How Kombucha Conquered the World - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How Kombucha Conquered the World

Kombucha begins with a SCOBY, which is an acronym for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.” SCOBYs can range in color from roux brown to waxy yellow to pearly white. They can be as small as a drinks coaster or as big as a manhole cover. They’re often round like the containers they’ve occupied, and have a pliant, rubbery texture. Fellow children of the ’70s may notice they look precisely like the smooth underside of novelty plastic barf.

Add a SCOBY to brewed tea and sugar, put it in a warm place for a week or so to ferment, and it will produce a jar of kombucha. Which is? Well, a little alcohol and a lot of fizz. Billions of bacteria and phytochemicals. Acetic and lactic acids, which are sour, but some residual sugar to balance the flavor. Also, another SCOBY. Now you have two, soon to be four, and before long you’ll be stacking your spares in a so-called “SCOBY hotel.”

Every new SCOBY apparently mints a new ’booch drinker. The American market has grown huge, having bloomed from essentially zero in 1995 to $1.8 billion today. Hard kombucha—the kind where producers don’t strive to keep the alcohol below 0.5 percent ABV but instead pump it up—is already big in Southern California and rolling out elsewhere as fast as brewers can brew.

Do that many people believe in the salubrious effects of kombucha? That it will boost their immune systems, lower their blood pressure, and help with their hair loss? Have today’s producers (more than 300 belong to Kombucha Brewers International) learned to cover up ’booch’s distinctive whiff of sourness and spoilage with added flavors? Or has the American palate become more accepting of funky fermented flavors?

In a way, people who drink kombucha become part of its symbiotic process. These organisms count on us for their reproduction. That may be why the people who make kombucha often tell the same story—that they didn’t choose kombucha, it chose them.

Kemiko Lawrence was well into her 40s and devoted to her family’s well-being when kombucha found her. She was living in the South, homeschooling her five kids, raising chickens, and teaching yoga on the side. She’d long been shopping in natural food markets and health food stores, and raising her own vegetables. “We didn’t buy sodas and drank only fresh-pressed juice,” she recalls. “But buying individual bottled drinks for the entire family was too expensive, so I asked around my homeschooling community about cheaper alternatives, and one of the moms gave me a starter culture.”

She made her first batch in a big glass jar. Soon she had four jars and so many SCOBYs she was feeding them to the chickens. The kids loved watered-down kombucha popsicles almost as much as the science lesson she devised: letting sealed bottles over-ferment and explode.

She began selling a few bottles to yoga studio colleagues only three years ago at their behest. She soon found “the interest was just insane.” She saw the opportunity, built a landing page for Kemboocha, and worked with one of her yoga students, who was a graphic artist, to create a logo with a yogi seated in a heart.

Today she has 100-gallon fermenters, a full-time operations manager, a growing team, and space in a shared production kitchen where she pumps out four flavors named for “goddesses of the galaxy”—sun, earth, moon, and star. She’s barely able to keep a handful of Atlanta-area markets and coffeehouses in stock, particularly in late summer when she brews her seasonal muscadine flavor that has a cult following. A scout from Sweetgreen, the national salad chain, discovered Kemboocha on a scouting trip and wants it for all the new outlets rolling out in the Southeast. “I’ve really got to expand,” she jokes about looking for extra help and a dedicated production facility. “The SCOBYs are pushing me out.”

Daina Trout never set out to go into the ’booch biz, either. She was barely 30, living in Southern California, and fond of purple-and-pink hair dye, when she started an entrepreneur club with her husband and her best friend. They were inspired and devised an only-in-L.A. business plan: They’d grow SCOBYs for men to wear on their heads like yarmulkes to prevent hair loss. The kombucha itself was a by-product. “We were making SCOBYs to save the world from baldness,” she says with a laugh. “But we had all this kombucha taking over our apartment. So we took it to the Brentwood Farmers Market and sold out in less than two hours.” Each serving had been funneled into a squat, 16-ounce amber glass bottle—the cheapest Trout could find. “We decided to make the brand apothecary-looking, circa 1800.”

The people who first started making kombucha here had grandparents from Russia and the Caucuses. —Julia Skinner

So began Health-Ade Kombucha in 2012. Today, it’s one of the market leaders, with nearly $200 million in annual retail sales. Every bottle rolling out derives from the original SCOBY. “We still keep the master,” says Trout. “At first, I played it classical music at night. Now it’s in a SCOBY hotel.”

Trout likes to tell the story of the friend who brought this SCOBY back from Tibet, which underlines its association with Eastern medicine. Kombucha’s oft-repeated origin stories take place in ancient China or Japan, and one mentions a Korean Dr. Kombu who prescribed it. But Julia Skinner, a food historian who will soon publish a book on the history of fermentation, says its origins probably land in Central Europe, adding that in the early 20th century it traveled westward, to Ukraine and Weimar Germany, where some pharmacies called it “Fungojapon” and touted it as Asian medicine.

