We asked three fermentation experts if recent popularity of fermented foods is a fading trend or a new food movement. These industry professionals weigh in on their predictions for fermentation’s future. The fermenters include Katherine Harmon Courage (author of “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome”), Aneta Lundquist (owner of 221 BC Kombucha) and Alex Lewin (author of “Real Food Fermentation” and “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond”)
Do you think the surge of fermented food and drinks is a trend will disappear or a new food movement here to stay?
Katherine Harmon Courage, author of “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome”: It’s here to stay. I expect to see it expanding and incorporating into more people’s lives. There is really compelling research with the health benefits, but there’s also these amazing flavors for those of us who weren’t raised with it. Like kimchi. Once you eat kimchi, food seems bland and lacking without it. Koreans describe it as “You need kimchi with every meal.” They can’t imagine eating it without. The flavor and texture experience is a big part of eating. We shouldn’t be forcing it down for our health, but truly enjoying it.
Aneta Lundquist, Owner 221 BC Kombucha: The future is fermented. Stretching back as far as human history itself, the origins of fermentation are hard to track down. People have been teaming up with microbes for much longer than we know. Almost every culture appears to have embraced fermentation for millennia but without a deeper understanding of it’s purpose. Fortunately for us, today’s science became “microbes-curios” and surprised us with some terrific findings. One of the most important ones is that we actually are ONE large thriving ecosystem and its survival is based on an ongoing symbiotic dance between microbial and human cells. Those cells communicate with each other and the outside world, exchange their DNAs and they even shape human behaviors. Now, in the 21st Century, we finally started embracing this profound partnership because of its obvious benefits (gut-brain connection, anti-inflammatory properties, digestive help, depression and Alzheimer aid… this list is almost endless). And there is no way back from here. Demand on fermenting foods is going to only grow from now on. As soon as so called “good microbes” from fermented food find a safe home in human guts, they will call for more of its kind. This is how “they” operate! Suddenly, people will crave kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi-ferment generally. And that is exactly what we are observing now.
Alex Lewin, author of “Real Food Fermentation” and “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond”: Fermentation is not a new technology — in fact, it is one of our oldest! People have been doing it for millennia, and microbes have been doing it on their own since before humans even darkened the earth.
So by the numbers, it qualifies as a trend or movement.
But it’s definitely not a fad.
And to be fair, in some parts of the world, fermentation was never “out of fashion”. In Korea, for instance, kimchi has been a staple food for a very long time, often eaten with every meal.
My forecast for North America is that fermentation will continue to grow.
This is because fermentation is the meeting point of a few trends that are on the rise here:
– Health. We are more interested in health (and concerned about health) now than we have been at any time in recent memory. We are learning more about gut health and how it affects the rest of human physiology. Fermented foods are directly related to gut health.
– Food. North Americans watch more food TV than ever before, and celebrity chefs are as famous as pro athletes. People are eating things on a regular basis that their parents had never heard of.
– Sustainability/Infrastructure Resilience. Producing and preserving food without reliance on electricity and other infrastructure is an important thing that we as individuals can do to prepare for an uncertain future that will include climate change and may include dramatic societal change and partial or total infrastructure collapse.
Western North Carolina is becoming “a hot spot for fermented goods” thanks to female entrepreneurs. These fermented product brand leaders credit the health-conscious culture of Asheville, N.C. with helping their businesses thrive in “Ferment City.” Sara Schomber of the Buchi Mamas tells Asheville’s Mountain Xpress: “Fermentation is all about the alchemy of ingredients normally found in the hearth and home where, for centuries, women have been the keepers. We believe fermentation is the expression of a natural tendency, the human spirit’s way of giving itself permission to heal and inviting all of us to extend beyond our own immediate mortality. It’s normal and natural for humans to want to preserve, put away and celebrate.” Local brands featured include: Shanti Elixirs Jun, Smiling Hara Tempeh, Yoga Bucha kombucha, Buchi Kombucha, Sister of Mother Earth cider and honey, Serotonin ferments ferments and Fermenti Foods ferments.
