You might have heard of kombucha, but do you know what makes it so delicious? If not, no worries — we’ll fill you in on everything you need to know about this fermented drink and the ingredients that make it come alive.
What Is Kombucha?
Kombucha is a drink made by fermenting tea, sugar, and yeast together. The drink saw a recent surge in popularity over the past few years, and more and more people are becoming booch fans. That said, kombucha is more than just a recent trend — in fact, it’s been around for centuries.
The History of Kombucha
Kombucha was first fermented around 220 BCE in ancient China. From there, it spread to other parts of the continent. This was largely thanks to a Korean physician, Dr. Kombu, who brought the fermented drink to Emperor Inyoko of Japan, citing its medicinal properties. The emperor praised the drink, and it soon spread along trade routes to the rest of the world.
Its popularity continued to grow until World War II when tea and sugar shortages limited kombucha production. Luckily, booch was not forgotten after the war and bounced back, eventually leading to its present-day popularity.
If you’ve ever enjoyed kombucha, beer, wine, or even ginger ale, you have fermentation to thank. Fermentation is a process that chemically changes animal or plant matter into another substance.
For fermented foods and drinks, you’ll usually see a carbohydrate like sugar be converted by a decomposer (usually yeast, bacteria, or mold) into alcohol and fizzy carbon dioxide. For kombucha specifically, fermentation is started by a kombucha SCOBY, a rubbery culture of bacteria and yeast added to black or green tea. More deets on the SCOBY below!
The tea, sugar, yeasts, and bacteria in kombucha then ferment anywhere from a week to a month. (Kefir, another probiotic beverage, involves a similar fermentation process but a base of dairy or coconut water instead of tea.)
The yeasts use sugar as their fuel source, eating them away and converting them into a small amount of alcohol. For regular kombucha, the amount is so trivial that you won’t notice the alcohol’s taste or buzz, so anyone can buy it — no I.D. required. For hard kombucha, brewers will ferment their brews for longer to raise the ABV, but we’ll get more into that later.
What Does Kombucha Taste Like?
Kombucha might be made from tea and look like fruit juice, but it has its own unique taste. As a fermented beverage, kombucha has a distinct, tangy taste. It’s somewhat comparable to the flavor qualities of tart frozen yogurt, where the taste falls somewhere between sharp and sweet, but delicious nonetheless.
Kombucha can come in a variety of flavors that complement the natural tang of the drink. Some flavors skew on a more herbal side, like Ginger with a lemon zing and notes of earthy turmeric and oak, while others feature a fruitier side, like Wild Berry, made from a combination of juicy elderberries, goji berries, and raspberries.
Unlike the thin, watery texture of black or green tea, a fizzy texture complements the tangy kombucha taste.
What About Hard Kombucha?
Hard kombucha is pretty much what you think it is — kombucha with a touch more alcohol. However, it’s not like other drinks like hard lemonade, where alcohol is just added to the base liquid. Rather, hard kombucha is made the same way as regular kombucha — through fermentation.
To give it a boozy boost, hard kombucha is fermented for a longer period of time. This gives the yeasts more time to convert the sugars into alcohol, upping the ABV content. Because we’re perfectionists and like to be a little fancy, our hard kombucha undergoes two rounds of fermentation.
The first round is anaerobic, meaning that no oxygen is present during kombucha fermentation. While the kombucha brews at room temperature, the yeasts have a feast and gobble up the organic cane sugar, converting it to alcohol in the process. The second round is aerobic, adding oxygen to the mix. Round two is when our kombucha develops its signature tangy taste.
Fermentation time for kombucha is usually around a week, but our hard kombuchas ferment for anywhere between 18 and 30 days. Since we offer both lower and higher ABV drinks, we have to adjust our fermentation times for the right amount of ABV. Generally, the higher the ABV, the longer the brew ferments.
Making Kombucha: The Ingredients
Tea, sugar, and yeast may be at the core of every kombucha brew, but there’s more to know about kombucha ingredients. The next step is knowing which type of each ingredient is best for a brew and understanding how different ingredients can change the final product.
What Is SCOBY?
There’s another important piece to the kombucha puzzle, and that’s the SCOBY, AKA symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. If you’ve ever seen homemade kombucha, you might recognize the SCOBY as the gooey, pancake-looking thing that sits at the top of a kombucha brew. It’s not just there for show — without the SCOBY, brewing kombucha would result in an ordinary sweetened tea.
