This tutorial will walk you through how to brew hard kombucha (high-alcohol kombucha), and includes tips for brewing, equipment and flavoring!
I’ve been brewing traditional kombucha at home for years.
It all started as an kitchen science experiment and turned into a weekly routine.
Now we drink it almost daily!
Recently, though, I’ve been seeing something interesting pop up. Hard kombucha.
After trying several different store-bought versions, I started wondering if I could make my own. How hard could it be?
Turns out, it’s not hard at all.
I now make my own hard kombucha at home. And you can too.
This tutorial combines my years of home kombucha brewing experience with my husband’s beer-brewing experience into an easy, step-by-step tutorial for you to follow along with at home.
What is Kombucha?
Kombucha is fermented black tea.
Learn how to make traditional kombucha here, or keep reading for a quick overview.
Is Regular Kombucha Already Alcoholic?
Alcohol is a byproduct of yeast consuming sugar, so yes, regular kombucha does contain trace amounts of alcohol.
Traditional kombucha should have an ABV less than 0.5%, low enough that it can be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage.
To turn traditional kombucha into hard kombucha (or a high-alcohol brew), there’s an extra step.
What Does Hard Kombucha Taste Like?
To me, it tastes like a cross between regular kombucha and a sour beer.
If you want to try a store-bought version first, my favorite is from Elossa. We buy both Elossa’s berry and ginger versions at Trader Joe’s.
Sierra Nevada makes a hard kombucha under the brand name Strainge Beast. Strainge Beast is brewed with hops and tastes more like an IPA, but it’s worth trying if you’re into hoppy brews.
How to Brew Kombucha
To make hard kombucha, you need to start with a batch of, you guessed it, freshly brewed kombucha.
Start with a SCOBY
First things first: you’ll need a SCOBY.
SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. A kombucha SCOBY is similar to a vinegar mother, and it helps keep the tea safe to drink as it ferments.
Brew Sweet Black Tea
Next, brew some sweet tea.
I recommend using organic black tea and regular white sugar.
Ferment The Tea
Once the tea cools down, add the SCOBY and a little bit of starter kombucha.
The starter kombucha can be plain, organic unflavored store-bought kombucha, it can be unflavored kombucha from your last brew, or if you order a SCOBY online, the SCOBY should come packed in starter kombucha.
The jar should now contain sweet tea, a SCOBY and starter. Cover the jar loosely using a tea towel or paper towel, and let it ferment for about a week.
How to Make Hard Kombucha
To turn regular kombucha into an alcoholic version, you’ll need to do a second ferment with brewing yeast.
It’s a pretty simple process, especially if you’re already used to brewing kombucha.
What Supplies Will I Need?
If you’re already brewing kombucha, you probably already own most of the supplies needed. Here are a few extra things you’ll need (or might want).
You’ll need a brewing yeast. I recommend using either a champagne or wine yeast for the best flavor.
I use Red Star champagne yeast.
Airlock Fermenting Lids
While not essential, I recommend using airlock fermenting lids, which will allow gases to escape but stop air from coming into the jar.
Fermenting lids will help make the brewing process easier and more consistent.
Choose airlock lids that fit the container you’re fermenting in. Another option is to use a glass growler and a bubble airlock.
Hydrometer to Check APV
If you’d like to check the ABV (alcohol by volume), you’ll need a hydrometer.
Testing the ABV is totally optional, however, and you can skip this step and the equipment if you prefer.
Fermenting with Yeast
Start by activating the champagne yeast.
Bring one cup of filtered water to a boil, mix it with sugar, and then let it cool until it’s warm but not hot (about 95°F). It should be comfortable to the touch.
Add the yeast, stir, and then set somewhere warm for about 20 minutes. I like to set mine in a sunny window.
Remove the SCOBY (and a little starter tea) from the tea and set it aside for your next batch.
Add the yeasted sugar water to the tea.
Optionally, test it with a hydrometer to help determine the possible ABV.
Seal the tea with an airlock fermenting lid and allow it to ferment for seven to ten days.
I recommend testing it both lengths of time and seeing which you prefer.
After a week (or two), test again with your hydrometer to determine the ABV. If you’re keeping track, that is.
Bottle + Carbonate
After fermenting, use a funnel to pour the hard kombucha into pressure-resistant swing-top bottles or small growlers.
