“This is the Decade When Kombucha Becomes a Household Name”

/ / Consumer, Legal & Regulatory, Science

Kombucha has its first international holiday. On February 21, kombucha brewers and consumers around the world will celebrate World Kombucha Day.

Kombucha dates back over 2,000 years to 221 B.C. The fermented tea is one of the fastest growing beverages in the world. Kombucha is estimated to reach $3.5 billion in international sales by 2025, with one third of that  in U.S. sales. Hannah Crum, founder and president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), a non-profit trade association (and an affiliate of TFA), believes 2020 will be the decade kombucha becomes mainstream.

Educating the public, though, is the key step to making kombucha a recognized wellness drink. KBI began the World Kombucha Day initiative and is encouraging brands to host events, offer free tastings and partner with retails for in-store promotions.

Since KBI started six years ago, Crum has watched the small kombucha labels that joined KBI transform into big brands. She sees the kombucha industry growing not with big kombucha labels but with small craft brands. If consumers in small towns all over the world start purchasing kombucha, local producers will need to drive that growth, Crum adds.

“And it opens the door for all these other fermented products to come in,” Crum adds. “Drinking vinegar, shrubs, water kefir, even sauerkraut and fermented vegetables. Local brands will drive the entire fermented food and drink category.”

Below, a Q&A with Crum on World Kombucha Day and how kombucha can maintain their growth momentum. 

Question: Why a World Kombucha Day?

Hannah Crum: Kombucha’s mythological origins hearken back to 221 BC in China. The Chinese are famous for their quest for longevity with their elixirs. It’s been part of the story of kombucha, this mythological origin. So 221, at least in the American system, translates to February 21st. What better year to launch it than in 2020.

Why World Kombucha Day? To celebrate the culture of kombucha. Obviously drinking a commercial brand is how I first heard about kombucha. It’s how most people first experience kombucha, even though home brewing has been around for a long time. It’s a way for people to raise awareness about kombucha, to be excited about what it is, to honor its Asian roots, and to really help more people know about kombucha.

This is the decade when kombucha becomes a household name. Launching this world kombucha day in 2020, in this decade, is that first step towards building excitement around kombucha. Not just the drink being trendy, because i think it’s going to last longer than a trend. It’s getting more people to wake up to how wonderful this product is. 

We think of kombucha as a gateway. Kombucha isn’t an end point. We don’t stop at kombucha, we start with kombucha. From kombucha, people move to other products in the fermentation association, now it’s sauerkraut and kimchi and kvas and water kefir. I don’t even think we could see this many water kefir brands starting to emerge if kombucha didn’t exist. 

Q: Tell me the process of making World Kombucha Day an official “day.”

HC: The process is pretty straight forward and basically just means coming up with the day and promoting it. We have applied to some of the calendars and apparently if you pay enough money, you can even make it onto the National Holiday Calendar.

Q: What are you hoping brands will do to celebrate World Kombucha Day? 

HC: I’m hoping they’ll elevate kombucha into the consciousness. That can be providing education, and education could come in the form of free samples or offering a promo at your favorite store. It’s on a Friday this year — if you happen to be at a farmers market or you happen to have a tap room, why not host an education event. 

Really it’s this opportunity to engage with your community, do this outreach and to help people understand what kombucha is. Because so many people still either haven’t heard the word, they don’t know what it is, they’re afraid of it, they’ve tried it and think its weird, whatever it is, just giving them another touch point, another opportunity to hear about it, another opportunity to try it without having to pay $3-5 per bottle in order to see what it’s like. 

People can add events to our World Kombucha Day calendar based on region. This is free, open to all kombucha producers, not just KBI members. While World Kombucha Day is a KBI initiative, it’s really about the category of kombucha. 

Q: Tell me more about KBI origins. Why did you create KBI ?

HC: It started with our business, Kombucha Kamp, and our mission: changing the world, one gut at a time. 

KBI also comes from looking at our culture which works in symbiosis. We’ve always understood we can’t do this alone, we have to do this in partnership, we have to be in community. Changing the gut one world at a time, knowing we can’t do it alone, and how do most people find out about kombucha? Again it’s through a commercial product.

In 2010, we had that incident where Whole Foods took all the kombucha off of store shelves and it really creates a lot of fear. It’s a trauma point that we’ve continued to have to work through together. That is what inspired us to come together and really make this work.

