The End of Free Kombucha?

Since the days of the dot-com boom, high-tech companies looking to attract talented workers have offered campus benefits such as state-of-the-art gyms, napping pods, ping-pong tables, and gourmet meals in the company cafeteria. Free kombucha was often seen as the ne plus ultra of these office perks. Companies like Kegforce in Sacramento, California, thrived by supplying the corporate market, such as this San Francisco Google office. Kegjoy served corporate offices in Southern California. Denver-based Redcup offers Health-Ade and Happy Leaf to the corporate market. In the UK, the Kombucha Warehouse sells an Office Box subscription (from 48 to a massive 240 cans a month!)

Reputational damage?

Writing in the Financial Times, journalist Cory Doctorow sees the end of the free kombucha perk as the last gasp of the freewheeling spirit of tech companies.

Weekend Financial Times, February 10, 2024

As irrelevant as this is for people who work in more humble surroundings, the shorthand “free kombucha” signifies a view of the beverage as a symbol of excess and hipster privilege. After all, commentators like Doctorow don’t mention free coffee, tea, or Coke in the break room.

In 2017, CNBC reported that virtual reality media company Upload in Los Angeles was spending $4,000 monthly on free kombucha for employees.

“People love it, but it was so expensive that we had to stop doing it,” admitted Upload founder and CEO of Upload Taylor Freeman. “People would drink five glasses a day. It was $3,000 to $4,000 a month to have Kombucha on tap, so we had to shut it down. It was a big hit to the morale of the community.”

CNBC, March 31, 2017

Early reports of trouble at now-defunct co-working behemoth WeWork noted, back in 2019, that “Despite free-flowing kombucha, WeWork tenants feel unease.”

These comments have an impact, no matter how slight, on the reputation of the drink in the popular imagination. Those who know and love kombucha must accept that, for some, it is a novel, somewhat strange, and easily mocked feature of modern life. This is not the first time that an innovative beverage has met with a negative response.

Coffeehouse controversy

The snide headlines about “free kombucha” pale into insignificance compared to the reaction to coffee when it first appeared on the scene in 17th Century London. Some claimed coffee was subversive, dangerous – and even made men impotent! This in a series of petitions by “respectable” women aimed at closing the new coffeehouses, perhaps because they were often fronts for brothels (something no kombucha taproom has, to date, been suspected of.)

The sheer number of men leaving their wives at home to get their beans ground elsewhere resulted in several satirical works alleging to be written by angry women who had lost their men to the coffeehouse.

‘Maidens Complaint against Coffee’ (1663), ‘Women’s Petition Against Coffee’ (1674) and ‘The Ale-Wives Complaint, Against the Coffee-Houses’ (1675) all protest the amount of time men spend in the coffeehouses. Not only have these men gone AWOL, but the complaints claim that the “base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water” has “dried” men out and rendered them useless in bed.

The ‘Women’s Petition’ roasts the “newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee”, which has left men as “impotent as age, and as unfruitful as those deserts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought”. They claim: “This pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and has left them with ‘nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears”., Oct 9, 2018

The men who frequented coffee houses did not take this lying down. In a vigorous response, men claimed:

…that coffee not only stops them farting in bed, but “collects and settles the spirits, makes the erection more vigorous, the ejaculation more full, adds a spiritualescency to the sperm, and renders it more firm and suitable to the gusto of the womb, and proportionate to the ardours and expectation too, of the female paramour”.

As the barista at your local Starbucks can testify, our attitudes to coffee have evolved significantly since those days. Let’s hope kombucha can rescue its reputation from the cafeterias of Silicon Valley.

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