Boasting a variety of brands and flavors, kombucha—the probiotic-rich “brew” made by fermenting sweet tea—is likely to soon rival craft beer and, eventually, the slumping soda category.
Offered with alcohol or as a soft drink typically in glass bottles, kombucha is currently a tiny segment of the beverage market, but it is seeing tremendous growth. In 2017, the global kombucha market generated $1.5 billion in sales, according to research firm Mordor Intelligence, and is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 23% over the next five years.
In comparison, the $80 billion canned soda category has shrunk by 3% compound annualized over the last five years, according to Mordor. Overall U.S. beer sales were down 1% in 2017, according to the Brewers Association.
Molson Coors clearly sees potential in the nascent category, having announced the acquisition of Fairfield, California-based Clearly Kombucha on June 8, making it the first alcohol strategic to stake claim in this space.
Anheuser-Busch InBev may be next, according to both Matt Thomas, founder of Portland, Oregon-based Brew Dr. Kombucha; and GT Dave, founder of Los Angeles-based GT’s Living Foods (formerly GT’s Kombucha).
In 2016, AB InBev’s venture arm, ZX Ventures, acquired New York-based Kombrewcha, which now only offers alcoholic kombucha. Kombucha is naturally alcoholic—and naturally carbonated—due to the fermentation process. Soft drink kombucha requires siphoning off alcohol content after fermentation.
Kombucha is the first better-for-you option in the alcohol space, says Tom First with Castanea Partners, an investor in Brew Dr. In June, Brew Dr. became the first major brand to launch kombucha in 12-ounce aluminum cans.
“I think (kombucha) will be a multi-billion-dollar category that will do well for the foreseeable future,” says First, noting it is fizzy, low in calories and gut-healthy, all on-trend traits.
Mark Rampolla, with Los Angeles-based PowerPlant Ventures—an investor in plant-based foods like Beyond Meat—said he prefers kombucha in bars. “I want it on-tap because sometimes I don’t want to drink,” he says. “There is something about the ritual of beer or wine or cocktails that I think kombucha kind of substitutes.”
Trey Lockerbie, founder of soft drink Better Booch, says the company is investing heavily in its keg business, its fastest-growing revenue channel.
While kombucha sales are currently strongest in California and New York, according to these CEOs, interest will broaden to Middle America soon.
Originally an ancient Japanese home brew, kombucha was introduced to the retail market by GT’s Living Foods in 2005. Today, the industry pioneer estimates it owns 55% of the US market, says CEO GT Dave.
No. 2 in market share is PepsiCo’s KeVita. Vying for No. 3 are Los Angeles-based Health-Ade—which has an investment from Coca-Cola’s venture arm—Brew Dr. and Bend, Oregon-based Humm Kombucha, according to Mike Burgmaier with Whipstitch Capital.
While alcohol strategic investors are beginning to make moves, soft beverage giants are clearly leading the M&A drive in this space. Eventually, beverage and beer giants alike will want three or four kombucha brands in their portfolios. “Each brand will be a little different,” Burgmaier says, noting variations in production and ingredients yield different flavors and textures.
Health-Ade, for example, adds cold-pressed citrus juice to temper kombucha’s natural vinegar taste. Brew Dr. has a purist approach, adding only herbs and botanicals.
Revive Kombucha—with a 2017 investment from Peet’s Coffee—prides itself on “gateway” flavors like Original Cola and Mocha Java Coffee, says CEO Sean Lovett.
As M&A interest increases, standout companies may sell for as much as 3x to 6x revenue, says Burgmaier. Pepsico’s purchase of KeVita in 2016 was valued at about 2.5x revenue, according to Mergermarket data.
AB InBev has the global reach, refrigerated transportation fleets, and fermented beverage experience to distribute kombucha globally, according to Dave and Thomas.
DanoneWave is also a synergistic suitor, they say, since yogurt is produced by the fermentation of milk. “They live in a close enough world where they understand our language,” says Dave.
China and Japan have the highest adoption rate of probiotics, according to Mordor Intelligence. But Dave says he “could not fathom” entering such complex markets without help.
To succeed, kombucha companies will need to turn “an art” into a replicable “dummy-proof” science, says Dave. The right strategic suitors will have the capability to get that done.