Kombucha, a fermented sugared tea once popular only among health-food junkies, is now a staple at many supermarkets and big-box stores. According to Kombucha Brewers International, a California-based industry trade group, it’s an $800 million market in the U.S. that is expected to grow to $1.8 billion by 2020.
Even soda giant PepsiCo Inc., which in recent years has increased its offerings of better-for-you snacks and beverages, has joined the kombucha craze — the company purchased popular kombucha brand KeVita in late 2016.
By most accounts the drink originated in ancient China, where it was sometimes called “the tea of immortality.” It spread across Europe before it reached the U.S., where it has been gaining popularity since the early 2000s.
Kombucha is made by placing live cultures of acidic bacteria and yeast into a sugary tea to ferment for one to three weeks.
It includes probiotics, which aid digestion and provide health benefits similar to yogurt. The tea is often infused with flavors such as lemon, ginger or berries. Though the fermentation process adds a small amount of alcohol, most bottled kombucha products contain less than 0.5% alcohol by volume to avoid federal regulation.
The drink’s popularity mostly stems from its health benefits. Robin Hill, co-founder of Panacea Brewing in Wilmington, says that kombucha healed her husband’s long history of acid reflux.
With all the positive buzz circulating around this tangy drink, several North Carolina brewers are cashing in on the trend.
Lenny Boy Brewing Co.
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Lenny Boy founder Townes Mozer, 30, tasted his first kombucha 10 years ago on the West Coast. One sip, and he was hooked. Returning home, he experimented with brewing beer, mead (a fermented honey wine) and kombucha in his laundry room while attending UNC Wilmington. It wasn’t long before friends and family persuaded him to sell his hand-crafted beverages. Now his 20-employee business is among the largest kombucha producers in the Southeast.
Kombucha is more than just a trend, Mozer says. “I wouldn’t invest in [the kombucha business] if it wasn’t something I thought was gonna stick around for a while.” Lenny Boy, which also makes beer, sold its first kombucha in 2011. The company has experienced a 300% annual increase in kombucha sales over the last five years.
The company sells various kombucha flavors for year-round distribution, plus three or four seasonal flavors. In the taproom, Lenny Boy brews small weekly batches with flavors such as Margarita, Strawberry Limeade and Tropical Mist. Its certified-organic kombucha is sold in Whole Foods Market, Earth Fare, Harris Teeter and many independent co-ops.
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Like most kombucha breweries, Cary-based Tribucha was born out of a small venue: In 2014, Adrian Larrea and Jon York, both 32, started the business in Larrea’s garage. The founders had recently left former careers: Larrea worked at a software company and York in online community development. Their motivation for starting Tribucha came from a particular interest in the drink’s health benefits, Larrea says.
“A lot of companies put syrups and sugars where they don’t need it,” he says. “We think that if we’re going to make a product, we should be producing the best quality that we possibly can.” Over the last 15 months, Tribucha has raised $1.2 million from investors including Cary venture capitalist David Gardner and Jim Geikie, a former vice president of Burt’s Bees Inc., the Durham-based natural-skincare products company owned by Clorox.
Available at more than 400 locations, Tribucha’s kombucha is packaged in cans instead of bottles. The company produces four main flavors, with two kombucha beers and about 12 varying seasonal flavors. Tribucha is on shelves at Whole Foods Market and Lowes Foods stores in the Southeast.
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New York natives Robin and Artie Hill, both 41, started Panacea Brewing as more of a hobby than a profit-making venture. When Artie started brewing his own beer, Robin decided to experiment with making her own kombucha. In 2016, the couple started selling the tea out of the back of their Volkswagen bus at a Wilmington farmers market. Panacea now has a small taproom and brewery, and sales have grown 15% month-over-month, with products sold at more than 30 locations in New Hanover County. The business produces four regular flavors and 20 rotating specialty flavors.