Ugly Fruit into Delicious Kombucha

A new Los Angeles-based kombucha brand has a unique approach to their fermented tea. Sunset Cultures owner and chef Balo Orozco (pictured) uses the unsold or “ugly” fruits and vegetables from local farms into “some of L.A.’s most creative kombuchas, hot sauces and condiments.”    

Staying true to his goal of curbing food waste and helping local farmers is certainly not easy. Orozco spends much of his days driving across the state to pick up boxes or pallets of produce that would otherwise be thrown away or composted. Another challenge: the kombucha flavors and condiment offerings change with the amount and type of surplus product Orozco receives from farmers. (Sunset Cultures does consistently sell four core kombucha flavors).

Orozco’s roots are in the restaurant industry. As a chef, he was alarmed at the amount of kitchen waste restaurants would throw away. His specialty soon switched to reusing kitchen scraps and fermenting house-produced condiments. After the last restaurant he worked at folded due to the pandemic, he began working on Sunset Cultures.

Sunset Cultures products are always changing and adapting based on available products. In the last six months, Sunset Cultures began making jam, a solution to their own wasted byproduct from the lightly boiled strawberries used in their kombucha. 

Sunset Cultures products are currently sold in 40 retail shops and online, with plans to expand to other cities in 2023. 

Read more (Los Angeles Times)

Exploring Culinary Bubbles

Serious Eats features a series of articles on fermented drinks in their latest digital issue, “Bubbles.” Bubbles are the “negative space” in food which contribute to food flavor and fermentation. The long-form articles dive into kombucha, tepache, coffee and explore how the beer industry is adapting with a CO2 shortage. 

“It’s easy to look past the pockets of air that occupy so much of what we eat, but food as we know it wouldn’t be recognizable without them,” reads the editor letter describing the new article series. “Bubbles inflate breads, lighten cakes and batters, aerate creams and mousses, and add fizz to so many drinks. They’re a byproduct of fermentation, a critical determinant of texture, the thing that makes your eyes water as you let out an Aaahhhhhhhhhh after that first spicy sip of cold soda or beer. So much of what defines our food is all the stuff that’s not there.”

Read more (Serious Eats)

https://www.seriouseats.com/bubbles-issue-editors-letter-6755213

“Pickling and fermenting preparations are having a moment,” reads the 2023 Foodservice Industry Trend Report from Technomic. The food trend forecaster’s annual list rates fermentation “The Power of Preserving” as one of their top seven industry trends.

“Not only do these preparations promote ingredient preservation and health connotations but they also allow for unique culinary experimentation,” the report reads.

Technomic anticipates fermented food crafts at the bar, like kombucha, miso and sake. But lacto-fermentation, they predict, will also make its way to the menu, as restaurants detail their preserving processes “to provide consumers with a level of scientific transparency.”

Read more (Technomic)

Four consumers — three underage — filed a lawsuit alleging Tribucha Inc. misled them into buying non-alcoholic kombucha that contains twice the alcohol permitted for non-alcoholic beverages. 

The 30-page class action lawsuit contends Tribucha has been sold to “unsuspecting children, pregnant women, persons suffering with alcohol dependence issues, and a host of other people for whom alcoholic consumption may pose a grave and immediate safety and/or health risk.” The lawsuit says the North Carolina-based brand has a small disclaimer on the label stating that Tribucha “contains a trace amount of alcohol,” but an investigation proved otherwise. Plaintiffs used a lab accredited by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to test the kombucha and found it is over 0.5% alcohol by volume, which classifies it as alcoholic.

The complaint continues: “Because Tribucha Kombucha does not include any warnings concerning the significant presence of alcohol, consumers, including Plaintiffs, are led to believe that the products are safe to consume when driving a car, operating machinery, and taking with potentially a deadly cocktail of incompatible medications.”

In 2010, Whole Foods and other retailers pulled kombucha off shelves as the TTB investigated whether alcohol levels in kombucha were higher than what was printed on the label. And since then, consumers — and even other brands — have filed lawsuits against various kombucha brands, alleging alcohol levels higher than indicated.

Kombucha can keep fermenting after it’s made, as the yeasts continue to eat sugars. Under current law, if kombucha leaves a processing facility at 0.4% ABV, but increases to over 0.5% by the time it’s placed on grocery store shelves, the brewer would have to pay federal alcohol taxes like a beer brand.

