As consumers look for more ways to cut sugar from their beverage consumption, every gram counts.
That idea is particularly relevant to the kombucha category, where both sugar — a required element in the fermentation process — and alcohol have been flashpoints for controversy in recent years. Having addressed the latter issue earlier this spring, Bend, Ore.-based Humm Kombucha is now shifting its focus to sweetness with the launch of a pair of new, reduced-sugar SKUs: Raspberry Hops and Ginger Juniper, each with 5g of sugar and 25 calories per 8 oz serving.
Humm founder and CEO Jamie Danek told BevNET slashing sugar is an attempt to create flavors appealing to a consumer occupying the middle ground between those new kombucha drinkers seeking an accessible alternative to high sugar products like soda and lemonade and the hardcore kombucha drinkers who may be looking for a slightly less sweet profile.
“This was about us seeing that there’s people who love kombucha who are really conscious of sugar, and us making a product that still tastes good, but with less sugar,” she said.
To achieve that, the math was simple, she added: “Less sugar means less fruit.”
In pivoting from sweeter fruits like pomegranate or strawberry, Danek said Humm sought inspiration in the flavors of the Pacific Northwest, choosing ingredients like juniper (sourced from Oregon’s High Desert) and hops to pair with ginger and raspberry to add flavor while softening the sweetness. “We’re not giving up anything to get to lower sugar,” she said. “We’re just focusing on some other things to appeal to a different audience.”
Outside of the reduced sugar and calories, Danek noted that Raspberry Hops and Ginger Juniper will otherwise be identical to Humm’s core kombucha line in terms of price ($3.29-$3.69), nutritional content and organic certification. Availability for the two new flavors is currently limited to 14 oz. bottles in 100 locations in the Northwest and 350 stores in the Northeast, with a broader expansion slated for the next six to 12 months.
When asked how Humm could potentially drop its sugar levels even lower, Danek noted that, while sugar is required to make kombucha, there is little left in the actual finished product. In other words, how much sugar — in this case, fruit — to use is more a matter of taste.
“I think sweetness is an important part of the product,” she said. “How much you can do it, how far you can play with it, is only a matter of time. At some point, if the consumer cares enough to go from five to four to three grams… I don’t know if they do. I don’t know if there’s a lot of reason to change so much from that amount. I guess it’s all consumer driven at that point. We are talking one, two, three grams— small amounts that make a big difference in flavor profile.”
Controversy around sugar and accuracy of labeled sugar content has been a consistent theme in kombucha, even as U.S. sales grew in double-digits across all channels in 2017. Humm was one of a half-dozen kombucha makers — including GT’s Living Foods, Health Ade, The BU, Better Booch, Rowdy Mermaid and Trader Joe’s — named in separate complaints filed in California by Tortilla Factory, the parent company of Kombucha Dog, over the past two years. The complaints allege the kombucha brands understate both their sugar content and alcohol levels, which exceed the 0.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) limit to be considered non-alcoholic beverages by the U.S. Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB).
In the case involving Humm, the plaintiff’s claims related to sugar content were dismissed for lack of factual evidence in September. The alcohol claims have been allowed to proceed. In August, Humm announced it had developed a proprietary process that the company says prevents the liquid from reaching an ABV of over 0.5 percent. The process has been in use for all Humm products since April.
The integration of the new brewing process has also led to some other unexpected benefits: According to Danek, it has “over-exceeded our expectations as far as our ability to make product.”
“Making a compliant, non-alcoholic, raw, live kombucha is just a complete game-changer,” she said. “You have abilities you didn’t know you had before. Before it was the wild, wild West with kombucha; now it’s a lot more predictable. We couldn’t be more excited about it, on all aspects.”
Such is the impact of the new process that the company’s timetable for opening its first East Coast facility in Roanoke, Va. — originally scheduled to go online in 2019 — may be shifting. Danek said it was “when, not if” for the new facility, but noted, “I don’t think we’ll open in 2019.”
“We thought we’d be out of product by 2019, but it’s definitely looking like we have a little bit more time now,” she said. “It’s good for us, as we can take our time instead of putting the pedal to the metal and moving too fast. 2020 is a better gauge for opening Roanoke.”