'We're not trying to keep anyone out of the market'

What is an ‘authentic’ kombucha? KBI gears up to publish definition

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Gettyimages/Green Art Photography
Picture: Gettyimages/Green Art Photography

Related tags: kombucha

As a wave of lawsuits has brought the debate over what kombucha is and how it is made into sharper focus, trade association Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) is putting the finishing touches on a standard it claims will help preserve the integrity of the category as it grows.

The standard - which KBI aims to publish next month - will attempt to define what an ‘authentic’ kombucha is and how it is made, and encourage the use of certain on-pack qualifiers that provide additional clarity about source materials or manufacturing processes, KBI president Hannah Crum told FoodNavigator-USA at KBI’s annual Kombuchakon conference​ in Long Beach last Friday.

The move reflects growing unease among purists over the use of ingredients and processes that they believe compromise the integrity of the category. Some of the concern is around products that are diluted post fermentation to reduce the alcohol levels, or made with concentrates rather than tea fermented with a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), or not made with tea at all.

However, most of the bones of contention are around the use of techniques sometimes deployed to ensure alcohol levels remain below the 0.5% abv threshold throughout the shelf-life, such as using heat pasteurization to kill off residual yeast or micro-filtration to remove yeast [which some consider to be equivalent of sterilization] and prevent secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Some brands argue that kombucha is a living, ‘raw’ or ‘live’ product, and that heat pasteurization kills off the beneficial bacteria that consumers expect from kombucha, while others say that the pasteurization simply ensures a consistent, compliant, product, while adding in well-documented and clinically studied probiotics after pasteurization also ensures that the bottle contains exactly what is stated on the label.

If we don't define it, someone else will

Crum explained: “It’s important to define what kombucha is because if we don’t define it as the industry, as the industry association, other people will define it for us, and that may not be authentic as to what kombucha truly is. We understand that technology to make kombucha is evolving, but we also recognize that why haikus are so fun is because they have a rule structure.

“If consumers know what it is they are buying, they are more willing to pay a certain price,” ​she added. “It’s like fruit juice. People are willing to pay more for fresh squeezed than a heat pasteurized product.”

Could this lead to a stamp or seal?

So could this lead to a voluntary seal or industry stamp for products meeting the new definition? Or even pave the way for discussions with regulators to develop a legal standard of identity?  

Both are possible, said Crum. “But the first step for us is to put it out there to communicate it to consumers so they ask questions of the brands that they love.”

We live in an age where consumers want transparency

But why would brands making products that do not comply pay any attention to the KBI's voluntary standards, given that it is not creating a legal definition?

“They will start paying attention if consumers ask hey, is your product pasteurized or made from concentrate?” ​claimed Crum.

“We live in an age where consumers want transparency, so we’re just saying here are the questions you need to be asking to make sure that you’re getting the product that you think you are.”

Is this a blueprint for plaintiff's attorneys?

Asked whether the standard could be used as a blueprint for plaintiff’s attorneys – who have already targeted kombucha brands over everything from sugar and alcohol levels​ and probiotics claims to whether reasonable consumers expect kombucha to contain live micro-organisms​ - Crum said:

That’s one of the ways ​[ie. civil litigation] in which these standards can play out, absolutely. We’re not a regulatory agency, we want people to take ownership of their process and product and put that on the label and so we could very well see these types of plaintiff-driven lawsuits come up for brands that are out of integrity with our standards.

“That pain point for those brands could quickly bring them into compliance.”

What is the purpose of standards of identity?

But are standards of identity – which were originally developed to counter economic adulteration in many cases - sometimes used to keep out competitors or stifle innovation, as some firms in the plant-based milk and meat industries have claimed?

And what about brands that say let the market decide and that consumers will vote with their wallets?

“We’re not trying to keep anyone out of the market,” ​insisted Crum.

“We encourage Coca Cola or PepsiCo to make an authentic traditional brewed raw kombucha product that hasn’t been processed, and we welcome everyone to innovate this space and make novel kombucha products.”

Next steps

So what happens next?

“The standard is something we expect to evolve over time,” ​added KBI cofounder Alex LaGory.

“Rather than being something to stop people using the word kombucha, it draws a line, based on science that’s available now, but we welcome as much science as possible. We don’t know if some new innovations will produce an authentic kombucha but in the meantime we would rather err on the side of caution.”

Crum added that new technologies and brewing vessels were being developed to help companies remain in compliance with the law over alcohol, for example, and still produce what KBI considers to be an authentic, traditional, ‘live’ and ‘raw’ kombucha.

“We want to inspire people. Things like the fermenters developed by Bare Bucha and Stout Tanks​ [which use a rectangular-shaped vessel that helps produce less alcohol during the fermentation], that’s exactly what we need, more kombucha-specific tools and solutions so people can still make live raw kombucha.”

GT Dave: We need a standard of identity

Speaking at Kombuchakon on Friday afternoon, GT Dave, founder of top-selling kombucha and functional beverage brand GT's, said: "We need to establish a standard of identity, so we can all say that is a kombucha and that is not, or what's stopping someone from making water and putting kombucha on it? Right now, nothing, and that is what will happen if we don't do something.

"Please join me and Hannah and other members of this program, to fight for what kombucha is, protect it, honor it, and celebrate it."

rowdy mermaid kombucha

Kombucha: What's the size of the prize?

US retail sales of refrigerated kombucha and other fermented beverages (including hard kombucha) were up 21% to $728.8m in measured channels* in the year to February 24, 2019 driven by strong distribution gains. However, velocities were down fairly sharply, delegates at the 2019 KombuchaKon conference were told.

*Total retail sales are likely much higher after you include data from retailers such as Costco and Whole Foods that don’t share their sales with SPINS and other data providers, she added. The refrigerated kombucha and fermented beverages category comprises non-alcoholic kombucha (below 0.5% abv), hard kombucha, apple cider vinegar, plus other fermented beverages such as water kefir, Jun, kraut juice, Kvass, and whey fermented soda. Read more HERE.

Konbuchakon-2019-exhibit-hall
Kombuchakon is an annual conference and exhibition organized by Kombucha Brewers International

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