Kombucha Kup – The Tasting Panel Discussion

Prior to the first day of the Kombucha Brewers International Regional KKON, I was a member of a five person panel of judges tasting the entries in the Kombucha Kup Awards of Excellence competition. Following a day of tasting we sat down to discuss our experience selecting medal winners and the features of award-winning ‘booch.

I was joined on the judging panel by:

This is a consolidated, edited transcript of the discussion.

The flavor profile

What criteria do you prioritize when evaluating the flavor profile of a kombucha? What is it you’re looking for in that flavor profile that sets it above everything else?

Well, I think one of the most important things we’re looking for in kombucha criteria is, does it taste like kombucha? Do I recognize this as a kombucha? And part of that is, of course, a little acidity while also remaining balanced. And then, based on the category we’re looking at, do the flavor components come through, or how are they balanced within the brew, and various characteristics like that.

We are always seeking the unique flavor that comes from fermentation – the funkiness, wild flavors, and sugar that will be transformed into gas and other organic acids, creating a distinct taste in the kombucha. When we taste kombucha, we don’t just analyze the product, but also the ingredients and the process used to make it. As judges in a tasting competition, we get to taste dozens of kombuchas against each other, which allows us to appreciate the nuances that the average consumer may not typically find in a store. Meaning that we can compare apples to apples, or in this case, kombucha to kombucha.

Evaluating a well-balanced kombucha

It’s interesting to see the common factors within and between kombuchas. So, based on that, how would you differentiate between a well-balanced kombucha and one that lacks harmony in its flavor components?

The biggest factor is that if certain things are too strong, they come off as antagonizing. Anything that’s too sweet is going to stick in your mouth and be too sugary, almost giving you a toothache. Anything too sour, you can’t drink very much of it. Anything at those extremes definitely goes against what we think of in a balanced brew.

I think part of what we’re looking for is when we know the characteristic it claims (on the label), such as if it’s supposed to have fruits. We want to be able taste fruit, or if it claims a herbal flavor, we want to be able to either perceive them on the nose, taste them on the tongue, and yeah, some flavors are going to meld differently, and so you might taste the fruit-forward and then a spice on the end, but we need to taste everything that you’re saying is in the kombucha.

I don’t think that a strong characteristic is a bad thing, as long as it’s not taking away from everything else. It’s as soon as it takes away, or is too in your face, that it starts to become a negative thing for me.

The complexity of kombucha

So, what would each of you say are some insights into your approach to assessing the complexity of kombucha?

We work off a ballot form we are required to fill in, which covers the major categories. We start with appearance, looking at the lightness or darkness, and then move on to the aroma, taste, and aftertaste in the mouthfeel. We work with the flavor flower that KBI produced, which ranges across everything from spiciness to woodiness, mouthfeel, and even off flavors. There are over 20, 25 categories that we’re judging.

You could have something that’s complex because there’s a lot going on, but you can also have something that’s complex, even if there’s just one note. If we have a fruited kombucha and it’s just one fruit, it can still be complex if you can taste every single part of that fruit. But then there’s also others where there’s like five or six ingredients, and they all kind of come together, and it’s complex in its own way.

I also think there’s like a really big tool which is your nose. Your first approach is always your nose, and it’s really interesting to first use it as a radar to detect what you think is going to be in that glass, and then sometimes you drink it, and then you get surprised because you were not expecting that. That’s true for the appearance too. For some kombuchas, I don’t mind a little cloudiness; I don’t mind some particulate. That’s going to speak something to me that when I taste it, I’m hoping it will appear on my tongue as well. So, it’s really the whole glass that we’re looking at, not just one aspect of it.

I think each point of the flavor, the color, and the acidity is related to everything together in the cup. So, we are always trying to find how to connect one thing with another. For example, we can try an original (unflavored)kombucha, but it will have a peachy flavor, but there is no fruit inside. So, we are always connecting these parts.

Gold Medal Winners

So, what characteristics do you think distinguish a high-quality kombucha from an average one? What sets those things above and beyond? What makes a gold medal winner?

I know as a home brewer, I started out 15 years ago just using Lipton tea bags, and it was kombucha, but when I discovered the premium teas, then, like with wine, the better quality grapes make better quality wine. Using premium teas, Darjeeling, and green teas and experimenting with those improves the original flavor of the kombucha. I think that jumps out at you with commercial kombucha when you see a nice balance and detect a good quality tea. I like to always try original kombucha, which is a good baseline for people to test one against the other or to get the real flavor before the fruits and spices are added.

I think what elevates a kombucha from good to excellent is, again, that symphony of all of the characteristics working together. I want to taste the sour, and I want some sweetness too because I don’t want it to just be a vinegar flavor profile, and I want the right amount of bubble. It doesn’t have to be overly carbonated, and in fact, sometimes, when there’s too much carbonation, that can knock it down a peg. So, it really is this crafted beverage with complex notes and sophisticated flavor profiles, and when you taste that kombucha, you’re like, yes, this is a gold medal kombucha.

