Cost of Living

How kombucha went from seaweed tea in Japan to a hit in North America

Kombucha has become big business over the last decade but the fermented tea is also named after a totally unrelated food in Japan — seaweed.

Billions of dollars in global sales, all from fermented tea grown out of an unpalatable bacterial mass

Victoria (left) and Chas Lundgard (right) pose with their daughter at the Happy Belly Kombucha brewery in Calgary. (Anis Heydari/CBC)
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Kombucha has become big business over the last decade, with the fermented tea beverage commanding more shelf space in both natural health food and traditional grocery stores.

But for at least one CBC Radio listener, the drink's name provided a bit of confusion.

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"In Japan, kombucha means seaweed tea," according to Hiro Kanagawa.

The Vancouver-based actor and Cost of Living listener reached out to us to ask how a drink he assumed was a "new-age hippie" take on boiled seaweed ended up actually being fermented, probiotic tea.

Commercially purchased kombucha usually appears clear, after brewing, fermentation and filtering out the SCOBY. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"I've talked to other Japanese people and they have the same reaction. Kombucha to them is seaweed tea, they have no idea when they go into a store and they see these huge displays of kombucha, they have no idea what it is," said Kanagawa.

OK, so what is kombucha?

Kombucha tea is a fermented beverage made from sweetened, often black tea. It contains bacteria and yeast cultures and must be brewed with what some call a "mother," and others call a SCOBY — symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. 

It is usually carbonated and tastes slightly acidic with a hint of sweetness, depending on the type of brew and flavours used. Typically, sugars in the tea are consumed by the yeast which through fermentation creates ethanol which is then consumed by the bacteria.

It's sometimes called mushroom tea because the SCOBY can look like a mushroom cap. However, this is a misnomer and it is not brewed with or made with mushrooms.

It's definitely not seaweed inside this tub of still-fermenting, not-yet-ready kombucha. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

What it's most definitely not is seaweed.

While the name kombucha does refer to "seaweed tea" in Japanese, it appears to be a loanword applied incorrectly in English.

According to Hannah Crum, the founder of Kombucha Brewers International, in Japanese "kombu" can refer to a type of brown seaweed.

"We think that what happened is people saw the brown strands of yeast hanging off of the SCOBY [in kombucha], and it looks similar to that brown 'kombu,'" explained Crum, who is also known as the "Kombucha Mamma" and teaches courses on how to brew the fermented beverage.

A worker at Happy Belly Kombucha pulls up a live SCOBY (or mother) from a still-brewing batch of the fermented tea. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"And so when they called it kombucha, they were likening it to a product that maybe they'd had in the past because of the way it looked — even though it's not technically seaweed," said Crum.

Seaweed or not, it's big business

By some measures, global kombucha sales hit around $2 billion last year. Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have moved into the market.

Calgary-based company Happy Belly Kombucha sells the beverage in about 200 stores in Western Canada.

"The first time I heard of and tasted kombucha, it just knocked my socks off. I just couldn't get enough of this beverage," said Happy Belly co-owner Victoria Lundgard, who first sampled the fermented tea at a holistic health conference in the United States.

Victoria and husband Chas initially started making kombucha at home less than a decade ago but found it to be so popular in their community they launched a business.

"Once we started brewing it and our friends and family told us how amazing this tasted, that's kind of when we decided that we were going to go to the commercial side of things," said Chas.

A selection of Happy Belly Kombucha — after the SCOBY has been filtered out. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

This pattern is part of how kombucha hit billions of dollars in sales. It started to gain traction in smaller community groups, often populated with the types of people who shop at farmers' markets or health-food stores or — yes, who go to holistic health conferences.

However, about 10 years ago, it hit the mainstream after new scientific research got underway — the Human Microbiome Project. According to "Kombucha Mamma" Hannah Crum, the research into how gut bacteria and flora affect human health drove new interest into probiotic foods such as yogurt and kombucha.

"I think we started to really see commercially, the number of brewers increase … as more people understood how important it is that we have a healthy microbiome," said Crum.

Proponents of products like kombucha claim consuming it can promote healthy bacteria in your gut and personal microbiome.

Big business appropriating health

Giant beverage companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi could be moving into the kombucha market because of these alleged health benefits.

Many consumers say they are looking for healthier choices but existing brand biases mean they may not turn to a well-known sugary drink provider when they open the cooler. And rebranding as Crystal Pepsi isn't always enough to convince buyers you are offering something different.

"It makes total sense for Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to want to capture all of the growth in demand for kombucha," said Yann Cornil, an expert in food marketing at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

PepsiCo's KeVita does not mention Pepsi in much of its branding. (Screenshot/kevita.com)

Cornil and other experts confirm big beverage companies are taking a page out of the beer playbook, where large multi-national breweries try to disguise their products to look like a smaller, craft drink.

"So the smart people at Pepsi and Coke will recognize that consumers want to buy kombucha that doesn't look like Pepsi … they'll use a different brand," explained Simon Somogyi, Arrell Chair in the Business of Food at the University of Guelph.

"They're going to make it look artisanal, niche, high quality to be able to get … to the consumer that's going to be turned off by a Coke."

Currently, PepsiCo's brand of kombucha is marketed as KeVita. Coca-Cola's brand is known as MOJO in Australia, though it is not yet for sale in Canada.


Written and produced by Anis Heydari.

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