Hannah Crum is President and Co-Founder of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), the non-profit trade association for kombucha producers around the world. KBI strives to promote, protect and enhance the overall well-being of the industry by creating an open line of communication between brewers and advancing this industry through advocacy, education, research, and modern legislation. Kombucha Brewers International European Salon 2023 took place from October 19 to 21 in Caldes de Montbui (Barcelona).

hannah crumb
Hannah Crum and Oriol Urrutia at the Kombucha Brewers International European Salon 2023

What is Kombucha Brewers International?

Kombucha Brewers International is a trade association for commercial kombucha producers around the world. It’s an outgrowth of our mission at Kombucha Kamp of «changing the world, one gut at a time.»

I started Kombucha Kamp in 2004 in my home in Los Angeles as a way to teach people about kombucha. I had fallen in love with her. My thirst outgrew my budget, and that’s how I knew I had to start making it at home. When I started researching kombucha, I found a lot of misinformation, a lot of information that didn’t add up with my experience of kombucha, and I wanted to put authentic information in the world.

So, I decided to teach workshops that grew into a website, a blog, that then grew into an online store in 2010. When I had been blogging in 2007, I started collecting all the brands that were brewing kombucha because I love it so much. And I started by drinking a commercial brand. I wanted to know everybody who was brewing kombucha.

Who is part of the organization?

Kombucha Brewers International consists of over 100 commercial kombucha brands from around the world. We started our organization in 2014. We’re almost ten years old, and we started by bringing people together.

«We advocate for self-regulation from within the sector»

There are trace amounts of alcohol produced in the kombucha fermentation process and because there’s different alcohol taxation thresholds in different parts of the world, in the U.S., it’s only 0.5%, so, when it was discovered that there might be a little bit more than that in the bottle, it became an issue in the US. We were formed in a crisis. The crisis took place in 2010, but it took us a few years to actually come together. Since we formed, we’ve then tackled this issue head on.

So, for example, we’ve as we worked with an international standards setting organization (AOAC) to research authentic methods for testing ethanol in kombucha. We discovered that some of the methods used for beer and wine, while they’re very good for high alcohol beverages, they didn’t apply to kombucha, which is naturally lower in alcohol. So, it could have been at the time when they were testing those kombuchas that maybe they had inaccurate results that were skewing too high. But that was one of the things we started to put in place.

Another thing that we did was to bring all the producers together to work together. We initiated a legislation in the United States to change the taxation threshold for alcohol in kombucha alone, not for all beverages, to 1.25%, which is very close to the 1.2% here in Europe.

«What is important is that the kombucha is fermented. Our stance is ‘There is a kombucha for everyone’»

In Europe there is a lack of legislation regarding what is kombucha and what it is not. So, what is kombucha?

It’s fermented tea. We know wine is fermented grapes. Sauerkraut is fermented lettuce or cabbage, and kombucha is a fermentation of tea and sugar.

However, unlike sauerkraut, where you’re just letting the salt on the leaves and the natural wild yeast fermenting, with kombucha, we use what we call a mother or SCOBY, and that’s our sort of our starter culture, it looks very similar to a mother of vinegar.

For kombucha, it must be fermented. But we have three seal designations: not from concentrate, from concentrate and pasteurized.

From concentrate are those brands which are using a kombucha beverage base. So, these are manufacturers that are creating a long fermentation to the point where it’s a vinegar and then you have to dilute it with water add flavour and sweetness.

And then we also have kombucha in the market that are pasteurized. However, our term pasteurized also includes things like sterile filtration or adding chemical pasteurizers (chemicals that will kill the microbes). So really, it’s any process that’s going to stop the culture from being able to reproduce and therefore make a shelf stable product.

And what about some brands that are adding so much gas?

The challenge is you’re taking a traditional fermentation out of a small batch that creates effervescence. You have people who’ve grown up with soda, which is a fake fermented drink. They imitate fermented drinks: they put fake gas and fake acids in, and there’s no nutritional value. Customers have an expectation of it always being fizzy. And so, this is where we see brands adding carbonation in order to have that consistent experience to the consumer.

These companies are able to be a member of the Kombucha Brewers International?

Of course, because what is important is that the kombucha is fermented. Our stance is «There is a kombucha for everyone».

