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Fermented Tea: Kombucha vs. Pu-erh Tea

By The Whistling Kettle November 4th, 2021

Gut health has become a hot topic recently and we’ve all heard we should be eating more fermented foods. Now how about fermented teas? Kombucha and pu-erh tea are two popular options that offer similar digestive benefits to fermented foods like sourdough, yogurt and sauerkraut. However there are pros and cons to each that you should consider before adding to your diet. Let’s start by digging into the specifics of fermented teas one cup at a time. You’ll be an expert in no time, and your digestive system will thank you.

What is Kombucha?

Kombucha is a fermented sweet tea. It is made using a starter culture called a SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. These microorganisms form a gelatinous blob when fermented in tea and sugar for multiple weeks. The fully formed SCOBY is then used to ferment more batches of tea and sugar to make kombucha. Yeast and bacteria digest the sugar and nutrients in the tea and release vitamins and acids. When fermented a second round with more sugar or fruit juice, the SCOBY produces carbon dioxide to naturally carbonate the kombucha, making a tasty, fizzy beverage.

What seems like a trendy drink for modern foodies actually originated thousands of years ago in China. Kombucha was regarded as a health tonic for longevity, and traded along with other teas on the Silk Road. It gained popularity in Japan when it supposedly cured the ailments of a Japanese Emperor named Inkyo. Kombucha enthusiasm spread to Russia by World War I, and soon to the rest of Europe. In the U.S. kombucha became popular during the 80s and 90s because some thought it might boost the immune system. Currently kombucha is taking the beverage industry by storm and is projected to be worth 7.05 billion USD globally by 2027.

Is Kombucha Healthy?

Kombucha typically contains live probiotics leftover from the fermentation process. Probiotics are live strains of beneficial bacteria or yeast that may help with digestion, immune system regulation, and preventing disease. While there is research to support the benefits of probiotics in general, there is not enough evidence on kombucha to fully understand its effects.

Kombucha naturally contains B vitamins, vitamin C, lactic acid, acetic acid, and small amounts of alcohol and sugar. Commercially sold kombucha must be under 0.5 % alcohol or sold separately as an age-restricted alcoholic beverage. For people who are sensitive to alcohol or sugar, it may be wiser to stick to low-sugar fermented foods like plain yogurt. On the flip side, kombucha is a popular alternative to drinking soda or beer. It has a similar sweet, fizzy flavor and is usually much lower in calories.

Caution: There is risk for contamination if kombucha is fermented incorrectly. Unsterilized surfaces, improper equipment, untested recipes and accidental mold growth are some of the ways the process can go wrong. Be sure to buy kombucha from reputable companies and be very careful if brewing kombucha at home.

What is Pu-erh Tea?

Pu-erh is the fine wine of tea. It is fermented and aged, sometimes for 20-30 years or longer. Fermentation unlocks complex flavors that are earthy and smooth with notes of dried fruit or dark chocolate. A freshly brewed cup of pu-erh tea smells like a rainy day in autumn, when the soil is rich with fallen leaves. Connoisseurs obsess over the subtle differences between high-end pu-erh teas with some rare varieties costing hundreds (even thousands!) of dollars. Luckily there are also many exquisite pu-erh teas available for much more affordable prices.

Pu-erh tea is named after the town in which it was first invented in Yunnan province, China. Although made from the same plant speciesCamellia sinensis as black tea, green tea, oolong tea, and white tea, pu-erh is a slightly different strain. Pu-erh tea is made from larger tea leaves that grow on ancient trees, sometimes over a thousand years old. After harvesting and minimally processing, it can be fermented in one of two ways:

  • Sheng or “raw” pu-erh is fermented slowly for 20-30 years. It can even be left longer to acquire a deeper, mellow flavor. This is the original method, and sought after by connoisseurs.
  • Shou or “ripe” pu-erh is a more recently invented method that can fully ferment the tea in a matter of months. The microbial activity is accelerated in a moist environment to raise the temperature and intensify fermentation.

