yeast eventually, but the process may take a few extra days.
9. The science is confusing. What are fructose, sucrose & glucose?
- Sucrose (C12H22O11) = Regular Table Sugar = Fructose + Glucose
- Fructose (C6H12O6) = Natural Fruit Sugar
- Glucose (C6H12O6) = The most commonly used energy source in the biological world. Also known as dextrose.
Kombucha fermentation breaks down sucrose into fructose and glucose which feed the yeast which feeds the bacteria which feeds you. Awesome!
10. Is there a way to test for how much sugar is left in my brew?
You can try using a hydrometer to measure both sugar and alcohol content. However, it is a complicated process that produces inaccurate readings when dealing with Kombucha. In short, a hydrometer will overestimate both sugar and alcohol readings in the brew, often by double but sometimes more or less. For this reason, it’s difficult to trust.
If you want something a bit easier, you can try an Accuvin residual sugar test.
For homebrewers, we generally do not recommend worrying about specific tests. Instead, we say Trust Your Gut and your tastebuds. The longer you ferment, the lower the sugar, but a little is needed to balance the flavor, so don’t let it go too long.
If it gets really sour, start a SCOBY Hotel with it!
Have any other questions about sugar? Experimented with types and combinations and want to share your knowledge?