How To Brew Kombucha With No Sugar
First off, no, you can’t brew kombucha with NO sugar.
It’s not possible. But you can reduce the amount if you really feel the need to.
But you may not need to!
Let’s get into the why.
A common concern when it comes to kombucha is its sugar content.
In times gone by when sugar was less prevalent in people’s diets this was probably not an issue, but nowadays where sugar is present in varying quantities in most packaged food and drink products, many people try to ingest as little sugar as possible. Health concerns such as diabetes force one to avoid all sugar, and most people who are trying to lose weight aim to limit their sugar intake.
Unless kombucha has turned to kombucha vinegar, regular kombucha will always contain a certain amount of sugar. The more mature kombucha is the less sugar it will contain. If you are brewing kombucha to a fairly mature level where the dominant flavour is tart rather than sweet, and have no health concerns with regards to sugar, you should be in the clear.
However, many people who prefer their kombucha on the sweet side stop their brew early to prevent it from getting overly tart. This will mean that the sugar levels are higher.
Lastly, some brewers wish to stay away from refined sugar in general and no matter how mature their brews are prefer to brew with a healthy form of sweetening.
While there has been a bit of hype with regards to sugar content, and kombucha DOES always contain sugar, the quantities are not that high. So although it is always good to watch one’s sugar intake and try to make sure that it comes in the healthiest and most nutritious form possible, there isn’t usually a need to freak out over the levels in kombucha, particularly homemade kombucha.
Just to illustrate, before we get into how to reduce the sugar in kombucha and possibly substitute it for a healthier source, here is a comparison of the sugar found in a few different drinks:
24 grams unsweetened apple juice
22 grams soda/cola
12 grams 2% milk
11 grams orange juice
9 grams tomato juice
8 grams 1 whole apple
1 gram 8-ounce glass of PLAIN Kombucha
As you can see, a glass of well-brewed kombucha will contain less sugar than an apple! So keep this in mind and do not beat yourself up if your kombucha does not come out 100% sugar-free. Unless you are drinking plain tea, coffee, or some other no-sugar drink, you are unliklely to drink anything with as little sugar as home-made kombucha.
Is it Possible to Make Kombucha Without Any Type of Sweetening?
Sorry, not possible.
The yeasts in kombucha need a source of sucrose, fructose or glucose to feed on. They convert whatever sugars they can get their hands on into alcohol, which in turns acts as the food source for the bacteria.
Sometimes people ask if it is possible to make kombucha with artificial sweeteners. This is also not possible because just as artificial sweeteners are not a source of calories for you, so too are they not a source of energy for the yeasts.
While you cannot successfully ferment plain tea without any form of sweetening into kombucha, you can change things up a little to allow the minimum amount of sugar to remain in your finished kombucha, and change the source to something more healthy than refined cane sugar.
There’s a number of different types of sugars you can use to flavor kombucha with. We’ve devoted an entire article on messing around with different types of sugar sources during primary fermentation.
How Can I Reduce the Amount of Sugar in My Finished Kombucha?
Let me warn you right here, the only true fire way of eradicating all sucrose, fructose or glucose from your finished kombucha is by allowing it to ferment to the point where it has all been consumed by the yeasts. But there are a few tricks that you can pull to substantially minimise the sugar levels without going full sour.
Tricks to Reduce Sourness of Almost 100% Sugar Free Kombucha
If you wish to make your kombucha 100% sugar-free you will have to allow it to ferment until the sugar has all been eaten up. This can result in some seriously sour kombucha. But, if you are keen on trying this, here are some methods you can use to try and minimize the sourness while still eradicating a lot of sugar.
- Allow your kombucha to ferment at a really low temperature. This will slow everything down, and result in a more rounded sourness once fully mature rather the sharp sourness which comes with a fast and furious ferment.
- Try to reduce the sugar in the sweet tea. This is a tricky area, as if you reduce the sugar too much the yeasts and bacteria will not be able to carry out fermentation properly. This will then result in a brew which actually has MORE sugar! However, if you take things slow, and just adjust it batch for batch, you might find that you can strike a happy balance.
- Do a long first ferment. Fermenting your kombucha longer means it will become less sweet and more tart. Be careful though as leaving the booch fermenting too long will give you a sour flavor. Wait long enough and you end up with Kombucha vinegar — good on salads, but too sour to drink!
- Do a long second ferment. Second ferments are milder and generally slower in pace than primary ferments. By doing a regular primary ferment, and then a super long secondary ferment (up to 3 weeks) you can arrive at a kombucha which has little or no sugar left in it but does not have as sharp a sourness as kombucha would usually have if left to ferment for so long. We recommend this over doing a super long first ferment!
