When Adam Hiner was in the early stages of launching Boochcraft, he did what countless other kombucha brands have done in the past: he took it to Whole Foods.
“When we first talked to them, they told us they don’t have any shelf space for regular kombucha, that they had too much already,” said Hiner, speaking with BevNET on the phone from the company’s headquarters in San Diego. Rather than fight for room in a market growing more crowded and competitive every day, Hiner and the company’s other two co-founders chose to pivot Boochcraft away from “regular” in the most direct way possible: by jumping from the category standard of 0.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) or lower to around 7 percent.
“A month later, when we told them we were going to be making high alcohol kombucha, they said they will [take] as much as we can make,” said Hiner.
Boochcraft’s success thus far, which has been limited to distribution in retailers across California, exemplifies kombucha’s continued evolution as a mainstream beverage. After concerns over alcohol content caused retailers to famously pull product off shelves roughly seven years ago, many brands reacted by improving processing techniques and integrating additional safety protocols to ensure compliance with federal alcohol laws. In doing so, they helped build kombucha into a mainstream category that consumers could understand and, most importantly, trust.
As Hiner discovered, that shift also created ample white space for a brand to go in the other direction with a higher alcohol product. But his experience as a kombucha brewer began on the other end of the spectrum during his time running Local Habit, a farm-to-table restaurant in San Diego where his home brewed, non-alcoholic kombucha was one of the most popular items on the menu. After the restaurant closed, Hiner began toying with the idea of getting into the kombucha business; soon after bringing on his brother-in-law Andrew Clark and Todd Kent, a friend and the owner of gardening store chain San Diego Hydroponics, the group had the conversation with Whole Foods that changed their entire perspective on the category.
“Once we had [high alcohol] rolling, it really went nuts,” Hiner said, noting that Clark, who now serves as Boochcraft’s brewmaster, originally proposed the idea of a high alcohol kombucha. “All our conversations with people and potential distributors opened up for us and it became apparent that the whole thing was going to be successful.”
Boochcraft, however, isn’t the first startup kombucha brand to make alcohol a key focus of its offering. Los Angeles-based Kombucha Dog also markets a line of alcoholic kombuchas (about 1.4 percent ABV), while Kombrewcha, an independent brand which has received investment from Anheuser-Busch InBev disruptive growth organization ZX Ventures, goes slightly higher with around 3.2 percent ABV per bottle. Yet Hiner, taking some inspiration from the Southern California craft beer scene, chose to formulate Boochcraft at 7 percent ABV, or, as he described it, as potent as possible without making the drink alcohol-forward.
“We wanted it to be enough to where you could get a buzz, but we didn’t want to make a sessionable thing where you have to drink ten of them to feel it,” Hiner said. “Being in Southern California, most people are used to going out and ordering a 7 percent ABV beer, like a standard IPA. We wanted to match that as well.”
Besides adding an extra buzz, the higher alcohol content has also allowed Boochcraft to explore more complex flavor profiles, according to Hiner. Extraction of the dried herbs used in each brew can be done on the finished product, allowing for an alcohol extraction and a water extraction. The brewer’s yeast used in the secondary fermentation also adds more depth and dimension to the product, which is available in 22 oz. glass bottles in six flavors: Apple + Lime + Jasmine, Grape + Coriander + Anise, Turmeric + Tangerine + Ginger, Grapefruit + Hibiscus + Heather, Watermelon + Mint + Chili and Ginger + Lime + Rosehips.
While clearly aimed at a specific audience and age group, Hiner said his brews still retain the same beneficial live probiotics and organic acids as their non-alcoholic counterparts.
“We communicate health through our ingredients that we use, and we let the consumer decide what they think is healthy or not,” Hiner said.
Like many other disruptive products, Boochcraft brings a range of opportunities and challenges in terms of retail placement and distribution. Hiner noted that Boochcraft falls into the expanding category of “not-as-bad-for-you” alcoholic beverages, such as hard seltzers and ciders, that are helping to extend categories typically identified as non-alcoholic. The brand has also worked to cultivate a presence in restaurant beverage programs and draft lines, which Hiner said helped legitimize the product as a legitimate alcohol offering.
On the other hand, he said the product needs to go through craft beer distributors which are often lacking the cold chain infrastructure Boochcraft requires, an issue that will be particularly acute as the company expands outside of California. That expansion will be supported by a tenfold increase in production capacity in the coming months, as Hiner said the company has 18,000 sq. ft. of space in its current facility that will be utilized to make more product.
Having shifted from non-alcoholic to hard kombucha once already, Hiner said he has plans for Boochcraft to pivot back the other way– but not completely. A low alcohol version, or around 1 percent ABV, in currently in the works, but Hiner is adamant that that is as low as he’ll consider going.
“We would never do a non-alcoholic version,” Hiner said. “You would still have to be 21 to buy it, but it would be more of a health beverage than something that will give you a buzz.”