How to Brew Kombucha With Less Sugar
Are you worried about the sugar content of your kombucha? Read our guide on how to reduce sugar levels in kombucha, and which healthy sugar alternatives you can use in place of cane sugar.
The sugar content of kombucha is a common concern amongst those interested in consuming and/or making it on a regular basis.
Depending on what level of maturity kombucha has been fermented to, kombucha contains varying amounts of sugar. The longer kombucha is fermented, the less sugar it will contain and the more sour it will taste. If you let your kombucha ferment for a decent period of time, the sugar levels will not be that high. This is because the yeasts will have processed much of the sucrose. You will be able to taste this in the level of sweetness within your kombucha.
However if you prefer your kombucha on the sweet side, then there will higher levels of sugar present. Stopping ferments early, or adding additional sweetness to the kombucha after fermentation is complete will increase sugar levels.
If you want to reduce the amount of sugar in kombucha you can simply allow the fermentation to continue longer. This will result in a shaper brew. However you can also implement a couple of tricks to keep the sourness in check. Besides longer ferments, there are also other things you can try which will result in a reduced sugar kombucha.. Which is hopefully not too sour. : )
Additionally, you can change the sugar source for your kombucha from cane sugar to a healthier form which is better for the body.
By How Much Can Sugar Levels Be Lowered in Kombucha
Please take note that sugar levels within kombucha can only be drastically lowered if you allow for an extended brew time. Long brew times will make kombucha pretty sour, which is not everyone’s cup of fermented tea. : )
If you are following a strict low sugar diet – then it might be a good idea to purchase a hydrometer. Armed with a hydrometer, you can regularly test your kombucha to make sure that the sugar levels have dropped enough for your consumption. Sourness alone is not always a reliable indicator of low sugar levels in kombucha. Natural acids can build while there is still a fair quantity of sugar present, to the point where the sourness masks the sweetness of the remaining sugar.
While there is no magical solution for making sweet tasting 100% sugar free kombucha, there are some different techniques which you can employ to keep sugar levels reasonably low.
How to Lower Sugar Levels in Kombucha
Brewing kombucha for extended periods of time to a high level of maturity is pretty much the only way to get it 100% sugar free. Unfortunately at this point it will be vinegar! It is easy to make this kind of kombucha, all you need to do is leave your batches for up to 8 times the usual brewing time. However it is not so easy to drink such sour and strong kombucha.
It is not possible to use sugar free alternatives such as artificial sweeteners for making your kombucha sweet tea. This is because the SCOBY organisms need the sugar to feed on. The same goes for drastically reducing the sugar levels within your sweet tea. If you do not use enough sugar, the yeasts and bacteria will go into a state of starvation. They will then start to operate at half power.
So, what to do? Here are some options.
Brew Strong Kombucha and Dilute With Water
One way to make and drink sugar free kombucha is to brew it to the point where no sweetness is left, and then dilute it in a glass of water. You can use a hydrometer to check the sugar levels in the maturing kombucha if you want. Or you can simply taste it. When it taste like vinegar, it will only have trace amounts of sugar left in it. Diluting very strong kombucha with water is actually quite a pleasant way to drink it. If I accidentally let a batch of kombucha sit for too long and get very strong, this is what I do, and it makes for quite a refreshing drink.
Using Corn Syrup as the Sugar Source
Thanks to the chemistry of the kombucha microbes, using regular corn syrup (not high fructose corn syrup) for your sweet tea base can also help to lower the residual sugar levels in your finished kombucha. The reason for this is that corn syrup consists of mainly glucose. The kombucha yeasts tend to consume and eat up all glucose first, and then move on to any sucrose or fructose which is available. This means that often one will end up with sucrose or fructose remaining in the brew at the time of bottling.
If you use a glucose only form of sweetening what can happen is that the glucose gets easily and quickly eaten up. This will then leave less in the kombucha at the point of harvest. Which means that it is possible to brew a “reduced sugar” kombucha, while not having to let it sit for such an extended brewing time. And that in turn means that it will not be so sour!
Reducing the Amount of Sugar in Your Initial Brew
You can try out lessening the amount of sugar which you put into your initial sweet tea base. However do not lower these quantities too much, otherwise the microbes will not have enough to eat and fermentation will stall. Which will result in more sugar left in the kombucha, because it has not fermented properly!
So take things slow, and experiment a bit. You might be able to strike a happy balance where the yeasts are getting just enough sugar. While at the same time the reduced sugar quantity means that the brew will reduce in sweetness before turning overly sour from the acids produced by the bacteria.
The science behind this trick is as follows. The kombucha yeasts eat up the sugar, and turn it into alcohol as their waste product. The bacteria then use this alcohol as their food source, and in turn excrete natural acids (the element which gives kombucha its tartness). So the more sugar there is, the more alcohol is produced for the bacteria to feed on, and so the more acids are produced.
There is a limit to this, because if there is way too much sugar present in the beginning, the yeasts go into a sluggish state. Much like we do if we have much too much to eat! In the brewing industry this is called the crabtree effect. It is not desirable as it stalls fermentation.