Kombucha producers fear constant repercussions from this law, says Hannah Crum, co-founder and president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), the trade organization for kombucha brewers.

Earlier this year, South Carolina’s Department of Revenue (DOR) categorized all kombuchas as alcoholic beverages. The state’s regulations set a maximum alcohol content for beverages but no minimum, so any fermented beverage with any alcohol content would be considered alcoholic. Since kombucha fermentation produces a trace amount of alcohol, a brewer would need to apply for a state alcohol license, and kombucha could not be sold to anyone under the age of 21. It contradicted the U.S. legal definition of an alcoholic beverage.

After kombucha industry leaders contacted the state’s DOR and the South Carolina Retail Association (SCRA) to share advice and resources, the regulation was amended to exempt kombucha. KBI’s leadership and legal counsel, along with producers Buchi Kombucha, GT’s Synergy Kombucha, Health Ade, Humm and Brew Dr. were involved.

Pending in Congress is the KOMBUCHA Act, legislation that would make kombucha beverages exempt from excise taxes intended for alcoholic beverages. The act proposes to raise the alcohol by volume (ABV) threshold for kombucha from its current level of 0.5% to 1.25%.

Reads a statement from KBI on the act: “These laws were never intended to make kombucha subject to taxes designated for beer. Passing the KOMBUCHA Act under the next appropriations bill will relieve this unnecessary burden on kombucha brewers. Only kombucha above that level (1.25%) will be subject to federal excise taxes when this Act becomes law.”

KBI has actively lobbied for the bill’s passage. Big kombucha brands (GT’s and Health-Ade) have actively supported the bill.

PBS Features HEX Ferments

Baltimore-based HEX Ferments was the star of the PBS show START UP. The series highlights small American business owners, chronicling what it takes to start a successful business.

During the episode, HEX Ferments co-founder Maegan Carpenter schooled START UP host Gary Bredow on ferments and gut health. She explained how the modern gut microbiome has been eroded by antibiotics, but fermented foods help to populate and repopulate the digestive system with good bacteria. 

“What you’re getting essentially is a vegetable that’s been fermented in a blanket of bacteria that’s indigenious to our bodies: lactobacillus,” Carpenter explained, while Bredow sampled HEX’s seasonal Spirit Berry kombucha and Pizza Kraut sauerkraut.

A former art professor, Carpenter and her co-founder husband Shane, a former wedding photographer, never planned to start a fermentation business. Carpenter began teaching people how to use produce from their local community garden, offering tastings of the vegetables she fermented. Orders for her ferments started showing up in her mailbox. Carpenter said she thinks the demand came from “being open with people and showing people something that has been taken out of our culture for so long.”

Bredow added about modern food convenience: “It’s scary to think about if that convenience goes away, are we going to have a society of people incapable of watching food rot right in front of them.” Carpenter responded: “I think we already do.”

HEX Ferments will be expanding into a new, larger retail space later this year, HEX Superette. The space includes a kombucha taproom, small restaurant area to serve small plates, space to teach education classes and a local food marketplace. HEX Superette, Carpenter said, will “answer the question, ‘How do I eat this?’ because after 10 years of making fermented foods, we often get that question.”

Bredow concluding the episode noting that fermentation was born out of food scarcity, something today’s generation did not understand until the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our ancestors planned for the future knowing that self sufficiency can mean the difference between life and death. Maybe it’s time to revisit the skills that allowed past generations to live with less fear and reliance on a system that always seems to be on the brink of collapse,” Bredow said. “I love what Meghan and Shane are doing. They’re not only offering up tasty and healthy foods, they’re reminding us how important it is to learn this lost craft before it’s too late…they’re offering fermentation classes. To me, this really is purpose. A focus on doing well and doing good for the world around them.”

Brewing Kombucha for the Haters

In a crowded kombucha marked, Bitchin’ Boucha founder Jason Smith has a unique philosophy to selling the fermented tea. He’s not going after kombucha die-hards, he’s making it for people who don’t like kombucha. 

The Richmond, Virginia brand launched eight years ago when Smith tasted kombucha while on a fast from alcohol and processed sugar. He liked it, but thought he could make it taste better. 

