How to Brew Kombucha with Fruit instead of Sugar
Brew Kombucha without sugar using fruit instead?
Yes – it’s possible to completely replace sugar with fruit during your primary fermentation. For those who want to approach Kombucha making in as natural a method as possible, this method of flavoring (without sugar) is particularly appealing. You also get a uniquely strong flavored Kombucha. Make sure you read our complete guide to flavoring kombucha during primary fermentation for more about this technique.
The Two Types of Fermentation
Primary Fermentation: In kombucha lingo, the primary fermentation is the stage of making kombucha where the sweet tea is sitting in the brewing vessel being fermented by the SCOBY culture. Once fermentation is complete or at a desired level of maturity, then secondary fermentation can occur. This is basically bottling up your booch, and letting it sit out at room temperature for extra carbonation to build up, and for the ferment to complexify. At this stage a brewer has the opportunity of also adding in additional flavorings, such as fruit, juices, spices etc. Flavoring during this stage is more of an advanced brewing technique and not very common (most people flavor kombucha during the second fermentation).
Secondary Fermentation: This secondary fermentation stage of flavoring is recommended for beginner brewers. This is because contact with foreign ingredients can be harmful to the kombucha SCOBY. SCOBYs are specifically adapted to processing sucrose and the nutrients from tea derived from Camellia sinensis, the tea bush. Other ingredients are apt to either impact the fermentation process to varying degrees, or damage the SCOBY over prolonged periods.
Why Flavor During First Fermenation?
Because it’s fun and experimental! And you can get some pretty wild flavors, flavor profiles that you won’t get from a second ferment, even using the same fruit ingredients!
Flavoring the primary ferment with fruit is one of the most creative ways to (powerfully) alter the taste of your booch. The fruit soaks in the tea while being slowly broken down and absorbed by the yeasts over five days to a couple weeks (until the fermentation process is done). This means the fruit sits around in the Kombucha during the primary fermentation, which is a lot longer than in the second ferment (which typically only lasts for a few days).
When including an extra ingredient like fruit into the primary fermentation, there is always the chance of mold or a failed ferment, but if all goes well you can end up with some delicious-tasting, unique kombucha flavors!
If you have been brewing successfully for some time, have some spare SCOBYs on hand in a SCOBY Hotel, and are wondering if there are other ways to experiment with flavoring besides in the second ferment – then primary ferment flavoring can be a lot of fun. As long as you are working with an extra SCOBY, then you can experiment away without any stress of loosing your one and only culture.
Increased Risk of Mold & Failed Ferments
As mentioned above, when you include fruit into the primary ferment, there is a heightened chance of contracting mold into your brew, or foreign pathogenic bacteria. This can be due to a slow start to the ferment, as the culture adjusts to processing the new sugar source. It can also be caused by damage which the SCOBY has suffered from the ingredient (this can be from minerals or from natural oils), which in turn also affects how successfully fermentation is taking place.
The reason why mold and other pathogens have a chance to jump in when fermentation is compromised is because the fermentation process acts like a preservative. This is because as fermentation takes place, the brew becomes more and more acidic. Mold and harmful bacteria cannot survive in acidic conditions.
How to Reduce the Risk of Mold When Substituting Sugar for Fruit
There are two things you can do (or a combination of both) to reduce the risk of mold or the brew ferment not taking.
1. Use More Kombucha Starter as Normal
What you can do to guard against your SCOBY and brew contracting mold or bacteria is to add in extra starter liquid to the batch. A good rule of thumb is about double the amount. This will make ensure that the ph is low enough from the beginning for the ferment to be protected.
Also take into account the strength of your starter liquid. Not all Kombucha starter is the same!
If you prefer your kombucha on the sweet side, tend to harvest it earlier rather than later, and are setting some aside for starter liquid, it might be that the starter liquid is not strong enough. This means that while you might be using the prescribed quantity, your brews could still be open to mold and bacteria contamination, particularly if you are going to be doing some primary ferment flavoring. If this is the case, then you should up the does even more. Or follow the second point below.
2. Use Kombucha from your SCOBY Hotel for super potent starter liquid.
What you can also do if you have not tried it already, is to use tea from your SCOBY Hotel as starter liquid. This is more potent than regular kombucha (higher ratio of yeast).
Tip: If you are unsure about whether or not your batch is going to be acidic enough to ward off invaders – you can do a taste test. Once you have combined your ingredients together, taste the tea. If you notice a medium level of sourness, then the brew is definitely good to go. If you cannot really notice much sourness, then add some more starter liquid. Keep going until you are satisfied that the batch is acidic. If you do not have enough starter liquid on hand, you can also use spirit vinegar to drop the ph. Do not use natural vinegar such as apple cider vinegar. Naturally fermented vinegars can introduce new strains of bacteria into the SCOBY. While not at all harmful, you might find that it changes your ferments somewhat over time.
