How to Brew Kombucha with Piloncillo Sugar
Piloncillo is a great raw sugar option to use in your kombucha. Although brewing with piloncillo falls into the experimental category of kombucha making - it is definitely do-able. In this guide we take you through the step by step process recommended for switching your SCOBY over to piloncillo sugar.
As the next installment in our series on how to use raw sugars in your kombucha, today we are going go through how to brew kombucha with piloncillo sugar.
What is Pilconcillo Sugar?
Piloncillo sugar is a raw form of sugar common to Mexico and surrounding regions. It is minimally processed, and contains high molasses levels in comparison to refined sugars. Piloncillo usually comes in cone shaped solid blocks. It is relatively inexpensive in some places, especially when compared to other forms of raw sugar such as jaggery, muscovado, and sucanat.
What Does Kombucha Made With Piloncillo Sugar Taste Like?
Because piloncillo sugar has a high molasses content, this will come through into the taste of your kombucha if you brew with it. This can create pleasant, caramel like tones. However, if you do not like the taste of molasses, you might not find these enjoyable. If you are averse to molasses flavors, then it might be a good idea to rather consider brewing your kombucha with a raw sugar which has a lower molasses content, such as turbinado sugar.
Is it Difficult to Brew Kombucha With Piloncillo Sugar?
Brewing with most raw sugars is considered to be what kombucha makers term ‘experimental brewing’. This means that results are not guaranteed, and your brews could go through some fermentation hiccups. This does not however mean that one cannot brew kombucha with raw sugars like piloncillo. Especially if you make the change to piloncillo slowly and gradually.
SCOBYs Take Time to Adjust to Raw Sugars
The reason why raw sugars like piloncillo fall into the experimental category of brewing, when used in kombucha making, is because of it’s low level of refinement. Most SCOBYs are adapted to feed of off and ferment completely refined white sugar. Refined white sugar is comprised of 100% sucrose, which SCOBYs find very easy to break down.
Raw sugars on the other hand are more complex in form, and therefore are a little more difficult for the SCOBY to work with. Because of the molasses levels present, raw sugars also contain amounts of certain minerals. Exposure to minerals over extended periods of time can in some instances cause damage to SCOBYs. This is another factor which can make brewing kombucha with raw sugars like piloncillo tricky.
However all this does not in any way mean that it is impossible to brew kombucha with raw sugars, it just means you need to take things slowly, and keep some spare SCOBYs as backups in case anything goes wrong.
If you are interested in brewing your kombucha with a raw and minimally processed sugar, there are quite a few benefits associated with it that can make any hassles in changing over worthwhile. Let’s take a look at the benefits of raw sugar and why one might want to brew with it.
Benefits of Piloncillo Sugar
Most people who get into brewing kombucha do so in part for its health benefits. Therefore, new brewers are often put off by the quantities of refined white sugar that standard kombucha recipes call for! Fortunately for those who are brewing with white sugar, not all of this sugar remains in the finished kombucha. In fact, if you leave your kombucha to ferment for long enough, a large portion of the sugar is eaten up and converted to beneficial natural acids.
However, unless you want your kombucha to be as sour as vinegar – there will always be levels of residual sugar left over in your finished brews. And it will be empty calories, pure sucrose that brought nothing with it nutritionally speaking to the brew of kombucha.
Raw sugars like piloncillo sugar however not only have levels of minerals present, but also carry a set of health benefits. Let’s take a look:
Mineral Content of Piloncillo Sugar
The exact amount of minerals found in piloncillo sugar will depend on how much molasses is left in it. the darker the piloncillo cones, the more molasses is present. While we cannot make a blanket statement on the exact amounts present (these can vary based on molasses content), piloncillo sugar is shown to contain levels of:
Some of the minerals in raw sugar are found in very low concentrations. This has led many to say that raw sugar is a worthless source of minerals. However, it is important to note that the mineral composition of sugar is balanced in such as way as to promote the uptake of the minerals present. Trace amounts of minerals might be more important than we think!
Other Proven Benefits of Raw Sugars Like Piloncillo
The health benefits of raw sugars like piloncillo do not however lie in their mineral content alone. Raw sugars have been the subject of research for some time, and science has revealed some interesting benefits.
- Pain alleviant (1)
- Liver protective (2)
- Blood sugar stabilizing (3)
- Diuretic activity (beneficial for high blood pressure) (4, 5)
- Promotes the release of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) (6)
- Anti-inflammatory effects (7)
- Cholesterol lowering (8)
- Protective against thrombosis and blood clots (9, 10)
- Contains probiotic microbes that enhance healthy gut health (11)
- Antioxidant effects (12, 13)
- Anticariogenic effects or anti-cancer effects (14)
This list of health benefits revealed by studies was compiled by Donald R. Yance, Jr., CN, MH and a full article by him detailing the health benefits of raw sugar can be found here. For those of you interested in the studies, I have tracked down the ones I can find online – and they are linked here and at the bottom of this post.
