Kombucha—a fermented tea associated with gut health benefits—is as emblematic of the wellness world as grain bowls or leggings. It’s about as ubiquitous, too: There’s certainly no shortage of brands bottling the probiotic drink. At some stores, like Whole Foods, the coolers packed with kombucha take up an entire wall.
Yet while there’s a wide variance in flavors being offered—everything from blueberry basil to jalapeno kiwi—the diversity stops there. “The kombucha industry is a very white industry,” says Kemiko Lawrence, owner of Kemboocha. “When you have someone of color brewing kombucha, it’s almost like, ‘what?!’”
According to Food Navigator USA, the kombucha industry—which is worth $1.8 billion worldwide—is dominated by four brands, all white-owned: GT’s, Health-Ade, Humm Kombucha, and KeVita. These four giants account for 85 percent of kombucha sales in the U.S. While this isn’t pointed out to throw shade at these companies, it does show how little shelf-space is given to brands that aren’t white-owned.
“When there isn’t representation of people who look like you, it sends the message that you don’t belong—even if no one is outwardly saying it,” says Milan Durham, the founder of Cultured Kombucha. Several craft, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color)-owned kombucha brands are working to change that, and they’re using the beloved beverage to start a larger conversation about diversity in wellness.
Using ‘booch to broach a bigger wellness convo
Durham first encountered kombucha in 2014 while on a trip to Portland. “I love all things vinegar, so from [the] first taste, I was on board,” she says. Four years later when she heard about a local kombucha making class (she lives in Washington D.C.), she joined. “We would have these kombucha potlucks where everyone would bring kombucha they made. People really liked mine and kept telling me I should sell it,” she says.
At the time, Durham says she didn’t know of any BIPOC-owned kombucha brands. “People of color hadn’t quite warmed up to the kombucha space yet. I thought that if I could bring a different cultural swing to it, more people would give it a try,” she says. “Many people told me this was the first kombucha they tried. They heard it was good and saw someone who looked like them who was making it. That really excited me.”
Durham says her goal has always been to use her kombucha as a way to start conversations within the Black community about wellness. In the past, she’s collaborated with yoga studios and nutrition panels as a way to bring wellness to a wider audience. She also launched an initiative called Tiny Leaf, where her brand partners once a quarter with different BIPOC herbalists and tea brands. Durham says it’s also important for her to make kombucha more accessible, which is why she prioritizes making her product available at farmers’ markets that accept EBT SNAP as well as in stores.
“Many people told me this was the first kombucha they tried. They heard it was good and saw someone who looked like them who was making it.” — Milan Durham, Cultured Kombucha
Melinda Williamson, the founder of Morning Light Kombucha, is also using kombucha as a way to elevate causes beyond just kombucha itself. Williamson, who is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas, says giving back to Native American communities is built right into her brand mission. She works with local organic farmers to source her ingredients as a way to support and strengthen local food systems. Ten percent of her profits are also donated to Native American charities. “When I was first starting, some people told me to not make it political or bring awareness in these ways, but giving back and shining light on Native American issues is important to me,” she says.
What needs to change so BIPOC-owned kombucha brands can thrive
Lawrence, the founder of Kemboocha, has been making kombucha for 13 years, but it wasn’t until 2018 that she decided to make it a formal business and attempt to scale it. “For a while, I was just selling it to people locally [in Atlanta] through word of mouth, but the demand got so great that I decided to build a website so people could order it online,” she says.
She says she knows the demand is there, but there are barriers that make it difficult for BIPOC-owned kombucha brands to thrive. “There are other Black people brewing kombucha. I’m not the only one. We want to bring this product that we know is beneficial to the Black community. It’s amazing to me that a lot of Black people don’t even know about kombucha or understand it on a large scale. And this goes back to being left out of a larger conversation in the wellness industry. We have been left out of access and left out of the privilege.”
“It’s amazing to me that a lot of Black people don’t even know about kombucha or understand it on a large scale. And this goes back to being left out of a larger conversation in the wellness industry.” — Kemiko Lawrence, founder of Kemboocha
In order to actually have a place at the table—and in the cooler section—BIPOC-owned kombucha brands need to have more attention and funding. “In one sense, this year has been good for business because more people are seeking out Black-owned brands,” Lawrence says. But she adds that it’s important this attention is steady and doesn’t cease after the Black Lives Matter movement stops making headlines.
Durham says production for Cultured kombucha has been put on hold during the pandemic, but she’s using this time to try and raise more capital, speaking to the second major need: funding. “Women- and minority-owned businesses struggle to attain funding, which is important for long-term success,” she says. Case in point: Data shows that only 1 percent of Black startup founders are funded, despite making up 11 percent of the U.S. population.
Still, she’s hopeful and says she’s committed to staying true to her original goal of making kombucha more accessible to people of color. “I want to show people of color that this is something for them. Kombucha is for them. Representation is so important in wellness. It’s huge.”
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