Read more (Mountain Xpress) http://bit.ly/2B61p0Q
Josko Gravner of Gravner Wines ferments deeply — he ferments his wine in large amphora, clay vessels that he buries outdoors. Gravner, who helped pioneer the wave of orange wines, runs a family cellar in northeastern Italy. He became “disillusioned with modern enology’s techniques” of conventional wines — like steel tanks in the cellar and chemical fertilizers in the vineyards. Gravner Wines is now an organic farm and very low tech, using a 1950s-era hydraulic basket press and ancient fermenting techniques. The wine is not only buried, it’s made using whole-cluster fermentation with the stems. Gravner finds whole-cluster fermentation in amphorae keeps the grape skins naturally submerged while still aerating the wine without manual punch downs.
Read more (Wine Spectator)
As the dairy industry declines rapidly – milk sales plummeted by $1.1 billion in 2018 – fermented dairy could help dairy farmers reclaim the grocery aisle.
More Americans are turning to plant-based options, like nut, oat, rice and soy milk. The demand for milk-based alternatives from companies like Miyoko’s Kitchen (vegan, plant-based dairy products) and Perfect Day Foods (oat milk with fermented yeast) are popular with modern consumers.
A study from The Nutrition society published in the Cambridge University Press found multiple health benefits of fermented milk drinks like kefir. Fermented dairy improves digestion, produces anti-inflammatory effects, increases colonization of good gut bacteria and stimulates antioxidants, researchers found. Fermented dairy is high in protein, high in live probiotics and improves lactose digestion.
“Consuming fermented dairy can [help] the digestive system because it actually adds more beneficial bacteria to the system,” said Nicole Dynan, a dietitian with gut health expertise. She spoke to Dairy Australia in an article about the power of fermented dairy. “If we put it in simple terms, most of our bacteria live in the large intestine and can assist that existing population of bacteria to balance out the good and bad. Fermented dairy can contain microbiota that make by-products called short-chain fatty acids that can help release anti-inflammatory benefits into the body.”
“Fermented dairy can also represent a precious source of other nutrients and vitamins such as C and E, while balancing out the ‘bad’ bacteria that can lead to common digestive problems such as bloating, diarrhea, pain and gas,” she says.
Dairy Alternatives Full of “Frankenfood”
Today, 19 percent of yogurt varieties are plant-based. Christopher Malnar, vice president of marketing for Stonyfield, says the ingredient lists on dairy-free yogurts are often alarming. They’re highly processed, full of sugar, chemical stabilizers and what he called “frankenfood.” Organic dairy, meanwhile, is a clean ingredient list with no high processing.
Brands can create demand for dairy again by raising awareness, Malnar said. They can educate on the benefits of dairy and organic products.
“How can we be more innovative as an industry?” Malnar said. “We understand where the market is going [but Stonyfield is] staying true to our core in dairy, recognizing that there are some needs out there.” Stonyfield is currently testing a fruit and vegetable pouch.
Malnar spoke at a panel on organic dairy in September during Natural Products Expo East. When educating consumers on dairy, the panel of organic dairy leaders said it’s important to highlight proper animal treatment. Fairlife Dairy recently came under fire after a video was released of employees abusing calves and cows in a processing facility. Tim Joseph, the founding farmer at Maple Hill Creamery, said he thinks brands lose consumers when they educate them with scientific facts “because it’s just too much information.” Animal welfare is a major consumer driver.
“It’s not whether we think it is right or wrong in the end, it’s what the consumer is looking for,” Joseph said. “Animal welfare is I think the next biggest areas consumers are focusing on.”
Not all Milks Are Equal
A major consumer for plant-based milk: new moms. Mothers, many who adopt a healthy, organic lifestyle once they have children, are turning to dairy alternatives because they believe it’s the healthiest option for their child.
“We’re feeling like we have to go back in time and educate on the value of dairy,” said Melissa Hughes, chief mission officer and general counsel for Organic Valley. “It’s not necessarily to say that plant based isn’t the right thing, but especially for a lot of young moms, make the choice based on good science and good understanding of what the nutritional value is for your child.”
American dietary guidelines dictate that, besides water, milk is the only other drink recommended for children.
