Q&A: The Plans of Kombucha Brewers International

BN: You mentioned earlier that one of your first steps is bringing everyone together. Yet in your release, I noticed that GT’s and Reed’s were not mentioned as members of KBI. Considering their substantial place in the category, why is that the case?

HC: We’re not done registering. We do anticipate that both of those companies have the potential to participate and may participate. Whether it’s this year or down the road, we know that ultimately it’s going to behoove everyone in the industry to come together and participate. We’re just getting started. We just opened pre-registration for a couple of weeks, so we still have a lot of work cut out for us moving forward, but we already have 30 companies on board and anticipate having 50 by the time the event is taking place.

BN: While kombucha is starting to make its way into more than just natural retailers, it’s still not entrenched in the mainstream. What do you think has held kombucha back from becoming a mainstream beverage?

HC: I think it’s a lack of an understanding of what it is. We’ve certainly seen a huge trend in probiotics, a huge trend in functional foods. Even the numbers in traditional grocery are showing that there’s upwards of 50 percent increases from the year before. Part of that is driven by the fact that they haven’t had much of a presence in that category prior to now. But as grocery stores are increasing the amount of organic offerings, they’re realizing they have to compete with Whole Foods is basically what’s happening. They see that Whole Foods is making a killing on this stuff and so they need to participate and offer this to their customer base as well.

BN: Do you think that kombucha will ever become a mainstream beverage?

HC: Absolutely. It’s already on its way to becoming a mainstream beverage. I think the reason it’ll become a mainstream beverage is because people are choosing to consume products for different reasons than they used to. What I mean by that is, they want to think before they drink. ‘Why am I drinking this? What benefit do I wish to derive from what I’m consuming? Is it purely entertainment, like a coffee, or energy from that? Or is it something that is going to nourish my body in a specific way?’…Not only does kombucha have a unique flavor profile, but it does have palpable benefits that, while they may not be totally quantifiable, gets people talking and then they start telling their friends about it. It’s something that I think has the power of word-of-mouth behind it.

BN: What are some of the appeals from a functional perspective?

HC: The probiotics, the benefit that that has is improved digestion. A lot of people suffer from [irritable bowel syndrome] or constipation or whatever it is, there’s a whole host of digestive issues out there these days, many of them are auto-immune type diseases….[The probiotics are] healthy bacteria that help your body desynthesize the vitamins, and they also act as a catalyst for releasing energy to the ATP cycle. People who are sick find that drinking kombucha helps to boost their immune system. Also, those who are looking to improve their liver function, sometimes that’s helping with a hangover or something like that.

BN: We spoke a bit about the labeling issues before. What others kinds of industry-wide standards need to be set?

HC: Well, we don’t have a definition for our process yet. There’s no consistent definition as to what kombucha is. We don’t want to create a definition that’s exclusive, but one that’s inclusive. From our perspective, we can see that there are different types of kombucha out there on the shelves and consumers may not even understand those fine distinctions. We certainly have over-21 kombucha, we have under-21 kombucha, there’s also pasteurized kombucha. What most consumers don’t know, there’s lactic kombucha versus acetic kombucha versus traditional ferment…That’s not something you find on every label.

BN: What kind of message do kombucha companies and your trade group need to address to a standard consumer who may not be as familiar with kombucha?

HC: We’re completely safe. I think there’s been a lot of fear built up in the media about fermented foods and bacteria fermentation. There’s kind of a general fear of those things except in the circles which people know all about it. It’s really trying to get that message out there in terms of the safety and the enjoyment of the product.