The booch boom: How kombucha got big

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

28 October 2019

Fermented, funky and full of bacteria, kombucha has seen an unlikely rise in the UK on-trade. Kate Malczewski gets the scoop on all things booch


If you’re at all familiar with kombucha, you probably associate it with yoga-practicing, nut-milking vegans. But in the past year or so the undeniably niche non-alcoholic fermented-tea beverage has made serious headway in breaking into the UK’s mainstream drinks market.

In October 2018, kombucha gained national attention when pub chain Fuller’s decided to stock the brand Real Kombucha across its sites. The next month, Belgian brewery Duvel Moortgat announced its majority-stake investment in Hackney-based Jarr Kombucha. And those are just the developments on our sunny shores. In the US and Australia, the past few years have seen an influx of investments in and acquisitions of kombucha brands by the likes of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Molson Coors.

All this business chat is just to say, booch is getting big. Given the movement towards ‘less and better’ booze consumption that is gripping the nation, it makes sense that pubs and breweries are keen to stake their claim on kombucha as a promising non-alcoholic option. Its uptake is even more understandable when you consider its fundamental similarities to beer: it’s lightly fizzy, fermented and often served in bottles, with a passionate and tight-knit community of craft brewers behind it. Last autumn The Guardian took notice, running the headline ‘Kombucha: can the fermented drink compete with beer at the bar?’

Kombucha is a funky drink. It is unique, and it takes more than one sip to get into it

Adam Vanni

The drink’s appeal across venues of all kinds is becoming increasingly apparent as the UK’s kombucha market grows. With a multitude of flavour profiles, a range of formats and ample room for experimentation, it seems booch has just as much potential to sway wine drinkers and cocktail devotees as it does craft beer lovers and teetotal yogis.

Bringing the funk

Of course, you wouldn’t be blamed for questioning the appeal of kombucha on your first sip. Its tangy flavour and sometimes cloudy appearance are the result of a brewing process in which sweetened tea is fermented with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). The SCOBY converts the sugars into alcohol, resulting in a fizzy, vinegary liquid that typically sits below 0.5% abv. Other ingredients such as fruits, spices and hops can also be added to the mix.

Variables like fermentation length and additional ingredients mean that kombucha’s flavour profiles can differ widely from producer to producer and flavour to flavour. Some brands manage to reach divisive, almost savoury levels of tanginess and acidity, while others are sweeter and fruitier. ‘In the UK, the palate for kombucha isn’t that evolved,’ says Gina Geoghegan, co-founder of London’s Wild Fizz Kombucha. ‘It’s quite new here, so brands want it to be easy to drink.’

Jarr Kombucha
Jarr Kombucha

When brewing Wild Fizz, she tries to achieve what she calls the ‘holy trinity of kombucha’: ‘You need it to not be too sweet or too sour and for it to have the right acidity levels.’ But even a well-balanced, easier-drinking kombucha isn’t necessarily ‘gluggable’ – at least at first. ‘Kombucha is a funky drink. It is unique, and it takes more than one sip to get into it,’ explains Adam Vanni, co-founder of Jarr Kombucha. When Vanni started Jarr in 2015, before his kombucha was even in bottle, he opened the Jarr taproom in Hackney Wick. There, he served his brews on draught alongside beer and wine.

But is it healthy?

Many brands and booch fanatics steadfastly believe that the drink can have positive effects on everything from gut health to the immune system, all thanks to the probiotic bacteria fostered during the fermentation process.

We won’t don a lab coat and bore you with the microscopic details, but the overall consensus is that there’s not enough data to support these claims.

Still, even without hard evidence on distinct health benefits, customers keen on healthier-tasting options will find kombucha a good trade-up from highly sweetened soft drinks.

The taproom turned out to be ‘a bit of a dud’, and it has since morphed into a nightclub. But that certainly wasn’t the end for now-Duvel-owned Jarr, and Vanni credits much of the brand’s current success to its distinctive flavour profile. ‘It taps into the same space that wine and beer are moving into right now,’ he explains. ‘There’s a focus on natural, biodynamic, raw wines and sour, hoppier beers with more complexity and funkiness.

People’s palates are changing, and kombucha fits into that perfectly, moving away from the sweetness in mass-produced [soft drinks].’ Ed Fryer, drinks category manager for Fuller’s, agrees. He and his team decided to stock Real Kombucha across its pubs last year, and the brand’s drier flavour profile was a significant factor. ‘It’s quite a grown-up flavour, and you can’t just swill it down.

You drink it slowly like you would prosecco or cider,’ he says, noting that Fuller’s serves its kombucha in champagne flutes or wine glasses to enhance the drinking experience.

The art of the sale

Like other ‘grown-up’ non-alcoholic options – think no-abv spirits, beers and wines – kombucha often feels less like a soft drink and more like a boozy beverage. Plus, kombucha gains an advantage over other no and low options because it isn’t emulating any specific alcoholic drink and doesn’t attract the same direct comparisons. But this also means that it doesn’t have the benefit of familiarity for consumers.

