Is it a beer? Is it a wine? No, it’s actually a fermented tea…but its amazing properties will make you feel like a superman/ woman. Join us as we further define kombucha and ask interesting questions to the founder of Real Kombucha, David Begg, who has some exclusive news for us too!
What’s all the fuss about Real Kombucha?
Why does it have its own little thing going on, with dedicated followers and widespread adoption in the fine dining industry? We believe it comes down to the sophisticated depth of flavour, which means that it pairs well, and the carefully designed brewing process, which involves only a few natural ingredients, making the drink quaffable in quantity.
Why is it so appealing to the non drinking crowd?
Apart from the reasons above, it does sound quite cool…“Yes, I would like some Real Kombucha, rather than some unspecified brand/ drink doing an imitation of a spirit or a beer”…is what most hipster-type folk might think. Basically, it’s got it’s own little thing going on because it IS it’s own little thing. It’s a fermented tea! This means it is made by using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast aka a SCOBY. Some people rather affectionately call this SCOBY a mother, while other people like to call it a mushroom.
Calling the weird gelatinous creator of fermented, negligibly alcoholic, lightly effervescent, sweetened black or green tea, a fungus or mushroom is actually misleading though. To use accurate scientific terms, the SCOBY is “a symbiotic growth of acetic acid bacteria and osmophilic yeast species in a zoogleal mat“. Thanks Wikipedia! But because that’s an awfully big mouthful, it naturally has more simplified names…
Some of our favourites include…
Cajnij, kargasok, spumonto, hongo, wunderpilz and teekwass. Because none of these sound very appealing, we can understand why the West settled on kombucha. But, out of the 80 names worldwide, where did kombucha come from? Well, the etymology is slightly uncertain, but it looks like it’s a mistranslation from Japanese. In fact, it’s not even a mistranslation, as kombucha in Japanese means kelp tea, which is a very different drink. Fungus tea in Japanese tea is actually kocha kinoko. Knowing us Western folk we probably thought we’d steal it and swap the names to make it more palatable. Or, more likely, it was an accident born out of ignorance. Whatever the case, if it gets that sweet booch into our lives, who’s complaining? And yes, booch is the current popular short hand name for U.K. devotees.
Blessed are the non-alcoholic drinkers for they shall inherit the earth
Being made of living bacteria, the SCOBY is able to grow and create tea like some beautiful alien matriarch. Although it’s not very beautiful itself, resembling a kind of bizarre flattened creme caramel, there is a beauty to its output and a healthy beauty at that. The drink is probiotic AKA it’s good for your little tummy and each drink is only 59 calories or so! When do we stop winning?
Not any time soon, as not only does Real Kombucha have the ability to taste like champagne, or a light natural cider, it also has the ability to taste like kombucha and to be enjoyed for being what it is – a funky little fermented drink with sophisticated flavours that you can drink in abundance.
Ok so let’s begin the Real Talk with Real Kombucha founder, David Begg, who kindly answered our questions…
“Why do you think people are more health-conscious these days?”
“I think there are a number of reasons, not least the fact that we’re able to understand in more depth the effect that the food we eat has on our bodies. Essentially, consumers are far more conscious these days, whether you’re talking about food or drink. People are demanding an understanding of the quality of ingredients, their source and traceability, as well as the production methods involved in all the food and drink they put in their bodies. Once upon a time we would buy our food from a shop in the village supplied by farmers within a 10 mile radius. We now ship produce and product around the world, so we need a way to be sure by the time it enters our bodies it is doing us good not harm.”
“Why do you think the youth are less inclined to drink alcohol these days?”
“Whether it’s through a behavioural change brought on by social media, or simply that we’re paying heed to the science around us and evolving, people are simply less interested in the big boozy night out. Sure, people still enjoy a session from time to time, but there’s a lot more emphasis on enjoying life in the moment. That’s certainly not what happened in my day, when a lot of weekends were spent waiting for the hangover to clear before the enjoyment started!
