What Is Raw Kombucha?

When you think of raw foods, you may imagine sushi, carpaccio or steak tartare. These raw dishes are considered delicacies and people spend a pretty penny to get the best. But what about raw kombucha? What is raw kombucha, and is it safe?

We get asked this question quite a bit and there are some misconceptions about raw kombucha floating around out there so we decided to get to the bottom of it once and for all. 

It all depends on how it’s made: Basically, raw kombucha is kombucha that has not been heated or otherwise manipulated to kill bacteria. But don’t worry — not all bacteria is bad. Read on to learn more! 

Raw vs. Pasteurized

Every kombucha brewer, from large-scale manufacturers to small-batch home brewers, starts with the same basic ingredients necessary for brewing:  water, tea, sugar, and yeast/bacteria (also known as a SCOBY or starter). Traditional raw kombucha — the kind that may date back thousands of years — is made by adhering to a precise process and a mixture of certain ingredients. Since kombucha is, at its core, fermented tea, keeping the beneficial bacteria that are created during fermentation alive and well is an essential part of the process.

Here’s where brewing methods can sometimes vary: if the brew is heated above a certain temperature during the fermentation process, the beneficial colonies of bacteria are killed along with the harmful colonies of bacteria. Commercial orange juice, for instance, is almost always pasteurized by heating it to a high temperature for a short time to kill any pathogens that may be present. However, for many kombucha drinkers, the colonies of beneficial bacteria are precisely why they choose kombucha over other beverages.

Clear Mind and Wildberry Ginger kombucha clinking glasses.

Some brewers make the decision to overheat their kombucha in order to safeguard against any harmful bacteria from forming. This is more likely in home kitchens, where sanitation and precautions may not be up to par with that of commercial manufacturers. 

Most commercial manufacturers, on the other hand, have more control and awareness of the sanitation precautions in their manufacturing facilities. They must adhere to certain FDA regulations that inherently makes contamination difficult. 

While some manufacturers pasteurize their kombucha for safety reasons, others may choose to pasteurize their kombucha in order to remove alcohol, a natural byproduct of fermentation. Regardless of the reason, they may then supplement their kombucha with probiotics after pasteurization to provide the beneficial bacteria consumers want. Their kombucha is still not considered raw, however. Once heated to these temperatures, kombucha is now pasteurized.

Is there a difference between naturally-occurring bacteria strains and the bacteria added in after the brewing process? Well, it may come down to the diversity and ratios of bacteria more than the number of bacteria. Understanding bacteria and how it potentially affects our health is complex and still being studied.

Related: Kombucha Brewing 101: How Is Kombucha Made?

Is Raw Kombucha Safe?

Raw kombucha is safe to drink, just as yogurts, kefir and sauerkraut are safe to eat. There is a caveat: some doctors may advise pregnant patients to avoid unpasteurized products. While the risk for consuming harmful bacteria in raw kombucha is extremely low, some doctors still list it as one of many products to avoid during pregnancy. That being said, many pregnant women choose to continue enjoying their favorite raw foods, like sushi – so there’s an element of personal risk assessment there too. 

To put it simply: raw kombucha contains a wide range of naturally-occurring, safe, and beneficial strains of bacteria. Pasteurized kombucha is not raw and therefore does not contain any naturally-occurring beneficial bacteria. If any probiotics are present, they have been added after the fermentation process.

If you want to be sure you’re getting the beneficial bacteria strains that are unique to traditionally-brewed, raw kombucha, you may have to go beyond reading labels. Not all manufacturers post on their labels whether their kombucha is raw. Check their website if you’re unsure or give them a call and ask. 

Related: Why Isn’t My Kombucha Fizzy? Has It Gone Bad?

You Probably Already Eat Raw and Unpasteurized Foods

There’s no denying that pasteurizing foods can have health benefits, in some cases. One example would be eggs, which are prone to carrying salmonella and other potentially harmful bacteria. Although, if you ask any eighties or nineties kid about eating raw cookie dough or uncooked cake batter, they’ll probably admit they did it with gusto. 

The truth is, with modern food processing standards, there are very low rates of these kinds of bacteria, even in higher risk foods like poultry. 

Chances are, while many people are concerned about these things today, they probably didn’t worry about them much in the past. In fact, you probably still eat a variety of other raw foods without ever considering whether they are raw or pasteurized. 

Raw fish doesn’t only mean sushi. It could also be ceviche or half shell oysters. Even some kinds of cold smoked seafood aren’t technically cooked enough to kill all bad bacteria. So, if you regularly reach for smoked salmon your bagels, you might be eating foods that are on the border of being raw. 

Dairy is another common food type where you’re likely to encounter more items that are not pasteurized. This might include some kinds of cheese like brie and Roquefort, as well as raw milk and yogurt. Even some soft Mexican cheeses like queso fresco might not be pasteurized. 

Finally, (although this list is far from exhaustive, and there are other examples out there!) there are eggs. Many eggs are pasteurized these days, but some aren’t. So, if you’re using them for lightly cooked preparations like hollandaise or even classic omelets (or to top a steak tartare), you’re definitely eating raw! 

How to Enjoy More Raw Kombucha

The good news is that raw foods, including kombucha, are actually very low risk for most people. If you’re otherwise healthy, not an infant and not pregnant, most raw foods are safe to eat. Of course, if you’re ever concerned, just ask your doctor and follow their recommendations.

So, when you ask what is raw kombucha, the first answer will always be: an absolutely delicious tea beverage that has beneficial bacteria. 

In fact, if you’ve been wondering how to get more of this tasty, unique and refreshing beverage in your life, you’re in luck. There are many ways you can incorporate more raw kombucha into your diet. Try it over ice in a cocktail or mix it with freshly squeezed juice in a mocktail. Blend with fruit and veggies in a smoothie or reduce with herbs and spices for an interesting sauce on your favorite dish. Whichever way you choose to enjoy more raw kombucha, you can browse our flavors here and find a store near you!

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