Under the new kombucha Code of Practice, can a drink still be called kombucha if it’s sugar-free, hard, filtered, dealcoholized or made from a syrup base?
Yes, says Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), the organization that made the code. But that variation needs to be defined on the label. Crum shared details behind the development of KBI’s new kombucha Code of Practice during a webinar with The Fermentation Association, moderated by fermentation author (and TFA Advisory Board member) Alex Lewin. KBI released the code in July with the aim to provide consumers with transparency.
The code is meant to help the kombucha industry self regulate as it continues to grow, providing separate seals for both certified and traditionally fermented brews. This approach, according to Crum, leaves room for all types of kombucha. KBI is in the process of finalizing the definition for each of these classes of kombucha.
“We’re going to see fermented beverages as a category proliferate,” Crum says, noting drinks like kefir, fermented sodas and kvass will all face the same regulations as kombucha. “We want that diversity. There’s going to be a kombucha for every time, place and flavor. Everyone will have a personal profile, and there’s going to be a flavor for everybody.”
Kombucha has gained huge favor among health-conscious consumers, and the industry has grown to over $600 million in sales. The beverage has historically been made with a traditional recipe of tea, sugar and SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.) But kombucha in its original recipe is a hard process to commercialize and today many brands sell kombucha in various forms. The code, Crum stresses, is not intended to ban any variety from calling itself “kombucha;” rather it’s a way to distinguish kombucha types for the consumer.
“You’re not obligated to use it,” Crum points out. “Purists will say we’re too lenient — those making it from a base don’t want to define it. Look, kombucha with a weird, globby thing floating in there is not everyone’s idea of delicious. We want there to be products out there that bring people into our category that maybe have a more approachable flavor profile.”
The kombucha industry has been plagued by labelling issues. In 2010, a health inspector found multiple kombucha brands contained more than the 0.5% alcohol limit required to be deemed “non-alcoholic.” In response, Whole Foods pulled kombucha from the shelves, just as the industry was starting to take off. After new ethanol testing requirements were put in place, Whole Foods again sold kombucha. But lawsuits — lately, within the industry — have continued. Court cases over alcohol content, sugar levels and amounts of probiotic bacteria have been filed in the last few years — cases most often pitting one kombucha brand against another.
Crum says that these legal actions have created unnecessary drama and secrecy in the industry.
“Do I like that brands were narking [tattling] on other brands to the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau)? Or that they were instigating class action lawsuits against other brands? No, I don’t think that’s a great way for the industry to build themselves up,” Crum says. “It creates division, it creates chaos, it tears things apart. we need to be unified, on the same page.”
But Crum struck an upbeat note in conclusion.
“The category is just getting started,” she says. “We’re going to get more bubbly and more fun. We’re going to see more creativity, imagination and sophistication.”
Is plant-based meat the next major trend for fermentation? Specialists at the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) July virtual event said more product formulators are using fermentation to optimize food flavor and preservation. They predict using fermentation to create plant-based meat will be the next big trend. Culinary experts like Noma in Denmark are already discovering “uncoupling traditional culture-substrate combinations is a viable way of discovery in fermentation,” says Jerome Diaz, a doctor at Wageningen University and Research. He said: “Traditionally, fermentation as a means of improving food quality has been the basis for many of the foods we enjoy today. Examples of such food products include beer, wine, cheese, sausages, sauerkraut, among many others. Over the years, increased understanding of microorganisms and the unique functionalities they bring to food allowed the use of fermentation for the production of specialty ingredients.”
Read more (Food Ingredients First)
In an effort to help struggling farms during the coronavirus pandemic, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is expanding their fermentation program.
The upscale restaurants (Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County) have long been at the forefront of farm-to-table dining. But, like all restaurants in New York, Blue Hill closed in March when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Though co-owners Dan and David Barber are confident the traditional restaurant model will once again return, the brothers are troubled by the catastrophic impact on farms.