Jessica Shade, the director of science programs for the Organic Center, presented findings of a study on modern milk in today’s grocery market, comparing organic and conventional milk. The biggest takeaway: Americans should be choosing dairy milk for the nutritional benefits, and organic milk to avoid exposure to harmful chemicals.
Shade said she was surprised testing milk that non-organic varieties test positive for antibiotics, high levels of growth hormones and pesticide contaminants. “…it is much more ubiquitous than previously thought,” Shade added. Many of these are illegal residues are banned by the Food and Drug Administration. They concentrate highly in cow milk, and research shows they can lead to a wide array of health problems in humans. Allergies, hypersensitivity, rashes, headaches, birth defects, hyperthyroidism are all linked to consuming contaminants in milk.
Organic milk, meanwhile, did not test for any illegal residues.
“The findings about conventional milk are really concerning,” Shade said. “That’s the question that needs to be asked and needs to be addressed – how are these chemicals getting into the milk supply when they shouldn’t be there? The difference between organic and conventional are extremely significant…the easy way to avoid all of these residues is by choosing organic.”
The American dairy industry is in a period of oversupply, hurting farmers especially who are forced to throw out milk. On average, it takes three years to transition a dairy farm from conventional to organic.
“The challenge with any dairy, whether it’s organic dairy or conventional dairy, is balancing this perishable product that’s coming out of the cows and making sure you put it into the system as quickly as you can in order to return a value,” said Hughes.
“We’ve seen the slowdown. For Organic Valley, we’ve seen the slowdown of consumption in fluid milk. For us, quality really becomes a very important thing. Volume becomes a very important thing, and how do you control that when most of your volume is folks drinking milk? But at the same time we’ve seen an incredible increase in the consumption of butter. Everyone loves butter and fat. It’s really pushing some pressures on our supply chain to make that all work together. We’re starting to see more opportunity.”
The specialty chocolate market is growing, and research by the University of Copenhagen Department of Food Science found that fermentation conditions affect chocolate flavor. Different fermentation techniques changes the composition and activity of the microorganisms present on the cocoa beans. “Our research confirms this and we have also learned how to fine tune the cocoa by fine tuning the process itself, which means that you can get a higher quality out of your raw materials if you understand these processes,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen, a professor in the food science departments at the University of Copenhagen. He adds: “…findings show that the treatment the cocoa receives after the harvest is at least as important for the quality and flavour as the genetics of the cocoa. Where the cocoa was grown also has some significance. By varying the conditions during fermentation, we can therefore also reasonably predict the final taste, which provides good opportunities for high-end producers in particular to develop chocolate with different flavours and scents.”
Read more (University of Copenhagen)
Good news for fermented food and drink brands. Today’s increasingly disruptive, consumer-driven economy is favoring brands that are craft and artisanal, source responsibly, reduce waste, nourish their microbiome and aim for better treatment of the planet. These are already core operating values for many fermentation brands.
“Consumer values are shifting in the marketplace; businesses are working hard to find ways to use their business as a force of good. Consumers are increasingly engaged in supporting the businesses that are looking to disrupt the status quo, that are looking to change,” said Eric Pierce, vice president of strategy and insights for New Hope Network. “Our market is moving in this direction with more innovation, with more access, with more options for consumers that are easier for them to get a hold of…we will find more and more people opting into the products we are bringing to the marketplace.”
The top trends driving the natural products industry were shared at a “What’s Next” session for industry leaders at Expo East. Here are six trends the fermentation industry can use to grow their company.
1. Brands Supporting the Planet
From the treatment of animals on the farm, the soil used to grow the vegetables and the type of packaging used, the environment is on the top of consumer’s minds. Consumers want to support brands that practice regenerative farming, zero waste production and responsible supply chain sourcing.
“The top three trends fell under purpose-driven commerce,” said Amanda Hart, market research manager for NEXT Data & Insights. She said consumers want brands to be more mindful, proactive and “really dive in and solve for community health and issues where government regulation is lagging or lacking.”
2. Selling Outside the Health Food Crowd
Since the start of the natural food industry, natural and organic foods were mostly purchased by a demographic of shoppers SPINS market research defines as “Core Natural/Organic.” These “true believers” and “enlightened environmentalists” make up the majority of natural industry shoppers.