Do a Long Slow Second Ferment
Another way to reduce sugar levels while attempting to not allow your kombucha to get too sour is to do a long and slow second ferment. Long secondary ferments are better than long primary ferments because the SCOBY has been removed and therefore the fermentation rate is not so rapid. If you are aiming to lower sugar levels and yet try to not allow your kombucha to get too sour, then you should try to slow down this second ferment even more. You can do this by lowering the temperature. The lower the temperature the slower the second ferment will be. Fast ferments result in shallow flavor profiles and quick souring with sharp notes. Slower ferments are more full bodied and deep in flavor, with sour tastes being less harsh.
Your refrigerator is probably too cold for a second ferment! But if you can find a super cool place, like a clean basement, or somewhere where the jars stand on a stone floor, try that.
Switching to a Healthier Sugar Source for Your Kombucha
While changing the type of sweetening you use to make your kombucha is not going to really reduce the levels present once it is finished – except in the case of glucose based corn syrup – it will mean that what ever sweetness is left in your kombucha is in a healthier form. Also, many of the healthier forms of sweeteners also contain additional vitamins, minerals and health benefits. So by incorporating them into your sweet tea base, you are also making your finished kombucha more nutritious. Below is a quick list of sugar alternatives which you can use for kombucha making. Under each is a link to guides for brewing kombucha with each of these sugar substitutes.
Honey is a popular choice for using as a substitute for sugar in kombucha. Packed with its own set of health benefits, honey can imbue kombucha with soft flavors which come from the nectar of the flowers with the bees were feeding on. SCOBYs tend to do fairly well on honey. If you are thinking of brewing your kombucha with honey full time, then you can also consider getting a Jun tea SCOBY.
Jun tea is very similar to kombucha, some people call it kombucha champagne. It is made with green tea and honey. If you do opt for a Jun tea SCOBY then you will not have to worry about trying to adapt your kombucha SCOBY to the honey. However if you want to stick with your kombucha SCOBY, with a little patience you will probably be able to get it off the sugar and onto the honey. 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.
SCOBY Health and Sugar Substitutes
Kombucha SCOBYs are adapted to feeding off of sugar. If they are given a different sugar source such as honey, maple syrup etc, while they might be able to process it, they can sometimes fall into a state of slight starvation. This can weaken SCOBYs to the point where they no longer can carry out fermentation properly. Therefore, when switching to a new form of sweetening it is important to plan breaks for your SCOBY where it can sit in its usual sweet tea solution for a week or a few days. This way it will not fall into a state of starvation.
Alternating Out SCOBYs
If you don’t want to halt your brewing so that the SCOBY can have its break, you can alternate SCOBYs. If you have two healthy SCOBYs on hand, simple alternate them between brewing kombucha and recuperating in the sweet tea solution which has cane sugar in it.
Weaning Your SCOBY of Sugar
Over time, you SCOBY and its microbes might become adapted to the new sugar source. You can try out letting your SCOBY do more than one ferment at a time and see if it keeps its vitality. A healthy SCOBY usually ferments kombucha at a decent rate. It thickens fairly quickly or makes new baby SCOBYs or layers. There will probably also be a fair amount of free floating yeasts floating around. These will take the form of bits of brown matter, or brown strings.
If your SCOBY is not demonstrating these things, then it could be losing condition and needs to be resuscitated in some sweet tea with cane sugar.
Kombucha Does Not Have that Much Sugar in it
Although it is true that all kombucha which is not kombucha vinegar has some sugar in it, it is not really a sugar laden drink. Many people have raised concerns with regards to the sugar content of kombucha. However, this is often in regards to storebought kombucha. Some kombucha companies add additional sugar to their kombucha after fermentation, or stop the ferment very early. This way their kombucha will appeal to a large variety of consumers, as most of us like sweet things! However homemade kombucha is rarely that sweet. Unless the person making it decides to do very short ferments. Or adds additional sweetness after fermentation because that is how they like their kombucha.
Just to give you an idea, here is a list of sugar quantities found in a selection of 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
3 grams 8-ounce glass of PLAIN Kombucha
As you can see, a glass of well brewed kombucha will contain less sugar than an apple! So if you are brewing for reasonable time periods, and not adding any additional sweeteners to your finished kombucha, then it should be fairly low in sugar already.
If not brewed for long enough, or if additional sugar is added to kombucha after fermentation is complete, it is possible for kombucha to be a high sugar drink. However by making adjustments to your kombucha brewing it is possible to reduce these sugar levels drastically.
Although 1 glass of well brewed kombucha contains 95% less sugar than that of a glass of apple juice, and therefore does not score very high in terms of sugar content, it is possible to still reduce this level further by extended brew times etc.
Another consideration for those wishing to avoid refined sugar is to substitute cane sugar for a healthier form of sweetening. While Kombucha is usually made using cane sugar, it is possible to use natural alternatives. Sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are healthier for the body and contain additional nutrients and health benefits.