• Dana Yatsenko

When Life Gives You Booze, Make Hard Kombucha

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

The story of the wellness alcohol category, born out of a scandal, that now wins millennials' hearts through Instagram.

Ten years ago, the US kombucha market got caught up in a scandal. The fermented probiotic beverage made of tea, bacteria and sugar, the cornerstone of the wellness drinks category, turned out to be more controversial than anyone ever thought it could.

Sometimes, the fermentation process doesn't stop completely. Bacterias continue the fermentation process in bottles, as long as they have nutrients, and the air temperature is high enough. As a result, the alcohol content in the drink is still rising slowly. When the US Department of Agriculture inspection tested some samples of kombucha they found on the shelves, they found out that it contains six times more than the 0.5% alcohol limit for alcohol-free products.

Some producers paid more efforts to keep the alcohol below the 0.5% threshold; the others decided to go all-in. They increased the percentage of naturally fermented alcohol to 4-8%, inventing hard kombucha to cut a market slice of beer and hard seltzers.

In the meantime, some college guys in San Diego were drinking traditional kombucha and joking about getting a healthy buzz if they drank enough 0.5% cans. They found out that beer is too bloaty, wine is too bottled, and cocktails are too boozy. Everybody wanted hard kombucha.

Hard kombucha taps into the wellness wave

The 2010s was the period when the healthy eating trend began to flourish. People increasingly made food and beverage choices based on their definitions of health, such as food described as natural, organic, high in protein, or functional.

The food industry reacted to the trend, offering cleaner and clearer labels, organic and "better for you" options, and new wellness-oriented entrants across all categories, all categories except alcoholic beverages. That's what our college guys from San Diego found out on the local grocery store's shelves. Their names were Greg Serrao and Forrest Dein.

“There was a sustainable, transparent product in every category — everything from toothpaste to deodorant to every type of food and beverage. But when it came to the alcohol space, there was a huge lack,” Dein said.

The consumer demand was growing for refreshing, low-calorie, high-quality alcohol that can be enjoyed guilt-free. The offer included hard seltzers with “natural” flavors, high in sugar ciders and stale concept of beer.

That’s where a wellness product made the crossover into alcohol. Hard kombucha, a totally new development in the realm of alcohol, was born to occupy a paradoxical better-for-you alcohol niche.

Meet JuneShine, California’s organic hard kombucha brewery

The kombucha, or or “booch” category is absolutely on fire — major brands diversify their products to take a moment. Coca-Cola added its first line of kombucha in 2018, and PepsiCo acquired KeVita, a producer of kombucha beverages.

Hard booch still represents only a small fraction of the $1.8 billion kombucha category. Still, its sales have grown from $1.7 million in 2017 to more than $12 million in 2019, and are expected to rise exponentially over the next five years.

In the US, hard kombucha space competing Full Sail Brewing, with its Kyla Kombucha line, Boochcraft, Flying Embers (from KeVita founder), and JuneShine.

Let’s get a closer look at JuneShine, which was created in the garage by Greg and Dein, two San Diego guys we’ve got to know just above. Only two years in the making, JuneShine, the organic hard kombucha brand, has closed a $5 million seed round in 2019 to purchase the original Ballast Point brewing facility in California with an annual capacity of 100,000 bbls. They opened the facility in June 2019 and are set to scale nationally in 2020.

With a purpose to brew honest alcohol, JuneShine hit the sweet spot of a sustainable, transparent and responsible booze brand:

  • You can find a list of pure organic ingredients on the back of their cans.

  • That’s a delicious alternative to beer for the gluten-sensitive.

  • To compete with the hard seltzers, JuneShine offers 100 calorie cans.

  • JuneShine taprooms are opening, putting hard kombucha into the realm of craft beer.

Source: https://juneshine.com/

The self-contradiction idea of wellness booze

Due to its dual nature of healthy kombucha & unhealthy alcohol melted together, hard kombucha brands can’t rest on its organic & sustainable laurels like any other brand with a robust social mission. The category itself raises feelings of doubt and suspicion.

Traditional kombucha is rich in beneficial probiotics and antioxidants that are good for your health. There’s the idea behind hard kombucha that you can get a buzz and boost your gut health at the same time. We don't exactly know what happens to those live bacteria when extra alcohol is added, but we know that probiotics don't like alcohol. The healthy bacteria in hard kombucha may not be able to withstand the higher alcohol content.

The other idea says that kombucha is the healthiest booze you can choose thanks to its organic ingredients and low amount of sugar. However, it’s the alcohol within alcohol products that’s the main risk to health. Regardless of the claims, the healthiest choice any of us can make is to reduce our drinking.

Putting a health halo on products that are fundamentally unhealthy, the industry is suspected of “green-washing” alcohol. What should the responsible hard kombucha brand answer to such claims?

Honesty is a superpower

It is not surprising, and perhaps wise, that most people are cynical about what they see marketed. But there is a way through this that helped JuneShine to rock. This way is radical honesty.

JuneShine’s mission is to produce honest alcohol for a healthier planet. Transparency helps not to deviate from that principle, keeping them consistent about what they did and why they did it.

Building value through honesty, JuneShine invests in showing what they believe in and what their product can truly do:

  • They donate 1% of all sales to 1% For The Planet.

  • They plant trees to replace those used to make our six-pack boxes.

  • Their brewery is 100% powered by renewable energy through SDG&E's EcoChoice.

  • They use 100% organic ingredients in their products.

  • They treat their wastewater before it goes back into the system.

  • They only use glassware in their breweries, no plasticware.

Deciding to be honest with consumers once, you consider every decision you make as a public decision. The most convenient and cheap modus operandi for a manufacturer is usually not the best for product quality and planet preservation. But having a community, you can’t afford to take action you won’t be proud to share with your community.

Instagram is a superpower too

Social media is the best way for kombucha companies to reach customers and prospects, and Instagram is by far the most popular marketing channel. JuneShine uses this channel masterfully. Their strategy goes beyond paying social media influencers for ads.

From the very beginning, Greg and Dein, being interested in sport and art, luckily had a group of close friends who happen to be badass athletes, artists, and creatives. They became the first JuneShine’s ambassadors. It marked the beginning of the JuneShine’s ambassador recruitment strategy.

Currently, the ambassador team includes 37 athletes, artists and changemakers that embody the brand’s cultural identity. They own a small piece of the business and promote it, being personally interested in the project’s growth. Booch News magazine has investigated the JuneShine’s ambassador strategy and consider it became the key to the project’s growth:

“The company themselves have 31,300 followers on Instagram and 2,321 on Facebook with no Twitter account listed on their website. The ambassadors have 1,730,645 Instagram followers in total between them. JuneShine’s social media footprint is greatly amplified (50x) by a bevy of brand ambassadors.” — Booch News magazine.