The mighty booch

Once an unknown word, kombucha has become one of the UK's most popular non-alcoholic drinks


Kombucha has gone from an unknown word – an eldritch incantation spoken only at Holland and Barrett – to one of the UK’s most popular non-alcoholic drinks in the space of a couple of years. The fermented tea drink, believed but not definitively known to have been invented around 2000 years ago in Chinese antiquity, is unusual in that it has crossed over from health food to high-street with relatively zero friction. Of course, generally speaking 2000 years is a long time to build your brand, but it’s the ravenous, insatiable craft drinks industry that’s pushed kombucha from being an obscure homemade drink to a multi-million pound industry quickly, and, to the average consumer, seemingly from nowhere. Western cultural appropriation strikes again then?

Alimentary, my dear Watson

Kombucha has long been celebrated for its health-giving properties. Fermented foods and drinks are under a dazzling spotlight at the moment, with nutritionists all over the world championing their gut-balancing, immune system-boosting properties. This is most likely from the lactic acid bacteria that build up and live happily within a batch of booch. These little guys are part of the “probiotic” family, the naturally occurring bacteria that frolic in your bowel, helping with digestion.

If you believe in the role of antioxidants, you might also be interested to note that in live studies, kombucha has been shown to reduce liver toxicity by up to 70% (there are several published sources online via the NCBI – check it out, it’s pretty interesting). So it may actually be the ideal hangover cure too. 

Sam Martingell, founder and CEO of Kombucha Kat, a kombucha brand based in the Cotswolds, believes in the benefits of probiotics in his drinks.

“We work really hard to maintain the probiotic and organic integrity of our products,” he explains. “No one I know drinks sugary sodas anymore, certainly not like we used to in the ‘90s. Personally, I think that all the sugar and aspartame is now catching up with our collective immune system. Having said that, the whole experience of a fizzy soft drink is uniquely and undeniably refreshing. We’re trying to replicate that without all the bad stuff.

“Also, and on another level, I think that people are starting to understand that the sterile paradigm that used to exist around food and lifestyle is redundant. Bugs aren’t all bad. We need them. Killing them off will only make us more sick. We should all be rolling around in the mud with our dogs!”

This sentiment is echoed by Louise Avery of LA Brewery in Suffolk, whose excellent Citrus Hops Kombucha is a great gateway for beer lovers looking to give the drink a shot.

"We now know that the closed system of an overly sterile environment has stripped us of our natural immunities, leaving us exposed," she says. "All our kombuchas are brewed with my favoured speciality tea blend and original mother culture. Once sweetened, the tea continually ferments with a portion drawn off and replenished every three and a half days."

The whole experience of a fizzy soft drink is uniquely and undeniably refreshing

For some, however, it’s enough for kombucha to just be a delicious drink all on its own. David Begg, founder of Real Kombucha in Wendover near the Chilterns, sees its benefits in other ways than as a health tonic.

“I loved wine, craft beer and whisky, but I gave up drinking six years ago,” he says. “A chef friend, who’s teetotal himself, gave me a taste of his homebrewed kombucha and I just thought – I can’t believe this isn’t alcoholic. It should be in every pub.

“For me, the taste of a great kombucha is better than a fine champagne. We look at creating our kombucha as a fine fermented tea with a wealth of complex, beautiful flavours, not as a juice alternative, not as a health drink.

“It’s not about a fad. There is a desperate need for high quality no alcohol alternatives, and I believe kombuha is it.”

The popularity of lo/no fizz

As a nation, we’re drinking more non-alcoholic drinks. According to drinks industry publication the Morning Advertiser, sales of alcohol-free beer were up 28% at the start of 2019. It looks like we’re increasingly enjoying visiting pubs and bars without the need to get smashed, and kombucha is fast becoming a go-to alternative on the bar.

“We’re available at fifty different Michelin starred restaurants,” says David. “It’s really encouraging to hear that top sommeliers understand what we’re doing. Essentially, we treat the tea as you would the grapes you use to make wine. We want to bring out the flavours of each unique tea, from the weird, wild and medicinal to the rich, vanilla, rose and almond.”

Sam agrees that for him, kombucha is the clear alternative to alcoholic drinks. He makes his drinks based on his own personal tastes, but consumer trends have also led him to experiment with a unique energy drink kombucha project.

“I started making kombucha solely for my own health, not for commercial reasons. I hadn’t tried what was on the market because there wasn’t much on offer and the brands that were didn’t really appeal to me. I still don’t often taste-test other brands. Run your own race.

“The energy drink market is dominated by some terrible products and we frankly feel it is ripe for disruption. Many people use energy drinks for exercise. They use exercise to be healthy. So there’s this huge, glaring inconsistency in unhealthy energy drinks.” 

This disparity between healthy living and unhealthy drinks is one of the big draws kombucha has on the high street, where it sits in chillers like a cool older sibling next to smoothies and pre-packed falafel wraps. Big brands like Remedy and Go! play on the idea that booch is inherently healthy, or at least a healthier choice, and gives you more oomph and at-em. Some brands prefer the cool, craft angle, like Holos, who’s bottle artwork rivals any craft beer’s. But is that what us beer drinkers care about? Are we mostly looking at kombucha as a healthy alternative to other non-alcoholic drinks? Do we want pro-biotics and detoxifying goodness seeping through our veins? Or do we want something that’s refreshing and stops us from feeling left out at the pub, and tastes awesome while we’re doing it?

Kombucha is fast becoming a go-to alternative on the bar

In the context of a bar, it’s hard to disagree with David’s assertions that non-alcoholic alternatives are still woefully inadequate. They’re getting better every day. But for those who don’t, or can’t, drink low-alcohol beer, focusing some attention on alternative, delicious, just-so-happen-to-be-fermented drinks that can be created with strong food-matching capabilities is surely where it’s at. What with their low-intervention methods so popular in the natural wine and cider markets now too, perhaps the ancients got it right. When it came to inventing beverages, when didn’t they, to be fair?

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