We’ve already discussed how the yeast in a batch of kombucha converts sugars to alcohol, but we’ve yet to cover the other half of SCOBY, bacteria. There are many types of bacteria and microorganisms, some of which are harmful to humans. Our kombucha culture only contains “good” bacteria.
The bacteria in the SCOBY metabolizes the alcohol produced by the yeasts and converts it to acetic acid, which gives our own kombucha that signature tangy taste during the second round of fermentation. That acid also produces the layer of cellulose on the top of the brew that looks a bit like a mushroom cap, which is why you might hear kombucha nicknamed “mushroom tea” (even though there are no mushrooms involved).
What Tea Is Best for Kombucha?
A few different teas are commonly used for kombucha, and they all produce different varieties of the same drink.
The most popular tea choice is black tea, which also happens to be our tea of choice, so it has to be great. Black tea has the most flavor of any tea, providing the perfect base for us to amplify with unique botanicals.
We steep our black tea with an adaptogen blend of ginseng, ginger, and turmeric for an extra botanical boost. Like all our ingredients, our black tea is also USDA-certified organic to ensure that our tea contains no harmful pesticides that could damage our sensitive SCOBY.
Aside from black tea, some brewers prefer to use green, oolong, or white teas in their kombucha. Each tea has a slightly different flavor, but none is as rich as black tea. Some brewers might also combine one or more of these teas with black tea or other milder teas for a hybrid flavor in their finished kombucha.
One type of tea kombucha brewers should avoid is herbal tea or tea made from any plant other than the tea plant, like lavender or mint teas. While herbal teas may be soothing and delicious, most are not viable options for booch.
Herbal teas often lack caffeine, which provides helpful nutrients for the SCOBY. Some herbal teas may also contain added sugar or sweeteners for flavoring, especially those that come in teabags. As a result, herbal extracts are better suited for flavoring kombucha than being in the base tea.
Types of Sugar Used in Kombucha
Like all fermented drinks, kombucha relies on a sugar source to kickstart the fermentation process. Wine uses grapes, beer uses wheat or barley, and kombucha typically uses sugarcane or honey.
Kombucha-making requires regular sugar — sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit do not aid in fermentation.
At Flying Embers, we’re not hopping on the honey train. Since honey has its own sweet, distinct flavor, it can sometimes clash with the tangy goodness that we love to showcase with our kombucha. And since honey is made by bees, it’s not a vegan-friendly ingredient. We want everyone to be able to enjoy our booch — and let the bees keep the honey they work so hard to make.
Instead, we opt for organic cane sugar for our kombucha, keeping it all-around clean and vegan-friendly.
How Can You Create Unique Flavors in Kombucha?
One of our favorite parts about kombucha brewing is developing unique flavors that can complement the underlying tangy taste. There are a few different techniques to create something truly sip-worthy.
First, the type of tea used has a huge impact on flavor. As mentioned, black tea will result in the strongest flavor, followed by oolong, green, and white teas.
Kombucha’s sugar content also impacts its flavor profile. The sugar we use during fermentation is completely eaten up by the time our drinks finish fermenting, but some brewers choose to add extra sugar or sweeteners after fermentation.
At Flying Embers, we don’t see the need for adding extra sugar when we can use other ingredients to create tasty flavor combinations. We’re more interested in developing the flavors you love without the sugar you don’t, which is why we rely on plant botanicals, superfruits and adaptogens.
Our Favorite Botanicals, Bitters, and Superfruits for Making Kombucha
The category of botanicals includes herbs, spices, and any other ingredients derived from plant extracts. They can create a variety of flavors, from floral to tropical to spicy. The best part? We can create endless unique flavor combinations.
Each of our flavors uses a distinct blend of botanicals to compose a kaleidoscope of flavor.
For example, our Watermelon Basil hard kombucha takes the familiar flavor of basil but gives it a whole new spin. You might be used to tasting the fresh, almost minty herb in your favorite pesto sauce or sprinkled over a pizza, but we combined it with a summer-favorite fruit, watermelon. We topped it off with just a hint of sea salt, so every sip tastes like you’re sitting along the Italian coast on a warm, balmy day.
Another favorite is our Pineapple Chili hard kombucha. This drink pairs the tropical tastes of bold pineapple with a streak of heat from spiced chili. It’s the perfect substitute for a basic margarita — no mixing required either.
Hard Kombucha: Refreshing and Adventurous
If you’re tired of always bringing the usual beer and wine to the party, why not mix things up with some hard kombucha? On top of using premium, organic ingredients, our hard kombucha is also vegan, gluten-free, and keto-friendly, so grab a can and see for yourself just how delicious this drink can be.