Could hard kombucha be the drinks hit of 2023?
That's what some of the latest global insights suggest, with hard kombucha promising to grow by 15% CAGR globally between 2022-2030 (according to Brainy Insights data).
Interestingly, according to the IWSR, the Australian market is one of the growth markets as more brand owners, including several brewers, explore the category.
Couple that with a squad of new, distinctly local makers keen to make a mark, and all things point to a big year of hard kombucha (aka hard booch) ahead.
The routes of hard kombucha trace back over 2,000 years, to the birth of kombucha circa 200 BC, in northern China. Famed for its healing properties in Asia, kombucha eventually rode the trade winds around the world to Europe and beyond in the 20th century.
But hard kombucha itself is only a recent thing, and it's fascinating to think it came off the back of a scandal.
In 2010, a routine health inspection of a Whole Foods facility in the US city of Portland uncovered leaking kombucha bottles. After several rounds of testing, it was discovered that the leakers had alcohol levels of between 0.5% - 2.5% abv.
That's not surprising given that kombucha, at its core, is a fermented beverage, typically made with sugary black or green tea mixed with SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Unfortunately, while alcohol is a byproduct, the kombucha makers at the time weren't keeping any tabs on how much alcohol was produced.
Short-term US bans on kombucha products followed, and a new set of regulations forced producers to keep alcohol levels below 0.5% ABV. But it also encouraged some intrepid kombucha makers to embrace the alcohol and produce hard kombucha.
Over the 12 years since, hard kombucha has had an upward trend in the US, and the States continues to be the most substantial market.
Locally, we've had a small cadre of hard kombucha producers who first blazed the trail too, with the likes of Dirty Bucha, Naughty Booch, Bootleg Booch and HALO first pushing hard kombucha in the late 2010s. However, several of those pioneers flared out with the arrival of COVID lockdowns.
As Nick Detmold, founder of HALO, notes, that original group of hard kombucha makers were tapping into an explosion in popularity of non-alcoholic kombucha.
Intriguingly, hard kombucha's functional beverage status and low cal/low sugar USP predates the current hard seltzer boom (which taps into the same themes), with HALO making a splash thanks to an angle of 'alcoholic beverages that are brewed better, for you'.
More recently, we've seen a new wave of Australian hard kombucha producers who are influenced by that same megatrend of 'better for me' drinks.
Brandy Range, COO Americas at IWSR explains:
'While hard kombuchas are alcoholic, they still benefit from the halo effect of these perceived health benefits – and many brands play upon this by highlighting their probiotic properties, as well as wellness-friendly ingredients such as enzymes, organic acids, vitamins and minerals,' said Rand.
Further, the new breed of local hard kombucha producers are taking even more of a craft approach to kombucha, with attention on provenance and quality ingredients.
Murwillumbah's Ventura Brewing is the perfect example of this new trend, and it is already paying off, with their Peach & Sage specialty batch taking out the title of Australia's Best Alternative Alcoholic Drink at the 2022 Drink Easy Awards. The Ventura Hard Kombucha beat an array of hard seltzers, hard lemonade, ready-to-drink cocktails, and even cannabis-infused drinks.
According to co-founder Dom Hurley, the secret to success is patience.
'It's all in the brewing process' he explained.
'For us, that means "brewed not blended" using real ingredients and traditional techniques. Our signature secondary fermentation gives a really clean, smooth profile and finishes in the Goldilocks zone – not too sweet, not too sour. We then infuse various herbs, fruits and botanicals, which give the beautiful aromatics, delicious taste, and lovely refreshing finish. It's the slow, hard, expensive way but overall gives a much more complex and integrated flavour profile than just pre-mixing with alcohol and flavourings'.
Intriguingly, Hurley & team have released one of the world's only kombucha-based spirits, known as Goodtime Moonshine. There is a great story here too:
'With a surplus supply of our premium hard kombucha due to a packaging fault, we were looking for an innovative and sustainable way to repurpose it. Out of curiosity, we asked a simple but uncommon question; "What would happen if we distilled our alcoholic kombucha? And more importantly, what would it taste like?" With no expectations, we enlisted local distiller Keri from Cabarita Spirits to trial a small-scale experiment, and to our surprise, it was impressively delicious! All the beautiful botanical notes came through into the spirit, which had a very unique and nuanced profile that was clean like vodka, aromatic like gin, and with the warm sweetness of rum' he said.
'Our first release sold out pretty quick, but we actually enjoyed it so much that we are working on making a second edition infused with elderflower and raw honey, which will hopefully be released in time for the holidays'.
Meanwhile, for Wollongong-based makers Saint + Sinner, the choice of hard kombucha was driven by a desire for more drinks choices from a kombucha lover, as Ned Lanyon explains:
'Founder of the business, Linda Goldspink-Lord, had been on her own journey to understand the benefits of good gut health (after struggling with encephalitis), and cutting down on sugar (plus regular kombucha) was a major factor in transforming helping her gut heal. But when it came to socialising and drinking alcohol, Linda was frustrated by the lack of options which ultimately led to creating Saint + Sinner'.
Lanyon believes their six-week fermentation process is also a crucial part of the brand's success, with a trio of hard kombucha flavours in the range. Interestingly, he believes there is something of a split in how these flavours appeal to different groups:
'We have found our younger customers (18-35) tend to gravitate towards our watermelon and passionfruit flavours. However, the older demographic generally go for our Pine Lime & Coconut'.
Some of the biggest noise in hard kombucha recently has been made with the release of the Mate Maker hard kombucha range.
Mate Maker is a new kombucha brand founded by Australian electronic act RÜFÜS DU SOL, who have partnered with drinks trade expert (and former Four Pillars Gin sales guru) Tom Appleton, ex-Pabst/Diageo marketer Justin Medcraft & artist manager Danny Robson.
This is more than a celebrity vanity project. As Appleton explains, Mate Maker uses real fruit, noting how this gives premium hard kombucha an edge over many equivalent hard seltzer or RTDS.
'That's the biggest difference between Mate Maker and the majority of other packaged alc. brands that generally use natural flavours or artificial sweeteners' he said.
'Mate Maker delivers all of the same functional benefits as a seltzer but with real and organic ingredients that taste delicious'.
With a range of sportspeople and musicians also investing in the project, Mate Maker has the instant star power to back up their kombucha chops.
'While great-tasting liquid is a big part of any brand's success, we also know the importance of building awareness and trial so a big part of our strategy is to leverage our collective of owners to do this. We've kicked this off with the RÜFÜS DU SOL tour where we've been running activity in trade, on socials and have had a huge presence at their shows'.
Plenty is happening beyond releasing new flavours at these hard kombucha producers too. Mate Maker is part of the 1% for the Planet initiative that sees 1% of profits donated to environmental initiatives. At the same time, Ventura is about to open the only hard kombucha-focused taproom in Australia.
Finally, the lingering question for why hard kombucha could be the biggest hit of 2023? Appleton puts it best:
'We think Aussies are going to love it'.