By Emilie Holmes, Founder @ Good & Proper Tea.
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Choosing your tea for Kombucha
While you might marvel at the incredible complexity and evolving flavour notes of your Kombucha, it is in fact made from just 4 simple ingredients - your SCOBY / starter, water, sugar and tea. And while the SCOBY is, of course, king in all of this, the tea plays a very important role too as your booch is, after all, just fermented tea. The specific tea you choose will therefore not only go a long way to keeping your SCOBY happy but also it naturally has a huge bearing on the balance and flavour of your final brew.
Before we talk about how to go about choosing your tea, let’s take a step back and learn a little bit more about tea.
What is tea?
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about tea is that whether black, oolong, green or white, the starting point for each is the leaves and buds plucked from a single plant, Camellia Sinensis and it is this plant specifically that your SCOBY thrives on. After the leaves are plucked from that plant, it is what happens during the processing stage that determines which of those tea types it becomes. Each type shares common characteristics, but the origin of a tea also plays an important role in determining its unique flavour and aroma. This is what makes single-origin teas so exciting - each cup is a direct expression of the climate, soil and altitude, or terroir, in which those particular leaves were grown and all of that will play into the characteristics of your Kombucha too.
In order to choose the right tea for your next brew, it’s important to understand the key attributes of each tea type and what that will mean for your booch.
The distinguishing feature of black tea production is the full oxidation of the freshly plucked tea leaf. After the green leaves are picked, they are withered to remove excess moisture from the leaf, before being rolled and gently bruised, kickstarting a process of oxidation - a chemical reaction that takes place as the enzymes in the leaf react with oxygen in the air. During this process, the leaves turn from the green we see on the bush to the brown we recognise as tea, before finally being dried.
The result is dark amber liquors and typically robust flavours, ranging from India’s rich, malty Assams, through China’s Keemuns with their bittersweet notes of dark chocolate, to lively cups of East Africa’s single-origin black teas with hints of fruit and caramel.
Oolongs are semi-oxidised, meaning that, unlike black teas which are allowed to oxidise fully, in this instance, the process is halted at a controlled point. From lighter ‘green’ oolongs to darker, more heavily oxidised oolongs, it is this varying level of oxidation and the craft involved in their production that make this tea type so exciting, with such a huge spectrum of flavour. Most famously produced in China and Taiwan, oolongs offer everything from delicate floral and tropical fruit notes from lighter, ‘green’ oolongs to black cherry and cacao from their darker counterparts.
While black tea is fully oxidised, green tea production avoids oxidation all together. After the leaves are picked, they are gently withered and then immediately steamed or fired to prevent any oxidation taking place. This is what gives green tea its vibrant green colour and fresh, vegetal character. Green teas are surprisingly diverse, ranging from the sweet, floral character of a Chinese green to the intense, sweet-savoury notes of a Japanese Sencha, the flavour changing depending on where the leaves are grown and how the leaves are heated.
The least processed of all tea types, white teas are highly-prized the world over. Only the youngest, finest leaves and buds are painstakingly plucked, before being gently withered and dried. The result is a pale, Champagne-coloured cup with a uniquely fresh, delicate flavour.
Unlike all other tea types, such as black, oolong, green and white, herbal ‘teas’ do not actually come from the Camellia Sinensis tea plant so won’t provide the same food the SCOBY needs to thrive during the first fermentation. Strictly speaking, herbs shouldn’t really be called teas at all, but rather infusions or tisanes, as each is unique in how and where they grow, as well as how they are produced. They can be made from fresh or dried flowers, leaves, seeds or even roots. For example, hibiscus tea is made from whole hibiscus flowers, which are picked and simply dried in the sun.
Herbal teas brew a rainbow of colours and offer a variety of flavours. Expect anything from a fresh, palate-cleansing Peppermint to a zingy Lemongrass, a calming, honey-sweet Chamomile to a sweet-sour Hibiscus. While herbs aren’t a traditional way to ferment kombucha, there is scope for experimentation, and the versatility and range of flavours herbal teas offer make them also a great option for the flavouring stage / second fermentation of your Kombucha.
Here are a few watch-outs:
If you use flavoured teas - that means Earl Grey and any other fruity, flavoured blends you might have in your cupboard. They contain oils, natural flavourings and sometimes fruit pieces that may upset your SCOBY. Always keen a spare SCOBY in case it doesn’t turn out well.
To bring out the best flavour in your Kombucha, you’ll want to bring out the best flavour in your tea, so it’s important not to over-extract, resulting in bitterness in the cup. Brewing guidelines will vary depending on the tea so check the packaging for details, but as a general rule of thumb use water just off the boil for black teas and herbs, but reduce the temperature for oolongs to around 85 and further to around 75 for greens and white teas.
Emilie is the founder of Good & Proper Tea, the London-based tea specialists focused on sourcing and curating a collection of award-winning, single-origin teas from around the world. As well as inspiring tea-drinkers at home, they also work with some of the UK’s best cafes, restaurants and hotels to ensure the best possible flavour in every cup.
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