Charlotte's a beer city. But is kombucha the Queen City's next big beverage craze?
Fresh produce and consumer appetite for seasonal drinks could make Charlotte one of the kombucha high points of the East Coast, says the founder of a brewery that makes the fermented tea.
“If there is a kombucha capital, it's somewhere in California,” said Townes Mozer, who founded Charlotte’s Lenny Boy Brewing in 2011.
“The West Coast always seems to be about three to five years ahead of us on everything, whether it be kombucha to beer to a lot of stuff,” Mozer said, pointing out laws on cannabis, for example. “But Charlotte is definitely emerging as a nice kombucha city. You know, Charlotte and Atlanta are probably two of the bigger ones. Another good kombucha city is Charlottesville, Virginia. It's not as big, right? But they've got a lot going on with kombucha out there.”
Lenny Boy was created about the same time as some of Charlotte’s oldest craft beer breweries, Olde Mecklenburg, Birdsong and NoDa. Three other kombucha breweries in the city — Queen B Booch, SUM Bucha, and Updog — are five years younger.
A relationship with farmers helped Mozer grow from a $10,000 investment in tanks, bottles, labels and a trailer into a business selling kombucha at grocery stores, restaurants, and bottle shops throughout the East Coast. Lenny Boy Brewing does not publicly disclose financial results.
Leveraging relationships with farmers, Lenny Boy innovates by brewing with seasonal produce, Mozer said. He began building his agricultural network just after graduating from UNC Wilmington in 2010, working on an organic farm near Asheville.
“We're inspired a lot by the seasons,” Mozer said. “So maybe some farmer says, ‘Hey, I've got a ton of persimmons this week, and persimmons are a very short season, like two or three weeks. So, they'll say, ‘Hey, I've got a bunch of persimmons or sweet potatoes or pears or whatever.’ They'll reach out and then we'll usually try and throw them in a kombucha.”
Some of the brewery’s seasonal flavors are inspired by sweet potato pie, cranberries and caramel apples.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Lenny Boy, a professor walked into the bar with a group of students. Aaron Socha, who teaches chemistry at Queens University of Charlotte, was counting on Mozer to demonstrate principles of yeast and bacteria.
In a process similar to the production of vinegar, kombucha relies on a yeast fermentation of sugar to alcohol, followed by a bacterial fermentation of alcohol to acetic acid.
“We’re interested in the kombucha side of the brewery, the non-alcoholic fermented beverage made here with tea and yeast and bacteria,” Socha said.
His chemistry students are growing kombucha tea in class, measuring aspects of the culture, and using "orthogonal" techniques to prove the concentration of organic acids.
“So, we’re using high-pressure liquid chromatography and titration to prove the concentration of the acetic acid in the tea,” Socha said.
The Food Institute estimated the market for kombucha at $1.8 billion in sales in 2019, with the number of brands increasing by 30% annually. Market growth is estimated at 19.5% annually, and is projected to grow to $7 billion by 2027. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have made several recent investments in kombucha brands, but the top-selling kombucha company in the United States, GT’s Living Foods, is independent.