“That’s when I realized that kombucha was meant to be an alcoholic product,” Moses recalls. And after about 18 months, he is now the founder and CEO of Flying Embers, a range of organic hard kombucha with 4.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) that comes in flavors like Lemon Orchard and Ancient Berry. Flying Embers kicked off with sales in California but earlier this year expanded distribution to New York, New England, and Washington State.
Flying Embers is the latest twist on the trend of taking popular nonalcoholic beverages and making them alcoholic. There have been “hard” variations of apple juice, iced tea, soda, and seltzer, and now kombucha is joining the group. U.S. retail sales for the hard kombucha category soared 126% to $11.6 million for the 52-week period ended Aug. 10, according to data tracked by Nielsen.
“Hard kombucha has a lot of opportunity to grow,” says Caitlyn Battaglia, manager of the beverage alcohol practice at Nielsen. “Nonalcoholic kombucha caught the tailwind of the health and wellness trend that we’ve seen across consumer packaged goods. It is evolving, and part of that is this hard kombucha trend.”
Beyond benefiting from the ever-so-popular health and wellness halo, hard kombucha offers consumers lower calories, new flavors not often seen in the beverage category, as well as a distinctively new way to drink alcohol. Hard kombucha drinkers tend to be millennials, and according to many top brands, more women drink it than men.
Flavor combinations often come in a duo aimed at two different audiences. Flavors like hibiscus, ginger, lavender, and goji are meant for the hard-core, nonalcoholic kombucha drinker who is willing to try an alcoholic variation. Lemon, lime, and berry, meanwhile, are more approachable and meant to lure in a broader group of drinkers.
“We want to bring the strength of kombucha but make it less tip-of-the-spear wellness, because that’s scary to some people,” says Chelsea Phillips, vice president of marketing for Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Beyond Beer brands, which includes Kombrewcha. “We want to be the hard kombucha of the people.”
The category remains tiny considering the total beer market is worth $114 billion, but with hard seltzers nearing the $1 billion mark, kombucha has a real chance to break out. Still, there should be a note of caution when ascertaining the trajectory of hard kombucha’s growth. Hard sodas proved to be a very quick fad. And in a tasting of several top hard-kombucha brands, this Fortune writer wasn’t convinced many consumers would want to drink more than one in a sitting.
“Hard soda was too sweet—it was gone as fast as it started,” says Phillips. Conversely, hard kombucha contains natural ingredients, lower sugar and calories, and probiotics. Those elements are all more on trend with what consumers want from their drinks today.
Phillips agreed with me that hard kombucha isn’t meant for an extended period of drinking. With fuller flavors, AB InBev sees Kombrewcha as the perfect midweek, post-work drink.
Many of the emerging kombucha brands are California-based, and thus far, most sales are focused in coastal states like California and New York. Brewers are starting to expand the category to other markets, with AB InBev adding Kombrewcha to retail shelves in the Pacific Northwest and Colorado. Flying Embers started as a local Southern California brand but now is sold in 40 states and works with over 70 distributors.
And while three hard-seltzer brands—White Claw, Truly Hard Seltzer, and Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer—have already gobbled up 90% of the market share, there is no corresponding dominance in hard kombucha. That gives emerging startup brands like the family-run Boochcraft a chance to shine.
Boston Beer has also jumped in with the creation of Tura hard kombucha. Though mostly known for the its core Sam Adams beer brand, Boston Beer has had success expanding into categories beyond traditional beer, including Truly Hard Seltzer and Angry Orchard Hard Cider.
“We tend to see people who are already drinking kombucha go toward Tura,” says Annette Fritsch, senior director of product development for Tura. Unlike some competitors that are aiming to go national quickly, Tura is for now keenly focused on markets like New York, California, and the Pacific Northwest, where nonalcoholic kombucha is most popular and where Tura believes it can convert drinkers to the hard version.
Like many hard kombuchas, Tura has a relatively low ABV of 4%. Hard kombuchas are being sold as easy to drink during the day and as part of the lower-alcohol trend taking place across the beer, spirits, and wine categories.
And while many brands have been aggressively marketing their alcoholic beverages as potential “wellness” drinks, some experts aren’t buying it. For decades, the medical community has studied the effects of alcohol on the human body, and, well, results are generally mixed. Hard kombucha brands are somewhat on the fence: They’ve steered clear of making many overt health claims, though industry insiders are quick to note that their beverages do align with the broader wellness movement.
“People looking for healthier options are looking at the quality of calories, and that’s where our beverage comes into play,” says Boochcraft cofounder Adam Hiner. “You are still drinking alcohol, but along with your alcohol, you are getting the best possible ingredients and probiotics from the kombucha base.”
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