- Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2020

Wichita, Kan. (AP) - Although kombucha has more than $1 billion in sales in the U.S. each year, most people have not heard of this fermented drink. Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory, of Kombucha Brewers International, a nonprofit trade organization based in California and dedicated to promoting kombucha, want to change that.

“We want to change the world one gut at a time,” Crum told The Hutchinson News. “We’re seeing much bigger velocity in the retail market. The Kansas scene has exploded.”

The Kombucha manufacturers in Kansas are working hard to bring this ancient Chinese drink into the spotlight. Melinda Williamson, of Hoyt, manufactures dozens of flavors under her Morning Light Kombucha label. Along with the perceived health benefits of this drink, Williamson saw brewing kombucha as an opportunity to move back home to Kansas from Oklahoma and start her own business. Trained as a research specialist in grassland ecology, Williamson viewed the brewing process as a wonderful opportunity to support her and her daughter and produce a healthy beverage. Three years ago, Williamson, who grew up in Topeka, moved to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation and began manufacturing kombucha.

Morning Light Kombucha is a trademarked Native American product. Last year, Morning Light was named Kansas Minority Business of the Year. Williamson is the only Native American in the U.S. to run a kombucha business. Currently, the product is sold at one location on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation.

“I’d love to see the product expand beyond where it currently is,” Williamson said. “We are trying to place our kombucha on reservations and tribal enterprises (across the country).”

Kombucha is fermented tea. It begins its life as a green or black tea, or a mixture of both. Sugar is mixed in. The culture, known as SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) is added. Then the tea is fermented from two to four weeks. During this time, the yeast and bacteria go to work. Eventually, live bacteria, vitamins and probiotics are produced. At this point, juices or herbs are added.

Some kombuchas are fizzy. Some taste like vinegar. Others are sweet.

“Generally, fermented products (like kombucha) have been positive in how they impact the good bacteria in your gut,” said Heather Gibbs, the program director of the master of science program in the Department of Dietetics & Nutrition at the University of Kansas.

Gibbs said there are different fibers in prebiotics. These fibers, she said, are giving energy to the good bacteria in the gut. She has not seen much research on kombucha, but there is plenty of research on the benefits of yogurt, kefir, pickles and sauerkraut.

“I think we have the most data on a healthy gut from people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables,” Gibbs said. “People should think about the healthy options that they like, and then they would do those more.”

The nutritional health coach at Natural Grocers in Wichita, Sara Keraly, is a proponent of kombucha. Keraly, who received her bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from the University of New Mexico, uses an evidence-based, holistic approach.

“Kombucha supports blood sugar balance, optimal digestion and hair and skin health,” she said. “It is not the best drink for pregnant women, and children can react to the caffeine.”

When choosing kombucha, Keraly said, the amount of sugar in the product is key.

“You want to look for less than 10 grams of sugar; ideally less than five grams,” she said. “Kombucha and apple cider vinegar have similar benefits for healthy weight management.”

Both Morning Light Kombucha and Apollo Fermentations in Wichita purchase ingredients from local farmers.

“We work with local organic farmers across northeast Kansas,” Williamson said. “90% of our product is sourced locally. All of my partnerships with my farms are amazing. They’re great stewards of the land.”

Apollo Fermentations decided to buy local, as well. Their produce comes from small farms in the Wichita area.

“We like to keep it fresh and local as much as humanly possible,” said Chris Hannemann, one of the owners of Apollo Fermentations. Hannemann opened Apollo with his partners last fall. “We use organic whenever possible, including using organic sugar and tea.”

Some of Morning Light’s flavors are Peach Pie, Elderberry Tonic and Cranberry Sage. Apollo’s flavors include Blueberry Lavender and Ginger Lemongrass. The brewers say inventing the flavors gives them creativity.