Optionally, add juice to flavor the tea. More on that below.
Once or twice a day, open one of the bottles to see if the drink has carbonated.
Make sure to avoid using decorative glass bottles, or any glass container that’s not intended for carbonation, because the bottles could burst.
Flavor the Hard Kombucha
The easiest way to add flavor is with juice or simple syrup to the bottle before carbonation.
The options are basically endless, so experiment to find your favorites!
Keep in mind that the yeast will continue to eat the sugar as the kombucha carbonates, so it can be a little difficult to predict how sweet the final product will be.
If the final product isn’t sweet enough, you can simply add more juice (or syrup) after carbonation.
Adding Flavors Other Than Juice
To add non-sugary flavors, like herbs, dried hibiscus flowers, citrus peel, or spices, infuse them after brewing with the SCOBY and before adding the yeast.
Simply add the (flowers, spices, whatever!) to the kombucha and let it infuse for about a day, then strain them out and proceed with the brewing yeast.
To brew with hops, you’ll need to bring your kombucha to a rolling boil, add the hops, and continue boiling for 30 minutes (at minimum). Cool the kombucha back to room temperature before adding the champagne yeast.
Keep in mind that there are lots of different types of hops. Some are intended to add bitter notes, others add flavor, others are added for aroma, and each type should be added at a different stage of the boil.
For tips on using hops, I like the book Brew Better Beer. It’s admittedly a beer brewing book and doesn’t address kombucha, but there’s some overlap.
Keep in mind that these flavor additions may provide less consistent results than simply adding juice, but go ahead and experiment! It’s part of the fun!
Can I Make Plain, Unflavored Hard Kombucha?
Keep in mind that the added sugars in juice or syrup help with carbonation, so if you’re having trouble carbonating your plain kombucha, try adding a sugar simple syrup to the bottles.
What’s the final ABV?
The ABV will depend on the temperature in your kitchen and the length of the ferment. The tea will ferment more quickly in warm temperatures and more slowly in cold, so the time of year will affect your brew.
The average ABV when I make this hard kombucha is approximately 4%. I generally ferment the kombucha with the SCOBY for 6 to 7 days and the kombucha with the yeast for about a week and a half.
How Can I Get a Higher ABV?
To increase the final ABV, try increasing either (or both) of the fermentation times. However, I recommend trying it with the times listed in the card first.
With longer ferments, it’s possible that the yeast will eat all (or most) of the sugar, making it difficult to carbonate without adding juice or syrup to the bottle.
A Caution for Home Beer Brewers
If you also brew beer, be extra careful about cross-contamination.
Kombucha relies on wild fermentation, whereas your beer brewing attempts to control the yeast completely.
Do not brew kombucha right next to your beer, and do not share any equipment. The wild yeasts can be extra difficult to get rid of and can contaminate your beer.
- large pot to boil water / steep tea
- 1 gallon glass jar (or 2 half-gallon glass jars)
- paper towels or napkins (avoid using cheesecloth if you have a problem with fruit-flies)
- rubber bands
- Air Lock Fermenting Lids (recommended, not required)
- Hydrometer (for checking ABV, not required)
- 7 pressure-resistant glass bottles
Basic Kombucha Recipe:
- 14 cups water
- 1 cup granulated white sugar Do not substitute raw sugar
- 2 tablespoons organic black tea Or use 8 tea bags
- 2 cups starter kombucha Use plain kombucha from last batch OR store-bought raw kombucha (unflavored, unpasteurized)
- 1 SCOBY per fermentation jar
- 1 packet champagne yeast
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
Flavored Kombucha (optional):
- juice or syrup For non-sweet flavor additions (such as herbs or spices), see recipe notes under "flavoring tips"
Basic Kombucha Recipe:
- Bring water to a boil. Turn off heat and add tea leaves and sugar. Allow tea to steep until sugar has dissolved and water has cooled to room temperature. Remove the tea bags (or strain out loose tea). Do not proceed to the next step until the tea has completely cooled, or you risk killing the good bacteria in the kombucha.
