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From kombucha to biotech platform

Source:FoodPacific Manufacturing Journal

Date Published:2/27/2020 07:02:41 PM

Owner of Singapore start-up Kombynation, Ethan Eng, talks about kombucha, waste reduction, and the company’s aspirations.  

KOMBUCHA is fermented tea that contains beneficial metabolites like vitamins, enzymes and probiotics. While it has been around for centuries, growing consumer interest in healthy beverages put it back on the spotlight as an aid to gut health. In Singapore, the promising newcomer Kombynation Co. offers unpasteurised kombucha with superfruits marketed as replacement to sodas and fruit beverages. More in this interview with founder, Mr Ethan Eng.

Kombynation founders Mareen Liang and Ethan Eng

Kombynation founders Ethan Eng and Mareen Liang 

How would you describe Kombynation, and how did it come about?

Kombynation Co. is an artisanal non-alcoholic fermented beverage microbrewery which aims to spread (good) bacteria, one bottle at a time.

My co-founder Mareen Liang and I first tasted this beverage at farmers markets across the European region. Being Chinese yet not knowing a thing about this “ancient Chinese beverage” definitely intrigued us, but what really hooked us being biology majors were the studies done on animals, which really demonstrated the health benefits such as detoxification, energising properties, and improved immunity. Didn’t hurt that it tasted pretty good too. When we returned to Singapore, we couldn’t find any kombucha that was suitable for beginners like us as most of the available brands on the market were either too sour or overly diluted and artificially carbonated. Some were even pasteurised, which defeated the whole point of the beverage. So really, like most entrepreneurs, we started Kombynation Co. to scratch our own itch for a healthier beverage, that we would be happy to drink every day and serve at a party, leveraging on our background in microbiology to become better bacteria farmers.

Are the health benefits of kombucha well founded?

The benefits of kombucha to humans are mainly anecdotal, that is, no one has really sat down to do a long-term study on humans to see whether the studies that were done on animals can be replicated. We are in discussion with a few local institutes of higher learning to collaborate on such a research initiative, which I personally feel would push the whole kombucha industry from a nascent one to a more mature industry that is able to self-regulate effectively.

One thing that most doctors and members of the scientific community are realising is the importance of maintaining good gut health as gut microbiota dysbiosis has been linked to various metabolic and CNS diseases and even certain neurological diseases like autism. To improve one’s gut health, these experts are also recommending people to add more fermented food and beverages, such as kimchi, kefir and kombucha, which are naturally fermented into their diet.

From a nutritional point of view, kombucha is one of the few beverages that is better for you because it is not a beverage that contains empty calories. Typically, lower in sugar than your regular soda or cold pressed fruit juices, drinking real unpasteurised kombucha combined with superfruits like ours offers you the benefits of enzyme drinks, apple cider vinegar, fruit juices and probiotic drinks all mixed into one neat, delicious bottle.

What flavours do you offer?

Original Komby comes in two options, the sourer version for veteran kombucha drinkers and the normal version for beginners. Berried Peaches is our original kombucha blended with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and peaches. Chiananas contains kombucha blended with chia seeds and pineapples (ananas), and Gingeric Passion is kombucha blended with ginger, turmeric and passionfruit. They retail for SG$7/bottle on our website with an additional discount if you get the monthly/bi-weekly subscription option. They are also available at selected cafés and retail outlets.

What do you consider when making new flavours?

We are launching different ranges so the criteria really differ for our superfruits range to our upcoming lower-calorie range. However, in F&B, there’s really only one criterion that matters: it must taste good. How good? So good that it makes your eyes sparkle the first time you taste it and intrigues you to discover more.

Is there a particular flavour that’s more difficult to do?

Chiananas is definitely more difficult to do mainly because of the chia seeds, which can’t be added into the bottles straightaway or it would just become very lumpy and clog up the bottle opening.

Kombynation - kombucha

What is the shelf life of your kombucha?

Kombucha as a product does not actually “spoil” even without the use of preservatives (fermentation was mainly used as a way to preserve food in the past) because of the acidity and inherent antimicrobial properties due to the presence of live bacteria and yeast in it.

Our current shelf life is set at three months not because it will spoil after that but the taste might change to become noticeably more sour. This is because even under refrigerated conditions, the fermentation process continues, albeit at a much slower pace compared to at room temperature and pressure. However, we are testing out different fermentation methods to extend our shelf life to six months refrigerated naturally.

Honestly, any kombucha that claims to have a shelf life of more than six months without any taste changes likely has undergone some form of post processing like extreme filtration, pasteurisation, etc. that might not qualify it to be in the same raw and natural category.

How do you ensure quality of ingredients and products?

We take our quality control and assurance processes very seriously, so much so that we are even going the extra mile to be the first kombucha brewery in Singapore to have in-house lab capabilities to ensure our customers drink our beverages with a peace of mind (as there have been reports of serious food poisoning cases from brewers who were less than vigilant about their brews). Typically, we can not only do batch testing of our brews for pathogenic bacteria, we can also look for the presence of mold under the microscope while most brewers mainly check visually.

