Why the top UK restaurants have started serving kombucha

When we set out to create Real Kombucha, we were driven by a passion to create a fantastic tasting, complex soft drink that worked just as well served with food as it did to quench your thirst down the pub on a Friday night. So, while we were pretty amazed when our humble little brew started getting picked up by some of the most respected restaurateurs and sommeliers in the industry, I guess we needn’t have been so surprised. We absolutely love what we do, but it is even more special when other people do, too.

So, what is driving restaurants such as Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, Jason Atherton’s Hai Cenato, David Moore’s Pied à Terre, several of Mark Hix’s fantastic eateries, the Pig Hotels and the Artist Residence restaurants to serve kombucha at the table in place of the usual soft drinks?

Not long ago, and certainly within my recollection, there was seldom a time when you would dine out in style without having a beer – or more likely a fine wine – at your favoured table. Yes, there was often water served alongside, but a fully fermented alcoholic beverage was the only real drink on offer apart from a bottle or jug of water.

Over the past 20 years, however, there has been a deep change in our attitudes to alcohol consumption. Whereas in the early 90s alcohol was regularly consumed at lunchtime in London, it’s rare to see someone drinking at lunch these days unless they are lucky enough not to have to return to work in the afternoon. Whether that’s through pressure to perform, the gig economy, or simply the desire to remain fresh, alert and active throughout the day, far fewer people will now partake before the evening.

What is even more surprising, however, is the proportion of people that are now significantly reducing their alcohol consumption in the evenings, or even going teetotal. Data from the Office of National Statistics suggests that 30% and people aged 16-24 are now teetotal (a figure rising all the time), and those between 25 and 34 are not far behind. A much larger proportion are trying to reduce their alcohol consumption, and they’re looking for alternatives on a regular basis. This signifies a generational sea change, and clearly one worth paying attention to in the world of food and beverages.

Imagine the situation: you are out for a very special dinner with your partner or a group of friends. The food menu looks exquisite and you have selected the truffled artichoke salad, followed by a salt cod with local seasonal greens. You want to lift it with a special drink, but you are not in the mood for alcohol. You check out the menu and your options are… Coca Cola and orange juice.

Most top restaurateurs will recognise this situation. There are very few foods that are well complimented by sweet drinks. “You can just about get away with serving a soft drink with a burger,” says Huw Gott, founder of Hawksmoor, but the difficulty is finding an alternative. A typical soft drink contains between 7-12% sugar, which, even at the lower end, is more than the recommended daily intake of sugar in a standard serving.

This is where kombucha comes in – and I’m talking about pure, unflavoured, unsweetened kombucha here. (There are lots of kombuchas out there that, whilst great drinks, are relatively high in sugar and have fruity flavourings making them more akin to a typical soft drink.)

When brewed well, kombucha has a lot more in common with a fine wine. It has a rich fermented flavour, with all the floral complexities you might find in a sparkling chardonnay or a light Prosecco. Brews made from different teas have as much variety and character as the difference between a Pinot Noir, Merlot or Gamay grape. Admittedly, the flavours are more subtle and delicate than a full-bodied Bordeaux, but then again, you are consuming something that has virtually no alcohol in the finished brew. (To clear up the “does kombucha contain alcohol” question, our Real Kombucha contains approximately 0.3% alcohol – about the same as a banana or a slice of Marmite on toast.)

And, like wine, kombuchas are easy to pair with fine foods. Fermented sides and drinks have long been seen as a positive or even necessary complement to foods. In our own collection, our green tea-based Dry Dragon is great with salads, fresh fruits or light asian dishes. Our black tea Smoke House is robust and works well with steaks and spicy foods. And Royal Flush, brewed from a fabulously floral first flush Darjeeling, is a great compliment to white meats and cream sauces – a superb aperitif drink.

We met recently with Mark Hix, the celebrated chef, restaurateur and food writer with credits including long-time Chef Director at Caprice Holdings, and now owner of Hix restaurants (The Tramshed, Hix Oyster & Chop House). Mark was on a teetotal fortnight but finding it pretty dull. A case of Royal Flush quickly sorted his weekend consumption.

“It’s hard to find a natural non-alcoholic drink to satisfy the taste buds and mind when all your mates are drinking or you’re on the wagon. It’s tough, without creating a bespoke cocktail, to find something to drink that has a unique flavour and quenches the non-alcoholic thirst like Real Kombucha.”

So it’s not that much of a surprise to find that the most innovative bars and restaurants across the country are all building inspiring non-alcoholic menus. William Fugard of Gusto Drinks characterises the change: “Five years ago we were having doors slammed in our faces just for suggesting any alternative to the standard soft drinks. In the last 12-18 months, all of this has changed.”

This ties in with the views of Frankie Van Loo, head chef at Hai Cenato: “It seems strange to be talking about fermentation as if it’s a new fad. For so many chefs, it’s at the heart of what we do. But it’s amazing to work with a brand like Real Kombucha, who recognise the complexities and sophistication of quality ferments and avoid adding anything to them, leaving those great flavours to shine through. At Hai Cenato, we’re really proud to be a part of anything that goes against the urge to pile the sugar high.”

So, if you are looking for something to complement rather than smother a delicately flavoured and lovingly prepared dish, look no further than a humble kombucha. And if you are a restaurateur and you’re looking with more than a little trepidation at Dry January coming up next month, give us a quick call and we will furnish you with the best alternative to wine out there. Give it a try – you may just become an evangelist too.

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