We know: people don’t really understand what kombucha is. When you don’t know about something, you’re afraid of it. People worry “I’m going to get bad bacteria in my brew and harm myself.” Well, that’s highly unlikely, just like any fermented food. The only reason they still exist today is because they’ve always been so incredibly safe to make and pass around or they would have been on the compost heap of history ages ago.

So knowing that there was a need, we have a unique roll. We’ve already been doing some cross-category marketing. We did a 30-day kombucha challenge, we did a New Years re-evolution, which were all designed to raise awareness about the category.

So I nominated myself to head KBI and Alex (Crum’s husband), God love him, supported me. We started with KKon (KombuchaKon) in 2014, and here we are about to have our 7th annual show, our 5th annual trade show. We’ve grown from 40 members to over 300. We’ve always been international though, which is unique. We’ve always had people from around the world participating with us.

Q: Is the U.S. leading the growing kombucha popularity?

HC: Yes. America leads the world  because this is where the commercial industry started. GT’s is going to celebrate his 25th anniversary this year. Kombucha has been a commercially available product for 25 years. Even now its taken this long, right, even in the early years it wasn’t around until 2010 when it started to pick up steam and we started to see more brands proliferate. Now here in 2020, we’re going to make it a household name.

Just like yogurt wasn’t a household staple, it was something hippies had to make at home on their countertops themselves, then it was turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. And that’s exactly what we see kombucha becoming. What we see isn’t the opportunity for a bunch of processed food companies. Rather its a bunch of small, family-owned businesses that serve local communities with a fresh product. That’s what’s different and unique about all the fermentation businesses.

I love Farmhouse Cultures — I just bought a bottle of their kraut juice — I look on the back and they’re adding vinegar to it. You can’t keep up when you’re a massive brand and you’re going to have to take shortcuts. To me, yes it tastes good, but its not kraut juice, its vinegar and kraut juice. Unfortunately, that’s just what happens when you go too big with certain things.

People in the 21st Century are looking for viable opportunities with a job that makes you feel good about the work you’re doing and that helps your local communities, and it’s important for these communities to have access to really fresh, nutrient-dense foods. So I always advise people: there’s an opportunity, as long as you’re not afraid of hard work. I advise people its a labor of love, emphasis on the labor. But I also think that if you’re someone who wants to be in your community doing good, this is a great way to do it.

Q: Do you think that’s how the kombucha industry is going to  grow — more small producers than large?

HC: Exactly right. There’s always going to be a certain number of large producers and brands that want to pursue that type of dream, but it’s a huge trade off. Sure you might end up with a bigger paycheck in the end, but you also give up so much of your life and energy in order to make it profitable.

You’re never going to have another GT’s Kombucha. He was first to market. That was a rare opportunity. Were not likely to see an individually or privately owned brand get to that type of level unless they have investment and if you take on an investment, now you are beholden to other people’s ideas about your business.

Look at the beer industry and how things have happened there. New Belgium just sold to a major food corporation from Asia because even economies of scale aren’t sustainable if you don’t continue to have capital infusions. So if you’re looking for a model that will stay sustainable over time, I think it is staying small, having a local footprint, and again that’s better for the planet, better for the community. The reason products need super long shelf lives on them is because it’s being shipped massive distances. If you only have to go to your local place to get kombucha fresh, you don’t have to put so much processing into your products.

Q: Tell me what you’re seeing in the industry now — are craft beer brewers entering the market? Bigger commercial soda brands?

HC: All of these entrants, it’s exciting. What they are seeing are dollar signs and opportunities. Especially as they see their sales slipping. It’s true for craft beer as it is for soda. 

That’s just reflecting how consumers are changing their tastes over time. It’s always healthy to diversify. The reality is what we would love — Coca-Cola started as a health drink, selling in pharmacies, with actual essences and things that were good for you. And now it’s turned into a fake version of a real thing, full of fake ingredients. How wonderful would it be for us as an industry, for us to bring them back to the good side. Don’t poison people with your cheap products and aspartame and things that are known to be toxins. Let’s try to make this something that brings about positive change to everybody. 

We love beer too! I think what we’ll also start to see is the benefits of unfiltered beer. I personally believe that pasteurization and these processing steps that remove the yeast or all of the living nutrients from beer basically creates products that don’t deliver on the nutritional promise that was guaranteed for our ancestors.