As you can see, the benefits of using a raw sugar like piloncillo are extensive when compared to white sugar, which is simply empty calories, and starting to be considered poisonous to the human body. So let’s get into how to start using it in your kombucha!
How to Start Using Piloncillo Sugar in Your Kombucha
When switching over to using a raw sugar like piloncillo, the recommended method is to do it slowly and gradually by degrees. This means that you will be substituting in piloncillo sugar by increments with every new batch of kombucha that you make. After a dozen or so cycles, you will reach the point where you are brewing with only piloncillo sugar, and all of the regular sugar will have been swapped out.
The reason why this is the recommended method for switching over is because it lessens the chance of brewing trouble. This is because the SCOBY will be given the chance to adapt itself to the more complex sugars, while still having access to a certain amount of the refined sugar that it is used to.
If you do not have patience for this, you can also simply switch the sugar in one brew and see how your kombucha does. Some SCOBYs might handle this fine, and continue to brew without skipping a beat. However for best results the first method is probably the safest.
There are two thing which we need to do before beginning to switch out sugar. And these are..
Backup Your SCOBYs in a SCOBY Hotel
Before you begin the switch over to brewing with piloncillo sugar, there is one thing you need to do, and that is to backup your SCOBYs! When doing experimental brewing, it is important to keep some SCOBYs safely on the side. This means that if anything happens to the SCOBY which you are brewing with, you will have extra spares. If you do not do this, it can mean the repurchasing of a culture all over again. That in turn comes with its own hurdles, such as reviving the SCOBY if it is in a dormant state from storage and travel.
So, how do we backup our SCOBYs? By making a SCOBY hotel!
How to Make a SCOBY Hotel
To make a SCOBY hotel, you need to select a suitable sized glass jar with a lid. Fill the jar with sweet tea and starter liquid, the same as if you would be making a regular batch of kombucha. Place your spare SCOBYs into this and cover with a cloth. After a week you can screw on the cap if you like.
To this hotel you will need to add sugar or fresh tea every 4-6 weeks.
This is just a basic run through, before setting up a SCOBY hotel, please do have a look at our two detailed guides:
Once you have set up your SCOBY hotel, it is time to rock and roll with your first piloncillo brew.
How to Gradually Introduce Your SCOBY to Piloncillo Sugar
Once you have made your SCOBY hotel, it is time to start brewing with your piloncillo sugar. Below is the slow change over method, outlined step by step. After a few brews you will end up with a batch of kombucha made with 100% piloncillo sugar.
How to Measure out Your Piloncillo Sugar:
The conversion ratio between white processed sugar and piloncillo sugar is 1:1. Because piloncillo sugar is not in the same crystal type form that your white sugar is in, you should measure them out by weight rather than by volume.
Before we get started with the switch over steps, a quick note on melting / incorporating the piloncillo sugar into the tea for your kombucha. Piloncillo sugar comes in solid cone shapes. A common way to get it into a fine form for use in tea or coffee is to grate it. If piloncillo cones have not been left exposed to air for too long, they respond well to grating.
However in the case of making the tea for your kombucha it is not necessary to go to the effort of grating up the cones. The reason for this is because even though the cones are hard, once they come into contact with the tea they will soften and dissolve.
So all you need to do is weigh out enough piloncillo for your needs, and place this directly into the boiling hot water which you are going to make your tea out of. You may find that you need to use a knife to shave off pieces of an additional cone in order to get exactly the right weight of piloncillo sugar. If you do this, make sure that you use a strong knife.
What to do if Your Piloncillo Sugar Cones are too Hard to Cut
If your cones have been exposed to air for long periods of time they may have dried out to the point where they are too hard to cut, grate or break. If this is the case, you can soften them overnight by placing them under a damp tea towel. You can also place them into the oven at a very ,very low temp for a few minutes and see if they soften somewhat.
To avoid hardening, it is best to always store your piloncillo cones in an airtight container.
Step 1: Mix Piloncillo Sugar and White Sugar
For your first batch in the process of introducing your SCOBY to piloncillo sugar, swop out a small portion of the regular white sugar that you use with some of the piloncillo sugar you want to switch to. The amount to swop out will depend on the batch size of kombucha which you are making.
How to Mix the Piloncillo and the White Sugar
First up, analyze what size batch you are making. Here are some examples to give you an idea.
Small Batch:1/2 gallon (uses ½ cup of sugar) – swop in piloncillo sugar in 15 gram (1/16 of a cup) increments (will take 8 brewing cycles to switch)
Medium Batch: 1 gallon (uses 1 cup of sugar) – swop in piloncillo sugar in 25 gram (1/8 cup) increments (will take 8 brewing cycles to switch)
Larger Batch: 3 gallons (uses 3 cups of sugar) – swop in piloncillo sugar in 50 gram (1/4 cup) increments (will take 12 brewing cycles to switch)
If your brews fall in between any of these volumes listed above, you can simply use this formula:
Calculate what is 13 % of the total sugar that your batch size calls for. Substitute in this amount of piloncillo.
