Penned by Burt Bacharach and his then-wife Carole Bayer Sager in 1987, “That’s What Friends Are For,” extols people to “Keep smilin', keep shinin', Knowin' you can always count on me.” In the ready-to-drink (RTD) tea category, the fermented sparkling probiotic benefits of kombucha is “shining a bright light” on the category with double-digit growth and close to $1 billion in sales.

Lu Ann Williams, global insights director at Innova Market Insights, The Netherlands, suggests that the consistent rise in the size of the global kombucha market is due to consumers seeking out functional foods and beverages to fulfill a healthier, more tailored lifestyle. In fact, 26 percent of global consumers are buying more drinking yogurt/fermented beverages, she says. 

“The kombucha market shows an average annual growth of 52 percent (compound annual growth rate (CAGR), 2016-2020),” Williams says. “Our data shows that new launches of kombucha products globally started to take off in 2017. This was followed by 68 percent more launches in 2018, and a further 23 percent increase in launch activity in 2019.”

In its August 2019 report “Tea and RTD Teas – US,” Chicago-based Mintel notes consumers have “a gut feeling” for drinking kombucha.

“There is perhaps no better beverage that appeals to growing consumer interest in gut health than kombucha,” the report states. “Packed with probiotics and low in sugar, kombucha is taking health-conscious consumers by storm. Probiotics are kombucha’s major selling point: 66 percent of kombucha drinkers purchase kombucha for its probiotic content, beating out even taste.”

Among the new product releases sparkling with benefits are Agua Bucha, which is derived by adding kombucha to sparkling water. Available in 12-ounce cans, Agua Buca, a brand of Mother Kombucha, St. Petersburg, Fla., contains naturally occurring B vitamins, 4 calories and 1 gram of sugar in three certified-organic flavors: Key Lime, Meyer Lemon and Grapefruit.

Fermented detoxification

Kombucha, which simple means “fermented tea,” originated in China around 221 BC and was embraced by many cultures for its detoxifying and energizing properties, Innova Market Insights’ Williams says.

“Kombucha is a probiotic tea drink fermented with probiotics and active cultures (yeast, enzymes and bacteria) and maybe natural ingredients for the flavoring (such as green tea, lavender, lemon, ginger, etc.),” she explains. “Kombucha can be a fermented drink under the iced tea subcategory without alcohol, or alcoholic beverages with alcohol percentage ranging from 3 percent to 7.2 percent in 2020.”  

Holly McHugh, marketing associate at Imbibe, Nile, Ill., attributes growth in the category to increased awareness about the relationship between a healthy microbiome and overall well-being among mainstream consumers.

“Additionally, 70 percent of the body’s immune system is housed in the digestive tract, so products that improve gut health are especially important to consumers because of the pandemic,” she says. “Kombucha is rich in probiotics, which aid with digestion. A healthy gut can aid with the elimination of toxins, improve the absorption of nutrients, increase energy and promote a healthy immune system. Kombucha is also suggested to aid with weight loss and improve mood.”

Citing Chicago-based SPINS’ data, kombucha grew 2.4 percent to $703.2 million for the 52-week period ending July 12, 2020, so it’s on the path to becoming a billion-dollar category, McHugh adds.

In its December 2020 “RTD Tea in the US” report, Chicago-based Euromonitor International notes that carbonated ready-to-drink (RTD) teas and kombuchas have seen a better performance than still RTD teas.

The COVID-19 pandemic also has strengthened and accelerated the health and wellness trend while bolstering growth in healthier RTD tea segments.

“Whilst there was some concern over the maturity of kombucha, in 2020, carbonated RTD tea and kombucha (the majority of sales are accounted for by kombucha) has maintained double-digit off-trade volume and current volume growth,” the report states. “… Product innovation also continues in this category, with jun (honey) kombucha, CBD-infused products and full-alcohol varieties attracting particular interest.”

Other fermented products, such as kefirs and switchels, are doing well, but are not yet capable of posing a major challenge to the kombucha market, the report adds.

A better-for-you buzz

Global research also supports the success of kombucha within the beverage market. Data from Innova Market Insights reports that probiotic and digestive/gut health are the Top 2 health claims of kombucha product launches in 2020 with market penetration of 40 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

As a result, several companies are releasing new better-for-you, buzzier alcohol kombuchas.

Founded in 2017, JuneShine, San Diego, offers a range of organic, probiotic, gluten free 6 percent alcohol-by-volume (ABV) products in 12-ounce cans. With between 100 and 150 calories, JuneShine contains probiotics, antioxidants and vitamins in such flavors as Hopical Citrus, Acai Berry, Honey Ginger Lemon and Midnight Painkiller. It recently launched national direct-to-consumer shipping and a “Sunshine Box” variety pack through its website and this month, its newest flavor – Iced Tea Lemonade — is debuting nationwide.

At 6 percent ABV, Iced Tea Lemonade is blend of orange pekoe black tea and organic lemon juice for a timeless twist on a certified classic, the company says.

Flying Embers, Ventura, Calif., offers its “Summer Oasis” collection, a probiotic-powered hard seltzer with 95 calories, zero sugar, zero carbohydrates, live probiotics and vitamin C, the company says. With an ABV of 4.5 percent to 7.2 percent, Flying Embers is available in Prickly Pear Heather, Original Essence and Strawberry Lemonade.

The collection is particularly special because it includes Flying Embers Original Essence, a pure raw kombucha unflavored that drinks like a dry white wine, and is the origin and base of all its flavors, the company says. The kombuchas are made by fermenting steeped organic black tea, adaptogen botanicals, and cane sugar, resulting in a naturally sweet and tart hard kombucha with an effervescent finish, it adds.

Yet, to remain successful, kombucha formulators need to create products that taste good.

“Kombucha can have taste challenges like having a strong vinegar flavor, which is a turn off to some consumers,” Imbibe’s McHugh explains. “Taste is king, so it’s important that a product tastes good. Also, sugar is a key component of the fermentation process when making kombucha, so some products have high sugar content.

“Since more than 70 percent of consumers are trying to limit their sugar intake, products with high sugar content might be a turn off to consumers,” she continues. “Although, several brands launched products with lower sugar content and Humm Kombucha launched a zero-sugar option last year that uses a proprietary process to remove sugar during the fermentation process.”

Hard kombucha, which has a higher ABV than the typical “booch,” is a growing trend that McHugh expects will continue.

“Several RTD hard kombuchas have launched over the last few years, including JuneShine, Wild Tonic, Kombrewcha, Kyla Hard Kombucha and Booch Craft,” she says. “It is widely available in the West Coast and it is expected to become more prominent nationwide.”