Kombucha with a Kick

By: Nan McCreary

Hard Kombucha is one of the latest drinks to make a splash in the “better-for-you” alcoholic beverage market. But what is hard kombucha, you ask? Wait, what is kombucha?

  Kombucha traces its roots to China’s Qin Dynasty (221 BC), where it was known as the “The Tea of Immortality” for its medicinal properties. The drink is made by mixing sweetened black or green tea with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast called SCOBY and allowing it to ferment. The result is a tart and sour, lightly-carbonated drink that’s naturally gluten-free, low in sugar and chocked full of probiotics. With health-conscious millennials driving today’s beverage industry, it’s no wonder that kombucha is experiencing a revival, and is one of the fastest-growing beverages on the market today.

  Kombucha first went mainstream in the U.S. in 1995 when GT Dave, the man behind GT’s Kombucha, established the first and largest kombucha brand in the industry. Promotion for the drink touted the health benefits of both tea and probiotics, and sales immediately exploded in supermarkets throughout the country.

With an ABV of less than 0.5%, kombucha could be sold legally as an alcohol-free beverage. In 2010, however, a Department of Agriculture inspector discovered a kombucha at a Maine Whole Foods that contained alcohol levels well above 0.5%. It was pulled off the shelves nationwide, and producers were left with three options: keep their kombuchas under 0.5% and follow strict labeling laws, sell them in the beer section at their current ABV, or create an intentionally higher ABV beverage. For those who chose the latter — a “hard” kombucha — the crisis presented a golden opportunity. The low-alcohol beverage with a healthy dose of probiotics caught on quickly, and in just a few short years, became the hot new kid on the beverage-industry block. According to Nielsen, sales of hard kombucha spiked 247% in the 52 weeks leading up to April 20, 2019.

  One of the first to create high-alcohol kombucha was Dr. Hops, based in San Francisco. “I was working in Berkley with the fitness and yoga community, and craft beer was exploding and doing amazing things,” said CEO and founder Joshua Rood. “Non-alcoholic kombucha was also growing rapidly. I’ve always been a food and beverage guy. When I saw this happening, I realized you could make a high-alcohol kombucha that would be authentic to both categories, offering the benefits from the health properties of straight kombucha, and the flavor, complexity and pleasure of a really good craft beer.”

  With only one hard kombucha on the market at the time—Unity Vibration in Ypsilanti, Michigan—Rood approached a brewer who was making both beer and kombucha and asked him to make a prototype that offered the best of both beverage worlds. “The prototype was awesome,” he said.  “At the same time, my wife had an adorable rabbit named Dr. Hops, and I thought, ‘what a perfect name for a health-conscious kombucha that’s all hopped up.’ So that’s why we named our product Dr. Hops.”

  While Rood was developing his product in 2016, another hard kombucha hit the market: Boochcraft, California’s first high-alcohol kombucha, and today’s market leader in sales.

  To make hard kombucha, producers start with a mixture of sugar, tea and water. For his base, Rood selects the highest organic quality and fair trade tea he can obtain. Next, he adds SCOBY—a combination of bacteria and yeast that he’s developed in-house—and adds it to the tea mixture. The concoction ferments for a week, allowing the SCOBY to work and make kombucha what it is: a probiotic, sour and flavorful drink. To raise the alcohol level beyond the 0.5% from the initial fermentation, Rood adds a Belgian Ale yeast that creates a slight beer quality and lets that mixture ferment for another week. This step raises the alcohol level to 0.7 to 1%.  Finally, after the second fermentation is complete, Rood adds hops, fruit, herbs or spices and “lets it rest” to let the flavors develop. 

“This is a very mellow waiting period,” Rood told Beverage Master Magazine. “We gently stir the mixture and let the particulate matter sink to the bottom. Then we add a bit of sugar, which gives the kombucha a touch of sweetness, and finally, we package it.”

