What’s cold, wet, bubbly, sweet, and the drink of choice for more than half of millennials? Nope, it’s not soda. It’s kombucha—“booch” to the initiated— the fermented not-quite-a-mushroom concoction that fills shelf after shelf of highly coveted prime refrigerated real estate at Whole Foods Markets with its fizzy, flavorful, fungus funkiness and its numerous purported health benefits.
According to a recent report from Mintel, kombucha’s popularity is now reaching beyond its health food roots to a widespread audience in mainstream supermarkets and restaurants. Mintel notes that 51 percent of U.S. adults aged 25-34 regularly drink kombucha, and that number is growing.
While sales of soda—even diet sodas—and other sweetened beverages have been on the steady decline in recent years, kombucha’s sales are skyrocketing. Experts estimate the category will reach more than $650 million by 2019—and that’s not counting all the DIY kombucha home brewers; kombucha has been a homemade product for centuries, experiencing a recent revival alongside the rise in homesteading, DIY, and farm-to-table movement.
But what exactly is kombucha?
Considered a fermented tea, even though it’s really not, kombucha is a combination of bacteria and yeast (called a SCOBY— “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”) that grows in a sugared tea environment.
The SCOBY grows into a mushroom-looking blob, referred to as “the mother.” As the mother feasts on the sugary liquid, it (she?) leaves behind a slightly vinegary, bubbly beverage. It’s not uncommon to find bits of “the mother” floating in a strained off version of the drink. The fermentation, as with grapes, grains, and hops, can also leave the kombucha with an alcohol content of 0.5 percent or higher, that in some cases, can require proof of age to purchase. (High alcohol content in kombucha in 2010 led to massive recalls, empty shelves, and ornery hipsters.)
But there’s more to this magic fungus juice than just its ridiculous name and its soda-not-soda status that makes devotees shell out $4 or more for a 16-ounce bottle. Kombucha has a history of being touted for “a variety of health benefits including detoxification, joint health, digestion/gut health, and immune-boosting properties,” Mintel explained. “In line with other beverages in the health category, such as cold-pressed juices and probiotic waters, it is the blend of flavors that is taking this beverage to the next level.”
And flavors—there are many. Best-selling kombucha brand GT’s, includes flavors like Gingerade, Maqui Berry Mint, Mystic Mango, Strawberry Serenity, and of course, the always out-of-stock ever-popular, Diving Grape. Competitors knock-off GT’s iconic flavors, and riff on those to try to carve out their own kombucha niche to some success. But like Coca-Cola came to define the standard for cola, GT’s kombucha has made its terroir the benchmark, positioning the nearest competitors miles and miles of bottles away.
Similar to soda’s effervescent hold on consumers that made it a household staple for decades, it’s kombucha’s fizzy resemblance to soda that’s most likely the reason it’s become so popular, particularly among reformed soda drinkers. Why wouldn’t you chug down a grape kombucha—with all its supposed health benefits—that tastes just like the indulgent, sugary soda many young people grew up on?
But there may be more to it, according to GT’s founder, GT Dave. The drink has a bit of old-fashioned magic working for it, too. “As silly as it sounds,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “because of its living-life-force qualities, the kombucha is sensitive to the energy that surrounds it.” And it seems, those energies want more of it. A lot more.
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Woman grabbing bottle image via Shutterstock
Kombucha SCOBY image via Shutterstock