KombuchaKon 2017 Recap

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Category growth, testing methodology and distribution strategies were just a few of the topics bubbling inside the Long Beach Convention Center over the weekend at the fourth annual KombuchaKon.

Prior to the program of speakers, this year’s convention began with a closed meeting of KBI’s 130 member companies to address the current state of the industry and to chart the trade group’s progress on pressing issues within the category.

Key issues, according to KBI co-founders Alex LaGory and Hannah Crum, include lobbying Congress to introduce legislation that would protect kombucha from being categorized alongside other alcoholic beverages. They also said the organization was working on a verification program that would include a label that would provide detailed information on acids and other nutrients in kombucha.

“It’s about creating confidence in the product, for consumers, retailers, regulators, or anyone,” LaGory said.

Moving into product sales, the convention’s first speaker, Jason Loughrin, an analyst from market research group SPINS, explored notable statistics and trends in kombucha in detail. He described the 32 percent growth rate for kombucha as “through the roof”: greater than any beverage category outside of refrigerated RTD coffee and juice-sweetened sodas. He also described a growing cohort of brands: in the natural retail channel, even while established brands like GT’s and KeVita still dominate, Loughrin noted that the 16 new brands that launched last year accounted for 2.7 percent of the growth in the category.

GT’s also continues to be a leader in the Multi Outlet channel, but Loughrin noted that the brand lost 5.7 percent share of the category, while brands such as Humm, Health-Ade and Clearly Kombucha were on the rise.

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Loughrin’s analysis also named the most popular flavors of the drink: ginger and berry are top in both shares and dollar growth, but pepper, cinnamon and mint varieties are emerging as viable options as well.

Later that afternoon, attorney Justin Prochnow of Greenberg Traurig led a discussion of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) revised Nutrition Facts label requirements and how it would affect kombucha brewers. “There is risk from so many different areas,” he warned, noting that plaintiff lawyers are constantly looking to seize on label errors or unsubstantiated claims and turn them into class action lawsuits. In terms of the FDA’s new label regulations, he explained how changes in regulatory definitions of terms like serving size, recommended daily intake (RDI) and daily recommended value (DRV) could affect the ability of producers to make nutrient content claims.

Of particular, ongoing interest to kombucha brewers, is how the FDA addresses the issue of added sugar and fermentation. Prochnow said that when the new nutritional regulations are fully in effect in two years, the FDA will require any sugar added during fermentation to be reflected on the product label. However, if a company believes there is a significant difference in sugars added at the beginning of fermentation and that are found in the final product, it can be reflected on the label as long as the company can produce documentation verifying their process.

The convention’s second day kicked off with a panel discussion on effective tactics for scaling up kombucha production. Ramon Canek, chief product officer for Health-Ade, encouraged brewers to “do your homework” before investing in equipment and machinery, and to consider how those investments fit into their company’s long-term growth strategy. Eric Plantenburg of Humm Kombucha urged brands to take a unified stance, to communicate with and learn from other companies working in the category and to highlight kombucha as a “movement” rather than focusing only on themselves when meeting with retailers.

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Dr. Matt Ball, representing Australian brand Wild Kombucha, talked about best practices and procedures when setting up an in-house testing lab. He weighed the costs and benefits of various alcohol testing methods, noting that gas chromatography, while effective, is a pricey investment that requires lots of upkeep and still needs external validation. Ball’s strongest recommendation was for companies to keep thorough documentation of all testing.

In his talk on distribution tips and tricks, Shane Dickman of Colorado-based High Country Kombucha encouraged brands to stick up for themselves and to be deliberate and selective when entering into a distribution partnership. Examining the pros and cons of self-distribution, DSD, direct retailer warehouse delivery and grocery distribution, he shared lessons from his own successes and challenges in the business.

Closing out the convention, Christine Perich delivered the keynote address focused on the lessons learned from ther 16 years serving in various roles, including CEO, of New Belgium Brewing Company prior to her recent appointment as CEO at cold-pressed juice company WTRMLN WTR. While pressing the importance of brands developing a core mission of philosophy to drive their decision making, she also said that company management should not be inflexible in its leadership style. Before wrapping up the proceedings, Perich praised KBI for taking collective ownership of the kombucha category and compared the convention atmosphere to the excitement she said she felt in the early days of the craft beer movement.