Kombucha is one of the more unexpected success stories in American beverages. Until about a decade ago, few had ever heard of it and most people drinking kombucha were brewing it themselves using borrowed bacterial cultures.

Now, the fizzy tea has gone mainstream and is growing faster than almost any other drink in the US, according to Euromonitor International.

In 2017, sales of kombucha reached roughly US$375m in the country, up over 40% from the year before and over nine times what they were in 2010. Yet, despite turning in these consistently-impressive growth rates, kombucha remains a relatively-immature category with plenty of room to grow.

Healthy lifestyle trends are the key driver

Kombucha tends to be high in B vitamins and antioxidants, but its probiotic content is what attracts many to the category. Probiotics have been linked to a wide variety of health benefits and many kombucha consumers report improved digestion, higher levels of energy and enhanced immune function.

Many of these claims remain unproven, but research is underway to scientifically-validate kombucha's health reputation.

While more enthusiastic boosters have promoted kombucha as a cure-all from premature balding to cancer, as the category matures, these sorts of claims are becoming less frequent. More restrained health claims that promote kombucha as a part of a healthy lifestyle - rather than as the vaguely-magical elixir that some still view it as - seem to be the future. This is the better option in the long-term, as it will build trust among more mainstream consumers. 

A non-alcoholic beverage with alcohol content is still a concern

Alcohol content remains a concern for the kombucha segment. Major brands like GT's and Health Ade have been hit with lawsuits in recent years over alcohol content that exceeds the amount allowed for products sold as non-alcoholic.

A proposed bill has been introduced into Congress with industry backing that would raise the allowable abv to 1.25% and provide a greater amount of breathing room for brewers. But, the bill has not been passed yet.

In the meantime, brands are using pasteurisation, alcohol extraction and/or modification of probiotic ratios, to keep their products under the allowable limit. Concerns exist, both about the relative efficacy of these methods as well as the level of damage to the probiotics that results.

An option that is growing in popularity is simply to accept regulation as an alcoholic drink and market it as such. Kombrewcha, for example, is selling its 3.2% abv brand as a healthy alternative to light beer. Others are going even further; BoochCraft is selling a kombucha with an abv of 7% that is marketed as an alternative to a pre-mixed cocktail.

The next frontiers for kombucha

A recent National Coffee Association survey found that only about 2% of Americans drink kombucha in the average day. While the segment seems unlikely to ever be one that is consumed by a majority of people, there remains plenty of room for the category to grow. One area in particular that has only just begun to be explored is foodservice. More bars and restaurants are experimenting with kombucha on tap to offer consumers a healthier beverage option while they are eating out.

There will also be more experimentation with ingredients in the years ahead. Some are switching out black tea for alternative bases. Others are using honey in place of sugar as the fuel for fermentation. New flavour additives and different abv levels can also be tested to create new varieties.

Kombucha has come a long way in the last decade. The next one should see the segment continue to develop and carve out a permanent niche in the American beverage landscape.

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