Then it jumped the pond. “The people who first started making kombucha here had grandparents from Russia and the Caucuses,” says Skinner. By the 1960s it had found its way to the counterculture natural foods movement. There were plenty of home brewers, but no commercial bottlings since it’s fundamentally unstable. As Trout notes, “It’s a wild ferment and the yeasts are untamed. They’ll just keep making alcohol and carbon dioxide.” Bottled kombucha can easily end up as vinegar or a science experiment. Who would attempt it?

That would be GT Dave, who grew up in Beverly Hills in a family of privilege that was highly engaged in spiritualism. As the story (detailed on every bottle of GT’s Living Foods Kombucha) goes, his mother defeated breast cancer in large part, she thinks, due to homebrewed ’booch. After witnessing this, Dave left college at the age of 17 and started brewing at the family home, selling his first bottles in 1995. By 2010, the kombucha market had grown to more than $350 million, and much of that share was GT’s. Dave taught Americans to embrace kombucha and not be alarmed by the bits of SCOBY floating within, proof of its living cultures.

But the market crashed that year when tests of some bottles (not GT’s) showed the kombucha exceeded the legal limit of 0.5 percent ABV. Its healthy image severely damaged, kombucha disappeared overnight from the shelves of Whole Foods Markets across the country. The grocery market wouldn’t invite kombucha back until producers could prove they’d changed their formulations.

Some companies tried pasteurizing it, but that was like throwing kombucha’s baby out with the bath water. Without living cultures, kombucha’s health claims were moot. GT’s poured a lot of R&D into fine-tuning every stage of fermentation to continue as before. But most producers settled on a method that has since become the norm.

If you’re brewing flavored kombucha at home, chances are you’ll add fruit juice and flavorings and let a second fermentation happen in a (hopefully) fizz-trapping sealed bottle. Commercial brewers now add the flavorings and force-carbonate the mixture, which results in a more reliable and better-behaved commercial product. This development has helped usher in a new generation of craft brewers like Kemboocha and allowed national brands like Health-Ade, Humm, and KeVita (now owned by PepsiCo) to chip away at GT’s dominance. Today, these four brands account for about 85 percent of all kombucha sales.

Luna Bay Booch. | Photo by Ettakit.

But it turns out if drinkers know the alcohol is there, they don’t always mind it. Hard kombucha is now the fastest-growing spin-off category; one industry study predicts more than 40 percent annual growth, resulting in a $1 billion global market by 2026.

Bridget Connelly was living in San Diego where she saw a variety of local brands—Boochcraft, JuneShine, Flying Embers—showing up at parties, restaurants, and liquor stores. “I saw the hard kombucha category taking off. I’m from Chicago, and I know that trends always make their way to the Midwest, so I decided to move back and launch there.”

Once ensconced in the city by the lake, she started not with the kombucha itself, but with the brand—Luna Bay. “I envisioned it as a hybrid place where city meets coast. I thought about the luna moon and its female energy, and how water is part of our lifestyle.”

While she designed the cans with their beach-washed colors and celestial star logos, brewer Claire Ridge developed the product with consultation from microbiologists and sour beer brewers. Investors ranged from a prominent Chicago commercial real estate developer to Connelly’s dad. They launched the brand at Pilot Project, a Chicago incubator for craft brewing, but soon moved production to Colorado. Unlike other brands brewed from black or green tea, Luna Bay aims more Latin American than Asian in its choices of ingredients, starting with yerba mate, and its distinctive flavors range from hibiscus lavender to palo santo blueberry. It packs the soft punch of a pale ale.

Kombucha speaks directly to a part of me. I believe in its benefits as I believe in taking care of yourself and having quality input on all levels and through all your senses. —Kemiko Lawrence

Connelly has found that the pandemic has been beneficial to the growth of her business; as grocers empty out their self-serve salad bars, more refrigerated space opens up for displays of this interesting new beverage that must remain cold. Between 2019 and 2020, her sales increased by more than 2,100 percent, and she plans to roll out in 10 states this year.

While she won’t make unfounded health claims, Connelly likes to call hard kombucha a “better for you alcohol” thanks to the presence of live cultures. Health-Ade’s Trout takes care to cite the science—organic acids and certain phytochemicals have been proven salubrious for the gut biome in peer- reviewed studies—before breaking into the more general observations of a fermented foods enthusiast. “Science is doing its best,” she says, “but it’s an iterative process; with food we have to be more intuitive and less prescriptive.”

“Kombucha speaks directly to a part of me,” adds Kemiko Lawrence. “I believe in its benefits as I believe in taking care of yourself and having quality input on all levels and through all your senses. Food is medicine, and food is spiritual.” But she laughs briefly when she thinks about how kombucha has taken over her life. “You know it’s just like with the SCOBYs. It multiplies and keeps expanding, and you’ve got to grow with it.”

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