Kombucha has been on an upward trajectory over the past decade, transforming from a niche product on the natural channel to a well-known favourite widely available in grocery and convenience stores.
Made with sweetened black or green tea, kombucha is fermented and then often blended with natural juice to create a fruity and tart alternative to traditional soft drinks. The probiotic tea is lightly effervescent and naturally slightly alcoholic due to the fermentation process – but now brands in the US are increasing the ABV in kombucha, packaging it in colourful slim cans and positioning it as an alternative to beer, wine, cider and cocktails. Kombucha taprooms are opening, putting hard kombucha into the realm of craft beer.
So how exactly did a wellness product make the crossover into alcohol?
A natural progression
As a fermented drink that naturally contains trace amounts of alcohol, kombucha is following a natural path first flagged by Radius five years ago from the non-alcoholic segment into the alcohol category. While the drink first entered markets as a non-alcoholic beverage, controversy surrounding alcohol content saw retailers pull kombucha from their shelves in 2010. US government tests of GT’s Kombucha and Synergy brands found that the alcohol content in some products had crept up as high as 2.5% ABV due to continued fermentation within the bottles. Some see this scandal as the tipping point in bringing kombucha to consumer attention, and subsequently driving sales of the beverage once it was restocked.
The 2010 scandal sent the kombucha market in two directions. For non-alcoholic kombucha brands focused on wellness, the testing drove kombucha to become a more controlled product – so brands within the non-alcoholic space ensure that their products are under the 0.5% ABV threshold. But for other producers, the scandal opened a path of opportunity in the form of alcoholic kombucha. Consumers think of kombucha as a healthy product which is also naturally slightly alcoholic – so ramping up the ABV makes sense, and does not detract from the drink’s healthy public image.
Fermented drinks on the rise
Fermented probiotic drinks have become a cornerstone of the wellness drinks category, encompassing the two macro trends of functionality and natural products. The desire for probiotics has been fuelled by ongoing research into the role of the gut microbiome in everything from mood regulation to chronic illness.
Hard Kombucha is appealing to today’s health-conscious consumers, who are looking for alternatives to beer and artificially flavoured ‘ready-to-drinks’. Naturally low-carb, low in sugar and gluten-free, kombucha brands are often solidly placed within the organic and non-GMO markets.
Alcohol and probiotics – do they mix?
There is some confusion surrounding probiotic organisms’ ability to survive in a high-alcohol environment. Probiotics are at the core of kombucha’s healthy image; the gut-friendly bacteria are said to improve digestion, inflammation, and help control weight. According to Roshini Raj, MD, a gastroenterologist and associate professor at NYU School of Medicine, “Probiotics are delicate, so it’s hard to ensure viability when exposed to high levels of alcohol”.
Probiotics aside, these drinks lay claim to other benefits within the functional wellness space. Kombucha contains enzymes, organic acids, vitamins and minerals. High-alcohol kombucha contains beneficial acids such as acetic, lactic, glucuronic and butyric, known to reduce inflammation, lower blood sugar and help blood-sugar levels maintain homeostasis.
Range of ABV levels and flavours
Brands within the hard kombucha segment offer a wide range of ABV levels, from variants that contain 1%–3% ABV – appealing to those looking to drink mindfully – to higher alcohol levels of over 7% ABV. Brands providing higher alcohol levels do so by performing a second fermentation including brewer’s yeast, which increases ABV. Many have chosen to launch products at 6% ABV, which positions them squarely in competition with craft beer, ciders and RTD wine spritzers.
Kombucha also offers a huge variety of flavours, allowing it to be a versatile substitute for beer, wine, cocktails or cider. There is huge opportunity to create healthier alternatives that appeal to millennials’ desire for functionality, even in alcohol. Functional benefits, low sugar, low carb, free-from and natural ingredients have become a baseline expectation for these wellness-minded consumers when they consider buying a product.
The global kombucha category is growing at a rapid pace and we are now seeing the emergence of a hard kombucha segment.
Hard kombucha launches range from sessionable low-ABV variants (1.5% ABV) to higher-alcohol products that rival the ABV levels of craft IPAs.
Shelf-stable probiotics, added adaptogens, botanical infusions and cold-press juice blends all add to hard kombucha’s natural appeal and claim on holistic wellness.
Hybridization, trend-forward flavours and colourful unisex packaging is modernizing the drinks’ image and boosting visibility to a wide range of consumers.
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