“Other kombuchas can be too vinegary because most of the ones in stores are bottled and unpalatable,” explains Smith. “Shipping and refrigerating it for too long can kill the flavor because the kombucha is a living thing. Some companies even pasteurize it so it can’t ferment even more, and it kills all the live organisms which defeats the purpose. I make kombucha for people who don’t like kombucha. I want to show people that it can taste good.”

Bitchin’ Boucha debuts a new seasonal flavor every few months. And every batch of Bitchin’ Boucha must pass the taste test with his own kids. Smith says the process to create a new flavor, secure health department approval and bottle it takes two months. Currently, Bitchin’ Boucha produces 15-20 kegs of kombucha a week. Their first official employee besides Smith will start this month, with Smith aiming to sell the kombucha in a grocery store. 

Read more (Style Weekly)

If you still think of hot dogs and deep dish pizza as the icons of Chicago’s culinary scene, you need to think again. The so-called “Capital of the Midwest” is a hub of innovation in the food industry. Chicago has the largest food and beverage production in the U.S., with an annual output of $9.4 billion Startup companies in the region raised $723 million in venture capital last year. 

“Chicago is one of the most diverse cities for eating,” says Anna Desai, Chicago-based influencer of ‘Would You Like Something to Eat’ on Instagram. ”Our culinary scene is constantly elevating and evolving. We are always just a neighborhood or tollway away from experiencing a new culture and cuisine. I’m most excited when I find an under-the-radar spot or discover a maker who can pair flavors and ingredients that get you curious and wanting more.”

Desai wanted to celebrate and champion the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community in the Chicago food and beverage scene. She says “food has long served as a cultural crossroad” and Chicago’s multicultural cuisine exemplifies that sentiment. 

Chicago is home to some of the most creative minds in fermentation, from celebrity chefs, zero waste ventures, alternative protein corporations, the world’s largest commercial kefir producer and plenty of regional and artisanal producers lacto-fermenting vegetables, brewing kombucha and experimenting with microbes in food and drink.

“Chicago is a great food city in its own right, so naturally there is a ton of talent in the fermentation space,” says Sam Smithson, chef and culinary director of CultureBox, a Chicago fermentation subscription box. “The pandemic’s effect on restaurants has also spawned a new wave of fermenters (ourselves included) that are looking for a path outside the grueling and uncertain restaurant structure to display our creative efforts. This new wave is undoubtedly community-motivated and concerned more with mutual aid than competition. There is a general feeling that we are all working towards the same goal so cooperation and collaboration is soaring and we are seeing incredible food come from that.”

Flavor is King

Flavor development is still the prime motivation for chefs to experiment with fermentation. A good example is at Heritage Restaurant and Caviar Bar in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. 

“Fermentation has been a cornerstone of the restaurant since its inception,” says Tiffany Meikle, co-owner of Heritage with her husband, Guy. “With the diverse cuisines we pull from, both from Eastern and Central Europe and East Asia, we researched fermentation methodologies and histories, and started to ‘connect the dots’ of each culture’s fermentation and pickling backgrounds.”

Menus have included sourdough dark Russian rye bread, toasted caraway sauerkraut, kimchi made from apples, Korean pears and beets and a kimchi using pickled ramps (wild onions). Heritage has also expanded their fermentation program to the bar, where they’ve created homemade kombucha, roasted pineapple tepache, sweet pickled fruits for cocktail garnishes, and kimchi-infused bloody mary mix. 

“It’s fascinating to me that there are so many ingredients you can use in a fermented product,” says Claire Ridge, co-founder of Luna Bay Booch, a Chicago-based alcoholic kombucha producer. “People are really experimenting with interesting ingredients in kombucha…I have seen brewers do some of the wildest recipes and some recipes that are very basic.”

Innovating Food

Chicago-based Lifeway Kefir is indicative of the innovation taking place in the city. Last year the company expanded into a new space: oat-based fermentation, launching a dairy-free, cultured oat milk with live and active probiotics.

“We’ve spent so many years laying the groundwork in fermented dairy,” says Julie Smolyansky, CEO. “Now we’re experimenting and expanding to see what’s over the next horizon, though we’ll always have kefir as our first love.”

