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Getting Cultured on the Kombucha Craze

“What IS that?!”

Exclaim the majority of people who enter my kitchen. It’s a near guarantee as soon as their eyes glance over to the glass jar with the floating discs and hanging strands.

As they lean in to get a closer look, I prepare to launch into my usual spiel:

1. Yes, it is for drinking

2. Yes, it does taste good

3. Yes, it has great benefits

Before I have the opportunity to even mention points 2 and 3, I’m interrupted with a reaction of wide eyes and mouth agape, as the level of intrigue instantaneously turns to utter confusion and disbelief. I can feel their eyes scanning my body for an extra limb, a third eye or some other visible sign of abnormality.

Today, I’ll answer all your questions as to what exactly is going on in that glass jar on my kitchen countertop. Kombucha: a fermented, effervescent beverage touting high probiotic qualities. Probiotics are healthy bacteria and yeasts, similar to the cultures we find in yogurt, which allow better digestion and gut health. Kombucha starts with sweetened green or black tea and a SCOBY culture (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), the SCOBY eats the sugar and ferments the tea. A SCOBY can also be referred to as a “mother,” given its ability to reproduce another SCOBY layer with every new batch or a “mushroom,” given its disc-like appearance.

After picking up a bottle on a whim in 2012, it was love at first sip. The fizzy, fruity drink with probiotics had everything going for it…or I should say almost everything. It’s only apparent disadvantage? The cost. The average price in 2014 was $3.24 for a bottle of Kombucha in Natural and Specialty Channels, which has remained fairly consistent over time. Because the brewing process is time-intensive, price per bottle presents a significant barrier for new consumers curious about the product and repeating price-conscious consumers. Considering that I was neither willing to give up its unique taste nor spend a fortune on my newfound beverage of choice, I was left with only one option…rekindle my DIY spirit and start brewing my own.

After acquiring a glass jar and my own SCOBY for a mere $10 from a local Craigslist posting, I was ready to brew. The recipe is simple: SCOBY + Starter Kombucha + Sweet Tea + Time, taking anywhere between 14-21 days to produce a batch. After the brew is fermented to personal liking, it is poured into smaller, drinking bottles for consumption. As an extra step, some brewers will add fruit, ginger or other sweeteners for a shorter secondary fermentation period which produces flavored variations of the tea.

Perhaps you’re already familiar with Kombucha. As consumers seek alternative, healthier and more functional beverage options over traditional, sugar-laden soft drinks, Kombucha’s rising popularity has given way to strong performance across all channels and a greater presence in mainstream conventional channels. The proof is in Kombucha’s growth rates, with Natural Channel and Specialty Gourmet Channel sales both growing at +15.4% and +34.0% respectively, year over year since June 2013. The sales growth rate within Multi-Outlet has ballooned +64.9% annually since June 2013, surpassing $127 million in sales in the latest 52 weeks.

There are a few notable brands to start with if you’re feeling inspired to try Kombucha. GT Kombucha is one of the most prevalent options, which has a variety of approachable flavors and styles. If you’re a ginger devout, you can’t go wrong with the Gingerade flavor. Another option

is GT’s Black Label Kombucha, which will get you carded at checkout, but the bold flavor will deliver a “true” (read: greater than .05% alcohol content) Kombucha experience.

Tapuat Brewing Company is a local Midwestern brand, brewing small batches in Door County, Wisconsin and gradually picking up distribution across the Central Plains. If you find yourself in Door County this summer, Tapuat recently opened a small tap counter where you can get as close to the source as possible, fill up growlers, and score some limited small batch flavors.

In Norfolk, Virginia, one entrepreneur has even opened a full service Kombucha bar and microbrewery, creatively named Kombuchick. The bar serves pints of Kombucha and Kombucha-based nonalcoholic cocktails. The creative flavors and unique atmosphere have generated rave reviews from customers, where you’ll find Kombucha lemon drops and cosmopolitans, among a myriad of other Kombucha mocktails.

Kombucha is poised for success with its fizzy body, flavorful profile and functional benefits as it leads the way for cultured beverages. I believe that the Kombucha segment will continue to grow, especially as consumers continue to demand beverages that are more natural and have less refined sugar. As it becomes more widely available within the conventional channel and more competitors enter the space, average cost per unit should start to lessen. With decreased prices and new flavor innovations, barriers related to new consumer trial and increased repeat should start to diminish and ultimately unleash the growth of this cultured beverage to its full potential.