Pu-erh tea has been a hot commodity since early trade in China thousands of years ago. Early tea artisans would compress the tea into ‘cakes’ and transport them via horses and mules to neighboring countries. It was an ideal product being small, compact, shelf-stable, and valuable. Today you can still buy pu-erh as compressed ‘cakes’, but it is also available as regular loose leaf tea.

Is Pu-erh Tea Healthy?

In China pu-erh tea is popular as a digestive aid after heavy meals (such as Dim Sum). Modern research is beginning to investigate pu-erh’s potential for lowering cholesterol and regulating blood sugar, especially with calorie-dense diets. Theabrownins are the main component in pu-erh tea that help break down rich meals by balancing our bile salt and bile acid production. Many people also drink pu-erh tea for weight loss. Some studies suggest it might decrease body fat when consumed regularly.

Pu-erh tea is not a ‘live’ probiotic so it is different from kombucha, yogurt, and other live fermented products. This is why pu-erh is shelf stable and can withstand the heat of boiling water. Instead of containing live bacteria, it contains fermented chemical compounds that promote the growth of healthy bacteria in our gut. These compounds have similar effects to probiotics in supporting the immune system, digestion, and possibly preventing disease.


Note: Pu-erh tea is meant to be ‘rinsed’ for proper brewing technique in order to get the best flavor and benefits. Use boiling water to soak the leaves in your cup for about 30 seconds, then dump out this first infusion (keep the leaves). Now you can brew your tea leaves according to its package instructions (usually 1-3 minutes).

Which Fermented Tea is Better for Health?

Pu-erh tea is a safer choice from a health standpoint. It has more scientific research to support claims that it supports the digestive system, immune system, and helps break down fats. For pu-erh tea, the main potential health benefits are:

  • Digestive system support
  • Weight loss
  • Healthy gut bacteria
  • Immune system support
  • Cholesterol regulation
  • Blood sugar regulation

Kombucha advocates claim it benefits the digestive system, immune system, and more, but there isn’t enough research to know for sure yet. There are also potential negatives to consider:

  • Greater risk of contamination (especially if home-brewed)
  • Contains some sugar (and often added fruit juices)
  • Contains small amounts of alcohol

That being said, kombucha is a way better option than soda or beer and makes a delicious substitute. Good quality kombucha can be enjoyed in moderation and usually has neutral or mildly beneficial effects.

Which Fermented Tea Tastes Better?

This depends on your individual taste buds and whether you prefer sweet or savory. However, Kombucha is an easy crowd pleaser for most Western consumers. Its sweet and fizzy taste can satisfy soda cravings. Pu-erh tea is more popular in China, but has a niche global following that appreciates its complex flavor.

Kombucha Flavor Profile: Sweet, fizzy, sour, tingly.

Pu-erh Tea Flavor Profile: Earthy, smooth, savory, notes of dark chocolate.

Which Fermented Tea is Better for Convenience?

You may choose a favorite fermented tea based on convenience for your lifestyle. Healthy habits are always more likely to stick if it blends seamlessly into your daily routine.

  • Kombucha is an easy choice for those who are busy and out-and-about all day. It is widely available in grocery stores, cafés, even some gas stations. It doesn’t need to be steeped, so you can just crack open a bottle and enjoy.
  • Pu-erh tea is the best choice for those who prefer to drink tea at home or have an electric kettle at work. Good quality tea leaves can be steeped up to 10 times without losing flavor, so you can get many cups for the price of one. It is also much easier and faster to brew pu-erh tea at home than to try making your own kombucha.

Drinking Fermented Tea

Fermented tea is a good addition to your diet for gut health and overall wellness. The flavors are interesting and varied, so you can find what works for you. Whether you fall in love with pu-erh tea or kombucha (or both!) it will open up a new world of tea to explore. We really owe it to the meticulous work of tiny bacteria and yeasts for making fermented tea so healthy and tasty.

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