Blue Hill Farm and Stone Barns Center (a non-profit farm and educational center) have partnered to form a new entity resourcED, which surveyed over 500 farmers. A key conclusion — over a third of farms will not survive the pandemic. August sales at farms are expected to be down by 50% due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and over 30% of farmers say they are struggling to cover expenses.
“The excess product is a huge concern. That’s shaped our box program, our fermentation program,” says Andrew Luzmore, Blue Hill’s market forager.
The resourcED survey was the impetus at Blue Hill to launch their picnic dining and box program. Diners can buy a picnic dinner and eat a farm-to-table meal on the farm’s patio or lawn (physically distanced from others), still allowing Blue Hill to purchase food from local farmers. This program allows consumers to pick-up a box full of produce, dairy products, seafood or meat, all sourced from local farms.
Blue Hill’s mainstay fermentation and preservation programs, used for over 15 years to maintain food flavor and nutrients through long Northeastern winters, have also been expanded, to absorb more of excess farm production.
“The focus on preservation program is bred out of necessity, and necessity breeds creativity,” says Cortney Burns, chef, fermentation consultant for Blue Hill and author of “Bar Tartine, Techniques & Recipes” and the forthcoming “Nourish Me Home.” “What we’re doing now with fermentation at Blue Hill rides on the coattails of what has been part of the backbone of Blue Hill for years. Working here has me looking at fermentation through a different lens these days. How can we be completely in service to good agriculture? How can we create a greater economy for farms?”
Adds Luzmore: “The fermentation program has definitely expanded a lot. We’re shifting more to helping farmers with excess product.”
For example, Blue Hill recently purchased napa cabbage that would have been wasted from a Hudson Valley farmer. They are fermenting the cabbage, “making a delicious, nutritious probiotic-rich food for our diners, whilst buying up overabundant harvests,” Burns notes.
It’s conscious cooking, Burns says “We’re not just buying for the sake of preservation. We want to create variety.” Another example is how the Stone Barns Center is trialing preserving different beet varieties.
Fermented grapes and capers, buckwheat vinaigrette, peach umeboshi and whey tonic are among the creations Blue Hill has served picnic-style and in boxes. Some of the fermented food being offered is purchased from local farmers. Local cultured dairy — such as farm fresh cheese and yogurt — makes up a large percentage of their dairy box, for example.
“There are all these different ways we’re harnessing the power of fermentation,” Burns says. “We’ve had to shift our expectation of a restaurant kitchen. We need to make sure that first, the food doesn’t spoil, and second, that we have lots of probiotic rich food loaded with flavor to serve people.”
A picnic meal at Blue Hill is $195 per person and the boxes range from $45 to $170. Blue Hill is also donating boxes to families with food insecurities.
Luzmore hopes other restaurants will innovate ways they can support local farms during the pandemic. “It’s almost impossible to buy exactly the amount a restaurant needs, especially now when there’s a greater need to support farms. Considering the constant and changing flux of product coming into the restaurant for the boxes and donations, fermentation allows for a more holistic approach of using excess product.”
“Chef Dan [Barber] has said many times throughout the launch of resourcED: we’ve kind of gone from being a restaurant to a food processing facility. Blue Hill is a fine dining restaurant. We still maintain that mentality and quality, but it’s at a different level. The scale, we’re now thinking of purchasing pallets instead of pounds.”
Special Note: Learn more about the new Kombucha safety and quality standards on The Fermentation Association’s Kombucha Brewers New Code of Practice Webinar (Wednesday, July 29th at 10am PT/1 pm ET). Hear from Hannah Crum, president of KBI, as she shares her insights into the Code and her experience in the years-long process to publish the standard. Register here for free.
Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) unveiled a kombucha Code of Practice this month, the first set of safety and quality standards for the industry. The goal of these guidelines is to give transparency to the consumer.
“This is about protecting kombucha as a traditional beverage,” says Hannah Crum, president of KBI. “Kombucha has to taste good and deliver on its health benefits. It has a reputation hundreds or thousands of years old. But you say the word ‘kombucha’ today and a lot of people don’t even really know what that means. We’re seeing products that don’t adhere to the spirit of kombucha.”
