Kombucha Series Part 2 - Choosing Tea

In case you missed Part 1 about making your own SCOBY from scratch, check it out here.

Let’s move right along with dissecting the art of kombucha making by getting to the very essence of what it is all about – tea.  Kombucha is fermented tea, of course, so without it we have a whole lot of nothing.

There are approximately a million and one teas on the market (scientific counting method!) and the range in quality from artisan fancypants teas that bloom a flower in your cup to disgusting little paper bags of tea dust that was swept up off the floor of a teabag factory.  There are teas that make you sleepy, pep you up, settle an upset stomach, and one that are supposed to make you do a number 2.  It is almost overwhelming how many teas there are in the average supermarket aisle.

Teas

What Is Tea?

When you break it down there are only a few kinds and styles of tea.  True tea comes from the leaves and buds of the plant, camellia sinensis. Without getting too complicated or too scientific or muddy the waters with details that aren’t essential to kombucha making, there are four types of camellia sinensis and they come from different regions of the world.  Do not worry about these finer details, however.  For the purposes of casual kombucha making we’re just going to talk about camellia sinensis in a general way and leave it at that.

Ok, so camellia sinensis is the actual true tea that you think of when you think of tea as a beverage.  Generally speaking, after the leaves and buds are harvested from the plant, they are dried and oxidized and possibly subjected to a whole host of physical treatments in order to bring out the certain flavors. This one kind of leaf goes through different processes depending on what the desired outcome is.  Look at this table to see the different ways leaves are handled to produce various types of tea:

Teaprocessing.svg(Courtesy of Wikipedia, click to enlarge)

Let’s focus on the most common types of tea; the ones you are most likely to find in your local market or from your favorite tea purveyor.

Types of Tea

  • Black tea -Black tea is the most common type of tea produced in the world.  It is what is found in the most common and most inexpensive teabags that are widely available in every restaurant and supermarket in the western hemisphere.  As you can tell from the table above, black and oolong teas are the most “processed of all the teas because they go through the most handling before they are finished. Black teas are the most popular choice for kombucha making.  It offers a nice flavor and is widely available.
  • Green tea – Another popular tea and often touted for its health benefits, green tea is still made from camellia sinensis, but once the leaves are picked it goes through a vastly different series of processes than its black tea cousin does.  Green tea tends to be a bit milder in flavor and have grassy notes whereas black tea can be almost woody, fruity or even smoky.  Green tea makes excellent kombucha and personally speaking it is my tea of choice when I brew my ‘buch.
  • Oolong tea – This is a compromise tea between black and green.  It is processed in much the same way as black tea, but the oxidation session is not as long.  The tea’s flavor profile sits between fresh/grassy/light and woody/robust/strong.  Oolong teas can be found in supermarkets, however, they are overshadowed by the overwhelming number of black and green varieties.  Kombucha made from oolong tea is terrific.
  • White tea – While still coming from camellia sinensis and still subjected to a few processes before it is ready for brewing, white tea is made from immature leaves and buds.  If you are brewing white tea to drink hot or iced, it is a fantastic light tea.  For kombucha making, however, it is not the strongest choice.  There are chemical compounds that are present in mature tea leaves that are needed to successfully brew kombucha.  Because white tea has not fully matured, it is a bit more difficult to make a batch of ‘buch with it.
  • Rooibos tea – The one exception to the rule!  Technically rooibos (pronounced ROY-bus) tea is a type of herbal tea and is not made from our friend camellia sinensis, but rather made from aspalathus linearis, which is native to South Africa.  Rooibos teas are generally sweet and grassy or sometimes smoky and naturally caffeine free.  Also commonly known as red tea, rooibos teas make really good kombucha especially for those wanting to avoid caffeine.
  • Herbal tea – While extremely delicious and flavorful, herbal teas are not really teas (that is, they often do not contain any measure of camellia sinensis) and therefore cannot be brewed into kombucha.  Sometimes called “herbal infusions” because technically they don’t contain any tea, this type of tea simply does not have the stuff needed to make kombucha. There are some herbal teas on the market that are blends of herbs AND genuine tea leaves, but they just aren’t quite strong enough to ferment properly.  If you are looking to flavor your tea with herbs, I recommend doing so after the kombucha has fermented (this will be covered in future posts!)
  • Flavored tea –  This type of tea is not recommended at all for kombucha making.  While flavored teas are typically black, green, rooibos, or oolong teas, teh artificial agents used to give the tea a specific fruity or herby flavor can interfere with SCOBY growth and development.  There are kombucha-friendly teas commercially available that contain dried fruit and herbal extract, and these can make wonderful ferments, but if a tea is merely coated in artificial flavorings, steer clear.

