From A Mysterious Mushroom Tea to Popular Probiotic Beverage: Where will Kombucha Innovation Go Next?
Back in 1995, when the first kombuchas arrived on the market in the U.S., not many would have predicted that the fermented drink marketed initially as "mushroom tea" would generate $2.3 billion in global sales in 20211.1
The rise of kombucha aligns with the growing demand for healthy hydration and consumers' broad adoption of functional beverages. While kombucha has benefited from those accelerating trends, it is also evolving and innovating to propel the market forward.
Kombucha's Wellness Roots Meet Functional-Forward Beverage Trends
Kombucha is created by brewing tea, adding sugar, and fermenting the mixture with a SCOBY - a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The process creates carbon dioxide, alcohol, acetic acid, and other organic acids. The result is a bubbly, acidic, slightly alcoholic beverage with its original roots in the wellness world.
The intrigue of the mysterious liquid that originated in Northeast China around 220 B.C. was ignited on a large scale by Dave GT, founder of G.T.'s Kombucha. He claims that drinking kombucha contributed to his mother's recovery from breast cancer. While there isn't a lot of conclusive data on kombucha's direct impact on human health, the fact that it is considered a probiotic beverage has influenced consumers' perception of kombucha as a gut-health-promoting product. Many consumers have accepted claims that probiotics can improve digestion, support the immune system, aid in weight loss, reduce blood pressure, and even prevent cancer. Kombucha also contains antioxidants, which studies have shown can reduce cancer risk, prevent vision loss, and lower the chances of heart disease.
Kombuchas are benefiting from the maturing of the functional space. They are also doing their part to propel innovation in response to advancing research and evolving consumer health and taste trends and demands.
Functional Flavors with Less Sugar
Kombucha utilizes sugar in the fermentation process, but sugar is also often added to the finished product to mask or tone down the beverage's inherent sour and acidic flavors. Some brands have as many as 28 grams of sugar (seven teaspoons). As more consumers watch their sugar intake, kombucha companies are looking for ways to lower sugars or find healthier sugar sources.
Brands like Humm Kombucha are launching no and low-sugar kombucha options utilizing proprietary fermentation processes that consume all residual sugars. Some kombuchas contain a small amount of sugar from added fruit juices. Others, like Humm Zero, add natural sweeteners such as allulose or monk fruit, allowing their labels to boast zero added sugars. Humm's process also allows for a shelf-stable kombucha product as there isn't any residual sugar for the yeast to continue fermenting.
More Shelf-Stable Kombuchas
Shelf stability has been problematic for kombucha brands because it is highly unstable at room temperature. Kombucha brands have had to fight for space in the highly competitive "cold shelf" at grocery retailers; solving the shelf stability hurdle allows kombucha to compete on "warm" (non-refrigerated) shelves in drink aisles.
Several brands use proprietary filtration and encapsulation technology that allow probiotic bacteria to survive pasteurization and live at room temperatures, but then break down and become active in the gut so that consumers receive the probiotic health benefits. These technologies are being employed by non-alcoholic (less than .5% alcohol) and alcoholic kombuchas like Flying Embers, which claims to be the only hard kombucha that meets the World Health Organization (WHO) standard of integrating live probiotics that provide verified health benefits.
Dialing in Alcohol Content
Depending on how it's brewed and stored, kombucha can contain anywhere from .5% to 2% alcohol. If a kombucha contains more than .5% alcohol, it must be sold as an alcoholic beverage and is subject to the same regulations and tax requirements as other alcoholic beverages.
Especially after the 2010 crackdown by the TTB on kombucha containing more than the legally-allowed alcohol content, brands have developed and marked various methods to reduce alcohol in a product that typically includes at least trace amounts of alcohol as a byproduct of fermentation. From spinning cone technology and filtration to non-heat distillation, kombucha companies are creating and leveraging ways to ensure they can control the amount of alcohol their products contain.
While some kombuchas focus on the no and low-alcohol segments, others are going in the opposite direction. Hard kombuchas ranging from 3.2% to 8% ABV now compete with beer, wine, and cocktails to give consumers an option that leverages the "health halo" of kombucha. Boochcraft is an organic, hard kombucha that is unpasteurized, live-cultured, and probiotic. Some newer brands are even leveraging the popularity of RTD canned cocktails by launching kombucha-based cocktails, like June Shine Spirits, canned kombucha cocktails that boast 8-10% ABV and no added sugar. These alcoholic beverages often ride on the health claims that come with kombucha's probiotic nature and the fermentation process. Still, companies in this space have to be careful to comply with the strict regulations surrounding health claims on alcoholic products.
Formulating for Functional Claims and Leveraging Labels
When it comes to functional beverages like kombuchas, how companies call out ingredients and health claims can make a difference with consumers. Kombucha companies can look to the evolution of dairy products like yogurt and Kefir to get a taste of what kinds of probiotic benefits gut-health-focused customers are looking for on labels.
The more familiar consumers become with probiotics and their different forms and functions, the more room there is to expand on differentiating factors by calling out specific strains or showcasing bacterial count (colony forming units or CFUs). As more information about probiotics is published, organizations like The International Scientific Association for probiotics and prebiotics are helping to organize data and establish best practices for studying and sharing science around probiotics. Brew Dr. Kombucha is an example of a company that has faced scrutiny over probiotic bacteria labeling.
Layering on Additional Functionality
In addition to leaning on more active probiotics, some kombuchas are adding other ingredients to appeal to the desires of the functional beverage consumer. From ingredients such as caffeine, electrolytes, and superfruits to flavors such as lemon and ginger that complement the "gut health" halo of kombucha products, kombucha brands are finding more ways to be functional-forward. Wonder Drink Kombucha comes in several flavors with corresponding functions, like Prickly Pear Cascara for Focus and Tumeric Ginger for Radiance. The beverages also feature electrolytes and vitamins.
Opening Minds and Creating Opportunities
As more people are opening their minds to the potential benefits of kombucha, the kombucha industry is exploring more viable ways to scale formulations for commercial production. Some brands are moving from using a SCOBY to leverage simpler mixed bacteria cultures that can be added to tea and sugar and treated more like industrial fermentation.
The success of the kombucha category is also opening opportunities for adjacent probiotic beverages. Gut-friendly functional sodas that started with brands like Poppi and Health-Ade are drawing in new entrants like Teonic, Mortal Kombucha, and Turveda Super Soda. The positioning of these probiotic carbonated soft drinks could serve to expose an even broader base of consumers to the kombucha beverage space.
There is still a lot to learn and explore in kombucha, but the market seems committed to continuing to pour into the potential it sees in these evolving, functional, probiotic beverages.
- Kiel, A. (2021, December 1). Global Kombucha Tea Market to reach $4.5 billion by 2028. World Tea News. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://www.worldteanews.com/issues-trends/global-kombucha-tea-market-reach-45-billion-2028