Meanwhile, the mainstream consumer has traditionally been a harder group for brands to reach. These “indifferent traditionalists,” “struggling switchers” and “resistant non-believers” make up the smallest part of natural product sales.
That gap is closing – today 92 percent of all households buy organic products, and 99 percent buy natural products.
Pierce noted he was surprised when studying these groups that the reason they purchase natural products is now the same.
“What this means to us is their level of commitments to products in the industry, their level of commitment to brands is dramatically different,” Pierce said. “But consumers across our economy value similar things what it comes to what they’re looking for from us.”
“Increasingly, these products are resonating with mass retailers,” he continued.
The findings also showed the food trends that resonate with consumers were not influenced by their political leaning. Whether Democrat or Republican, consumers care about the same food values.
The top five food trends these groups care about: waste reduction, responsible sourcing, responsible meat and dairy, craft and artisanal and responsible packaging.
3. Expanding Knowledge of Microbiome
Probiotics – which has topped SPINS trend lists for years — is no longer claiming a top spot. This doesn’t mean consumers don’t care about gut health, though. Consumers are looking at different beneficial options for their microbiome.
“How can consumers cultivate a health microbiome, to make us our strongest selves as we navigate the forces of modern life?” Hart said.
There is lots of research on nourishing a healthy microbiome. Brands should market gut health to consumers, especially with scientifically-backed claims on how fermented foods aid the gut bacteria.
4. No Added Sugar
Sugar – especially added sugar – has long been the nemesis of natural food shoppers. But consumers now want blatant communication from brands on product flavoring.
“Sugar and sweetener are different, so some brands now are starting to leverage both of those terms and really communicate how they’re adding a sweet flavor to their product – or not adding,” Hart said.
Botanical flavoring is starting to become a sweetner alternative for brands.
5. Alcohol-Free Drinks
Concerned with their health and focused on mindful drinking, Americans are purchasing less alcohol. Data from industry tracker IWSR found that U.S. alcohol volumes are dropping every year. Beer was the lowest, with volumes down 1.5 percent in 2018 and 1.1 percent decline in 2017. Growth in wine and spirits also slowed. This is especially true among younger, millenial consumers.
The taste for a fermented craft beer or cocktail is not waning, though.
This trend was seen on the show floor, where more and more alcohol-free brands are marketing alcohol-free drinks, like non-alcoholic beers, sugar-free mocktails and sparkling vinegars.
6. DIY Rules
Consumers want to be part of the creative process, “like they’re building products for themselves,” Hart said. Pierce added: “consumers value innovation efforts…that engage their sense of adventure and exploration.”
Fermentation brands are catering to consumers DIY nature by offering recipes to experiment with their product, like kefir smoothies, kombucha cocktails or sauerkraut omelets. Some fermentation brands are even selling fermentation kits for home use.
The Washington Post writes: “From common to cool: The lowly cabbage has become a star.” Paul Kaham, an award-winning chef in Chicago, said “It’s all about how it is prepared, how it is elevated.” The article details how fermented cabbage dishes are a staple to many countries cuisine, like kimchi in Korea and sauerkraut in Poland, Germany and Eastern Europe. Produce stores note consumer’s increasing demand for cabbage, too, specifically the Napa cabbage variety which is often used for fermentation and pickling. Once a staple in Asian groceries and restaurants, Napa cabbage is gaining popularity in non-Asian grocery stores as well.
Read more (The Washington Post)
More fermentation brands are creating ways to connect with their customers, face-to-face. Harvest Roots Ferments started in 2012 as a small farm in Birmingham, Ala. “At the time, Lindsay was fermenting kraut and kombucha for our farmers market table. Our customers wanted ferments way more than kale,” said Pete Halupka, who runs Harvest Roots Ferments with Lindsay Whiteaker. “About three of four years ago, we committed fully to fermentation. Now we produce kombucha, kraut, kimchi and other fermented vegetables and sell them across Alabama.” Now Harvest Roots Ferments is opening Birmingham’s first kombucha taproom. No longer traditional farmers (they source from local farmers, buying 75,000 pounds of produce since 2015), Harvest Roots Ferments is looking to build and connect to the Birmingham community that has helped their business grow. Halupka continues: “We love community in all forms—from the microbial community in action fermenting our products to the community found in our Southern forests and our human community across Birmingham—and we want our space to be a reflection of this.”
