By Olivia Hewitt and Jack Wright

Kombucha is one of the fastest-growing niches in the U.S. beverage market, reflecting consumers’ search for healthier choices instead of soda and sugary drinks.

Virginia is home to at least seven kombucha breweries. And bottles of the drink are showing up at Rockbridge area restaurants and stores such as Blue Phoenix, Cattleman’s Market, and even CVS sells bottles.

Kombucha is a fermented health drink made from water, tea leaves, sugar and SCOBY, an acronym for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. It is known for its probiotic benefits. The carbonated tea is a bitter cousin of beer and is usually less than one percent alcohol.

A study in Food Science and Food Safety, a Chicago-based journal, said kombucha can have some health benefits, such as supporting immune health. The drink remains largely unregulated and there is no consistent agreement on its health advantages. But consumers are drinking more of it because “sugary sodas are on the decline and alternatives that are healthier are on the rise,” said Kate Zuckerman, owner of Blue Ridge Bucha in Waynesboro, Va.

Some of the top soft drink companies have taken notice. PepsiCo bought Kevita Master Brew Kombucha in 2016 and Coca-Cola bought Australian brand Mojo Kombucha earlier this year.

“When you see the big corporations out there buying kombucha brands, then you know there’s an impact,” said Brad Procak, owner of Tha Best Kombucha out of Floyd, Va.

Micro Market Monitor, a Maharashtra, India-based firm that studies niche markets, estimates that the global kombucha market will reach $2 billion by 2020, up from $600 million in 2015.

To be sure, the kombucha market is tiny compared to the $540 billion global soda market, the 2016 estimate by the San Francisco-based firm, Grand View Research.

Still, local kombucha brewers, such as Peter Roderick, owner of Mountain Culture Kombucha, had to buy more equipment soon after he began selling kegs at farmers markets in 2012. Based in White Hall, Va., Mountain Culture is sold in more than 130 stores in Virginia and nearby states. “It’s been a whirlwind the last six years,” Roderick said.

Only 30 other kombucha companies initially competed with Mountain Culture. Kombucha Brewers International, a leading industry group, now represents more than 180 companies, up 40 percent since 2017.

He welcomes the thriving competition: “More people are aware of it now.”

There are now over 10 brands that market their products across the country. Some of the largest companies in the market include GT’s Kombucha Company, Reed’s Inc., Live Soda Kombucha and Kombucha Wonder Drink.

Waynesboro owner Zuckerman said she likes to see national brands on the Virginia shelves. “We don’t see them as competition, we see them as partners,” she said. Big brands “allows smaller businesses to be great, local high-quality small batch alternatives.”

Zuckerman sells to more than 80 retailers in the regional area.

Some local kombucha breweries are adding their own tap rooms where consumers can sample fresh kombucha.

Zuckerman’s Blue Ridge Bucha opened one in June, while Mountain Culture plans on opening one in the next two years.

“We’ll have a place people can come to,” said Roderick, of Mountain Culture, said. “Maybe do cocktails, that’s still in the early stages of development.”

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