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Kombucha’s identity crisis concerning to beverage formulators

Kombucha brewers want to ensure the beverage stays true to its roots while also being innovative in a growing market.

As kombucha goes mainstream with US$600.6 million in sales, kombucha represented 85.8% of sales for the fermented beverage segment (52 weeks ending April 21, 2019), according to SPINS, some producers are concerned that the identity of the traditional beverage could get lost in the market.

“As kombucha continues to gain popularity with consumers, there's a risk that commercial kombucha producers will be tempted to choose short cuts (less fermenting time and weaker culture) and ‘watering down’ the signature bold kombucha flavor in an effort to accelerate production and distribution to appeal to a more mainstream audience,” said GT Dave, founder and CEO at GT's Living Foods. “Unfortunately, this may translate into a wave of products with the name ‘kombucha’ on the label but are void of any nutritional benefits and are simply a new-age soda.” He added that the category has room for many versions of kombucha, including pasteurized with added probiotics, hyper-filtered and made from a concentrate, “but it’s critical that the consumer is aware of the difference, so they can make an informed decision.”

Tommy Weaver, co-founder and brew master, Dr. Hops, echoed that sentiment. “If it’s not fermented, it’s not kombucha; if it’s not living, it’s not kombucha,” he said. “If you can’t grow culture on media from the product, it’s not living.” He said it is fair to call pasteurized products “kombucha,” but the market may need a better way to differentiate products. “You can create interesting flavor profiles through fermentation and pasteurization, but it loses the indication that kombucha is a living beverage. We may need to start calling our products ‘living kombucha’ or ‘live kombucha.’”

Representing the entire industry, Hannah Crum, president and founder of Kombucha Brewers International, also sees the need to appropriately define kombucha. Kombucha Brewers International is in the process of creating a code of practice for its members. The goals for the code are to ensure the product holds integrity, but also allow for inclusivity and innovation. “We don’t only want the traditional processes to be acknowledged as kombucha. We want to allow for innovation, including products that are already on the market such as coffee kombucha, yerba mate kombucha or herbal kombucha. While we honor traditional kombucha, and we appreciate it, we also are open to having everybody as part of the conversation.”

In 2019, the association worked with a consultant who has experience with FDA to help write and revise the code of practice. The next steps are to establish technical specifications that the organization will test and validate among its members. “That gives us a change to evolve it and update it as innovation occurs, and then when we feel we have a good handle on it because it’s been vetted and in practice by our membership. Then, we can try to promulgate a legal standard,” Crum said. “Hopefully by Kombucha Con (April 1-3, 2020) we have a version of this code of practice to share.”

To read more about the kombucha market, check out Keeping kombucha market thriving in a cultivating market, Crafting commercial kombucha to meet consumer needs, and Kombucha flavoring, supply concerns for beverage brands.

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