Real Kombucha: The Interview
Suits & Startups speaks to David Begg, serial entrepreneur and founder of Real Kombucha, about ‘love at first sip’, experimenting with some of the world’s finest teas (150 no less!), why Real Kombucha isn’t like other soft drink kombuchas on the market, and why Real Kombucha is the brand that personifies him the most. We’re all for this great non-alcoholic champagne alternative leading the way and allowing people going dry to #rejointheparty!
S&S: It’s such a great idea to have Kombucha as an alcoholic beverage alternative. Tell us, what is Real Kombucha and how did you come up with the concept?
David: I first tried kombucha when a great friend of mine, Howard Napper, passed me a glass of his home brew across the table over dinner. It was absolutely love at first sip. I couldn’t believe that his full flavoured brew was non-alcoholic (or almost).
I had pretty much given up alcohol a couple of years previously. It wasn’t for any particular reason apart from it just seemed to be slowing me down. As my wife is French, and her family is equally split between Burgundy and Bordeaux, we have always had some great wines in the house. But since being off the alcohol there was a really big hole in my foodie life. Water just doesn’t cut it with a great meal.
My first brew was quite serendipitous: we had been in India a couple of years before with the kids, and bought some great teas in Munnar in Kerala. Without really knowing much about tea at the time, I dropped some Silver Needle tea, one of the most exquisite (and expensive) teas in the world, into the brew pot. And after a week or so I got the most amazing flavours of rose and vanilla coming from the brew. Tea, as it transpires, is as complex and as fascinating a world as wine.
We have, to date, experimented with around 150 different teas. We work with an incredible tea master, Will Battle, who wrote The World Atlas of Tea, to identify and source our teas. He has introduced us to an enormous variety of teas and educated both our brains and our taste buds.
I realised that there were a number of Kombucha brands already in existence in the US but nothing yet in the UK other than flavoured kombucha brands. This started my pursuit to develop fermentation at its finest: Real Kombucha.
S&S: For those not familiar with Kombucha, tell us a bit about the process and the flavours? How did you come up with the flavours? What is your favourite?
David: Kombucha is a natural fermentation of sweet tea. But, different to a beer or a wine that just uses yeast in its fermentation, kombucha is both a yeast and bacterial fermentation. So the yeast consumes the sugars to make alcohols and, at the same time and in the same vat, the bacterias consume the alcohols and convert them into acids. So you end up with a slightly tart, sparkling beverage, low in sugar but with the full fermented flavour you are more used to in a wine or a champagne.
It is very similar to the wine-making process, followed by the vinegar-making process, but all happening together in the same vessel.
Fermenting kombucha is a relatively slow process compared to, say, beer. Our fermentation can take anywhere from two to upwards of five weeks depending upon which brews we have on. Just like a wine, we will then condition our brews before they are ultimately bottled and ready to drink.
I don’t really have a favourite! That’s a bit like being asked which of your children you prefer! Most people, myself included, find that each of our kombuchas suit different drinking occasions, so I guess the answer to that question depends on what time of day it is.
S&S: How is your Kombucha different from others on the market?
David: There are two distinctly different kombucha markets developing in the UK. Those companies that are following the US trend of flavoured kombucha's are providing a great, lower sugar, healthier alternative to a soft drink. These drinks are generally flavoured with ginger, fruits and spices and fit well in the fridge in cafes and supermarkets. However, at Real Kombucha, all our flavour comes from the tea itself with no artificial flavourings or additives.
Brewers such as ourselves are focused on producing a high-quality alternative to an alcoholic beverage in the on-trade and at home. We are all about sophisticated, alcohol-like flavours that make you feel adult and special on a night out, or over a meal at home.
We think of Royal Flush as our full-bodied white wine or champagne. As it is fruity and bubbly it is a great replacement for champagne or prosecco as a celebration drink or as an aperitif. We brew it from First Flush Darjeeling, known in India as the Queen of Teas. The first two tips of the tea plant, picked as they emerge in the first bloom of spring, are dried carefully to tease out a character closer to a delicate white tea.
Our Dry Dragon works as a really dry Sauvignon Blanc – tart, with notes of grapefruit and lemon. We brew it out of Dragonwell pan-fried green tea from Zhejiang Province in China. The fresh leaves are wiped around a piping hot wok to stop the natural oxidation process early. Unlike Japanese green teas, steamed to give a distinct grassy flavour, Dragonwell reveals more complex nutty and straw-like flavours.