Chicago is home for two inventive fermented alternative protein startups: Nature’s Fynd and Hyfé Foods. Both companies were born out of the desire to create alt foods without damaging the environmental. 

“Conscious consumerism is a trend that’s driving many people to try alternative proteins, and it’s not hard to understand why,” says Debbie Yaver, chief scientific officer at Nature’s Fynd. The company uses fermentation technology to grow Fy, a nutritional fungi protein. “Fungi as a source of protein offer a shortcut through the food chain because they don’t require the acres of land or water needed to support plant growth or animal grazing, making fungi-based protein more efficient to produce than other options.”

Alternative foods outlasting the typical trend cycle is a challenge for companies like Nature’s Fynd. When grown at scale, Fy uses 99% less land, 99% less water and emits 94% fewer greenhouse gasses than raising beef. But, to make an impact, “we need more than just vegans and vegetarians to make changes in their diets,” Yaver adds.

Waste Not

Numerous companies are using fermentation as a means to eliminate waste. Hyfé Foods, another player in the alternative protein space, repurposes sugar water from food production to create a low-carb, protein-rich flour. Fermentation turns a waste product into mycelium flour, mycelium being the root network – or hyphae (hence the company name) — of mushrooms. 

“[We’re] diverting input to the landfill and reducing greenhouse gas emissions at scale,” says Michelle Ruiz, founder. “Hyfé operates at the intersection of climate and health, enabling regional production of low cost, alternative protein that reduces carbon emissions and is decoupled from agriculture.”

Symmetry Wood is another Chicago upcycler. They convert SCOBY from kombucha into a material, Pyrus, that resembles exotic wood. Founder Gabe Tavas says Pyrus has been used to produce guitar picks, jewelry and veneers. Symmetry uses the discarded SCOBY from local kombucha brand Kombuchade.

Many area restaurants and culinary brands also use  fermentation to preserve food for the long Chicago winters, when local produce isn’t available. Pop-up restaurant Andare, for example, incorporates fermentation into classic Italian dishes. 

“Finding ways to utilize what would otherwise be waste products inspired our initial dive into fermentation. The goal is not just to use what’s leftover, but to make it into something delicious and unique,” says Mo Scariano, Andare’s CEO. “One of our first dishes employing koji fermentation was a summer squash stuffed cappellacci served with a butter sauce made from carrot juice fermented with arborio rice koji. Living in a place with a short grow season, preservation through fermentation allowed us access throughout the year to ingredients we only have fresh for a few weeks during the summer.”

Industry Challenges

Despite growing interest and increasing sales, fermenters face some significant hurdles.

Smithson at CultureBox says he sees that consumers are open to unorthodox, less traditional ferments. Though favorites like kombucha and sauerkraut dominate the market, “their share is being encroached on by increasingly more varied and niche ferments.” But getting these products to market can be a challenge. Small-scale, culinary producers are challenged by the regulatory hoops they need to jump through to legally sell ferments – especially unusual ones a food inspector doesn’t recognize. 

“The added layer of city regulations on top of state requirements, sluggish health department responses, and inflexible policy chill the potential of small producers,” Smithson says. But he highlights the recently-passed Home-to-Market Act of Illinois as positive legislation helping startup fermenters.

Consumer awareness and education are also vital. “Many longstanding and harmful misconceptions on the safety and value of fermented products still exist,” Smithson says.

Matt Lancor, founder and CEO of Kombuchade makes consumer education a core part of marketing, to align kombucha as a recovery drink.

“Most mainstream kombuchas are marketed towards the yoga/crystal/candle crowd, and I saw a major opportunity to create and market a product for the mainstream athletic community,” he says. “We’re on a mission to educate athletes and the general public about these newly discovered organs [the gut] – our second brain – and fuel the next generation of American athletes with thirst quenching, probiotic rich beverages.”

Product packaging provides much of a consumer’s education. Jack Joseph, founder and CEO of Komunity Kombucha, says simplicity is key. 

“People are more conscious of their health now, more than ever before,” he says. “So now it comes down to the education of the product and creating something that is transparent and easy for the consumer to digest.”

Sebastian Vargo of Chicago-based Vargo Brother Ferments agrees. 

