We talked about how to make kombucha tea along with the basic ingredients include tea, sugar, water, starter tea, and the SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). One thing we didn’t cover, however, is which type of tea is best. Black and green are the most commonly used types, but you may wonder why. Is there something about these teas that make them ideal for kombucha, or can you use other types too?
Indeed, there are specific characteristics your tea must have to be able to make good kombucha.
What Is Considered True Tea?
First, it’s important to be sure we’re all talking about the same thing when we talk about tea. You may think that tea is any beverage made by pouring boiling water over leaves or small bags of leaves, and that’s true with one caveat: There is a difference between “true tea” and herbal tea.
After water, true tea is the most commonly consumed drink in the world. Research published in 2019 indicated that people have been consuming brewed tea for almost 4,000 years. Its health benefits include reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases; reducing cavities and boosting oral health; and helping to maintain a healthy body weight.
The tea the researchers are talking about is made from the Camellia sinensis plant. The leaves of the so-called tea plant are brewed to make a small number of differently flavored teas, including the following:
- Black tea
- Oolong tea
- Green tea
- White tea
All of these teas come from the same plant, but they are distinct due to the process used to make each one. Green and white teas are not “oxidized” and are simply allowed to dry after harvesting. Black tea is fully oxidized and oolong tea is partially oxidized.
What is the Oxidation Process?
Oxidation is a process through which the tea leaves are exposed to the oxygen in the air until they dry and darken. That’s why black and oolong teas appear darker than green or white.
The leaves are crushed, rolled, or tumbled, putting pressure on them and allowing greater exposure to air on all parts of the leaves. Once they are oxidized to the desired level, they’re then exposed to heat to stop the oxidation and finalize the process.
The differences among these teas are determined by the variety of the plant, the harvesting time, and mostly, the amount of oxidation used.
- Black tea: These are fully oxidized—the highest level of oxidation of any—and have a dark, rich flavor that’s high in caffeine.
- Oolong tea: These are partially oxidized. Depending on the level of oxidation, they come in a variety of flavors that land somewhere between black and green tea, with the lighter ones more similar to green tea and the darker ones more similar to black.
- Green tea: These are largely unoxidized, resulting in a lighter, more mellow cup of tea.
- White tea: White tea is made of baby tea leaves and is minimally processed, so it may undergo a slight amount of oxidation. After harvesting, it undergoes natural drying, so it is often considered one of the most natural teas. It has a delicate flavor and is typically low in caffeine.
What’s the Difference Between True Tea and Herbal Tea?
There are several differences between true tea and herbal tea. Herbal teas, for one, do not come from this same Camellia sinensis plant and thus are not considered true teas. They come from dried fruits and herbs and are infused with hot water. Examples of these teas include rooibos, chamomile, mint, and ginger. These teas have health benefits too, but they are fundamentally different from true tea.
Herbal teas differ in how they are made as well. Whereas true tea is carefully processed to produce the right level of oxidation and flavor, the ingredients in herbal teas are simply dried and then packaged.
Other differences between true tea and herbal tea include:
- Caffeine content: True teas all contain caffeine, though at different levels. Most herbal teas do not have caffeine, though mate tea is one exception.
- Antioxidant content: True teas are a consistent and rich source of health-promoting antioxidants. They are high in polyphenolic compounds like epicatechins, catechins, and more. Many herbal teas have antioxidants too, but the level and type of antioxidants are more varied than it is with true tea. It depends on the herb used and the amount in each drink.
- Varieties: True teas come in only the four varieties listed above. Herbal teas come in a wide variety of options and combinations.
- Purpose: Though we consume both types of teas these days for pleasure, true tea has a history of being enjoyed and savored for pleasure, whereas herbal teas were historically used for medicinal reasons.
Is Green or Black Tea Best for Kombucha?
Now that we know a bit more about the various types of tea, which one is best for making kombucha?
For the strongest, healthiest kombucha, you want to be sure to use only true tea without any flavorings or essences added to them. The nutrients in these teas—including the polyphenolic compounds, purines, caffeine, and others—help the SCOBY thrive. The yeast and the bacteria consume these compounds to turn the tea into kombucha.
Since black tea has the most of these compounds, it is often the best option when making kombucha, particularly for beginners. It’s also heartier than other teas, so it can handle long steeping times without getting too bitter.
Until you become a pro, stick to black tea for the best results. As you become more experienced, you can experiment with the other flavors if you prefer a milder kombucha. It’s also fine to combine different types, as long as they’re all true teas.
Is it Best to Use Loose Leaves or Tea Bags?
Many kombucha experts prefer loose leaf tea because the quality is often better and they’re more environmentally friendly (no need to waste paper, staples, etc.). Many quality teas come in bags as well, however, so use what you like best.
Which Tea Should You Not Use for Kombucha?
In general, herbal teas don’t work as well as true teas for making kombucha. They don’t have the compounds needed for proper fermentation, so it’s best to avoid them.
There are some exceptions to the rule:
- Rooibos tea: This red tea made from the leaves of a South African shrub can be combined with at least 25 percent black tea for a nice earthy flavor combination.
- Hibiscus tea: Made from the dried flowers of the hibiscus plant, this tea produces a tart, floral flavor and can be used on its own or in combination with a true tea.
- Yerba mate: This tea in combination with green or black may produce a nice flavor blend.
In addition to herbal teas, stay away from those with extra flavors and other ingredients. The extras can react with the kombucha and cause your fermentation to go bad. Examples include the following:
- Earl Grey: It has added bergamot oil. Not good.
- Chai: It has added spices that will mess up your fermentation.
- Any tea with oils: Any tea that contains natural oils can interfere with the SCOBY’s ability to ferment correctly.
While you can use various types of tea to make kombucha, black tea is usually the best for beginners who are just starting to learn to make kombucha tea. If you’d like to experiment with other options, consider buying several varieties of commercially produced kombucha tea to find the flavors you enjoy most, then try to replicate the flavors using different types of tea.