In 1994, Robert Deering saw the future of the beverage industry right in his own kitchen.
A friend of a friend—an older, van-driving hippie type—had come to stay with Deering and his friends at their house in Portland, and he brought with him a jar of liquid with an odd, gelatinous goo floating at the top.
"He said it was 'mushroom tea,'" Deering says. "I'm a biologist and a mushroom picker. I looked at it and said, 'That's not a mushroom.' But I thought it was really interesting. We tried it and it was kind of nasty. But I thought there was potential."
He eventually learned the drink's formal name—kombucha. He pulled some books from the library at Portland State University, learned how to brew it at home, and in 1995 launched Oocha Brew, the first bottled kombucha brand in the United States.
The company lasted three years before succumbing to slow sales and the burnout of trying to introduce a new product into the marketplace. Deering went into teaching but kept an eye on kombucha's gradual rise to public consciousness.
Now, he's back in the 'booch game full time.
Two and a half years ago, Deering quit his job as a seventh-grade science teacher and partnered with University of Oregon grad Joe Mayol to found a new kombucha company, Camellia Grove. Their product has only been on the market six months, but it's already doing well—see the results of our blind taste for proof.
WW talked to Deering about being a kombucha pioneer.
WW: When you tried kombucha for the first time, you said you thought it tasted horrible. So what made you think this had potential as a commercial product?
Robert Deering: What I was seeing was that this was a fermentation process that could potentially produce non-alcoholic fermentation, and I thought that is potentially a whole new different kind of fermented beverage. We've got beer and wine, and they are really mature industries that have been around for hundreds of years. Kombucha, it turns out, has been around forever, too, but nobody has ever brought it into the mainstream. And that's what I was looking at.
Obviously, nothing else like it was on the market at the time. How did you introduce kombucha to the public?
Well, what we did was, we made up a bunch of kombucha and we went down to Pioneer Courthouse Square in early July 1995. We set up a table and were down there for three days just giving out samples to people who walked by. And we got varying reactions. A lot of people were like, "I like this." The only person who really didn't like it was a teenage girl who spat it out and said this was terrible. I thought, well not everybody likes Coca-Cola, so not everybody has to like this. But enough people did that we were encouraged.
What was the response from stores and distributors?
This was before New Seasons. There was a store called Nature's that was like New Seasons, in that they were into new products and helping local companies get started. So we'd take it in and sample it, and they'd say, "OK, we'll try it." And there was a distributor that distributed throughout the Northwest to natural food stores, and it eventually merged with all these other distributors around the country and became [United National Foods]. That distributor picked it up, and we were in their catalog, and we would go to a trade show and sample. We went to California Expo West twice. We had a great reception there, and people would sign up and say, "OK, I'll get it out of the catalog." But we just didn't sell enough. I could always make far more than we could sell.
What other factors led to the end of the business?
We had distribution all the way to California and through the Northwest, even Colorado—but we went to this new company called Whole Foods in Northern California and wanted to get in there. Then they said, "You have to pasteurize it because of the E. coli scare." I made a lot of kombucha and found a brewery to pasteurize it for us. I had to make so much that it pushed up the alcohol content. So I went back to the library and did some more research. I developed another method to make it and made another few thousand gallons of our product called Oocha Brew, loaded it up in a milk tanker and shipped it up there. And it worked. But the whole experience was too stressful on our company, emotionally and financially. We didn't make it over that hump, and we had to dissolve.
So what led you back into the kombucha business?
I taught middle school science for 16 years and paid attention to the kombucha world a little bit. The whole idea of probiotics appeared, and I was like, "Wow, that's interesting." I decided to see if I could be a kombucha consultant and make a little money on the side. A friend of mine gave me a culture, and I started making it again at my house about eight years ago. I responded to this guy on a homebrew site who said he was looking for some consultation, and ended up getting over 100 people emailing me from around the world based on that one message. Then one day, about two and a half years ago, I got an email from the guy who was in my neighborhood, his name was Joe Mayol. He started this company, but he needed help. He had some of the same thoughts about kombucha being more about tea—it's a fermented tea product, and kombucha had kind of gotten away from that. That's our distinguishing factor: We really want to bring out those subtleties of fine tea along with the fermentation.
Given your struggles 20 years ago, are you surprised to see kombucha becoming so popular?
I can't say that I'm surprised, because I always thought it was a pretty great product. I am a little surprised, though, at the direction that it took. I envisioned it as being a fine product, like a wine or a beer, where you pour it in a glass. So I'm a little surprised that there hasn't been more professionalism brought into the industry. But it is starting to happen now. And you see companies that are absolutely dealing with the alcohol issue. It's not an industry that's had much in the way of food science or professional brewers until more recently. But I'm not surprised it's getting big, because there is an appeal to it. My father was a big proponent of it, but he didn't like it at first. Then, later on, he said, "I'll try it again." And then before you know it, he was drinking two or three bottles a day. I think that happened to a lot of people.
Are there any trends you see that you don't agree with?
I'm a scientist, so I'm skeptical by nature, and there are a lot of claims people make about kombucha that are unsupported and probably unsupportable, and I think that needs to get cleaned up. You wouldn't believe some of the things people were claiming about kombucha at the beginning—that it cures cancer, grows your hair, make you lose weight, all the things you're not supposed to be saying. And of course, the Food and Drug Administration is not paying attention to little things like this. A lot of people, not just in the kombucha industry, think you can make a health claim and then just put this disclaimer that the FDA hasn't approved this statement or whatever, and you can't do that. There may be more scrutiny down the line, but it has been very slow. It's a self-regulated industry at this point.
What does the future of kombucha look like to you?
I think the industry is going to continue to grow. Just a couple of years ago, kombucha grew 37 percent, I think, which just blew away the beverage industry. It's amazing and I think the quality will improve. There are people from the brewing industry who are moving in with expertise, and I think that's really helping it go global.