When I heard that the Wall Street Journal called 2018 “The Year of Fancy Water and Kombucha” I couldn’t say I was surprised. As the former owner of Mississippi’s first kombucha brewery, I’ve seen firsthand the rising popularity of the fermented drink in the most unlikely of places: the Deep South.
In a year of low supermarket sales, kombucha outperformed almost every other grocery category, rising 43 percent in 2018 for $400 million in sales. That’s nowhere near the market for bubbly water, which was worth $2 billion in sales in 2018, but it’s still significant. According to the consumer research firm Nielsen, drinks “must now be purpose-fulfilling, light and fizzy.”
I began brewing kombucha–a fermented, effervescent tea–in 2011 and continued fermenting, flavoring, and bottling the probiotic drink after I moved to Mississippi two years later. When I began selling kombucha at the farmers market in 2015, I got mixed feedback. “Is that beer?” customers asked, pointing to the amber glass bottles, a bewildered expression on their faces. “No,” I would say, “it’s kombucha. Kind of like a non-alcoholic craft beer, but made from tea.”
When I would offer samples, many people would politely decline or wrinkle their noses. But if they tried it, they were usually pleasantly surprised. “This is actually good,” they’d say.
The Southern beverage landscape is populated by the sweet and the ultra-sweet: sweet tea, Coke, and Kool-Aid. Kombucha is a much-needed alternative. It’s refreshing and tart and bubbly… and just a tad sweet. Like other cultured foods and drinks, kombucha contains live bacteria–probiotics–which aid digestion and improve overall gut health. Many consumers are looking for health conscious beverage options which are low in sugar but still offer a taste experience. Kombucha drinkers also find that the beverage’s sour flavor and light fizz actually curbs appetite and pleasantly increases energy.
But being part of a niche food industry in the South comes with its own set of challenges. While kombucha is already cliche in progressive cities like Denver, Colorado and Portland, Oregon, the Deep South is just now starting to fully enter the probiotic trend. Consumer education is the key to success for Southern fermentation start-ups who face resistance from customers who think kombucha is just overpriced soda, or more likely, have never even heard of it.
Fermentation entrepreneurs may encounter wary health department officials who are unfamiliar with fermentation and the concept of “good bacteria.” The Deep South is also more rural and less wealthy than other regions of the country. As a result, kombucha brewers may find that they have to rely heavily on wholesale customers (which means lower profit margins) to distribute products to a wider geographic area in order to compensate for lower population density.
Yet despite these challenges, kombucha is thriving in the Deep South. The breweries who have seen the most success are adaptable, creative, and collaborative. Big Easy ‘Bucha in New Orleans has captured the NOLA spirit with vibrant labels and catchy flavor names like “Voodoo Brew,” “Cajun Kick,” and “Geaux Green.” According to their website, they use local “juicy Ponchatoula strawberries, chicory coffee, and refreshing satsumas,” familiar ingredients which make their bottles feel approachable to new consumers.
In Atlanta, Golda Kombucha has opened Georgia’s “first kombucha bar and fermentation marketplace.” The kombucha taproom allows the company to test out new small batch flavors and get instant feedback from customers. For example, in January they rolled out a CBD-infused kombucha available only on tap. It was sold out within days.
And finally, Harvest Roots Ferments in Mentone, Alabama does kombucha and vegetable ferments. The company’s founders have used their extensive knowledge of native fruits and herbs to create unique flavors profiles. This year they collaborated with Birmingham’s Trimtab Brewing Co. on a limited release kombucha-inspired beer. The markets for kombucha and craft beer are complimentary–both are vying for those niche customers who are willing to pay more for quality. In smaller Southeastern markets, this kind of collaboration can only strengthen a brand’s reach.
When people think of the Deep South, they think of sweet tea and fried foods, but our regional palate is so much more complex. Southerners are gardeners, picklers, preservers, foragers. We value freshness and flavor. When kombucha brewers and other artisan food makers tap into the deep roots of this food culture, they can offer something new while still honoring old food traditions.
Here in Mississippi, I had great success infusing kombucha with muscadines, a beloved native fruit. I will be watching with anticipation as the fermentation trend continues to sweep across the South. But it’s also comforting to know that like most fermented foods, kombucha is an ancient beverage which will long outlast the shelf-life of a trend.
Lauren Rhoades is a foodie, educator, and writer. She owned and operated Mississippi’s first commercial kombucha brewery and fermentory from 2015 to 2018. She is a co-host of the Small Batch Podcast and a creative writing MFA candidate at the Mississippi University for Women.