For me, the gold medal kombucha is when you take a sip and say, oh, I want another one and another one and another one. So, everything is completely connected, and the nose with the flavor, the taste, and you want to feel it again.

Yeah, for me, I think it’s a combination of having a good idea, having a good ingredient, and having a good process. So at any point, we can taste if you used good ginger or if you used poor ginger, if you have a good technique down or if you’re just kind of like doing whatever with your ferment, and then the last part is just: is your combination of flavors a good idea or is it not a good idea? That’s kind of what it comes down to for me.

I’ve got one more thing to add. I spent my career in the tech industry and anybody who knows about software and the PC is that it’s not the most sophisticated, most elegant software that’s the market leader, and it’s very true in the kombucha world that the biggest selling kombuchas are not necessarily these gold medal ones that we’re talking about. So, if the average consumer goes to a big store and sees what’s available, they’re not going to necessarily find a gold medal one, which is why it’s worth seeking out in your neighborhood, go to the farmer’s market, go to the local vendor, the taproom, and you’ll sometimes find these hidden gems.


How important is the mouthfeel in determining the overall quality of a kombucha?

It’s a pretty big deal to me. How much it sticks to your mouth and how much sugar you can detect will determine how much kombucha you feel like drinking. And then also things like carbonation, for example, can completely change someone’s experience and flavor profile of your kombucha. So, for me, it’s probably about 25% of the battle is figuring out how to get a good mouthfeel that matches your flavor.

And there is such a thing as over-carbonation. I think, you know, especially commercial producers are trying to balance consumer expectations and consistency, and we know this is a wild ferment, we don’t always get consistency. For some brands, adding some forced carbonation can help to balance that out. However, you can go too far in that direction, and then it has sort of that soda pop up in your nose, and it can be challenging to consume when it’s over carbonated because especially for those of us who’ve been doing it for a long time and really love the craft of it, that effervescence, which is a little softer and maybe balanced with good carbonation, that’s going to be more refreshing on the palate. And to your point about the sweetness, right? Sometimes, if it’s too cloying, it feels thick. And how are you going to get through eight ounces or even 16 ounces of a beverage like that that maybe would do better watered down or have a lot of ice in it? So, finding out that kind of perfect balance with the mouthfeel can be a challenge. And it really contributes to the pleasure of drinking a kombucha.

I completely agree. On the label, you normally just say you see the taste, right? This is blueberries, or this is ginger. But the truth is that experience is like the texture with the bubbles, the texture with the sugar, I don’t know, your nose, your mouth. So, in my opinion, sometimes it’s even more important—all of those factors that surround just what you feel in your tongue and nose.

I know a lot of people, actually, who prefer still (non-carbonated) kombuchas, and some people who also prefer them poured over ice. So, it’s kind of a big, empty spot on the market–changing the mouthfeel of kombuchas. You know, like some of them should be carbonated, some should be lesser, more carbonated, some should be poured over ice, maybe, like one that we tried earlier today. Some are meant to be poured on their own. It’s important to figure out what works for your specific product.

We see that in beer, where they have the perfect pour temperature, right? I think that those are things that we can continue to develop as an industry, right? We’re so young; we’re still learning our vocabulary, and we’re still even trying to understand how we create styles and standards because there is so much flexibility and variety in a product like kombucha. It’ll be fun to see how it all develops. And that’s what’s great about the Kup is these are producers, maybe it’s their first time, maybe it’s their fifth time they’re entering. And we get to really see how the product is developing as an industry overall when we taste and judge these. It’s exciting to see. There are some really great kombuchas out there. And I’m excited for the winners to be able to promote their products.

For me, the mouthfeel will be complete if you can enjoy all the moments that you have in kombucha. The gas, the sugar, the salt, everything. And I think the biggest thing I personally don’t like is the sweetness of much kombucha. Most of the commercial kombucha brands are very sweet, and it’s only sugar and sugar and sugar, and you can’t enjoy all the other aspects that you have there.  This is always the challenge between balancing what consumers are going to buy, what you anticipate consumers will enjoy versus you as the person who loves kombucha and the flavor profiles that you’ve developed as a result of having that more intimate relationship with the process. And I think the more that producers are willing to, at a minimum, create a product that they really feel great about even if it’s not going to be widely accepted, then that’s what’s going to create the styles and the different aspects of kombucha over time. And as we said earlier, there’s a kombucha for everyone. So, there’s a place for some of these sweeter ones. There’s a place for some of these that have stevia or a monk fruit in them because it’s going to hit a flavor profile that really resonates with someone who wants to give up soda, who wants to give up some of these other beverages that are similar in flavor profile. And yet kombucha has that nutritional payoff that is just, and it tastes so much better.

