St. Petersburg's Mother Kombucha enters Publix and Winn-Dixie as kombucha drinks go mainstream

Worker Eric Law of St. Petersburg's Mother Kombucha Brewery fills boxes with bottles, August 1, 2018. The business produces 7,500 twelve ounce bottles per day, five days a week. ( Scott Keeler | TIMES)
Worker Eric Law of St. Petersburg's Mother Kombucha Brewery fills boxes with bottles, August 1, 2018. The business produces 7,500 twelve ounce bottles per day, five days a week. ( Scott Keeler | TIMES)
Published Aug. 6, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Mother Kombucha's first brews were blended together inside a tiny commissary kitchen shared with Saturday morning market regulars.

"It was probably smaller than this room," said Joshua Rumschlag, as he surveyed the size of a quaint meeting space within his company's new brewery and office in north St. Pete.

Glass clanked across the hallway as workers clad in hair nets steadily packaged Mother Kombucha bottles flush with fermented tea.

Kombucha (pronounced kôm-boo-cha) is not new, but for centuries it was only brewed at home. In the 1990s, a U.S. company began to package and distribute it for the first time. And recently? The tart, probiotic hippie drink has gone mainstream.

Mother Kombucha is reaping the benefits as five of its flavors are now carried in more than 250 Publix stores from Ocala to Naples. They've also begun a roll out to 90 Southeastern Grocers and Winn-Dixie locations.

"I think kombucha continues to gain more popularity and it has since 2010," said Kombucha Brewers International president Hannah Crum.

Kombucha started making headway in supermarkets in 2016, she said, and it keeps growing.

Crum's trade association reports that the year over year growth of kombucha within the health food store channel is about 20 to 30 percent. But in the last two years, the growth in conventional grocery retail has been more than 50 percent.

In total, the association estimates the entire kombucha market to be worth about $1.5 billion, with projections to reach $2.2 billion in 2020.

Read more:What is kava? And why does St. Petersburg have so much of it?

A brewer adds a culture of bacteria or a "mother" and yeast to a mixture of tea and sugar to make the drink. The concoction is left to ferment for about 10 to 12 days as the culture breaks down the sugar and tea. What's left is kombucha, a naturally fizzy beverage high in antioxidants, amino acids and vitamin B12. Most brews contain only traces of alcohol, not enough to cause impairment or require people be over 21 to buy.

The co-founders of Mother Kombucha — Rumschlag, a herbalist and fermentologist, and Tonya Donati, a former occupational therapist — said they created recipes that enhance the drink's natural health benefits.

They add in herbal adaptogens — plants known to help the body such as elderberry, amla and saw palmette — as well as infuse citrus and fruit flavors. It keeps their drinks sweet and light.

Some kombucha tastes like vinegar. Others have loads of added sugar. Most of the Mother Kombucha line is around 35 calories and even with sweet flavors, such as "Hopped Passion Fruit" and "The Trop," is low in sugar.

Publix's addition of Mother Kombucha to its Lakeland region stores comes as it nearly doubles the brands of the fermented drinks it stocks in total. It added two other Florida companies' drinks, 221 BC Kombucha and One Kombucha, to its existing line of bigger name brews.

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The lineup is growing at Winn-Dixie, too, where more stores will soon have Mother Kombucha's lavender mojito flavor.

"We're always listening to our customers," said the chain's senior vice president Eddie Garcia, "and know they enjoy being able to purchase Mother Kombucha products in our stores."

Donati says the growth in chains is a sign consumers are getting familiar with the drink, rather than viewing it as an oddity.

"Honestly," she said, "our real competitors are soda companies."

Crum said that competition is why big beverage and beer companies have started buying out brewers or creating their own kombucha.

Read more: What's kava? And why does St. Petersburg have so much of it?

"What this trend indicates is that traditional beverage companies are losing market share," she said, "and they're looking to see what's emerging and disrupting the space."

PepsiCo bought KeVita in 2016. MillerCoors just bought Clearly Kombucha, a California company, in June. Trader Joe's has its own kombucha and so does Safeway.

Donati noticed a gap in the Tampa Bay market back in 2013. She knew cities like Austin and Portland had budding local kombucha craft brewers, so why not in her own city? She hooked up with a friend, Rumschlag, shortly after. The two set to work, selling their first products in 2014.

Rumschlag, who has a gluten allergy, loved having something to bring instead of beer to parties. Donati, with a passion for wellness, loved being able offer an alternative to sugary drinks.

At first, they were selling growlers and kegs to local shops and bars. When success heated up, they upgraded to bottles and moved to a 3,000-square-foot space. They just settled into a 13,000-square-foot brewery in an industrial strip on 28th Street N this May.

They now package about 7,500 bottles a day, five days a week. It's been a lot of growth in four years, but the mission has stayed the same:

"We want to make the world a healthier place," Donati said.

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Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.