Read more (BHam Now)
Baltimore-based Wild Kombucha has grown massively since their founding almost five years ago, increasing sales 466 percent in the last three years. The founders hard work and the drink’s delicious flavor helped propel the brand into 1,000 stores in eight states and Washington D.C.
At Natural Products Expo East, Wild Kombucha’s three co-founders point to another factor in their success: the city of Baltimore.
“A big piece was telling people we’re a local kombucha company, it’s Baltimore made,” says Sergio Malarin. “People here are super focused on local, they really love it. A lot of the initial accounts we worked with didn’t even bat an eye about bringing us in. Eddie’s Market, Charmington’s, One World Café, all the healthier, vegan and vegetarian independently-owned grocery stores and cafes, they brought us in and started selling us, fast.”
Co-founders Malarin, Adam Bufano and Sid Sharma are all first-generation Americans raised in Baltimore. The trio (Bufano and Malarin are step-brothers – Sharms is a childhood friend) take great pride in their hometown, praising the locals as a factor in Wild Kombucha’s success. They started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in February 2015 as a side gig, brewing in the evenings after their day jobs. They officially left their former careers for Wild Kombucha in August 2016, the day Whole Foods agreed to sell Wild Kombucha.
Today, Wild Kombucha employs 21 people and is brewing 10,000 bottles and 50 kegs of kombucha each week. They’ve moved to a 13,000-square-foot brewery and taproom in Baltimore. They will release their new flavor — a CBD kombucha flavor — in October.
“We’ve focused on how to educate the community around us on the health benefits of kombucha,” says Bufano. “So many people come to our demo tables and say ‘I don’t like kombucha, but then they try ours and they buy a bottle because it’s very approachable.”
Below is a Q&A with Bufano, Malarin and Sharma, who spoke with The Fermentation Association at their booth during Expo East.
Q: How did you start Wild Kombucha?
Bufano: Sergio and I are stepbrothers. Our family brewed kombucha when we were younger; our parents taught us when we were like 10 years old. And then I continued to brew from then basically until now, perfecting the recipe every time. I started selling it to my friends and then, at a certain point, I was trading it for rent. I was selling it to Hopkins students (John Hopkins University of Medicine). I had this big group of Hopkins students that would come to my house, grab a six-pack and bring me the empty bottles, I’d sanitize and refill them. And then I reached a point where I had to start charging people a little bit more to make it an actual business. That’s when Sergio and I hooked up and came up with a plan to expand and make it a little more legit. Sid is a childhood friend of ours, so we brought him on, too.
Q: You started with your parent’s kombucha recipe. Where did this kombucha recipe originate from?
Malarin: Our parents learned about fermented foods was from this woman, Sally Fallon, who wrote this famous book called “Nourishing Traditions.” She is a best-selling author, and my mom actually became one of her top volunteers and became friends with her.
Bufano: So we would make like sauerkraut, kefir…
Malarin: Water kefir, milk kefir, sourdough…
Bufano: And it went beyond fermentation. Our fridge was pretty crazy.
Q: Sounds like your parents were very health.
Malarin: Yes. They were super into fermented foods.
Bufano: And this was in the ‘90s, before it was cool.
Q: Where did your kombucha recipe originate from?
Bufano: My parents learned from Sally Fallon how to make it, but they really made it their own. I used their recipe, which wasn’t very good at that point, and improved it.
Q: What makes Wild
Malarin: It’s a lot more approachable than other kombuchas. So the taste, but also the package. Our mission is to make kombucha approachable and available to everyone. So not necessarily the Whole Foods crowd, we want this something the average joe in Baltimore can grab.
Sharma: It has a fresher flavor profile. So because of that, we also have lower sugar, so really the fruit comes out so you don’t need to add sugar after the fact.