- Pour into the glass jar (or divide into two glass jars). Add store-bought kombucha (or starter kombucha from a previous batch) and the SCOBY.Cover the jar(s) with a napkin or paper towel, and secure with the rubber band.Tip: If using multiple jars, make sure to have 1 SCOBY per jar.Set the jar(s) out of direct sunlight (sunlight can keep the tea from fermenting), at room temperature (around 70ºF), and avoid bumping or jostling the jar(s).Allow tea to ferment for 7 – 10 days. The longer tea ferments, the stronger the vinegar flavor will be, but fermentation is also affected by the temperature where you live. Smell the tea after 7 days, and let it ferment longer if desired.Next, pour 2 cups of the fermented tea into a container and set aside. This is your starter for the next batch. Place your SCOBY inside this 'starter' kombucha until your next batch of tea is ready.
- Bring 1 cup water to a boil. In a small bowl (or measuring cup), add the water and 1 cup sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Set aside and cool until it's approximately 95°F. (Warmer than room temperature, but not too hot to touch.)Stir in the champagne yeast. Set in a warm spot for at least 20 minutes. The yeast should begin to bubble slightly.
- Add the yeast to the kombucha. Optionally, use a hydrometer to check the potential ABV. (See recipe notes.)
- Add an airlock lid and ferment for 7 to 10 days, or until you're happy with the flavor. (The longer it ferments, the less sweet it will be.)
- Optionally, use a hydrometer to find the actual ABV. If you're measuring ABV, make sure to check the gravity with a hydrometer before adding any additional sweeteners, such as juice, because the sugar in the juice will throw off the measurement.
Bottling + Flavoring Kombucha:
- Use a funnel to pour the kombucha into pressure-resistant bottles. Optionally, add juice or simple syrup to each bottle to add flavoring.Test the bottles once or twice a day until carbonation forms. Refrigerate immediately to slow fermentation.
- Keep it clean! Always wash your hands before handling the SCOBY, and use clean jars and equipment. Do not, however use antibacterial soap to clean your supplies.
- Label everything! A lot of this process is trial and error, so it’s helpful to know exactly what you did.
- Have fun! Ultimately, this is a learning process from start to finish. Experiment with new flavors, gush about your kombucha fermentation station to your friends, and share your baby SCOBY with them!
- If your airlock lids don’t fit the container you used for your 1st ferment (with the SCOBY), you should transfer the kombucha to a container that works with airlock lids for the 2nd ferment (with the champagne yeast). Unless you’re skipping the airlock lids.
- Some hydrometer directions say to check the gravity before adding the yeast. Since we’re using a full cup of sugar along with the yeast, I opt to check the gravity after adding the yeast.
- If you check the gravity after adding the yeast (like I do), make sure to use the hydrometer immediately (before the yeast eats much of the sugar).
- Follow the hydrometer directions for checking the ABV.
- The typical ABV for my hard kombucha batches has been around 4%, but the actual ABV will differ depending on the room temperature, how long the kombucha ferments (at each stage), and the brewing yeast.
- Use pressure resistant bottles, preferably ones meant for use in brewing. Do not use decorative glass bottles to carbonate your kombucha. They are not meant to deal with pressure and may burst.
- If your kombucha isn’t carbonating, first make sure your bottles are tightly sealed.
- If your kombucha isn’t carbonating (even with tightly sealed lids), it may not have enough sugar remaining to carbonate. Try back-sweetening it by adding fruit juice or a sugar-based simple syrup (1 cup water to 1 cup sugar). The sugar in the juice or syrup should assist in carbonation.
- Non-sweet flavor additions (such as whole spices or herbs) can be added after the initial fermentation (with the SCOBY) and before fermentation with yeast. Strain out any additions before proceeding to the yeast ferment.
- Remove the SCOBY before adding champagne yeast. The SCOBY doesn’t like it when the environment changes.
- Going out of town? Simply leave your SCOBY in a batch of kombucha. That batch might be too vinegary to use, but the SCOBY will be fine, and you can start over after your trip. If it’s for a longer time-period, either have someone babysit your kombucha, or start over when you get back in town.
- This is normal: A new, transparent SCOBY disk appearing on the top of the kombucha batch; stringy pieces of SCOBY floating in the drink (like with a vinegar mother); the SCOBY floating on top, on the side, on the bottom– It doesn’t matter where it is, it’s working.
- This is not normal: The SCOBY is black. The tea has mold or smells rotten. Throw away your SCOBY and tea and start over.