Kombucha: Modern History, Ancient Beverage

K o m b u c h a : M o d e r n H i s t o r y , A n c i e n t B e v e r a g e

In our last installation, we talked about the basics and background of tea-based kombucha.  In this article we’d like to talk about its more modern history and how the industry has grown in recent years.

We will set the scene in the early 2000s, when the kombucha industry first saw rapid growth, as many health stores and specialty markets began carrying bottles.  As demand rose, new kombucha suppliers were launched and new products started to hit the shelf, it looked like kombucha was on course for major mainstream demand.

That is, until one fateful day in 2010, when a Maine food safety inspector noticed bottles leaking at a Whole Foods in Portland.  Upon testing, it turned out that the kombucha’s alcohol levels varied anywhere from 0.5% to 2.5%, far above the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s regulations.

The reason behind this was simple fermentation.  Many kombuchas (after creating the base using tea) have fruits and other flavors added to the fermented beverage just before bottling.  Many of these “adjuncts” (as they are usually referred to) contain sugars that, when introduced to the remaining yeast and bacteria in the beverage, produce even more alcohol through a process known as secondary fermentation.

Whether the manufacturers did not know about the secondary fermentation out of sheer ignorance or simply failed to properly test the final product before bringing it to market, the result was definitive: the manufacturing of kombucha came to a virtual halt when Whole Foods demanded a recall.  Months went by, with no major retailer wanting to associate with “falsely labeled” kombucha.

Then, in a perfect firestorm of social confusion, in a July 2010 tweet, celebrity actress Lindsay Lohan blamed her kombucha consumption for her blood-alcohol monitor going off, almost directly tying kombucha to her alcohol abuse problems.  It seemed like a bitter end to a short-lived, shining future.

But what could have been a nail in the coffin turned out to be a much-needed educational tool for the industry, forcing kombucha manufacturers to more fully recognize and understand the regulations and reformulate their products to lower the alcohol percentages to meet these regulations.  By 2014, US sales of bottled kombucha topped over $400 million.  Kombucha was back: the industry was better educated and safer than ever.

Since then, the industry has seen steady growth, and been able to hone their message of product safety and traditional health benefits.   As a major sign of market assurance, in late 2016 beverage leader PepsiCo fully acquired kombucha maker KeVita, bringing the brand (and beverage) to a global audience.

An interesting (and somewhat ironic) divergence from the Great 2010 Kombucha Recall was an idea relatively new to the world of kombucha: intentionally high alcohol kombucha.  By increasing the amount of sugars and yeast in the ratio, this new form of kombucha more closely resembled beer (unsurprisingly, considering the alcohol from beer is also associated with its yeast and sugars).   This brought kombucha to a completely new audience: craft beer.

But more on that next time, when we discuss the future of kombucha.