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The Future is Fermented

There’s a new beverage trend sweeping the nation, and it’s alive! Sort of. The fermented tea kombucha (kom-BOO-cha) is unfiltered and raw and really quite good for you—and more people are drinking it every day.

Here’s how you make kombucha: You brew tea, add a sweetener such as sugar, agave syrup or pasteurized honey and then ferment that sweet tea with a blend of yeast and beneficial bacteria called a SCOBY, an acronym for a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” This is a similar fermentation process to the one that creates pickles, sauerkraut and yogurt—and just as with those foods, the final product of kombucha is rich in probiotics that help digestive health. It actually tastes good, too.

Kombucha is like the health foods of an earlier generation such as nutritional yeast and Vegemite, in that the yeast leaves behind a significant dose of B vitamins. Drink a serving of a popular brand like GT’s Gingerade Kombucha and you’ll get 25 percent of your day’s recommended folic acid and 20 percent of other B vitamins, including B2, B6, B1, B3 and B12.

“Probiotic foods are something I recommend to everyone,” says Stefani Pappas, a New York registered dietician and nutritionist who works with patients at St. Francis Hospital as well as private clients. “Kombucha is a nice alternative to soda and a great source of probiotics, since it has beneficial bacteria, enzymes and yeast. I recommend it as a vegan probiotic beverage—the gut is basically the center of everything in the body, and getting priobiotics in food form maximizes the health benefits.” Pappas had never heard of kombucha five years ago, she says, but now buys it for her lactose-intolerant mother and drinks it herself.

She is not alone. The kombucha market increased approximately 41 percent last year to some $534 million in wholesale sales, reports the New York-based Beverage Marketing Corporation. The market research firm MarketsandMarkets predicts the global kombucha market will be worth nearly $1.8 billion by 2020. Another market research company, Grand View Research, is even more aggressive in its forecast, predicting that the global kombucha market will be $4.46 billion by 2024.

Big players from the world of soda are paying attention: PepsiCo recently spent about $200 million on the California kombucha maker KeVita, and Coca-Cola’s Venturing and Emerging Brands unit has a stake in the kombucha maker Health-Ade.

Meanwhile, the country’s biggest kombucha maker is trying to make sure the essence of kombucha remains unchanged. GT Dave started brewing kombucha as a 15-year-old in his parents’ kitchen. Today his privately held company—until recently called Millennium Products Inc.—is the biggest kombucha maker in the United States, controlling more than 60 percent of the market. “We’re renaming the company GT’s Living Foods,” Dave says. “That’s what has always been the essence of kombucha, and it’s absolutely what we make. It’s the North Star for us; we make foods that are living, that have a life force, that give life.”

It’s not obvious to people outside of the food industry, but to prevent fraud, the FDA has definitions of identity for most common foods: There’s a “standard of identity” for ketchup (it must contain tomato), yogurt (it must be fermented using those bacterial cultures you read about on every label), cocoa (it has to come from cacao nibs, the raw material of chocolate) and lots of other foods. There’s no such standard of identity for kombucha yet, which worries makers like Dave, who fear that without regulation, unscrupulous manufacturers could simply call any carbonated drink kombucha.

“Kombucha needs to be something and stand for something,” Dave says. “Hopefully, we will get to a point where we can say kombucha is these three or five things,” including made with an authentic kombucha culture or SCOBY, genuinely fermented and containing active cultures. If you want to make sure you’re getting real kombucha before the official standard of identity is created, look for the strands of “mother” from the SCOBY that should be living in the kombucha. “You have to embrace the floaties,” Dave says. “That’s what makes it different from soda pop. You want it unfiltered and raw, and if you take it out and let it sit on the counter, it should change—if it doesn’t come to life, it’s completely dead. You don’t want dead.”

Making live kombucha at home is actually pretty easy, and if you made it yourself, you would know what the standard of identity should be, says Hannah Crum, who has been helping people make their own kombucha at home for many years with her book The Big Book of Kombucha and website Kombucha Kamp.

“When I was a kid, yogurt was in stores, but not to the level of popularity it has reached in the past 20 years,” says Crum, “Now it’s a multibillion-dollar industry, and I think kombucha will be the same. When we first went [to Washington, D.C., to lobby], I’d say, ‘I’m from Kombucha Brewers International,’ and people would give me this look like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ In March, we went and had an event and had waves of people all looking to get kombucha; it trickled up from the legislative aides and the younger crowd. I think the future for kombucha is that we’ll follow yogurt, follow craft beer and as the marketplace grows, we’ll see diversity—coffee kombuchas, kombucha beers, lots of new products.”

Jamba Dunn is one of those kombucha brewers experimenting with new products. He founded his Boulder, Colorado, kombucha company Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha in 2013 with on-tap kombucha and has expanded to bottled products and now kombucha beer, which has a similar alcohol content to conventional beer. “We started as a brewery, were asked to sell at a farmers market and saw the number of interested people go from 300 per day to 1,300 per day. I had people help me pour, and all day I’d stand there and they’d pour the kombucha and I’d explain what it was,” Dunn says. “Once people understood and liked it, they wanted more.” He thinks the same thing will happen with his Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha beer. “There’s a steep education curve, but a lot of times after that, you’ve got a customer who’s with you for the long haul.”

GT Dave has found the same thing. His loyal kombucha customers want more options, so GT’s Living Foods is expanding into coconut-based fermented foods such as kefir and yogurt, called CocoKefir and CocoYo. “CocoKefir is raw coconut water we take straight from coconuts, which we ferment with kefir cultures—no trickery, no additives, none of these emulsifiers you see in some drinkable kefirs,” he says. “Then we end up with coconut meat, which we ferment with probiotics to make CocoYo. It’s all as simple and beautiful as it gets.”

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