It’s worth pointing out that it’s not just ‘the youth’, either. While somewhere around 30% of young adults now say they’re teetotal, we’re seeing change across the generations. At Real Kombucha, we refer to this as the rise of the Modern Drinker. These are people who don’t follow the old trends. They’re looking for quality, but they’re really looking for choice.
If you look at the way that restaurants cater to the Modern Consumer, it’s all about choice. It’s not so long ago that the vegetarian option was the afterthought at the bottom of the menu, whereas these days I will often be halfway through my main dish before I realise that I have ordered a vegetarian or a vegan dish. We’re trying to encourage and empower the same thing in British pubs, where your choice is often limited to alcohol or something sugary and served with a straw. It’s that behavioural change on the part of the pub and the consumer that we’re really interested in.”
“What do you think are the major influences that affect our drinking habits?”
“If you’re talking about habits specifically, I think traditionally, and fairly consistently, peer pressure is probably one of the biggest drivers. I heard a great quote recently that said, “Alcohol is the only drug we have to apologise for not taking”, which is absolutely true. It amazes me that you can walk into a pub in 2018 and still hear people being teased and goaded for ordering a soft drink.
It’s also habitual, of course. You don’t necessarily need an outside influence to drink. It becomes part of your daily routine. When we say we want to change the way people drink, this is what we’re talking about. We’re not anti-alcohol – we just recognise that people want options. They want to be able to arrive home and pour a glass of something that has a complex, adult-oriented flavour; something that stimulates and maintains interest. When you decide to put down the wine bottle, for whatever reason, what choices do you have? That’s where a glass of really top-notch kombucha becomes very interesting indeed.”
“The British identity is quite bound up with heavy/ binge drinking. What are your predictions for how this identity will change in the near and far future?”
I think it’s already changing. As you’ve said yourself, ‘the youth’ don’t necessarily think in those terms anymore.
I think change is going to be driven by the main trends I talked about above. Alcohol is no longer going to be the prime driver of all social occasions. As meat is no longer a necessary component of every savoury dish, alcohol will be a choice rather than a necessity in our adult drinks choices.
I expect restaurant and bar menus to list a whole great range of drinks from full alcohol, to low ABV to non-alcoholic serves. Alcohol will be noted almost as a health warning, just like having three chillis on a dish says beware. But that range will not be full of sugary kids-focused soft drinks, but proper adult serves that just happen to be non-alcoholic.
And this could change the face of the Great British Pub. We have already seen great food becoming one of the prime drivers of success in modern pubs. Once pubs serve the Modern British Drinker with the choice they are looking for, the pub may once again be the hub of the local community, morning, noon and night.
But it is choice, not abstinence, that the Modern British Drinker is looking for. There are plenty of occasions that call for a really good session, but others where you just don’t want to drink alcohol at all. But more times you will find yourself flitting back and forth between a great craft beer, a beautifully crafted Real Kombucha and that stunning single malt to end the day. The difference is you will still be able to appreciate the flavour of that Islay at the end of the evening.
“You say you are part of the alcohol-free movement and that you are ‘really keen to change the way that people drink’ – what motivates you to shape people’s behaviour in this way?”
“I rarely drink, and the other members of our founding team are either completely teetotal or fairly health-conscious individuals. They’re not evangelical or boring about it – each to their own, absolutely. However, it means we know how dull it can be going out for a meal or into a pub and finding that your choices are limited to juice, sugary soft drinks or water. It’s not exactly a recipe for a great night out! So we’re motivated by the fact that we are creating an amazing-tasting drink that we want everyone to enjoy – we truly believe we’re offering the finest in in non-alcoholic fermentation – but also by the fact that we can reinvigorate things for non-drinkers who are ready to give up the tomato juice!”
“How did you get started with Real Kombucha?”
