Kombucha is a type of fermented and sweetened beverage, typically made with green or black tea. It is often classified as a functional beverage, meaning it is a non-alcoholic drink that contains vitamins, amino acids, or other nutrients seen as being beneficial to one's health. Kombucha is made through a double-fermentation process, wherein a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY)—a rubbery, pancake-shaped organism—is placed within a sweetened tea mixture and allowed to ferment at room temperature for one to three weeks. After this first fermentation, it is then bottled without the SCOBY for one to two weeks to encourage carbonation.
Although the drink is centuries old, kombucha has attained a surge in popularity with consumers, starting in the mid-1990s. The drink has continued to thrive, especially in US markets, where the kombucha category has grown exponentially—achieving over $1.8 billion sales in 2019 (up from $1 million in 2014). According to Kombucha Brewers International, the total amount of US-based kombucha brands has increased annually by about 30 percent over the past several years.
Kombucha originated in Northeast China around 220 B.C.E. The drink was originally valued for its healing properties and eventually spread to Europe, most notably Russia and Germany, as a result of trade route expansions in the early 20th century. Due to the shortage of tea and sugar supplies during WWII, kombucha remained relatively under the radar until the 1960s, when a Swiss study brought it new popularity after comparing its health benefits to that of yogurt.
Kombucha found new popularity in domestic markets in the 1990s, when it developed a grassroots following. Kombucha drinkers, citing the drink's purported health benefits, would homebrew the tea themselves, sharing their SCOBYs with other enthusiasts so they could brew it themselves. George Thomas "GT" Dave, founder of GT Kombucha and later GT's Living Foods, is credited with starting the commercial, domestic kombucha industry as we know it today. Dave founded the company in 1995, initially brewing the kombucha out of his garage and selling it to specialty health foods stores before gaining widespread popularity.
One of the contributing factors to kombucha's longevity and popularity is the belief that the beverage is able to relieve or prevent a variety of health problems—from hair loss, to cancer, to AIDS. While there is little scientific evidence to back up these claims, there are certain characteristics of kombucha that can be seen as beneficial to one's health. Byproducts of kombucha's fermentation process include organic acids, a multiplication of bacteria and yeasts (already present in the sweetened tea and SCOBY), carbon dioxide (which causes carbonation), a small amount of alcohol, and B vitamins. Bacteria and yeasts found in kombucha can act as probiotics, which can potentially help with digestion and IBS and may strengthen one's immune system. Kombucha made with green tea may also provide additional benefits, as the antioxidants in green tea can help cell health remain intact after the fermentation process.
There are few risks associated with brewing and consuming kombucha. Bacteria created during kombucha's fermentation process is probiotic and not dangerous. However, if prepared or brewed improperly, kombucha could produce harmful bacteria or mold.
Kombucha has achieved a significant increase in popularity in the US and abroad since its introduction to the domestic market in 1995. The kombucha global market size was worth nearly $1.8 billion in 2019, and it is forecasted to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 19.7 percent from 2020 to 2027, according to a February 2020 report by Grand View Research. The report cites growing consumer preference for functional drinks as one of the driving factors for market growth. Kombucha is mainly distributed through supermarkets, health food stores, and online sales, with supermarkets accounting for the highest market share. The beverage is widely available in its original raw flavor; however, flavored kombucha styles have driven sales and have been found to be more popular among consumers.
The kombucha market's growth is due mostly to the beverage's popularity in the US and North America, which dominated the global market with a revenue share of over 52 percent in 2019. The market is also expected to expand in Europe at a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent during the forecast period of 2020 to 2027, according to Grand View Research. Key players in the kombucha market include the following companies:
- GT's Living Foods
- Reed's Inc.
- The Hain Celestial Company
- KeVita Inc.
- Buchi Kombucha
- LIVE Beverages
Hard kombucha, or kombucha mixed with alcohol, has also contributed to the beverage's rise in popularity. In 2019, hard kombucha sales topped $12 million, up from $1.7 million in 2017. The rise is credited to the growing popularity of alcoholic seltzers and alternatives to beer. According to Forbes, hard kombucha's growth is reflective of a greater trend in consumer preferences toward low ABV (alcohol by volume) cocktails, which enjoyed a steady increase in popularity before the COVID-19 pandemic and are becoming a mainstay in many bars and restaurants. Key players in the hard kombucha market include Boochcraft, JuneShine, and Kombrewcha.
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