“Our main focus is to provide kombucha in Kansas,” Williamson said. “We believe that sourcing our ingredients locally not only strengthens local food systems, but is essential to bringing the best and most nutritious kombucha possible. These relationships keeps our money local.”

Each brewery is different. Some buy from local farms, others buy from grocery or health food stores.

“We source it locally primarily through local box stores,” said Mark McCreary, of Inspirit Kombucha Brewing Co. of Wichita.

Many people are thinking of brewing their own elixir. Crum, the author of “The Big Book of Kombucha,” explains how to brew, including the flavoring components in her book. To make homemade kombucha, one must pick up a kit - Natural Grocers and other health food stores sell them - or get “scobies” from a friend who brews their own product.

“We need to replenish the good bacteria in our stomach,” said Alicia Gian-Maciulis, the owner of Roots Juice Co. & Wellness Studio in Garden City. “We’ve had a really good interest in people learning how to make it themselves.”

Gian-Maciulis began brewing kombucha two years ago and found her customers kept wanting more. She said it takes her about one month to get the right consistency. Roots’ best seller is the seasonal favorite, Cranbucha - a mixture of cranberry juice and kombucha.

Hannemann has been brewing for more than six years. In addition to his passion for brewing, he loves the chemistry of the drinks and enjoys studying yeast and bacteria and honing in on recipes that are both beneficial and tasty.

When he was laying out his brewery, Hannemann used the wisdom of the health inspector to organize his many stainless steel fermentation tanks. Apollos’s immaculate brewing room is painted white with a grey floor. Hannemann said he checks on his kombucha daily, making sure the fermentation is going correctly.

“Kombucha likes oxygen. It makes the brewing process a lot more flexible (than beer). I’m checking the chemistry of what’s going on,” he said. “It’s the only way to get consistency.”

While he is checking, Hannemann is observing the temperature.

“It’s a delicate dance,” he said. “The temperature has to be just right.”

Inspirit opened a taproom last week in Wichita. McCreary said he is trying to keep the “farmers market vibe.” Apollo Fermentations, of Wichita, opened its taproom last fall. The company enjoys the family-friendly atmosphere that this nonalcoholic beverage brings.

Taprooms and breweries in Kansas City include The Brewkery, which sells its own brand; Elixir Kombucha and Tea Biotics Kombucha, who have taprooms in Kansas City and Olathe. Williamson said, as of now, she does not wish to open a taproom.

According to the Kombucha Brewers International, the largest number of taprooms in the U.S. are in California, with more than 100 brands.

“We see that taprooms are on the rise,” Crum said.

Adam Gunnels, of Wichita, enjoys drinking Apollo Fermentations kombucha. Gunnels has bought kombucha from a health food store since 2009. Once he found Apollo, he switched to local.

“It has a great flavor, and it’s healthy at the same time,” he said. “I’m glad there’s local options instead of the ones shipped in.”

Kansas-brewed kombucha is ramping up in the Greater Wichita and Kansas City areas, the capital and the large college communities. The drink has also reached into the center of the state and out west to Garden City. Mojo’s Coffee Bar in Newton, Craft Coffee Parlor in McPherson, Blacksmith Coffee Roastery in Lindsborg and Metropolitan Coffee Roasters and Simple Abundance in Hutchinson all carry Inspirit Kombucha. Along with being in Lawrence and Manhattan, Morning Light Kombucha can be found in The Tipsy Carrot, B’Well Market, The Burger Stand and other locations in Topeka, as well as Prairie Band One Stop in Holton. Apollo Fermentations is currently distributed in Wichita and Lucky Elixir, Tea Biotics and Cool Leaf kombuchas can be found in the Greater Kansas City Area. Kanbucha (their product name combines Kansas and kombucha) is brewed in Lawrence and distributed in Kansas City and Manhattan.

Jeremy Barnwell, one of the owners of B’Well Market in Topeka, said he likes carrying local brands and Morning Light Kombucha fits in perfectly. The market has carried the product for about one year.

