Kombucha - The Challenges of Moving Mainstream

Kombucha has been championed as a magical elixir in organic sectors for quite some time, but recently the revolution has become well and truly televised. A blistering number of start-ups and high profile corporate acquisitions are driving this fermented favourite straight into the commercial mainstream. With market growth projected to continue, how can smaller brands position themselves to compete with these big players, their large-scale production processes and seemingly-infinite marketing budgets?


A quick internet search reveals exactly where kombucha sits on its journey towards becoming a go-to drink for the masses. Almost all major news outlets and online information sources have, at some point in the last 12 months, profiled kombucha in terms of what it is, how it is made and whether it truly is ‘healthy’. Aids for the curious public attempting to understand why a recently unknown quantity is suddenly on the shelves of 7-Eleven and a part of the Coca-Cola Empire.


These overviews are ideal for fact finding missions, but when it comes to kombucha the devil is in the detail. The brewing process is, like any fermentation, heavily scientific. At its bedrock is a mutualistic relationship between yeast and bacteria that, during a slow fermentation, develops a product that is rich in probiotics and provides the drink with its naturally-fizzy, uniquely acidic flavour profile. The process is also continuous, from when the SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), sugar and tea meet right the way to the moment it is consumed, allowing those much-fabled probiotics to continue to thrive and make their way into your body. ‘This all makes the product quite volatile’ said Patrick O’Connor, founder of Birmingham-based PJ Kombucha, ‘so it has a naturally short shelf life.’


A recent recall of one brand of bottled kombucha in Australia sums up the challenges of taking a traditional product to the mass market. ‘Any kombucha with a shelf life of greater than four months has likely been manipulated away from the traditional’, he says. ‘There could be micro-filtration, pasteurisation, dilution or addition of sugar-based products, all of which would render the product non-traditional and could potentially remove some of the health benefits.’


It isn’t just the product that can be manipulated to extend the shelf life; the manufacturing process can also be altered. ‘Fermentation of kombucha takes somewhere between 21 and 28 days. This can be quickened, however then it may not be long enough for the benefits of the drink to be fully materialised. Ingredients can also be altered to lower alcohol production, but this upsets the balance between yeast and bacteria and can alter the taste’.


When it comes to kombucha in the UK, it seems the more traditional aspects are being embraced, which is good news for start-ups and innovators alike.  A ‘craft’ scene is beginning to unfold, with kombucha being positioned as a natural, low-sugar and fizzy alternative to soft drinks, as well as a low-alcohol alternative to, well, alcohol. Add into that the potential medical benefits and you can see why a once health-store stalwart is moving into cafes, restaurants and pubs up and down the country. Even the home-brewers are getting in on the act and that can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole. With more and more young people turning their back on alcohol, it’s easy to see how kombucha is gathering so much traction.


‘It is just such a versatile drink’ says Patrick, ‘and although there are many variables that can impact production, if done right it is difficult to mess up’. The research backs up what he has to say. A recent report by Grand View Research shows the global market is expected to grow by 23% annually until 2025, driven by ‘innovations, flavour experimentation and increasing awareness regarding health benefits associated with kombucha consumption’.


The flavour experimentation is where things are really booming, with creative infusions making the drink more accessible to the masses. Blueberry and cinnamon, raspberry lemonade, matcha and mint - you name it and there are manufacturers brewing it, and doing so because people are buying it. Add to that a near-endless combination of teas and sugars and you have a product that can be tailored to suit any palate. No wonder that 2018 saw kombucha sales in the US grow quicker than any other soft drink.


So with all this excitement, what of the much-fabled health benefits? There are certainly lots of claims about just how kombucha can help you; everything from improving digestive health to warding off cancer, but at the moment they remain just that: claims. While animal tests have provided results that warrant further study, human tests have not born any positive conclusive fruit. Yet.


The arrival of a science-backed endorsement in the coming future would surely see kombucha sales expand exponentially as conscious consumers rush to buy a drink with proven benefits. For now, growth is already healthy. Investment is strong and innovations continue to hit the market. Those scaling to get to mass market convenience leave behind a buoyant and expanding craft scene where quality and ethical methods are becoming a prevalent USP. So when it comes to positioning your brand in an increasingly competitive arena, just pause for thought. When it comes to Kombucha, there’s value in sticking with tradition.