And who put the KAN in KANbucha?!
by Liz Weslandar
WHEN IT COMES TO KOMBUCHA, IT SEEMS THAT PEOPLE EITHER LOVE IT, HATE IT, OR DON’T UNDERSTAND IT. However, if you’ve purchased a beverage from a cooler at a grocery or convenience store lately, it’s clear that the kombucha lovers are winning out over the skeptics. Elliot Pees, founder of the Kansas City area kombucha company, KANbucha, was an early adopter of the kombucha movement in the Midwest and has found his vocation in creating and selling this old-world craft beverage with benefits. Kombucha is a fermented, probiotic-rich tea drink that originated hundreds of years ago in China, but it has only been sold commercially in the U.S. for about a decade and has only really caught on in the past few years. According to market research firm SPINS, kombucha sales saw 29 percent combined growth across all channels from February 2013 to February 2014. For this period, total scanned sales were $122.7 million. A 16-ounce bottle typically costs between $3 and $4.
Pees got into the kombucha game ahead of the curve. After trying a bottle of the sour beverage that his sister brought him from Austin, Texas in 2009, Elliot decided to try brewing his own kombucha. In 2010, he started selling his kombucha on-tap from a kegerator at the Lawrence Farmers Market. From there, Elliot started selling bottled KANbucha at health food stores, coffee shops and gyms around Kansas City and in Lawrence, where he’s based. Business has gone so well for Elliot that he recently partnered with Ben Farmer, owner of Lawrence’s Alchemy Coffee & Bake House, to lease a 25,000 square foot production space.
D e s p i t e k o m b u c h a ’ s popularity, plenty of folks out there are still mystified by the fermented c o n c o c t i o n . Perhaps part of kombucha’s mystique is that the key ingredient is a suspicious sounding substance called SCOBY, or “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” A SCOBY, which looks like a disc of mucus, is sometimes called a “mother,” because it reproduces an additional SCOBY layer with each new batch of kombucha. In other words, it takes a SCOBY to make a SCOBY. Kombucha is its own self-perpetuating process.
“The SCOBY isn’t the foreground mascot for most kombucha companies because it isn’t appetizing in appearance,” said Elliot. “In fact, some literature jokes that you should let your friends drink your kombucha, but don’t let them see it while its brewing right away.”
Once one has acquired a SCOBY, brewing kombucha is a simple process whereby a SCOBY culture is added to a batch of sweetened tea. The SCOBY eats the sugar and ferments the tea. The result is a sour, slightly fizzy beverage. As you can imagine, producing large amounts of kombucha requires a large amount of SCOBYs, and it would not be inaccurate to call Elliot a SCOBY farmer. Elliot said that while some kombucha companies add a “food energy” element to their SCOBY care by doing things like meditating and playing musical instruments while in the presence of the cultures, he keeps the care of his SCOBYs pretty straightforward.
“They really don’t need much tending if the brewing is regular and the environment is appropriate,” said Elliot. “This means they are getting nutrients from the tea and sugar, the temperature is between 70-80 degrees, and the surrounding air is free of contaminates. They like to be left to do their thing.”
KANbucha’s new production facility has streamlined their brewing process and enabled the company to increase production to 80 gallon batches per week. KANbucha brews in smaller glass vessels, each with its own SCOBY. While this is the most volume Elliot has produced to date, he said it’s not even a quarter of what he intends to be produced in the future.
While the improvements in volume and efficiency are great, Elliot said the coolest part of the new production facility is the “work-play” atmosphere, which he believes has a direct effect on the quality of the product. “Our hand-built surrounding is established to inspire us to get things done with enjoyment,” said Elliot. “We like our space and what we get to create for others on a daily basis. This ultimately means a better quality product for everyone.”
Because kombucha can be an acquired taste for people whose palates are not accustomed to tangy or sour foods, the ongoing challenge and art form for kombucha brewers is creating flavors that are not only palatable but that people will actually seek out.
“I see a lot of reactions to kombucha,” said Elliot. “Some people taste it and love it right off the bat. I tell people that if you try it and don’t like it one day, come another day and try it again. It may be that you just haven’t found the right flavor.”
KANbucha comes in seven flavors, the most popular being Ginger Rose – a combination of kombucha, ginger rosewater and some grape juice for color and sweetness. Jasmine Aid – which is made by adding jasmine tea and lemonade to the kombucha – is another popular flavor, said Elliot. KANbucha’s newest flavor, Roonilla, is reminiscent of cream soda.
“The name comes from the ingredients of Rooibos tea and vanilla, and the flavor’s profile is similar to some traditional sodas in that it’s creamy, woody, herbal and malty,” said Elliot. KANbucha’s dry tea ingredients come from Hugo Tea Company, a premium tea purveyor based in Kansas City.
It might seem counterintuitive that an unfamiliar beverage with a difficult taste profile would be in such high demand, but Elliot said there are a number of reasons people are embracing kombucha. One is that kombucha is what the food industry calls a “functional beverage” – meaning that it is a drink that may also have significant health benefits.
There is research showing that the consumption of fermented foods, including kombucha, introduces beneficial bacteria – often referred to as probiotics — into the digestive system. With the proper balance of gut bacteria, the digestive system can absorb nutrients more easily. Probiotics have also been shown to help slow or reverse some diseases, improve bowel health, aid digestion, and improve immunity.
“Kombucha is an example of ‘food as medicine,’” said Elliot. “While I typically refrain from talking too much about health claims due to liability reasons, if you do your research, you’ll find that fermented foods have the potential to treat a number of chronic problems. Customers of mine describe lots of different benefits they receive from drinking kombucha.”
Aside from the health benefits, Elliot said the kombucha craze is part of a larger renewed interest in old-world foods that foster a sense of community and tradition.
“Like many foods that have a long history, the production of kombucha has a passing-down element, meaning you cannot make it without sourcing a pre-existing culture from someone who has nurtured it, historically a family member or neighbor,” said Elliot. “This is important because it directly reminds us that food was communal because culture and living was more communal.”
Elliot said that yogurt cultures, sourdough cultures, miso cultures, and vinegar cultures are other examples of old world foods for which families had, or may now have, ongoing cultures their ancestors kept alive and passed down.
The old world niche is also part of the even larger “craft” food and beverage trend, which emphasizes variety, uniqueness and quality, all things KANbucha strives for.
“Craft foods are often locally made using ideas both of old world genres and new synthesized inventions,” said Elliot “This is what people are enjoying right now in coffee, bakery goods, beer, wine and also kombucha. In light of this, KANbucha represents kombucha in the regional craft beverage world.”