How to Make Kombucha Without Starter Tea

shutterstock 1143722498
Most kombucha recipes include starter tea as an ingredient. What if you don’t have starter tea or are brewing kombucha for the first time? Learn more about how to make kombucha without starter tea below.

What Is Starter Tea?

Starter tea is kombucha from your last batch of homemade kombucha. It contains the beneficial bacteria and yeast that help brew kombucha. These living microorganisms infuse the kombucha with probiotics, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

Kombucha starter tea also helps your homemade kombucha ferment correctly. As you finish the first fermentation, reserve about 1/2 cup of kombucha as the starter tea for your next batch.

Why Is Starter Tea Necessary?

Starter tea acts in two important ways when you add it to your batch of sweet tea:

  1. Starter tea introduces the microbes that start the fermentation process. The microbes begin eating the sugar when you combine starter tea and brewed sweet tea. This starter liquid is especially crucial because it lives down in the sweet tea rather than floating on top like the kombucha SCOBY. As the starter tea cycles throughout the brew, it brings bacteria and yeast to the entire batch of kombucha, ensuring it ferments properly.
  2. Starter tea helps lower the pH of your brew. Sweetened black tea has a very high pH—around 6. To safely ferment, the pH of your kombucha tea needs to be closer to 3. Starter tea introduces high levels of acids and microorganisms that lower the pH to a safe level. If you try to ferment at a high pH level, your batch of kombucha will most likely mold.

The SCOBY is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. It helps break down the sugar in sweet tea. The starter tea and the SCOBY work together to turn sweet tea into fizzy fermented tea. As the SCOBY ferments, it grows a new layer called a pellicle. This rubbery mass of cells contains the same bacteria and yeast as the mature SCOBY.

shutterstock 1143722501

Can You Make Kombucha Without Starter Tea?

You can make kombucha without starter tea, though it’s not ideal. Kombucha needs fresh, live cultures from more mature batches for the correct fermentation. The longer you brew your own kombucha, the richer your batches become. Each successive batch breeds more microorganisms, making it even healthier than the previous batch.

2 Starter Tea Substitutes

If you don’t have starter tea, here are two options:

  1. A bottle of unflavored, raw, store-bought kombucha. Add the entire bottle to one gallon of sweet tea.
  2. Distilled white vinegar*—While white vinegar doesn’t have live cultures, it will lower the pH of your sweet tea so the SCOBY can begin the brewing process. Don’t use apple cider vinegar. It has its own live bacteria that may disrupt the live cultures in your kombucha.

To ensure you always have starter tea on hand, take a bit of kombucha after the first fermentation and add it to a large glass jar. Peel off one or two old layers of your SCOBY and add that to the jar. Cover it and leave it at room temperature away from direct sunlight—this begins your SCOBY hotel. Add more liquid and another layer of SCOBY after each first fermentation. The liquid in the jar will become very strong and sour—perfect to use as starter tea.

*Using distilled white vinegar is a last resort. Unflavored, raw kombucha is easy to find these days and should always be your first choice.

Is Vinegar Bad For a SCOBY?

Some brewers believe vinegar helps SCOBYs, while others believe it is harmful.

Recipes typically include distilled white vinegar to help lower the pH of the brewed sweet tea used to make kombucha. A low pH ensures the fermentation process occurs correctly.

Other brewers argue that adding vinegar makes your fermented tea taste too acidic. Too much acid results in unpleasant-tasting kombucha. They also believe it can negatively alter the balance of microorganisms by harming the SCOBY, taking away many of the health benefits kombucha offers.

Can You Use a Flavored Starter Tea?

Do not use flavored starter tea. The added ingredients or flavors will disrupt the brewing process and weaken the SCOBY. Other ingredients in flavored kombucha can introduce bacteria and cause your sweet tea to grow mold.

Always begin the first fermentation with unflavored kombucha. Add fruits or herbs during the second fermentation if you prefer flavored kombucha.

Where to Buy Starter Tea

You may already have starter tea if you are brewing your first batch of kombucha with a newly purchased SCOBY. Most live SCOBYS come floating in a small amount of starter tea. If you get a SCOBY from a friend, request they package it with about 1/2 cup of starter tea.

Perhaps you purchased a dehydrated SCOBY or bottled all of your previous kombucha without saving any tea. In that case, look for starter tea:

  1. From friends who brew kombucha.
  2. In Facebook groups.
  3. In buy-sell-or-trade groups in your community.
  4. At your local farmer’s market.
  5. Online—most starter tea also comes with a kombucha SCOBY. Amazon offers a bottle of starter liquid with a SCOBY and a kombucha starter kit that includes other supplies. When you add your new SCOBY to your brew, pour in the starter liquid as well.

Sarah Pearce

Sarah first tried kombucha in 2015 and she was hooked. Her favorite flavor is ginger, but cranberry comes in a close second. She made her own for many years and loved experimenting with fruit flavors.

Recent Posts