Crum will be addressing the new Code of Practice during a free webinar with The Fermentation Association on Wednesday, July 29.
The kombucha industry is exploding in growth. Retail data from SPINS shows kombucha sales were up 21% from 2018-2019, yielding $728.8 million in sales. But that growth has come with growing pains. Kombucha can now be found in most retail channels, sold in the refrigerated section or pasteurized in shelf-stable cans; brewed with a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) or processed from a base; fermented with higher alcohol content or made with sweetners. These different kombucha categories have been a sticking point with kombucha brewers. Over the years, various lawsuits have plagued the industry — most brought on by other kombucha brands.
“We’re an interesting industry. We’ve had some difficult lawsuits,” Crum says. “It’s created a lot of tension, a lot of secrecy, a lot of drama. The craft beer industry doesn’t sue each other. It flies in the face of what we view the industry to be.”
The new Code of Practice makes room for all types of kombucha, but ingredients and brewing processes must be defined on the label. A seal program will certify authentic kombucha — made with tea leaves and potable water, utilizing a SCOBY and sugar or nutritive sweeteners. Additional ingredients — like flavorings, carbon dioxide, vitamins, minerals or probiotic bacteria — are only allowed if they do not exceed 20% of the finished product.
The seal certification will be granted based on standards outlined in the Code of Practice, but a third-party auditing firm will review confidential information from each brand in order to certify the product.
“What we’re struggling with, and it’s what every traditional fermented food is coming up against, kombucha doesn’t lend itself to mass production,” Crum says. “I’m a traditionalist, I’m not going to lie about it. But what I also recognize, we do not want one kind of consumer. We want a diverse range of consumers, with diverse tastes. Someone wants a zero calorie kombucha, while someone else wants a full-flavor kombucha made with SCOBY. They’re entirely different consumers.”
The Code was developed over five years, with input from various KBI members. But KBI did not apply for an official standard of identity with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the trade organization wants the Code of Practice to be an evolving, flexible framework.
“That’s the benefit of being self-regulated. We don’t have the bureaucratic red tape,” Crum says. “We’re not here to walk into your facility to chide and scold you, that’s not our business. What we’re concerned about is commerce, trade, promoting the category, helping consumers get excited about kombucha, and helping them understand the category.”
A brewery in Sydney, Australia is getting creative with the carbon dioxide emissions produced by yeast during fermentation. Young Henrys, with the help of a local university, is feeding those fermentation gases into tanks of native river algae that turn that CO2 back into oxygen. This process neutralizes the emissions. The CO2 produced to make one six pack of beer would take a tree two days to absorb.
“You have this really amazing yin and yang scenario,” said Oscar McMahon, Young Henrys co-founder. “One tank of algae is capable of creating the equivalent amount of oxygen as one hectare of Australian bush. It takes a long time to grow that, whereas we can grow a tank of algae within weeks.”
Read more (Bloomberg)
Hard kombucha is the drink trend of 2020, declares lifestyle and news publication Well + Good. Calling hard kombucha “your new summer drink of choice,” the publication points out that the fermented tea has less sugar and fewer carbs than traditional beer, wine and cocktails. Hard kombucha is made by adding more sugar and more yeast to the SCOBY than traditional kombucha, yielding a drink with a higher alcohol content.
Read more (Well + Good)
World-famous restaurant Noma is getting a new head of their fermentation lab. After four years as director of the fermentation lab, David Zilber is stepping away and will be replaced by Jason White.
White most recently was head of the food research lab at Audrey restaurant in Nashville. A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, White began a career as a fermentation consultant for restaurants and distilleries in Texas. He worked for two years at Noma before returning to the U.S. last year.
Zilber has helped to define modern fermentation. A creative with a love of science and arts, he’s become a mentor for a new wave of fermentation cooks and enthusiasts. In 2018, he co-authored the book “The Noma Guide to Fermentation” with Noma founder and director Rene Redzepi.