Kombucha: More Than A Trending Tea
Tuesday, April 24th, 2018
Social media has been flooded by an influx of people fermenting tea in their kitchens—but not just any tea, Kombucha is a probiotic-rich drink that exponentially improves gut health. Kombucha Dan, founder of Bushwick Pte Ltd, which produces The Mad Alchemyst functional beverages, speaks to APFI regarding this flourishing consumer trend.
What Is Kombucha And Why Is It Gaining Traction In Asia?
Kombucha is an ancient TCM product known as Hong Cha Jun—it is said to have originated in the courts of the first emperor of China but has progressed in the 21st century to evolve into a leading a functional beverage phenomenon in the USA. Since 2009, it has seen exponential growth across the globe.
2009 was the year Whole Foods Market picked up Synergy Drinks’ brand, GT’s Kombucha. Since then, the bottled drink rapidly gained traction and became the fastest growing product in the beverage industry worldwide, with a market valuation of over USD $700m by major marketing reporting agencies. The same agencies typically cite a 25 percent CAGR until 2024, as well as serious growth and demand throughout Asia.
Market statistics prove that nowadays, Kombucha is the beverage of choice among growing legions of devotees in the United States, Canada and Australia. The uptick in our sales and media attention tells us the trend is starting to gain momentum in Singapore as well as other parts of ASEAN as well. My instinct from the moment I decided to start Bushwick was that the synergy of Kombucha’s Eastern origin meeting the Western trend would create the perfect storm.
At its most basic, the manufacturing process for kombucha is as follows:
- Boil tea, add sugar, cool
- Inoculate with heirloom culture
- Wait a number of days
- Carbonate in bottle at ambient temperature
I have predicated my efforts on making an authentic, low calorie Kombucha which appeals to the wider market, foreseeing the East Meet West trend and planning on the confidence of producing a Kombucha in Singapore, as this would have significant effects on the perception of consumers around the rest of the Asia Pacific, notably food scandal-ridden China. I’ve therefore familiarised myself with the strictest regulatory landscape in practice, specifically with regard to one of the most controversial beverages on the market. In fact, due to early regulatory speculations preventing me from founding a factory in 2014, I was forced to look deeper into my product than anyone has yet had to. To date, I have invested over 28,000 hours of intellectual property research in Kombucha production, the pinnacle of which has been the discovery of an inexpensive, patentable, and very scalable technology which results in a Kombucha with the following properties:
- Completely natural / no additives
- Raw / unpasteurised (crucial for core demographics)
- Below 0.5 percent alcohol and stable enough for Halal certification
- Long shelf-life of one year
- Doesn’t require refrigeration
To date, I have not heard of another brand of Kombucha worldwide which has all of these properties in one bottle. However, we have not built this factory yet and are currently using one of our other methodologies.
Are There Different Kinds Of Kombucha?
Kombucha has a couple of main ‘styles’—however, my personal vote for a legal denomination for Kombucha would be that it must be made of tea from the Camellia Sinensis tree, keeping in mind the keyword tea is in the name, otherwise it’s just another fermented plant infusion. Some Kombuchas undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle for carbonation and are flavoured carefully, likened to a Belgian ale or better yet—a Lambic.
Other brands of Kombucha are similar to a Shandy. Their fermentation process is unsophisticated, producing a tart and unbalanced product which is then cut with fruit juice or other flavourings to balance the flavour. While this variety requires little skill to make, it is generally so sweet, dilute and high in calorie—at which point you should just reach for a conventional soda. Uneducated consumer perception is, thus, that anything with the word Kombucha on the label symbolises healthy. The core demographic of fitness and weight management segments however are always heard complaining about the lack of Kombuchas which are actually low-calorie. They are the driving force behind the phenomenon of Kombucha and they historically have dictated which brands end up at the top.
A true Kombucha has a complex taste due to the unique and and complex fermentative action—it has some of the flavour qualities of tea, the complexity of beer, and is tart as well. However, due to the fermentation, it often has small quantities of alcohol, which is a barrier to entry for potential players. The taste is often polarising as well due to the fact that most brands of Kombucha taste a bit like something that could be effectively described as, “a vinegary soda blended with fruit juice to balance the flavours a bit,” but some consumers go for it anyway because of the drink’s purported health benefits. Kombucha is usually lower calorie than conventional soft drinks—The Mad Alchemyst is 38 calories per 330 ml bottle, with just 2 g of sugar.