Malarin: What really differentiates us as a company is we are one of the few cause-driven kombucha companies. We donate 1% of our sales to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – that’s what makes us Wild Kombucha.
Q: Why did you decide on the Chesepeake Bay Foundation?
Malarin: Since we were kids, we’ve gone swimming on the Eastern Shore. For us, it’s super important. It’s where we live, it’s a huge ecosystem. We really feel our community goes beyond the people in it, it extends to the ecosystem and the wildlife as well.
Sharma: We want to put resources back into the place where we’re using the resources.
Malarin: For us it’s very important to be more than a bottom line. We want to be a business that gives back in many, many ways in the community. We are located in Northwest Baltimore, which is a bit of a food dessert. We opened a taproom out there and we’ve been hosting yoga classes there, we’ll do a speaker series soon. We want the community to be able to participate and be a part of wwat we’re doing.
Q: Tell me how important that was to be in Baltimore. You moved a few years ago from Baltimore to the suburbs, and now you’ve moved back to Baltimore.
Bufano: We tried to stay in Baltimore at that time, but in order for us to push ourselves forward, the only option for us was to move to this space that we found in the Timonium area outside of Baltimore. Just moving back into Baltimore was a huge thing for us. We’d been looking for a space for a while, anticipating our move back. We feel a connection here, we want to support the city. A lot of businesses are moving out of Baltimore, so Baltimore really needs support right now.
Q: Why does Baltimore need the support of local businesses like Wild Kombucha?
Malarin: Baltimore is getting a lot of negative attention in the media. From Freddie Gray and all the craziness that came out of that as well as just the stuff Trump has been saying, and there’s been a big focus on the violence. A lot of other big cities have a lot of negative things too, but you don’t hear people saying those things about, like Chicago. People say the sausages are good in Chicago, the jazz and blues music are good, but there are a lot of murders in Chicago, too. The media doesn’t focus solely on the negative in other cities like in Baltimore.
Sharma: There’s this unfortunate migration out of the city. And there’s a wealth gap, this poverty gap that exists within Baltimore. By employing people in the city, we’re able to make a difference there. By putting local products into the economy, we keep the dollars inside Baltimore as well. It’s about helping the people around us, helping the people who have supported us and allowed us to grow, and paying it forward.
Q: Your sales have skyrocketed since your start in 2015. How do you think you’ve grown so much?
Malarin: A lot of hands-on work on our part. We very much went out and met people and talked to people and shook hands and pounded the pavement and made real connections instead of going through a broker. We didn’t cut corners. Another reason is our product is delicious and approachable. And finally, the last reason is kombucha in general, it’s the fastest growing sector of the non-alcoholic beverage industry, so we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve gotten to ride that wave a little bit. We don’t have a lot of natural competition where we are. Kombucha is still a lot of west coast companies, and shipping is really expensive across the country. So we’ve been able to compete very directly in terms of price point with these multi-million dollar companies that are backed by Coca Cola and Pepsi.
Q: That’s impressive you can compete with the big brands.
Bufano: We started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in 2015. We were in Whole Foods in August 2016.
Malarin: We were selling at the side of a juice shop, initially. We didn’t have any starting capital. We were a bunch of 24 year olds, so no bank wanted to give us loans. We found a way to get around a lot of the licensing from the health department. We went to an active juice shop that had all the licensing, and we were able to circumvent all those costs by operating through a sublease from them. We initially rented a space that was tiny.
Bufano: We were making enough kombucha that we couldn’t fit it in the fridges we had, so we actually had to sell them when they finished fermenting, on the same day, since it needs to be refrigerated. So when the fermentation day was done, we’d immediately have to put the kombucha in our cars and drive it around to stores.
Q: Most new food brands I talk to have to start at a farmer’s market to get their name out there. You guys were able to get Wild Kombucha into local stores very quickly.
Bufano: We didn’t really go the farmers market route. We area in some now, but it’s really been in the last year that we started doing the farmers market thing because we felt like we weren’t connected as much as we liked to be to the community, we felt we took a step back in the wrong direction after a certain point. that’s why we started the farmers market program so we could be back in it.
Q: Your production and offices are on the same site; you’re not using a copacker. Why was that important to you, to have everything on site?