“Oftentimes food is considered ‘safe’ due to lack of microbes and how sterile it is,” he says. “Fermentation eschews the traditional sense of what makes food ‘safe’. We need to create a set standardized guide for fermented food to follow, and change our view of living foods in general. One of the brightest spots to me is the fact that fermentation is really hitting its stride and finding its place in the modern world, and I don’t see it going anywhere but up in the near future.”

For decades, scientists and astronauts have studied if living on Mars is feasible. The harsh environment on the planet suggests few – if any – living things can survive. But new research has revealed something interesting: kombucha can survive in extraterrestrial conditions.

Scientists found the bacteria in a kombucha SCOBY, Komagataeibacter, can survive on Mars. The research, part of the Biology and Mars Experiment (BIOMEX), began in 2014, when kombucha cultures were sent to the International Space Station. Scientists hoped cellulose, “the genomic architecture of kombucha” could survive in space, and Komagataeibacter produces cellulose.

“Based on our metagenomic analysis, we found that the simulated Martian environment drastically disrupted the microbial ecology of kombucha cultures,” said Bertram Brenig, professor at University of Göttingen’s Institute of Veterinary Medicineand head of the study . “However, we were surprised to discover that the cellulose-producing bacteria of the genus Komagataeibacter survived.”

The cultures lived eighteen months outside the ISS, were reactivated on earth and cultivated for another two and a half years.

The study, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, “provides the first evidence that bacterial cellulose could be a biomarker for extraterrestrial life and cellulose-based membranes or films could be a good biomaterial for protecting life and producing consumer goods in extraterrestrial settlements.”

Read more (University of Göttingen)

Consumers want foods that aid gut health, but brands face a major challenge. How can they educate buyers about microbiome health benefits without getting into trouble with regulators?

“It’s no longer enough to just say ‘healthy,’” says Alon Chen, CEO and co-founder of Tastewise, an “AI platform for food brands.” “We are absolutely more critical of health claims in general. We want to know how, we want to know why and we want it backed by science.”

The term “healthy” is no longer resonating with consumers. Over 30% are looking for products with multifunctional benefits, according to research by Tastewise. They want more detail, on topics such as gut health, sleep improvement, brain function, anti-bloating and energy. 

“Food is no longer just about nutrition, nor is it about general health,” says Flora Southey, editor at Food Navigator. “Consumers want more from the food they consume – and they want to be specific about it.”

What are the challenges and opportunities for brands trying to deliver gut health? A panel of food and nutrition experts tackled the issue during a Food Navigator webinar: “From Fermentation to Fortification: How is Industry Supporting Gut Health and Immunity?” Here are highlights.

Regulation Woes

There are trillions of microbes in our gut, but science has only scratched the surface of their power. Gut health is an ambiguous – and often confusing – subject for consumers. 

Regulations on gut health claims are evolving. A year ago, the European Food Standard Authority asked food producers to help evaluate microbiome-based product claims.

“In order for us to assert ourselves in the industry, we have to be able to defend and support these claims,” says Anthony Finbow, CEO of Eagle Genomics, a software company incorporating microbiome research into their data analysis.

It’s “the dawn of a new age,” according to Finbow. Major food companies are now valued for delivering nutrition in addition to caloric content. “There is greater consumer understanding that food is a mechanism for better health.”

Southey feels brands need to do more for consumer education “I’m not convinced [the message is] getting to the consumer as well as it should be.”

Nutrition drink brand MOJU is attempting to tackle the regulatory stumbling block of health benefits on a label. Strict rules requiring detailed substantiation have resulted in few gut health claims“We’ve got a long way to go from an education point of view,” says Ross Austen, research and nutrition lead at MOJU. 

MOJU can’t use the term “gut health,” but they can say a drink contains vitamin C or D, which have been proven to boost the immune system. They can’t say their drink is anti-inflammatory, but they can say it contains turmeric, known for its anti-inflammatory properties.

Marketing -Biotics

More consumers want the presumed gut health benefits of probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics to power their microbiome. Probiotics “have largely stolen the headlines over the past few years,” Austen says, but prebiotics are appearing in more and more products. MOJU puts prebiotic fiber in their drinks because probiotics are a challenge for packaged food products. Because probiotics contain live and active cultures, they must be refrigerated and their efficacy tested.