‘Chances are a customer isn’t going to come in asking for kombucha, so how do you get them to try it? It takes some explaining,’ says Fryer. According to Vanni, the key is in emphasising how it’s made. ‘It’s about informing people about the process, the intricacies of producing it, and likening it to wine, or cider, or beer. This isn’t just a soft drink, though it’s often used as an alternative to [one]. It’s really a craft-produced and brewed beverage.’

Bars go DIY

The best of the booch

From classic kombuchas to brews flavoured with off-the-wall ingredients, here are a selection of our favourites

Jarr Original Simple yet sophisticated, this is a well-balanced example of booch in its purest form. Crisp, tangy, refreshing.
RRP £3.49/240ml, Jarr Kombucha (sales@jarrkombucha.com)

Real Kombucha Royal Flush There’s a reason Royal Flush is touted as a non-alcoholic alternative to prosecco. Made with first-flush Darjeeling tea, it has assertive notes of gooseberry and rhubarb, but still manages to sit lightly on the palate thanks to its delicate effervescence. POA/330ml, Real Kombucha

Wild Fizz Ginger, Turmeric + Black Pepper If you’re looking for one with particular appeal to the healthconscious crowd, this is it. Wild Fizz places heavy emphasis on claims of kombucha’s gut-health benefits – and while this expression’s ingredients might sound more like a herbal remedy than a delicious drink, its fiery, slightly bitter flavour is an excellent upsell from ginger beer.
RRP £1.99/250ml, Wild Fizz Kombucha

Holos Strawberry Strawberries mitigate much of kombucha’s divisive tanginess for a fresh and fruity fl avour that’s accessible and easy-drinking.
RRP £14.99/6x250ml, Dry Drinker

LA Brewery Citrus Hops One for the IPA drinker. The kombucha backbone is strong, but Citra and Cascade hops lend fl oral and citrus notes, giving the impression of drinking one of those limited-edition microbrews currently taking the craft beer world by storm.
RRP £3.50-£4.50/300ml, Hills Prospect

While the number of brands, both craft and otherwise, continues to grow, many bartenders are choosing to try their hand at brewing their own booch. For instance, east London bar Callooh Callay rotates a different house-made kombucha each week as a non-alcoholic option, and also uses kombucha in some of its cocktails. ‘Since kombucha is still a new thing [for our customers], we ‘wanted to use it in a cocktail that’s very accessible,’ explains Callooh owner Richard Wynne. ‘We’ve done a version of a Cosmopolitan substituting cranberry juice for cranberry kombucha.

If bars and cocktail bartenders see kombucha as an alternative to juice, there’s no reason it can’t be used in non-alcoholic, low-abv or even shaken drinks for a different flavour.’ For Jack Wakelin, general manager of Public in Sheffield, house-made kombucha can also contribute to a bar’s sustainable ethos. ‘It’s a great way to play with waste [from the bar or kitchen],’ he comments. ‘I made one for [a supper club] where the chef did a pea dish. I introduced all the pods, made a kombucha out of it and served it as a non-alcoholic pairing.’

A cultured future

While kombucha gains a foothold in bars, pubs and restaurants, brands are already contemplating what’s next for the category. Geoghegan thinks that kombucha on tap ‘is gonna be huge’; Vanni concurs, believing his taproom ‘dud’ to be a thing of the past. ‘In the last six months or so we’ve really seen the uptake of our draught kombucha,’ he says, listing fast-casual concept Farmer J and cocktail bar Tayēr + Elementary in Shoreditch among the venues that have already devoted a line to it. Vanni is also excited about the prospect of alcoholic kombucha, which already has a presence in the US.

‘We tried a secondary fermentation with champagne yeast and got a 12% abv kombucha that was so good, and it was just our first try,’ he enthuses. ‘I don’t know if the market is ready for it yet, but I hope to see kombucha become a standalone alcoholic beverage as well as a non-alcoholic offering. I think there’s so much scope for it.’ Two years ago we might have rolled our eyes at visions of fermented tea on tap. We might have asked ‘kombuch-who?’.

Now we’re practically begging our yoga-practicing, nut-milking neighbour for a piece of their precious SCOBY. Yes, the booch boom has arrived.

Related articles

Spirits & Cocktails

Big money, huge plans: Liberties Distillery embodies the Irish whiskey boom

Here’s what €28m could get you:A Coca-Cola production plant in Ghent.Valderrama golf resort near Gibraltar.Alternatively, it could get you a shiny new

Wine

Read the latest issue of Imbibe

The latest issue of Imbibe is now available to read on imbibe.com.

Spirits & Cocktails

Got my dojo working: The industry's training hotspots

A handful of bars have been responsible for nurturing a disproportionately large share of the drinks trade’s top names.