IMG_6827

Ok, so now you’ve settled on a black tea, green tea, oolong tea, or rooibos tea.  Now what?

Details

  • Organic or Conventional – Because you are cultivating a living, growing creature during your ferment (your SCOBY), you want to make sure that you are giving it the best, most optimal environment in which to grow.  This is why I choose to use organic teas when I make kombucha.  There is no telling what in the world is sprayed on to your leaves while they are still in the field, and because they go through some heavy processing to become brewable you want to make certain that the whole system is as natural and as clean as can be.  Spend the extra money and get organic tea.  Your SCOBY will thank you for it, and you will have a better final product when you’re sipping your ‘buch at the end of the process.  Verdict: organic all the way.
  • Tea bags or loose tea – There are many reputable companies out there that sell top-quality teas in teabags.  It would be incorrect to say that you cannot find a decent tea in a teabag.  It simply isn’t so.  However, it is really very easy for a tea purveyor to hide tea dust poor quality tea inside a bag.  Caveat emptor! Teabags do not equal bad tea, but you have to do your due diligence and find out if you are getting a good product.  Rip open a bag and see what the leaves look like.  Do they actually look like leaves or are they shards of leaves and dust?  Remember, tea comes from a plant and it ought to look similar to its original form.
    Obviously loose teas cannot hide in a bag and you can very easily see, smell, taste, and feel what you are buying.  Their only drawback is figuring out how to brew a large quantity (a gallon or more) of loose tea, but we’ll get to that in a future post.  Verdict: It depends.  Good kombucha is made from good products so if you find a quality bagged tea, use it.  Loose teas are often less expensive per pound, plus their quality is readily visible.  What really matters is that you are using the best tea you can afford whether it comes in a bag or not.

IMG_6669

  • And now here is the part where I will go against everything I just said – Yes, you can buy inexpensive store brand teabags full of cheap tea and make kombucha out of it.  It will work and the tea will ferment.  It might even taste just fine.  However, I strongly encourage you to go for quality on this.  Get the finest tea your budget will allow because the quality of what you are making hinges upon it.  Sub-par ingredients yield a sub-par final product.  Quality matters.

Where to Buy?

  • Supermarket or co-op – Your local market probably has an enormous tea section.  Most places do.  If you belong to a food co-op you may even have a section where loose teas are sold in bulk.  Before buying anything, be sure your choice contains camellia sinensis, or it isn’t tea and won’t ferment into kombucha.  (Unless it’s rooibos, but see above for that exception.)
  • Asian or Indian markets – Because tea is widely grown in China, India, and Japan (among many other areas), some really unique and delicious teas are available at Asian or Indian markets.
  • A coffee and tea specialty shop – If you happen to live in a larger metropolitan area, then chances are you have a gourmet coffee and tea purveyor nearby.  You will find teas imported from all over the world in shops like this (often sold in bulk), and if you get to know the owners and buyers for these places, you can get some serious education about their coffees and teas.  Plus they’re often locally owned so not only will you get some terrific tea, but you’ll support your neighbors too.  Win-win.
  • The Internet – Research, research, research.  And then buy teas online.  Be sure you are getting what you pay for.

The Take Home

In a quick little nutshell, here is what you need to know about tea selection for kombucha making:

  • Viable tea candidates – black, green, oolong, rooibos
  • Buy organic
  • Loose or teabags, but be sure what you are buying is top-quality tea
  • Available nearly anywhere – mainstream supermarkets, food co-ops, Asian or Indian markets, coffee/tea purveyors, online

Please let me know if you have any questions, problems, or concerns.  I want to hear from you!  Email me, contact me via Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below.  And heck you can even find me on Instagram.  Tell me about what you have been using to brew your kombucha, or what you would like to try.
And don’t forget that these kombucha posts will be a weekly occurrence for a while so if you have issues, questions, or topic suggestion for future weeks, tell me in the comments or through one of my aforementioned social media outlets.

9 Comments

  1. COOOOOT
    April 30, 2013 7:11 pm

    Your treatise on tea types & preps is very good, educational, and enlightening…Good one!

  2. ED B
    May 10, 2013 11:05 am

    have you ever used Yerba Mate for kombucha? i think I will try it…once my scoby is ready…

  3. Pingback: Kombucha Series Part 6 - Troubleshooting (Plus a GIVEAWAY!) | First Comes Health

  4. Paul
    April 13, 2014 2:49 pm

    Hello, I was wondering how much loose oolong tea I should use per gallon for the kombucha? Thank you.

  5. Jesse
    September 20, 2014 8:29 pm

    When you use rooibos tea, does it take the same (7 day) fermenting time?

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