I knew that for uptake in Asia Pacific, however—a region with a high diabetes statistic and a rather conventional palate when it comes to soft drinks—that we needed something less polarising, so we put a lot of effort into developing a Kombucha that is more like a craft beer, with the following sensorial qualities:
- Full bodied and satisfying
- Persistent foamy head, like a beer
- Tastes sweet with no artificial sweeteners
- Balanced acidity, not vinegary at all
- Full of flavour
Kombucha also has purported health benefits. I say purported because very few of them have peer-reviewed evidence. The long list of remedies often attributed to Kombucha definitely raises eyebrows.
I generally counter murmurs of the “debatability” of Kombucha’s health claims with a couple of arguments. To wit: big beverage manufacturers have been making their name for the last 200-odd years by selling products which satisfy palates at the cost of deleterious health effects. Whereas Kombucha is at the very least harmless, as proven by its track record of zero foodborne illness outbreaks among commercial varieties, it is also low calorie and contains enough acetic acid to act as a natural preservative. Acetic acid is also clinically proven to regulate blood sugar by slowing the breakdown of carbohydrates and slowing the release of insulin (this suppresses hunger cravings as well). Given just this tiny bit of evidence, we may reason that going from Soft Drinks to Kombucha is like going from -1 to +1 from a health viewpoint.
Apart from this, Kombucha does have significant health benefits—probiotics is the fastest growing segment in pharmaceutical industry, and its study is transforming our understanding of human health, hand-in-hand with genomics. The list of progressive, chronic and severe diseases brought on by bad gut health is ever-lengthening. Our gut health also influences our genetic expression. Therefore, simply by improving and maintaining your gut health, you could reduce the probability of contracting a plethora of inflammatory diseases, psychiatric conditions, cancer, and even the emergence of inherited diseases.
What Is ‘The SCOBY’?
If we dive yet further into the universe of Kombucha, we find it is the product of a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeasts, colloquially abbreviated as the SCOBY, which is often mistaken for the “mushroom”, the cellulose biofilm which forms on the surface to protect the brew. In fact, the whole brew is a SCOBY. I like to refer to it using a fringe term—Syntropic Antioxidative Microbial Colonies. This, in essence, means that the microbes of Kombucha don’t just decompose nutrients for energy as they ferment, leaving in their wake less accessible nutrients for scavenging pathogenic bacteria, but they rearrange them and build more complex molecules which serve a purpose for the defence and longevity of the “immortal” colony. The wild yeasts mine energy for the bacteria, which utilise the fruits of their labour to build a monumental civilisation with state-of-the-art defence systems, all on a microcosmic level. This is why we feature the pyramids of Giza as well as the heavens on our label—as above, so below.
Understanding of these specific processes are well beyond the current grasp of science. There are hundreds—if not thousands—of fermentative compounds found in a single sample of kombucha. However, we can’t just pour it into a machine and get a read-out of its molecules (see fig 1-2). The 16 varieties of microbes in the colony consume nutrients, using minerals to activate dynamic pathways with each microbe producing a unique set of molecular by-products based on the input. These changes are based on the type of tea, the soil it was grown in, the age of the tree, the minerals in the sugar and so on. They then consume their compatriots’ first set of molecules, using more energy from the nutrient solution of sugar and tea to fuel their work to rearrange these molecules into other more complex compounds. And then, yet other microbes consume these and produce another set of compounds!
This carries on ad infinitum in the hermetic world beneath the biofilm of the SCOBY. When consumed, these microbes enhance gut microbiota, which subsequently supports immunity, inflammatory response, brain function and other bodily systems in the long run. This is why I generally refer to the overarching benefit of Kombucha as increasing quality of life rather than listing the health benefits.
At the end of the day, Kombucha is doing wonders for the image of the beverage industry—it is causing a paradigm shift towards wholesome beneficial products which satisfy in a healthful, authentic, and sustainable way, and traditional soft drink producers are starting to take notice. My prediction is that this trend will continue until these two disparate graph lines someday cross, and I intend to be standing on the intersection.
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