“We are a local business, so we like supporting one,” Barnwell said. “It sells pretty well here.”

Simple Abundance Farms, like B’Well Market, said keeping it local is a part of his and his wife’s business plan.

“Working together to produce a sense of community is important,” said Adam Pounds, of Simple Abundance. “We jumped at the chance to create diversity at our farm stand. We’re flying through kegs all the time.”

For Myra Kitson, of Metropolitan Coffee, serving kombucha is an alternative to selling coffee.

“We brought it in response to our customers,” Kitson said. “People who choose to drink kombucha are incredibly well-informed.”

Kitson said she likes to vary the three flavors she has on top dependent upon the season. She currently has blueberry, raspberry ginger and orange cranberry on tap in her kegorator.

Tea Biotics sells to more than 400 locations in the greater Kansas City area. Their flavors, which are organic and brewed in small batches, include Elderberry Mango, Lavender, Turmeric Root Lime and Hibiscus Watermelon. Kanbucha uses organic ingredients, as well. Some fun flavors include Chai and Gingerose. The Brewkery brews Cucumber Hibiscus with Pink Himalayan Sea Salt, Spearmint Lemongrass and Hop’d – for those who want the hops without the alcohol.

Artisan Kambucha is sold throughout Kansas City and at PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. in Topeka. They make a Sarsaparilla Root Beer Kambucha and a Cherry Vanilla one, as well. Auntie M’s Cool Leaf Kombucha in Salina sells her Pineapple and Cherry Rose kombuchas at Prairieland Market in Salina.

Kombucha Brewers International members in Kansas include: Morning Light Kombucha, Tea Biotics and Café Banarbas, a kombucha microbrewery in Topeka.

The reasons vary as to why people get started in the business. McCreary was looking to heal his son. Williamson was trying to heal herself. Gian-Maciulis was already running a juice-pressing business and realized she wanted to offer other healing alternatives. Hanneman loved tea and, like the others, found out about the healing benefits of kombucha.

Crum is watching new markets and innovations open up in the kombucha market. A hot trend, she said, is mixing kombucha with alcohol. Central Standard Brewing in Wichita, where Hannemann, the owner of Apollo Fermentations, works, has introduced such a beer.

“It sold well,” Hannemann said. “We hope to do it again soon.”

On a larger scale, The Boston Beer Company, the umbrella company to Samuel Adams, began making Tura in February 2019. Tura is a USDA-certified organic, high-alcohol kombucha. The drink is made with natural ingredients, including live probiotics and real fruit. The beverage is available in Hibiscus Wild Berry and Blueberry Ginger.

Tora is only available in about six test markets, a company spokesperson for The Boston Beer Company said. There are currently no immediate plans to expand the test markets.

Crum said the largest consumer bases for kombucha, aside from North America, are Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Brazil is also brewing and consuming this fermented drink. According to Crum, The European Union kombucha market is estimated at $225 million, with the Australian market coming in at $200 million. By 2025, the global market, she said, is expected to top $5 billion.

Because there is no standardization in naming, Brewers International is working on a code of practice.

“We need to delineate what our product is,” Crum said. “We see a lot of ingredients and processing techniques.”

Crum, who grew up in Iowa but now lives in California, said there are more than 500 kombucha breweries, with only about one dozen being super large. There is room for the smaller business, she said. By brewing local, there is opportunity.

Kombucha Brewers International began in 2014 with 40 members. Today, the membership stands at 350 brewers and affiliate members from all over the world, which includes the top five grossing Kombucha companies.

In 2014, Crum and LaGory started KombuchaKon, the only conference and trade show specifically targeting those in the Kombucha industry. The two-day event features the World’s Largest Kombucha Sampling Bar, educational seminars and speakers.

“Feb. 21 is the inaugural World Kombucha Day,” Crum said. “We want kombucha to become that staple just as yogurt is. This is the decade where kombucha becomes a household name.”

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