A member of the Kombucha Brewers International can be anyone who makes a commercial kombucha. The reason there’s a kombucha for everyone and why we can be process agnostic is with radical transparency. We know there’s a lot of kombuchas in the marketplace that aren’t being honest. They’re not telling the truth on their label about their process. They’re not indicating if it’s pasteurized or from concentrate. So, part of what the seal program is here to do is to give retailers, consumers, distributors, and ultimately to give companies a way to demonstrate they follow the Kombucha Code of Practice, and they label their product correctly according to these standards.

«Part of what the seal program is here to do is to give retailers, consumers, distributors, and companies a way to demonstrate they follow the Kombucha Code of Practice»

Does a kombucha business need any kind of control or regulation?

We advocate for self-regulation from within the sector. And so not everybody’s going to agree with that right away. We know it’s going to take time. But as we educate consumers and the public about kombucha and why you want to find that seal, we then expect that those brands that maybe don’t want to be so transparent right now will start to come into a line.

What three certification seals do you propose?

Basically, we use the same terms of art we see for juice: not from concentrate, from concentrate and pasteurized. When a consumer goes into a store and they see juice and they see these labels, they instantly understand.

Not from concentrate might be more expensive because it’s raw, and it has a shorter shelf life, so I might pay more and I have to drink it quickly. However, there may be more of a nutritional benefit.

A pasteurized kombucha: I can put this in my backpack. It’s not going to spoil. It’s not going to get gross. I can take it on a trip. I can do all these different things with it. It’s very portable.

And from concentrate, same thing, except maybe you’re not going to pay as much because it’s been through another type of process.

Kombucha Brewers International is open for all. And kombucha has no need to be organic.

That is correct. However, we know that most brands that are wanting to produce kombucha is because they care about their customers. They care about the world. And you know, we live in a world that’s a little upside down where we have to pay extra to prove we’re not poisoning people. It makes no sense. And a lot of brands might use organic ingredients, but to go that extra step and get the certification sometimes might take some time for them to do that. But I truly believe most kombucha producers now, I can’t speak for all of them, especially when they get larger and they want to save money and cut corners, they might not use organic ingredients. But there’s a very strong contingency that are dedicated to organic ingredients.

«Most brands that are wanting to produce kombucha is because they care about their customers. There’s a very strong contingency that are dedicated to organic ingredients»

Kombucha Brewers International European Salon 2023: What is being cooked here?

I would say we have about ten countries and we really have about 20 people. And while it’s small and intimate, these are passionate people who care about making a difference. And there’s a saying «never underestimate what a small group of dedicated people, the type of change they can create». And so that’s who’s here, these are change-makers.

What other events do you organize?

KombuchaKon is our flagship event we hold in the United States. And we do that every year. It’s been in California for the last ten years because that’s where we’re based, though we are looking to start to move it to different cities in the United States, different parts of the U.S. But California is the state that produces the most amount of kombucha in the world by volume.

And also, is where the modern pioneers of kombucha are placed.

Exactly. It’s where the industry was started. GT Dave was the first person who put it in a bottle to sell it in 1995, and he still he has the largest market share and he’s the largest brand, and all of his kombuchas are made in Southern California. He’s a founding member of the association and he’s been a member the entire time.

The pandemic has changed business models, it’s changed what capital is available, how consumers purchase products. So, we’re in a massive amount of transformation. And when people are worried about the bottom line, they lose sight of the big picture. We’re just like anyone else trying to survive in these challenging times.

«While we don’t teach you how to brew kombucha, we have a lot of information on the processes on how you get set up»

If I’m an entrepreneur and I want to start selling my own kombucha, is a good choice to approach you?

We have a very rich member library because we’ve been doing this for ten years. We have a whole library of webinars, PDFs… So, while we don’t teach you how to brew kombucha, because there’s so many different ways, we have a lot of information on the processes on how you get set up, on how to navigate challenges when they arise.

Even if your company is not open, we have what we call a «brewer in process» membership. So, let’s say you’re just exploring, and you want to understand better. That’s a great way to dive into the information, get a lot of details and start your business plan from there.

When are you coming back to Europe?

We don’t have a new date yet, but I hope I to return every year.

Author: Oriol Urrutia, Co-Editor & Political Scientist

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