We also ensure that the bacteria to yeast ratio is properly adjusted to create a relatively consistent product that tastes great every time. Our fermentation room is also temperature- and humidity-controlled and monitored to create the optimal environment for our kombucha cultures to thrive.

For our blend of black and green tea, we ensure that our suppliers have the relevant organic certificates. We are also looking into fair trade tea at the moment. As for our local fruit suppliers, we work with partners who have the relevant HACCP/ISO certificates and have a good reputation in the industry. We are also looking for opportunities to work with our local farmers.

How would you describe Singapore’s kombucha market?

Singapore’s kombucha market is still quite niche but definitely growing. When we first started, literally nobody in our social circles knew what it was and thought we were out of our minds to give up a potentially comfortable job to pursue this. Today, we can find at least 14 different brands here, both local and imported. While this is nothing compared to the drink’s popularity in the Unites States and Australia where most supermarkets have a huge dedicated section for the buch, this only means there is room to grow. The increasing demand comes from both locals and tourists alike.

Kombucha, as a beverage category, has a dedicated fan base all over the world, and the demand will only grow as more importance is placed on the gut health by both the medical and scientific community. Both café and bar owners are also looking for something to replace fruit juices and beer/soda, which has gotten a bad rep recently with the amount of hidden sugars they contain.  Kombucha fits the bill perfectly, both as a beer/soda replacement because of its fizziness and a fruit juice replacement because of its slightly sweet, slightly tangy taste profile and the health halo surrounding it that once graced the fruit juice industry.

Is the drink more popular with a specific age group?

Right now, definitely it’s the working adults and the more affluent or well-travelled that are the main group consuming kombucha because of the higher price point relating to a beverage that takes time and dedication to produce, much like craft beers.

What is the most challenging part of the business?

The most challenging part of the business now is scaling up in a sustainable manner. This includes juggling the tasks of fundraising, getting suitable larger scale equipment that won’t break the bank, and testing and tweaking for a more efficient process. Scaling up a beverage manufacturing startup is not simply adding more sales people to the team but the whole backend part has to be up to speed as well. As another kombucha brewery owner put it aptly, it’s really like jumping off a cliff and building a plane at the same time praying that the plane works before you hit the ground.

Kindly tell us more about your efforts to prevent fruit waste?

We try to reduce fruit waste in two ways. The first is by a vermicomposting initiative to upcycle our fruit pulp waste that is generated at the end of every brewing cycle. It was a challenge to figure out the optimum feeding schedule and amount at the start, which resulted in our worms trying to escape every other night. We’ve sorted that out now and we’re getting some really good compost and “worm tea” that my mum is very happy to receive as it is making her plants bloom. As we grow bigger, we hope to also increase the size of our vermicompost bin so that we can generate enough compost to donate to the community gardeners around Singapore.

The second way is that we try to valorise ugly fruits by turning them from something that is to be thrown away to a uniquely flavoured kombucha that is so much more. We are still working on our ugly fruits range but this will most likely be a seasonal range as we have not been able to find a consistent supply of ugly fruits.

What about your bottle reusing initiative?

Since the day we started, we vowed to never use plastic bottles even though they are so much cheaper and hassle free. We chose to take the harder path as we do not want to profit at the expense of the environment and contribute to the ever-growing plastic problem affecting wildlife all around us. Having eliminated plastic, we actually went deep into understanding the overall impact on the environment for both glass bottles and aluminium cans and concluded that we were not at a large-enough scale to have a canning line. Glass bottles are similar to cans in that they are both infinitely recyclable unlike plastic, however glass is also infinitely re-usable and so it’s a no-brainer for us to come up with a bottle reusing initiative where we reward consumers with one free bottle of kombucha for every 10 bottles returned to thank them for helping us save the earth after spreading (good) bacteria.

For our reused bottles, we first ensure there are no chips because we don’t want our customers to cut their lips or our brews to get contaminated due to having an improper seal. Then we employ a three-step process where we soak the bottles in hot water, use an industrial alkaline cleaner to remove any odour-causing substance, rinse, and lastly, sanitize with a food-grade sanitizer to ensure all bacteria remaining in the bottle is gone so the bottle is essentially as good as new once we are ready to bottle. Yes this takes more time and effort on our part but we do what we can to be a more sustainable company that cares for the environment.

What markets are you pursuing?

We are focusing our efforts on the local market first but we always have one eye on opportunities in Southeast Asia and China. Our efforts are really on scaling up our production capacity in a sustainable manner while keeping the quality of our brews as good as always.

What can we expect from Kombynation next?

As a non-alcoholic fermented beverage company, the different ranges of kombucha that we are producing is just the first step. The world of fermentation is vast and can only grow with more research from both the scientific community and the food industry. Our ultimate goal is to create a biotech platform that can be used to convert sugar in any beverage into beneficial acids, enzymes, and probiotics.

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