By Brian Murphy, Foodable Industry Expert
Kombucha is centuries old, but in the U.S. market, it has never been more popular. Numbers continue to grow, with the Mintel reporting that 51 percent of U.S. Adults aged 25-34 years drink it. Starting in health food stores, the probiotic beverage is gaining popularity among the health-conscious and can now be found in most convenience stores. The sales don’t stop there, with kombucha on tap and being used in cocktails at the bar, the time to introduce it to your beverage program is here.
A Curious Beverage
While the bevy of health claims are what make people choose the sour beverage over a sweet carbonated beverage, they remain to be unsubstantiated by clinical studies. Nevertheless, tech and research-savvy Millennial guests can’t resist the urge to partake in the “wondrous” beverage. Whether it is undoing the overconsumption of alcohol the night before, regulating healthy gut bacteria, or any of the other health claims, kombucha tea is deserving of a spot outside of the retail market. Some guests are simply curious about the beverage and the whole “SCOBY” trend.
SCOBY is an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” which forms a gelatinous disk at the top of the jar when the kombucha is fermenting. The bottled versions usually have visible yeast strands in it, so that combined with the vinegary flavor makes kombucha to be a bit of a curiosity to guests. And that’s a good thing.
Sour to the People
Sour is a flavor that stands up to sweet in almost a rebellious fashion. At a time when sugar consumption is starting to be somewhat demonized, people are interested in opposing flavors in a variety of forms. Sour beers, drinking vinegars, shrubs, picklebacks — all examples of the surge of sour. Embracing it in probiotic, liquid form makes sense in many ways, and there are varying levels of entry into the kombucha world.
Purchasing or In-House Fermentation
A simple way to dabble with kombucha is to pick up a case from a distributor and simply add it to the menu. Don’t stop there. Celebrate the kombucha and offer it in a way that will get guests talking and demand more of it. Use the stemmed tulip glasses you carefully pour your sour beers in, and offer a different type of sour. Kombucha can be surprisingly deep in flavor, depending on how it is made, so find one you can stand behind and go all in. When the product mix report shows an increase in kombucha sales, it may be time to start making it in-house.
This process requires some labor and attention to detail in the safety and sanitation department, but is much more cost-effective and allows for the creation of a kombucha that is truly your own. There is no shortage of recipes and kombucha-making instructions online and in print, so find one that seems reasonable and pay close attention to instructions.
This is where making kombucha in-house reigns supreme. The options are virtually endless and seasonal options just make sense for a variety of reasons. Making a master batch of kombucha and then bottling with fresh produce for the secondary fermentation not only infuses delicate flavor but also provides a bit of sugar to boost the carbonation levels. The colors become beautiful, as well! Raspberries, hibiscus, and blueberries all impart great flavor and depth and make the sour beverage easier on the eyes and palate. Tangerine lace will offer a mild citrus flavor, but change the color to a beautiful greenish-hued beverage.
The bar is where the potential of kombucha gets deeper yet. Have your bartending team treat it much like a less-intensely flavored shrub. The sourness needs to be understood and respected, especially when mixologists are used to adding lime or lemon to a cocktail. The great part is that kombucha can easily be featured on the menu from brunch to dinner. An easy-sipping cocktail could be an infused kombucha with a float of St. Germain for brunch, or for someone easing into the day-drinking. Sub kombucha for the fizzy yellow beer in a bloody beer, or to make it deeper in flavor, add some mezcal. Hair of the dog that tastes great and is good for you.
Margaritas to whisky sours, kombucha can stand in as a portion of the mixer or take center stage in the cocktail. Non-alcoholic versions can be equally amazing when certain pairings of flavors are discovered. Substituting some of the sugar for high-quality maple syrup, then bottle conditioning with vanilla bean and citrus creates a delicious, complex beverage that can completely complement a meal. The bite of the sour is great at cutting through the fattiness of that 80/20 burger cooked on the flattop, and is versatile enough to pair with an entrée salad with bitter greens and a sweeter dressing.
In the Kitchen
Kombucha is a living beverage, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. Small variables make getting each batch just right difficult, so experimentation and the offer of specials is a great way to mix it up depending on who is prepping the batch. A benefit is that kombucha that doesn’t move can be used as a sub for vinegar in the kitchen. Think of the marketing ability of a dressing, sauce, or dish prepared with kombucha. Kombucha fish and chips anyone? Start practicing.