We crave bubbles because our ancestors understood that meant that nutrients were present in a living form. And so many people have come to find they can’t tolerate carbonated water — well that’s carbonic acid, it’s not natural organic acids, it’s not all of the yeast and nutrients present in yeast. 

The conflict is always these are tough products to control. That’s again where the model of having several small producers is actually better.

Q: What are some of the greatest myths consumers believe about kombucha? How can brands debunk the myths?

HC: In the headlines, we get the two polarizing viewpoints — kombucha is the miracle elixir that will save your life and kombucha is snake oil that is dangerous. The reality is the truth is always somewhere in the middle. This is not a beverage for everybody. That’s because we have so many people dealing with a healing crisis. However, there is a ferment for everyone. So either its a miracle cure — or it will kill you. Both of those are the greatest myths. 

Will you feel a benefit from drinking kombucha? Absolutely. We have a research study we presented last year showing how kombucha impacts inflammation and stress markers. They’ve taken that study to the next step, which we’ll be hearing those results at KKon this year.

People have provided anecdotal information for how kombucha has helped them with a wide range of inclement for hundreds, thousands of years, right. And so often science wants to ignore that information. But truly that’s the jumping off point for studying something, for understanding something. It is because of the anecdotal information.

Science is a method of inquiry. The phenomenon already exists. We just don’t necessarily know what’s driving it until we engage in scientific inquiry. So this idea that science is settled, that we already know everything, is ridiculous. It’s human hubris to think that. What I think is exciting is in this 21st Century, we continue to do the research and validate the anecdotal claims, and again not everything is for everybody. Some people are allergic to shrimp, strawberries, you name it, there are people who can be allergic to anything and all that says is we’re diverse and not everything is for everybody and that’s OK. Honestly, I think what’s exciting about our industry is you try one kombucha and don’t like it — try another. It’s going to taste totally different. It’s not a miracle, but it’s not going to kill you. It’s not for everyone, but it helps a lot of people. And that’s what World Kombucha Day tries to do — to introduce you to kombucha and see where you land on that spectrum. 

Q: What is driving kombucha’s popularity in the past few years?

HC: Microbiome. The rise of autoimmune disease and metabolic disease. People are sick of being sick and start to turn to food to get better because they’ve heard you can get better with certain types of food or by changing their diet. And while they are not getting that advice from their doctors, unless they’re seeing a naturopath or something like that, I think people out of desperation are turning to their diet because they’re just so uncomfortable with where they’re at healthwise. That to me is truly what’s fueling the fueling popularity of this product. So many people consume it, and they say they “Just feel good.” What does that mean, how do you quantify that? Is it just my tummy feels more settled? There’s a whole range of things that could refer to. And I think that’s really what’s driving it.

People are waking up. They realize now they’ve been lied to by packaged foods — I call it poisoned in prepackaging by pretty people. How many sodas is Beyonce drinking to be that shape? You know there’s mythology when they’ve put these packages in people’s hands but that’s not who’s actually drinking this on a regular basis. 

Especially this younger generation is more critical of advertising and more critical of doing what everyone else has done until now. They are starting to recognize “Hey what are all  these weird flavorings and chemicals in my food and water?” and “Hey I thought someone was in charge of and managing this?” and then you find out, no, corporations are actually still allowed to dump toxins into the water supply, we still have lead in Michigan and Flint. This mythology of a government that cares for you is being broken down. For good reason. Unfortunately, the forces that be are trying to maintain a status quo because they make money off people being sick for so long. But that really is that change — I’m not saying kombucha will cure everything. Buts it’s a gateway. It’s a gateway to healing your body, getting some kind of relief, and seeing there’s a world of other choices you can make that are going to yield different health benefits.

Q: The soda industry is rapidly declining. Do you think kombucha can capture those consumers?

HC: One thousand percent. Really Who is our competition? It’s not other kombucha brands. Its soda companies, it’s energy drink companies, it’s soda water companies, it’s seltzer water companies, it’s “smart water” that’s water with some electrolytes, it’s Gatorade. It’s all this manufactured, lab-created junk. Supplements will never be as good as the real thing. And kombucha is a real thing — it’s a real fermented beverage. It’s what soda aspires to be.