- Use corn syrup instead of sugar. Corn syrup (NOT High fructose corn syrup – HFC) contains mostly glucose. The SCOBY usually feeds mainly on glucose and any fructose which is not direly required will be left over in the brew. By using a sweetener which is mostly glucose you can end up with less fructose left in your kombucha.
Kombucha which has been left to ferment until all of the sugar is out can be pretty mouth puckering! So we would advise that if you need to eradicate all sugar in your kombucha due to health issues, then the best method would be to fully ferment until no sugar remains (you can use a hydrometer to test this). and then dilute it with water or some cooled herbal tea. This way you will get its benefits, not have such a sour drink to swallow, and still not ingest any sugar
If you do not have any health complaints which require you to follow a 100% sugar free diet, but you wish to avoid sugar for general health reasons, then we would recommend that you switch to a healthier and better quality from of sweetening for your kombucha, and combine it with modified brewing strategies to minimise residual sugar levels within your finished kombucha.
Please also read our ‘how to brew kombucha with less sugar‘ for more tips on reducing sugar content in your Kombucha.
How Can I Replace Cane Sugar With a Healthier Form of Sweetening?
The best place to start when looking to avoid residual levels of cane sugar in your kombucha is to change to a healthier form of sweetening.
There are quite a few alternatives.
However you must take the health of your SCOBY into consideration with some of them. Most kombucha SCOBYs are adapted to living on refined cane sugar. It is super easy for them to process and does not contain any substances which could harm them. However, there are ways to keep your SCOBY healthy, regardless of what kind of sweetening you are using. So! Let’s take a look at some different healthy alternatives to cane sugar for your kombucha.
Honey is an obvious choice for making kombucha with. It is relatively easy for the SCOBY to adapt to, has a mild and lovely flavour, and is not too complicated to process which means that fermentation can go on as per usual with no hold ups. If you are sold on using honey for your kombucha, you might want to look at making Jun Tea instead, as the Jun SCOBY is already adapted to feeding off of honey, and will not need any special care to keep it healthy. If however you want to stick to kombucha, that is fine and totally possible. If you brew with honey for long enough you might even find that your SCOBY adapts to it. Check out our post How to Brew Kombucha With Honey for detailed guidelines on brewing kombucha with honey.
Agave nectar has become very popular these days as a healthy form of sweetening. You can use it with success for kombucha brewing as well. Have a look at our post How to Brew Kombucha With Agave Nectar for detailed guidelines on using it in your kombucha.
Maple syrup can yield up some really lovely kombucha! It is also extremely healthy. Kombucha SCOBYs do fairly well on maple syrup. Check out How to Brew Kombucha With Maple Syrup for guidelines on using it for your kombucha making.
Fruit & Fruit Juice
Fruit and fruit juice is another alternative when it comes to making kombucha without using cane sugar. The easiest option is probably fruit juice, as the sugar is easily available to the SCOBY. However you can also make a sort of a fruit mash, or merely cut it into very fine pieces. Read How to Brew Kombucha With Fruit Instead of Sugar for full guidelines.
Coconut sugar is yet another healthy alternative to cane sugar which is available these days. You can use it in brewing your kombucha successfully, and the SCOBY should do fine as long as you care for it well.
Note that not all sweeteners are not the exact same strength as that of cane sugar. Honey, for example, is sweeter than sugar, and so you can use less when incorporating into your kombucha brew. In each set of guidelines for the different types of sugar there is a chart at the bottom of the post detailing what quantities one should use in relation to sugar. We’ve also included it here too below so refer to it when setting up your recipe.
Kombucha Sweetner GuideThe complete tabulated guide to flavoring Kombucha through sugar replacement...and the effects of each sweeter on the brewing process. For more information about the types of sugar and Kombucha brewing, please read our Types of Sugar to Use for Brewing Kombucha article.