Step 2: Increase the Ratio of Piloncillo to White Sugar Each Cycle
Every cycle, increase the ratio of piloncillo sugar to white sugar by 1 X. So in the second batch you will double the piloncillo sugar amount, while accordingly decreasing the white sugar. In the third bath, triple the piloncillo sugar amount, while accordingly decreasing the white sugar. You get the idea.
If all goes well, then by between batches 8 or 12, you will have changed over to full time brewing with 100% piloncillo sugar.
This slow method of switching over to brewing with piloncillo sugar is the best way to make the change over, if you are wanting to brew with piloncillo sugar indefinitely.
If however you just want to try it out for one or two brews to see what the taste is like, or for novelty then you might rather try the immediate switch. You can also try an an immediate switch if you just do not have the patience for a long change over process.
Switching Immediately to Piloncillo Sugar
As said above, if you just want to try out a batch of booch made with piloncillo sugar, and do not want to start a long and gentle change over process, then you simply make a batch of kombucha with all piloncillo sugar. Leave out the white sugar completely, and use the same amount of piloncillo sugar as you usually use of white sugar.
This method might work fine. If your SCOBY is tough and just raging to brew anything, then you will probably get a tasty batch of booch after fermentation. However this is not guaranteed, and this kind of fast swop heightens chances of stalls in fermentation, and pathogens like mold.
The reason for this is because if the SCOBY struggles too much to convert the more complex sugar from the piloncillo cones, everything can grind to a halt – and if fermentation is not going on there is a chance that your brew can spoil if left long enough.
What to Expect When Brewing with Piloncillo Sugar
Longer, Slower Ferments
Using raw sugar like piloncillo sugar in kombucha brews tends to result in longer and slower ferments. This is not a problem, in fact it is usually a good thing. Longer and slower ferments are more complex in taste and makeup that fast ones that are ‘immaturely mature’.
Possible Stalls in Fermentation
However do keep an eye on the fermentation time, in case your brews are going through stalls in fermentation. As mentioned above, if fermentation stops completely, there is a chance that your brew might go off if left long enough. Indications of a brew which has gone off and succumbed to pathogens are things like off smells and mold spots on the SCOBY. If you encounter either of these, you need to throw out the whole batch of kombucha, SCOBY and all.
You May Need to Swop Out Your Brewing SCOBYs More Regularly
When brewing kombucha with piloncillo sugar on a long term basis, you may find that you will need swop out your brewing SCOBY for a fresh one more often than when brewing using white sugar. The reason for this is that minerals present in piloncillo sugar can cause slight damage to SCOBYs and this in turn will cause them to lose vitality quicker.
As you are brewing your kombucha, if all is going well then there will be new baby SCOBYs forming all the time in your brew. You can either keep these in the brewing vessel to help with fermentation, or you can store them in a SCOBY hotel, to be used when your thickest brewing SCOBY is ready to be chucked out.
If you see that your brewing SCOBY is looking old and tired, get rid of it and brew with any babies which are in the brew. If you have been taking babies out and storing them in your SCOBY hotel, then bring them out again to brew with.
Maintain a SCOBY Hotel Which is Fed with Tea Made with White Sugar
When brewing kombucha with raw sugar, it is important to maintain a white sugar fed SCOBY hotel, at least for the first few months. This way, if the exposure to minerals is too great in the brewing vessel, and your SCOBY or SCOBYs in there suffer, you will have a stock of ones which were not exposed to minerals.
You can stock the hotel with babies formed in the piloncillo kombucha – this way the will have had some adaption to the raw sugar, having been born in it.
Piloncillo sugar is a wonderful raw sugar alternative to test out using for your kombucha. It is minimally processed and largely made on a small / localized scale in its origin country. Piloncillo sugar is also usually quite affordable in the States, more so than other more ‘fancy’ forms of raw sugar.
Although a little more tricky to brew with, piloncillo sugar and raw sugars in general are much better for the body than white sugar which has been stripped of all ‘impurities’. In sugar manufacturing terms, impurities largely stands for the minerals and other beneficial substances residing in sugar. If you are interesting in having a more nutritious diet with fewer empty calories, then using raw sugar for your kombucha is worth any brewing hassles you might encounter.
SCOBYs find refined sugars easier to process, however this does not mean that they can’t be trained to process more complex raw sugars. If you use a slow switching over method as outlined in this guide, you will have the most chance of a smooth change over. However, this does not mean that you can’t try out a brew made immediately using piloncillo sugar. Depending on the resilience and health of your SCOBY, you might be successful!
Whichever method you choose, good luck, and happy brewing!
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