Top flavors in the kombucha category tend to be functional ingredients that come with consumer familiarity, with ginger leading the pack, according to Vierhile. With a 2014 to 2018 CAGR for ginger at 25.7% in the U.S. kombucha market, Tom Vierhile, vice president, Strategic Insights, North America, Innova Market Insights, noted it accounts for three times the product launches as lemon—the second-most popular flavor.
From 2017 to 2019, “ginger juice” as an ingredient on kombucha product labels increased its share of growth by 523% as demonstrated in products exhibited at the Natural Products Expo West and Expo East trade shows, according to proprietary data from Informa Markets’ NEXT Trend Database. “Ginger root” share growth was more than 500% at the Natural Product Expos.
The NEXT Trend Database also found lavender was the next fastest growing kombucha inclusion with a 345% share of growth, while blueberry, chamomile, mango and orange all increased by more than 150% share of growth.
Innova Markets Insights showed the fast-growing flavor of blueberry posted a 31.6% U.S. CAGR from 2014 to 2018. Vierhile said he anticipates innovation in niche botanical flavors and botanical inclusions. “Turmeric was rarely seen in new kombucha launches as recently as 2014 but has really taken off in the last year or so with U.S. launches up five-fold from 2017 from a tiny base,” he said. “Hops is a flavor/ingredient that was almost unheard of in kombucha until around 2018 but is now popping up with increasing regularity. Hibiscus exploded in 2019, with U.S. launch levels for the year-to-date through Dec. 9 doubling from a very small base. Other flavors, inclusions or ingredients to watch include hemp (including CBD), caffeine and lavender.”
“Ginger and berry types continue to reign as top sellers, though we’re seeing dynamic new flavors like coffee/java, ginseng, blood orange carrot and cola flavored,” said Julie Pappas, R.D., corporate communications manager, SPINS.
Rowdy Mermaid uses a lot of botanicals and mushrooms in its products. “Our philosophy is that we create flavor based on function,” said Jamba Dunn, CEO, Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha. “Flavor is the result of whatever botanicals we use.” The company uses Lion’s Mane and chaga mushrooms, and exotic plants and herbs, such as Tasmanian pepper berry. The brand also uses roses, chamomile and green rooibos in several of its decaffeinated blends.
While Rowdy Mermaid can manufacture to get extreme function out of a mushroom, “if it tastes like dog burps at the end, no one is going to want it,” Dunn acknowledged. “We have to figure out how to get that function into a flavor package that’s different from everything else that’s on the shelf, but also doesn’t scare our consumers away.”
Reed said Dr. Hops uses field testing to assess their flavors. “We do as many tastings as possible; we ask for feedback on what we’re doing.” Dr. Hops hard kombucha is available in Jackalope (ginger, lime and mint), IPK (dry-hopped with mosaic, citra and cryo-cascade), Binky (basil and lemongrass), and Lop (pomegranate chai; “It confuses people, but they love it,” said Tommy Weaver, co-founder and brew master, Dr. Hops).
“Today’s consumer is all about flavor, but flavor choice changes,” Gilmore noted, so Flying Embers works with flavoring houses to find flavors that “meet consumer needs but are also authentic to kombucha.” The Flying Embers line includes six flavors: Ancient Berry, Lemon Orchard, Ginger & Oak, Pineapple Chili, Black Cherry, and Grapefruit Thyme.
Vierhile noted new product innovators are launching second- and third-generation kombucha products to appeal to mainstream consumers that may be turned off by the sour, vinegar-like taste of kombucha, but still want to enjoy its health benefits. “Odwalla Smoobucha is one product that tries to broaden the appeal of kombucha by blending it with smoothie ingredients to create a hybrid beverage that combines the best of all worlds and creates a bridge for new users.”
Smith said mainstream consumers are less aware of the functional properties of ingredients like botanicals and adaptogens, and instead seek familiar. In line with KÖE’s desire for consistency, it uses organic natural fruit juices, rather than natural flavors, to allow the brand to better control the flavor profile.
Traceability and supply chain concerns
Kombucha manufacturers must follow the food safety rules outlined in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which requires preventative controls and supplier verifications, but to meet consumer demands and personal ethics many brands go beyond legal requirements. Often, this is a difficult task.
Joshua Reed, co-founder and CEO of Dr. Hops, noted the range in quality of ingredient sources. “Some farmers are extremely exploited, and they are barely making enough to scrape out a living,” he said. “Working conditions can be horrible, especially when you’re importing ingredients from overseas. How can we say that it’s a health-conscious product if the ingredients are extracted in a way that hurts the earth and hurts people?”
Dunn said finding sustainably sourced functional ingredients for Rowdy Mermaid kombucha requires traceability. “As we use ingredients, we’re learning how higher quality, organic and regenerative ingredients impact the flavor, function and fermentation throughout the lifecycle of the product.” Dunn said the company learned this the hard way when it experienced disparities in the brewing process, such as with the flavor, and alcohol and sugar levels. “We wondered if the ingredients we were getting weren’t actually organic ingredients, even though they were labeled that way, perhaps because farms got spray-over or runoff from neighboring nonorganic farms. We began testing our ingredients with outside labs and then with our internal lab. We started to find concerns with the ingredients themselves, so we found new vendors, and we began asking questions about how the ingredients were grown, and what the soil composition was, because all those factors play into the final product.” He said Rowdy found ingredients grown in regenerative, organic soil are the most stable.
As consumer demand grows, kombucha consistency must follow. Safety and alcohol standards are most important, but the market also struggles to find category standardization, and some brand strive to standardize CFU counts to meet product claims. Finding consistency and standardization of a living product poses challenges, but kombucha advocates understand the need to keep this market thriving, just like cultures in the bottle on shelf.
To read more about the kombucha market, check out Keeping kombucha market thriving in in a cultivating market and Crafting commercial kombucha to meet consumer needs.