Ashok Dubey, Phd, senior scientist and lead for nutrition sciences at TATA Chemicals (a supplier of chemical ingredients to food and drink producers), agrees. Dubey feels that the benefits of probiotics have been diminished in the minds of consumers. He notes that when probiotics first began appearing in foods 20 years ago, they were claimed to be able to solve any and all health ailments. 

“There’s a greater understanding that our gut microbiota is so complex, if the food we eat is so complex, then the solution we should provide should be a combination of all of this,” he says. Dubey is seeing more patents combining probiotics and prebiotics, a complex solution that he says looks at whole health.

But, he notes, any claim with -biotics must be validated by scientific research.

Traditional Foods vs. Clinical Trials

Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), takes issue with the need to validate every health claim with scientific research. “We shouldn’t displace a huge body of traditional knowledge in favor of pharmaceuticals,” she says.

Making health claims around -biotics has been challenging for the kombucha industry. “It doesn’t honor what food does for us nutritionally,” she adds. Today’s food industry is so heavily regulated that foods traditionally consumed by humans for centuries – like kombucha – can’t put a health claim on a label without proving benefits in a human clincal trial.

“It’s frustrating,” Crum says. ““In fact, because there is no definition of the word probiotic from a legal perspective, it leaves our brands vulnerable to be attacked by parasitic lawyers who just want to extract value from large corporations because they can.”

“In my opinion, we need to honor the fact that all traditionally fermented foods are probiotic by nature instead of saying ‘Well you need the research to prove it,’” she says.

A win for kombucha brewers — after a confusing month for  those trying to sell their products in South Carolina, they can now sell kombucha as a non-alcoholic beverage in the state. 

South Carolina’s Department of Revenue (DOR) had categorized all kombuchas as alcoholic beverages. The state.’s regulations set a maximum alcohol content for beverages but no minimum, so any fermented beverage with any alcohol content would be considered alcoholic. Since kombucha fermentation produces a trace amount of alcohol, a brewer

 would need to apply for a state alcohol license, and kombucha could not be sold to anyone under the age of 21. 

S.C.’s law contradicts the U.S. legal definition of an alcoholic beverage, which is any product with 0.5% or more alcohol by volume (ABV). 

After kombucha industry leaders contacted the state’s DOR and the South Carolina Retail Association (SCRA) to share advice and resources, the  regulation was amended to exempt kombucha. Kombucha Brewers International’s leadership and legal counsel, along with producers Buchi Kombucha, GT’s Synergy Kombucha, Health Ade, Humm and Brew Dr., were involved.

“Every time we are called to support commercial producers to advocate on their behalf with government agencies, we validate the category,” said Zane Adams, chair of KBI’s board and co-CEO of Buchi Kombucha and FedUp Foods. “Our very existence means that kombucha is not a fad rather it is a necessary beverage segment that will only continue to grow. We appreciate every opportunity to interface with regulators to help them better understand our product and processes.”

“Crisis creates community,” adds Hannah Crum, KBI president. “Our mission is to advocate and protect kombucha and that’s exactly what we were able to do here thanks to the cooperation of several KBI member and non-member brands. We also appreciate that we were able to create new relationships with the SCRA and the S.C. DOR as we worked together to create a harmonious resolution.”

Most retail stores sell kombucha in the refrigerated juice section. In a press release, KBI shared three points for food regulators who may be unsure in what beverage category kombucha fits:

  • Kombucha is not beer. Tax codes that lump kombucha with malt beverages are incorrect.
  • Kombucha is an acetic acid ferment. Its fermentation process is similar to that for vinegar. Trace amounts of ethanol will be left in the final ferment, and they act as a natural preservative.
  • Hard kombucha is an exception to non-alcoholic kombucha. Hard kombucha is intentionally made with a higher alcohol content, with the purpose to be sold and consumed as an alcoholic beverage.

KBI is currently lobbying for legislation that would exempt kombucha from excise taxes intended for alcoholic beverages. The KOMBUCHA Act, currently in Congress, proposes to raise the ABV threshold for kombucha taxation  from its current level of 0.5% to 1.25%. KBI is encouraging the public to sign a petition in support of the act. 

While KBI notes it would be ideal to create a new beverage category, “the process is long and arduous and requires a lot of financing for education and lobbying.”