Monday, April 15, 2019

Is Trouble Brewing for SoCal’s Small-Batch Kombucha Makers?

[Author's Note: This article was originally written for one of my journalism classes.  In the coming months, many articles will be backdated and follow stories or formats that are atypical for me.  I'm exercising my writing chops! Most of the content for the next month or two was originally generated for journalism or writing classes. Names are changed in some instances.]


Southern California is known to the rest of the nation as a bellwether for new health foods and drinks, and currently, a new superstar is on the rise: kombucha. With sales in North America having doubled each each since 2015, SPINS predicts that kombucha sales will hit $1.8 billion by 2020, creating a massive industry for the once-obscure drink.

"It's a gold rush," said Madison Tulley, a small-batch brewer who has been making kombucha since 2013. She attributes kombucha's spike in popularity to its supposed health benefits, which include increased gut health health and immune function. Kombucha is a sweetened, carbonated, and fermented tea that is slightly tangy to the taste; it is reminiscent of hard lemonade. With a highly acidic pH of about 2.5 and live bacterial cultures, kombucha is often sold as a health beverage; it can be found in restaurants, grocery chains, and farmer's markets across the world.

Tulley never intended to sell kombucha; she began making it in six years ago because it was cheaper than buying it for $4 a bottle. But she quickly found a business opportunity.

"The SCOBY [selected culture of bacteria and yeast, made to ferment the tea] just keeps growing, so you can just--" She makes a makes a chopping motion and includes a wet squicking noise that sounds very much like what a SCOBY might sound like if it made a noise. Earlier, she invited me to fish a disc of rubbery SCOBY out of one of the large one-gallon jugs she brews her kombucha in. The SCOBY reminds me of the egg part of an Egg McMuffin. It floats at the top of the jugs of tea, which line Tulley's pantry.



 These shots are actually from my own home, courtesy of Andrew.
Naturally we tried to make our own kombucha.
Who doesn't want a rubbery pancake alien growing in their pantry?

Like her competitors, Tulley sells her kombucha for a high price; a Mason jarful goes for $3 to $6 at the local farmers' market. There's a lot of competition now as more and more people flood the market with their own kombucha recipes, to say nothing of the commercial producers of larger batches, who have more elaborate facilities and can guarantee a more uniform taste product-to-product. "The hardest part is the fizz," she says as she lets me sample from a few different jars. The kombucha Tulley makes is decidedly more tart and less fizzy than commercial kombucha, but it isn't bad. Another thing that's making it harder for small-batch brewers to sell their kombucha is government regulation; kombucha has some alcohol in it, but small-batch brewers like Tulley don't test for how much, so it's unclear whether or not their drinks should be regulated as alcoholic or not. (Typical kombucha alcohol content hovers around 0.5% , the exact cut-off for what the government deems alcoholic versus non-alcoholic.)

Kombucha is thousands of years old; the first recorded instance we have of it comes out of the Tsin Dynasty in China, around 221 BC. It's called many things in many cultures, the word "kombucha" likely being a Japanese loanword. (In Japanese, kombucha, 昆布茶, translates to "kelp tea" and refers to another beverage entirely.)

I asked Tulley if any of these concerns were slowing her down or worrying her; she laughed and said no. Like the California gold rush, only a lucky few small-batch makers of kombucha will ever make it big. But although there are over seventy large, commercial companies that make kombucha, Tulley believes there is still an ample market for small-batch sellers like herself, because the taste can vary greater depending on what type of tea is used, how the fermenting process is done, and the makeup of the SCOBY. In any case, Tulley says most people she knows make it for their own personal use, and sell the extra bottles without the expectation of creating an for-profit empire. "One thing about us [small-batch brewers] is that we use our own product. We know it's good, because we're making it for ourselves, first. It's not about profit, profit, profit," says Tulley. And this appeal, says Tulley, will keep small-batch brewers like her afloat, like so many SCOBY patties in one-gallon jugs of sweet tea.

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