Smoke House is our most complex brew. Black teas tend to ferment to give notes of apple and caramel, but we have selected a Yunnan tea that has a delicate smokiness that comes through in the final ferment. The tea is grown in the high mountains of southern China by smaller, permaculture plantations. The growers climb the ancient, fully-grown trees to pick the finest leaves. As you can see, these teas go on a real journey.
S&S: How did you pick the people in your team? We recently spoke to a few founders about experience vs enthusiasm and willingness to learn, does this play a part in your recruitment process?
David: Our team has grown to 7 people organically, not through applications but through the enthusiasm of the people involved. We have hired friends and acquaintances who we trust and believe in, even if the job role wasn’t directly linked to their previous experience
S&S: You are famously quite a serial entrepreneur. What made you get into the food space?
David: I think kombucha is THE alternative to alcohol. I still haven’t found, and I have looked very hard, another beverage that adequately fills this space and I have spent a long time searching! There is an enormous rise in the adult soft drink market, but there are few (if any) that have a flavour profile like their alcoholic cousins, mainly because they are not fermented.
Saying that, it’s exciting how much room there is for development. In the near future, we’re looking at international growth. We are already shipping to Systembolaget in Sweden, but we have had approaches from across Europe to Dubai to India to Hong Kong. It’s a series of constant conversations, all of which are very exciting.
Of all the brands I have been part of, Real Kombucha personifies me the most. It’s almost like going full circle and encapsulating a combination of engineering (which is where I originally did my training), consumer business and branding.
S&S: What do you find the most exciting and challenging about startup life? What have been the best and worst moments?
David: So far, the biggest challenge has to be all the research and development we put in. Before we went to market we had almost two years of development, having moments where we doubted our ability to achieve the quality and consistency we were looking for. We stuck to our beliefs that we could create something of really high quality, like a fine wine, when all the while the market was taking kombucha down the flavoured soft drink route. It took some real self-belief to hold on during that period but we now have a product now that is worth all of the hard work.
S&S: As much as there are downsides health-wise, it seems to be a well-established norm to have alcohol play a large part in many corporate events/ socials, with alcohol even being an ‘enabler’ in some situations, in terms of getting conversations started and creating relationships. How is Real Kombucha helping to change the city drinking culture to realign with the trend towards reducing alcohol intake and healthy living?
David: There seem to be various effects colliding that are causing big changes in drinking habits across the country. There is a much greater awareness of both physical and mental health, which is changing people’s relationship with what they consume. This is particularly prevalent among the younger generation where teetotalism has reached almost 30%. If you are counting your calories, two pints of beer or two glasses of wine on an evening consumes around 20% of your daily calorific intake, so that is a lot less food you can subsequently consume.
But social habits are also changing – again, particularly among the young. Whereas the pub was the main social hub not that long ago (especially in the City), social media has now taken over that position, so alcohol is no longer so central to social interaction. And pressure on disposable income is also changing social and drinking habits. A shared bottle of wine each night can get quite expensive.
Brewers such as ourselves are also catalysts for change. A few years ago, if you walked into a pub, bar or restaurant, the only non-alcoholic option would have been a Coke, Fanta or a glass of water. This is changing rapidly. Although a very big fan of great wines and very partial to a shot of an Islay, I very seldom drink. In the pub I end up taking a beer, or a small glass of wine in a restaurant because the only other option is water or a kids’ soft drink. It’s not much fun for non-drinkers out there.
But what a change we have seen in the last couple of years! Hakkasan has recently launched an extensive non-alcoholic range to compete with its wine list. The Fat Duck now has its non-alcoholic flight, lead by our kombuchas, alongside its wine flight. And many pub groups are now approaching us as they develop properly sophisticated non-alcoholic lists in an attempt to attract back customers who don’t want the pressure to drink.
So we are inviting non-drinkers to “Rejoin the party” with Real Kombucha as a sophisticated non - alcoholic alternative, now stocked in over 900 outlets, including Fullers pubs. We are the first kombucha brand to be taken into a national pub chain, which is really exciting and definitely reflects the change in British drinking culture.
S&S: We couldn’t agree more - and will definitely be ordering some Real Kombucha on our next night out! Thank you, David!