|Sugar Type||Brewing Time||Amount to Use||Effect on Flavor|
|White Sugar||Temperature dependant – the average brewing time for white sugar kombucha is 7 to 10 days||1 cup to 1 gallon of tea.||White sugar results in regular tasting kombucha, and steady fermentation results. Good levels of carbonation etc.|
|Honey||Shorter than white sugar, apt to sour quickly – 5 to 8 days.||7/8 of a cup to every 1 cup of pure cane sugar.||Can produce light bubbly ferments which carry the flavor of the honey used – citrus, almond, etc.|
|Molasses||Usually longer than white sugar – 7 to 14 days.||Same as that of regular refined sugar: 1 cup to 1 gallon of tea.||Can produce a strong tasting and sometimes slightly bitter brew. The overall taste: malt.|
|Raw Forms of Cane Sugar||Usually longer than white sugar – 7 to 14 days.||Same as that of regular refined sugar: 1 cup to one 1 of tea.||Raw forms of cane sugar can add in a richer flavor profile, but not as intense as that of molasses|
|Evaporated Cane Juice||Very similar to ordinary processed sugar.||Same as that of regular refined sugar: 1 cup to 1 gallon of tea.||Good choice for great tasting ferments and good SCOBY Health|
|Maple Syrup||Similar to that of white sugar – 5 to 8 days||1/2 - 2/3 of a cup to every 1 cup of pure cane sugar.||The taste is – you guessed it! Yummy maple syrup.|
|Agave Syrup||Shorter to that of white sugar – 5 to 7 days||2/3 of a cup to every 1 cup of pure cane sugar.||Can give really nice flavors that hint of caramel|
|Raw Sugar Cane Juice||Slightly longer than that of white sugar - 7 to 10 days||Recommended: Mix with 25% of sugar usually used.||Neutral, similar to regular sugar. Mostly unprocessed and a healthier source of sugar.|
|Coconut water||Often quite a bit shorter than white sugar - 5 to 8 days.||When fermenting coconut water, the naturally occurring sugar acts as the sugar source. You can also aid the fermentation by mixing in 25% of usual amount of sugar.||Coconut water flavored kombucha which has fermented successfully can be a beautifully light and refreshing ferment.|
|Raw Fruit (pureed or diced)||Shorter - 5 days usually.||Fruit replaces the sugar. Use about 1 cup of fruit in lieu of the 1 cup of sugar.||Completely changes the flavor, giving it a strong, fruity flavor with a hint of a fermented bite. This is a good experiment for those who want to try a completely 'natural' combucha|
|Fruit Juice (freshly juiced, store bought, concentrate)||Shorter - 5 to 7 days||The juice replaces the sugar & tea OR is blended with existing tea, but replaces the sugar. Use 1 cup of raw or store-bought fruit juice per 1 cup of sugar. If concentrate, use 50%. Make sure you use double the starter and / or stronger started from a SCOBY hotel.||You get something like a second fermented, but a deeper version due to the longer fermentation time. The flavor will vary depending on the type of juice you use and if you completely replace the tea with the juice or blend the juice. If the later, you get a fruity tasting Kombucha. If the former, you get a fermented fruit juice drink that does NOT taste like Kombucha.|
How to Care For Your SCOBY When Brewing With Sugar Substitutes
If you are going to be using a healthier source of sugar for brewing your kombucha, then you will need to look after your SCOBY a bit by giving it breaks in its accustomed cane sugar and tea solution. This way it if it has struggled with the new form of sugar and has not been feeding properly, it has a chance to resuscitate.
If you would like to be making kombucha continually, without having to wait for the SCOBY to rest in its sugar tea, then what you can do is have two SCOBYs which you swop out. This way you will have one in the kombucha you are making, and one in recovery in a sweet tea solution with cane sugar.
You might find that after some time your SCOBY becomes adapted to the new source of sugar in which case it might not be necessary to implement the recovery times in tea. However in the beginning it is important to give the SCOBY breaks and a dose of its preferred sugar source. Once a few brews have passed, you can start letting the SCOBY do more than one batch of kombucha with the new sugar form. Keep tabs on it, if it starts to look unhealthy then switch it out for a “vacation”.
Brewing kombucha with healthier forms of sweetening not only reduces your consumption of refined cane sugar, with all of its health hazards, but it also brings in additional nutrients to your kombucha. Most of the healthy sugar substitutes are considered super foods, so incorporating them into your kombucha means that you will be getting extra vitamins and minerals.
For some, it is imperative that they reduce their refined sugar intake, and for others it is merely a natural choice on the path to staying healthy. Whichever way it is, it is definitely possible to reduce the amount of sugar within kombucha, and change to a type of sugar which is healthier and less processed.
On another note, reducing one’s support of the cane sugar industry is a positive thing. Sugar cane planting is a major cause of deforestation, erosion etc. Industries like beekeeping and maple syrup plantations are often more sustainable and earth friendly.
Lastly, before we leave you, remember that kombucha, particularly the homemade varieties, is not a high sugar drink, especially if properly fermented. So if there is a little residual sugar in you brew, don’t freak it, it is probably less that what is in a piece of fruit.