  Dr. Hops makes four standard products: the IPK, similar to a juicy IPA; the Lop, a tart, refreshing pomegranate chai with prominent grapefruit notes; the Jackalope, with prominent ginger, lime and mint flavors; and the Blinky, with hints of basil and lemongrass. All are dry-hopped with hops sourced from the Pacific Northwest. Sugars vary from 4-6%, and ABV runs from 5-9%. Flavors come from fresh, organic fruits rather than flavoring compounds.

  In terms of legal classification, hard kombucha is typically classified as a beer rather than a wine product. The Dr. Hops production facility is similar to a brewery, with stainless steel tanks and temperature, pressure and oxygen controls. To produce optimum results, brewers have to be very meticulous, Rood explained. “The process goes through many different phases, and each phase has the potential to create benefits as well as off-flavors. It’s really an art. We have to check fermentation constantly, as it’s a living process and not an exact formula, although we’re getting pretty good at it.”

  Ultimately, Rood’s goal is to create a product that is “good for your belly” and “good for your buzz.”  Hard kombuchas have less sugar than anything in the alcohol world, he said, except for pure vodka. “As Americans, sugar is one of the worst things we consume, so we keep ours as low as possible.”

  Rood also uses a kombucha strain that’s rich with alcohol-resistant lactobacillus, a health-enhancing probiotic. Because Dr. Hops’ products are unfiltered and unpasteurized (heating from pasteurization destroys enzymes, organics and flavors), the probiotics stay in the beverage, helping the body process not just food, but also alcohol. Another health benefit: Dr. Hops uses only organic fruits, roots and herbs, which provide additional nutrients.

  “Essentially, we’re trying to eliminate the junk people put in their bodies while drinking alcohol,” Rood said. “When you take all of our ingredients together, you have a beverage that’s remarkably distinct and much healthier.”

  As more and more health-conscious imbibers turn to beer/kombucha blends, Dr. Hops is enjoying great success. Currently, the company produces 1,000 barrels a year, with plans to triple—or even quadruple—production within the next year.  Right now, they package their kombucha in bottles, but Rood intends to switch to cans soon. Dr. Hops is available in liquor stores and independent food stores and markets in Northern California and is on tap in several bars in the Oakland, California area. Rood’s goal is to increase distribution to the western third of the country and Florida. 

  “Sales have been amazing,” he said.  “It’s something people want, but most don’t know it until they discover it, and then they get very excited about it.”

  Within the past couple of years, many up-and-coming hard kombucha brands have emerged within the growing industry, including Flying Embers, KYLA, JuneShine and Lambrucha. Established kombucha producers are also getting in on the action. Wild Tonic, originally a regular kombucha brand, created two hard kombucha products: one with 5.6% ABV and one with 7.6% ABV. Kombrewcha, one of the country’s pioneering hard kombucha brands, received backing from AB InBev’s investment arm, ZX Ventures, to produce a new line of hard kombuchas.

  It’s not only AB InBev getting in on the action, however. Craft breweries have also extended their product portfolio to include hard kombucha. For example, New Holland Brewing, a Holland, Michigan craft beer brand that’s been around for over 20 years, now produces a seasonal offering that combines the flavors of an IPA with Kombucha. Boston Beer, maker of Samuel Adams, recently launched Tura Hard Kombucha. And Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon collaborated with Humm Kombucha to create Humm Zinger, “a beer that blends together Humm’s tangy grapefruit kombucha with Cascade hops and Pilsner malt for big citrus flavor with a profound dry hop character.”

  Clearly, hard kombucha is hitting the mainstream. After all, what’s not to like? It’s all-natural, gluten-free, organic and vegan, low in sugar and calories yet contains enough alcohol to be fun. As part of the low-alcohol trend, which includes hard seltzers, hard ciders and low-alcohol spirits, hard kombucha has a lot of opportunities to grow. If you think you might be one of those who want it but don’t know it yet, hustle off to your favorite vegan restaurant, grocery or liquor store and check it out.

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