And if you look at the trajectory of the industry as a whole, it began less than about 25 years ago with one producer in Southern California who’s now a market leader. It’s a fact that most people in a given country—the US, England, France, Germany—haven’t tried kombucha. And its trajectory is very similar to what I was very well aware of when I first came to the United States in the early 1970s to go to college, there was mainly just Gallo jug wine. Now 40, 50 years later, the Napa Valley happened, Sonoma, all these fantastic vintages are being produced across the United States and around the world. And what we’ve been talking about with things like mouthfeel, I think is very similar to the lingo that you’ll hear wine connoisseurs use. And it is a beverage for sipping, as was  mentioned: eight or 16 ounces at a serving. Unlike beer. I grew up in England where six pints was a good evening. You’re not going to drink six pints of kombucha, but you will drink a glass or two, and then you learn to appreciate it as people learn to appreciate the difference between a jug wine from the 70s through to today where some  spend hundreds of dollars on a Napa Valley vintage. I think with kombucha, there’s a range of kombuchas, and the higher end is going to continue to evolve, and people will continue to appreciate it. We might sound like the equivalent of wine snobs, you know, kombucha snobs, but I think that the average consumer may start out drinking a sweeter kombucha and then maybe discover the more varieties, the more evolved kind of pallets that they’ll have to appreciate.

Increasing sophistication

Well, to your point, I think there is going to be a place for vintage kombucha, for kombucha to be treated like wine where it can have these longer fermentation times. It’s just the market hasn’t fully evolved to that point of sophistication yet. But we’re seeing people exploring that idea and having success with it. And human beings love sophistication, right? Take coffee. It used to just be Folgers, and now it’s, you know, single-estate, shade-grown. We have all these iterations of coffee. You could look at chocolate; the same type of thing has happened. And kombucha fits perfectly in with all of these other fermented foods and drinks. It has such a great range of sophisticated flavors, and consumers love that. They like to dive deep into these things and as they kind of understand that kombucha isn’t just this one note, you know, the dirty sweat sock kind of flavor if you’re not used to fermentation, that it does have this broad range of delicious, elegant, sophisticated flavors. And I think this is why we see it being a choice for folks who maybe don’t want to consume alcohol. They can still get complexity in a glass without a hangover later.

I know we’re a little bit off-topic, but on that note, I think it’s really important that brands continue to push the envelope and create unique flavors and mouthfeels and whatever.  Because I know a lot of people who had their first experience with kombucha with something really sour or really sweet, and they decided that for the rest of their life that, no, it’s not for me. Then, they eventually tried a different brand, and they totally changed their opinion. So, I think it’s really important that we continue to make a wide range available because, you know, people will get tired of something that is just the same or like one note.

Right, exactly. Like all the finer things in life, it requires time to develop the palate for it. And oftentimes why you then enjoy that whiskey or whatever that finer thing may be, it’s because not only do you get the flavor components, but there’s a feeling. There’s a feeling that you get from consuming a fermented food or drink that’s going to give a noticeable shift in your body, your mental clarity, and your emotions. And that’s really what I think is going to keep bringing people back to kombucha again and again, especially when they find one they like. I love the experimentation because kombucha can be savory. It doesn’t just have to be sweet. It can have a much bigger range of flavor profiles. And so, you know, we made bacon kombucha! We put mushrooms in kombucha. We included savory in the Big Book of Kombucha because we wanted people to feel excited about exploring all these different avenues.

Innovative brewing

What are some of the more unique and innovative approaches to brewing that you find produce some of the more complex and maybe a little bit more artistically appreciated versions of kombucha?

Well, I think we mentioned earlier that it’s the quality of ingredients first and foremost. Yeah, you can make kombucha with Lipton’s tea and it’s not going to have the same depth and complexity as a premium tea, like an oolong from Taiwan or a Pu-erh or some of these other types of more exotic teas. And so, and really what that then speaks to, it’s like grape fermentation. You can have grapes, and every year, that same grape will produce a different flavor profile because of the terroir. Well, with kombucha, our SCOBYs are kind of like the terroir. They continue to evolve based on different environmental factors.

And so, you might have that tea and ferment it and then make it again and it’s still going to have a different flavor profile. So, there really is a craft to what we do, and I think the more you practice that craft, the better you get at it. And I think the hardest thing for a lot of small producers is they want to be the craft, they want to be the artist, and then the business part kicks in, and you’re like, oh no, now I have to figure out how to do business too, and really I’m an artist. And so, it’s interesting to see how our industry is going to continue to grow and evolve because I just feel people really want what kombucha has to offer, even if they don’t know it, even if they don’t know it yet.

Content courtesy of KBI. A video of the full discussion will be made available following the conference.

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