“I first tried kombucha when a great friend of mine passed me a glass of his home brew across the table over dinner. It was absolutely love at first sip. I couldn’t believe that his full flavoured brew was non-alcoholic. He and his wife had created a fantastic meal of salt cod, and the delicate smokey flavours of the kombucha really lifted the dish.
I had (almost) given up alcohol a couple of years previously. It wasn’t for any particular reason apart from it just seemed to be slowing me down. I would wake up in the morning, even after a single glass of wine, and feel a bit crap. As my wife is French, and her family is equally split between Burgundy and Bordeaux, we have always had some great wines in the house. But since being off the alcohol there was a really big hole in my foodie life. Water just doesn’t cut it with a great meal.
So Howard gave me some kombucha culture to try brewing my own, and my obsession commenced.
My first brew was quite serendipitous: we had been in India a couple of years before with the kids, and bought some great teas in Munnar in Kerala. Without really knowing much about tea at the time, I dropped some Silver Needle tea, one of the most exquisite (and expensive) teas in the world, into the brew pot. And after a week or so I got the most amazing flavours of rose and vanilla coming from the brew. And this was compared to the delicate caramel, apple and almond that had been the main flavours in Howard’s original oolong/black blend that I had tasted.
After those first few brews, I started a long process of experimentation. As my wife will attest, when I get into something I go quite deep! Tea, as it transpires, is as complex and as fascinating a world as wine. And every tea I tried gave really unimaginably different notes: even more complexity than you get from the fermentation of grapes or grain. Depending upon the teas used and the process followed, you can develop floral flavours of rose, lavender or mock orange. Fruit flavours can vary as broadly as pineapple, quince, apple, rhubarb and even banana. And you can develop smokey, spicy, and milky back notes. One of the most interesting we have in our back catalogue has extreme medicinal flavours, but I am not sure the market is ready for this quite yet.
We have to date experimented with around 150 different teas. We work with an incredible tea master, Will Battle who wrote The World Atlas of Tea, to identify and source our teas. He has introduced us to an enormous variety of teas and educated both our brains and our taste buds. Many of the resulting brews were horrible, but we also have a big back catalogue of brews that we will launch steadily over time.
But ultimately we were looking for a range of brews that would complement each other, and fit well across the different drinking occasions. Our Royal Flush is effectively our champagne, or full bodied white wine, Dry Dragon is our Sauvignon Blanc from a food pairing perspective, and our Smoke House pairs with similar foods to a medium red wine, but also serves as a beer on a warm summer evening in a country beer garden.”
“When did you first believe that Real Kombucha was going to work, i.e. be a popular product?”
Within Real Kombucha there are two clear defining moments: sitting across the table and tasting our first brew of a First Flush Darjeeling tea that became our Royal Flush. The flavour was spot on and really quite a revaluation at the time. The other moment was meeting Melania, the Sommelier at The Fat Duck, in late 2017. She gave us the confidence to really believe in the quality of our product.
“As the founder, what kind of future do you see for Real Kombucha?”
We will shortly be announcing two partnerships with important pub chains. To date we have been working primarily with very top-end restaurants, hotels and bars across the country. But working with pub chains gives us the opportunity to gain visibility across a much broader customer base.
Real Kombucha is a relatively new product in the UK market and we are unique with a focus on the on-trade as a non-alcoholic replacement for prosecco, sparkling wines and champagne. That gives us an enormous opportunity to change the way consumers are drinking but also gives us substantial challenges.
We are working closely with both of the pub chains to develop a very clear communication, training and activation programme. It is a big project to train all the bar staff, and communicate to and sample with hundreds of thousands of customers.
This is challenging but enormously rewarding. The Great British Pub has had quite a battering in recent years, and one part of this has been the fact that it doesn’t provide a compelling offer for health conscious and non-drinking customers. If we can be part of a revolution that puts the pub back in the centre of the local community, whether you are drinking or not, it will be a great success.
To find out more about the trend for drinking less, take a look at our no and low ABV drinks review here.