Bufano: Company culture to us is really important. Creating a team of people that all have a common goal that we’re all working towards, you really feel more unstoppable in that sense. If you separate people – we noticed this with some of our offsite sales people that were in Philly – we felt disconnected. We always had trouble making them feel like they were a part of the team. We wanted to make them feel a part of the team as much as possible. We want to keep everyone as close as possible. A lot of our demo team actually works out of our facility and we pay for them to travel farther away to do demos and come back to the Baltimore office.
Malarin: With the copacking, or lack thereof, we produce everything in house. It’s been really important because, initially for us, it was very important to have full control of the product. Learning how to scale up and how to control it. At the end of the day, if you’re not making your own product, you’re just the middle man. We saw that go into effect in very negative ways for people that we’re friends with, people at other local companies. Once the copacker realized they were doing well, they’d raise their prices.
Bufano: Just relying on someone like that for your whole company and your whole product, that’s too big of a risk for us. Quality control is super important to us. We are right there all the time, making sure everything is how we like it.
Q: That enables you to be out on the production floor, too, monitoring brewing.
Bufano: Oh yes, I am right there. Watching the mother kombucha, singing to the cultures.
Q: How did you get funding to start Wild Kombucha?
Bufano: It was about $5,000 a person that we just put in.
Malarin: Shortly after, we signed a lease for a new space, but we did not have the money for it. We needed like $30,000 in the beginning. So we entered a business competition and the top prize was $30,000. So we signed the lease, then we went to the business competition and we won. It was called the Shore Hatchery at the Salisbury University Perdue School of Business, it’s a one-minute timed pitch, “Shark Tank” style. But they don’t take any equity, they just give you money, a grant. The most you can get it $45,000, but the most you can get at one time is $30,000. So we came and got the other $15,000 during the next competition.
Bufano: If that didn’t happen, we would have had to pull out of that lease. We would been a very different company.
Q: What would be your advice to other entrepreneurs wanting to start a fermentation brand.
Malarin: Don’t do it alone.
Bufano: I’d agree. Having the three of us was so amazing. If one of us was having a tough time, we could lean on the other person. You really feel lonely if you do something alone especially up to this caliber, you sacrifice your social life. Have a partner, give them some equity, do it together.
Q: Where do you see the future of the fermentation industry?
Malarin: It’s only going up. Soda sales have been tanking for a better part of the decade, if not longer, and there’s a lot of things coming in to fill the void. This whole expo is a testament to that.
Bufano: The awareness for kombucha seems to be growing faster than the industry is growing, the market share doesn’t seem to be getting smaller even with more companies popping up. More people are getting educated about kombucha.
Malarin: A lot of the other kombucha companies on the market help us, if they’re doing it the right way. Because they educate people on it, then those people, when they come into our area, they’re much more likely to try our product.
Bufano: It’s between 5 and 10 percent of the U.S. population that doesn’t know what kombucha is.
Sergio: Very few people know about it still, so there’s a lot of room for growth.
Q: What challenges do you think fermented drink producers and kombucha producers face?
Bufano: It might not be as big as an issue anymore, but just educating the government agencies about what kombucha is, that’s been a huge hurdle for us. Especially in smaller cities if you’re the first fermented beverage company that opens there. Educating them about it, especially the health department, that was huge for us. You have to create a whole other category for yourself.
Malarin: It will be nice too when there’s more regulation on labeling kombucha. Right now, people throw kombucha on whatever they want and it’s not kombucha at all. Its misleading and it’s confusing to people.
Bufano: We look forward to the day that kombucha is labeled correctly, so you can see what is authentic kombucha and what isn’t.
Q: What strengths do you think kombucha producers bring to the industry?
Malarin: I feel like a lot of kombucha producers in one way or another are very tied to the communities they produce in. Much more than these huge conglomerates, so I think it brings this much more dynamic side to business that a lot of these huge corporations just can’t have. It’s changing the whole way business is done, reverting to something a little more personal.
Bufano: What I’ve seen from other kombucha companies, they treat their employees really well, at least what we’ve seen so far. I think that’s kind of been a norm in the industry, which is pretty cool.