How to Replace Sugar with Fruit
Select the fruit with which you want to flavor the primary ferment. Pureeing the fruit will make it go further and you will need to use less as it will release more sugar into the ferment. If you have a lot of fruit on hand you can opt to merely cut it into small pieces. This will give a more delicate flavor, as the taste will infuse out. You will also have less straining to do at the end than with pureed fruit. Using pureed fruit is not a problem, those are merely the differences in results.
When using fruit to sweetening and flavor the primary ferment, you will have to resort to taste testing to estimate how much to use. You will need a fair quantity, as fruit is a much less concentrated source of sweetening than sugar.
What You Need
- Pureed or chopped fruit to taste
- 2/3 gallon of brewed black tea
- 1/3 gallon starter liquid (extra strong — from Kombucha hotel or double the amount of normal starter)
- 1 healthy SCOBY
- 1 brewing vessel
- 1 brewing vessel covering
How to Do It
Step 1: After brewing the black tea, leave it to cool somewhat. When still slightly warm, add in the pureed or chopped fruit. This will help to release the fruit sugars. Taste the mix to see how sweet it is. If you find that it is not that sweet, add some more fruit.
Step 2: Once you have added enough fruit and the brew has cooled right down to room temperature, you can add in the starter liquid. Do not put it in when the brew is above room temperature, as the raised temperatures can damage the free floating yeasts and bacteria in the starter liquid – which are a bonus to have in your brew. Now pour the whole lot into the brewing vessel and insert the SCOBY.
Step 3: You might find that you have some liquid left over. Chuck this out, as you will not be able to use it in a SCOBY Hotel. If you are using a brewing vessel which is more than one gallon – then great, pour the whole lot in.
Step 4: Cover securely with your cloth and a piece of string or an elastic band. And there we go! Typically, you’ll want to check around 4 or 5 days to see how the ferment is doing. Changing from sugar to fruit can sometimes result in much faster ferments with the ferment turning sour much sooner.
Monitoring Your Experimental Batch
It is a good idea to keep close tabs on the ferment when using fruit to flavor the primary ferment. Keep an eagle eye out for mold or other brewing problems. If you do find mold has started on the top of the SCOBY, ditch the whole lot out immediately.
There is no point in trying to de-mold a kombucha brew. Especially if you have healthy additional SCOBYs waiting in the wings. But before you decide that it is definitely mold, perhaps take a look at this article The Ultimate Guide to Figuring Out if Your Kombucha SCOBY Has Mold (or NOT) as there are some SCOBY appearance variations which can look surprisingly like mold.
If you find that the ferment is just not getting going, and there does not seem to be any fermentation happening, be patient. The SCOBY might need a little bit of time to get used to its new sugar source. Sometimes the ferment can happen sooner (within 4-5 days) or sometimes it can take MUCH longer than regular ferment. There seems to be a great deal of variability to how different SCOBY cultures adapt to pure fruit instead of sugar.
You can taste your batch periodically (or even everyday if you like!) to gauge when to stop it. Once you think that the sourness levels are right for you, and you do not want the batch to get any sourer, stop it right there. Kombucha brews which are flavored during the primary ferment can be unpredictable and suddenly sour on you. We recommend about 5-7 days is the usual period where the ferment is ‘finished’ when you substitute fruit for sugar — but this might not be the case for you, so check!
Replacing the sugar with fruit may result in weaker fermentation than normal and / or little to no NEW SCOBY growth. This may or may not be the case, but don’t panic if this occurs. If you repeat this process over multiple cycles, your SCOBY may better adapt and actually thrive as normal. Or it may slowly degrade and the fermentation gets weaker with each brew — I can’t tell you how it will go.
If you are satisfied with the flavor, the best thing to do is to bottle and refrigerate, in order to preserve the taste and prevent and further souring to occur.
A Second Fermentation is Possible
You can also do a second ferment of your already-flavored primary ferment. Remove the scoby as usual and pour your ferment into a sealed bottle/container. Ferment it as usual for 1-3 days. You WILL NOT need to add any other flavorings / fruits at this point because the kombucha will be flavored already. The goal here is to build up some carbonation, not to enhance the flavor.
You can, if you wish, add in extra flavor as in a traditional double ferment. But keep in mind you already have a primary flavoring established; so go light on the extra flavorings if you add them into a second ferment or you risk mixing up the flavor too much with too many things.
Some suggestions to enhance an existing flavored primary ferment:
Note that I’m not recommending you add in other fruits or strong flavorings. The above recommendations will subtly enhance the existing flavor and add some more complex tones to it. IN the case of ginger or lemon, the existing sugars in those will add in a huge dose of carbonation to the ferment while adding a not-too-overpowering extra flavor tone to the existing flavor. IF you are struggling to see a good carbonation build up, then I suggest adding one of those ingredients to the second ferment.
Of course, you can add extra fruit if you wish — it’s up to you.