Food + Drink

On the kombucha train – what is it, how does it benefit you, and more


By Gwen Ong

On the kombucha train – what is it, how does it benefit you, and more

As far as fad trends go, health drink is one that has lasted with a cult following. From the advent of orange juice to green tea, soymilk and more, there seems to be an endless flow of choices. The surge in wellness drinks in the market means that we’re just one sip away from gaining the promises of a better health. One such drink is kombucha. But what exactly is it and how does it benefit you? We speak to Joseph Poh, the founder of Malaysia’s very own kombucha drink WonderBrew, for the lowdown.

1. What is kombucha?

Kombucha, or booch as the millennials call it, is a fermented tea naturally rich in probiotics, antioxidants, organic acids and enzymes that are beneficial to gut health. It is mainly made of four key ingredients including filtered water, cane sugar, tea leaves and SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacterial and yeast). It is produced via a traditional fermentation process that results in a bubbly, slightly sweet and tart drink with taste similar to apple cider vinegar. Its origin is reported to be from China in 220 BCE during the Tsin Dynasty when it was deemed the elixir of life.

2. Your co-founder, Boon, mentioned in an article that kombucha is actually not new to Malaysians – or at least, the older generation of Malaysians. Can you elaborate more on that?

Indeed, kombucha has been around for more than a decade in Malaysia. It is not entirely unheard of but many are still in the dark about kombucha. Those who knew about it most probably have tried it from their friends or brew it by themselves at home. Known as ‘cendawan mekah’ locally, many learnt to make this alien-looking drink in jars at home from their friends or parents. In a way, the recipes are being passed on from one another. Many drink it for its purported probiotic benefits and actually share it with their family members. It was extremely rare and hard to find a widely and commercially available kombucha then. Even now, local choices are limited and perhaps that it is why kombucha is still under-recognised until today.

3. Benefits of drinking kombucha?

Kombucha is well-known as a great source of probiotics and many drink to improve digestion. Despite insufficient scientific studies and lack of clinical evidence, other common benefits of drinking kombucha include:

  • Improved immune system
  • Better mental health
  • Detoxification
  • Enhanced energy level
  • Better weight management
  • Lower risk of heart disease

4. Why is having a healthy gut so important? Do you think people underestimate the importance of gut health?

Today, a healthy gut microbiome has become even more important than ever that if it’s not well taken care of, one’s health is very likely to be in jeopardy. More and more people are starting to suffer from gut-related illnesses like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and functional bowel problems (i.e. constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, stomach upset), both of which stem from the highly modified and processed food and drinks today, environment pollution, work stress, etc.

Ample clinical studies have shown that a healthy gut can enhance one’s immune system function, improve symptoms of depression, help combat obesity and provide other benefits. There are also studies on the gut-brain connection that shows people with good gut health tend to have better mental health as well.

It is hard to generalise but I can see the increasing awareness of the importance of good gut health in Malaysia. Many people that I know are actually on some form of probiotics products, be it supplements, fermented food or drinks. As an important health trend moving forward, I believe more and more people will prioritise gut health as part of their lifestyle.

5. What’s a common misconception about kombucha?

Many actually think that kombucha is an alcoholic drink due to fermentation. While it is true that alcohol (i.e. ethanol) is produced naturally as part of the process, it is usually below 0.5% ABV, a level so insignificant that it is unable to intoxicate your mind or drive you to drunkenness. In fact, it is just the same as any other fermented products such as kimchi, miso soup, sauerkraut, soy sauce, which contain trace amount of alcohol naturally. There is no added alcohol and only naturally occurring alcohol found commonly in fruits. In short, it is safe to consume kombucha without having to worry about getting tipsy or drunk.

6. As it’s a fermented drink, not everyone would enjoy that fizzy, sour taste. Any tips for people who are interested to try but intimidated by the taste?

Many were hesitant to drink when they first smell kombucha. However, the reactions usually changed favourably after taking a sip. Many actually find the taste of kombucha surprisingly pleasant and nothing like how it actually smells like.

Not all kombucha is created equal. Having tasted different kombucha in the market that are mostly fizzy and very sour, WonderBrew Kombucha was founded to create something different. We want a kombucha that is easy-to-drink and suitable for the local taste buds.

For first timers, we have the lightest entry called Lite Green (green tea kombucha) to kick-start your kombucha journey with. For those who are more adventurous and want more flavour, we have our Markisa Breeze (passion fruit & spearmint), Purple Pari Pari (bluepea flower & lemongrass) and Beet It (beet root & basil) all of which will definitely change your perception about drinking kombucha. At WonderBrew, we surely have something for everyone!

7. There’s an understanding that, for example, Yakult should be taken once a day, every day – what about kombucha? What’s the recommended intake?

For first timers or people who have never taken probiotics before, it is good to start off by taking half a bottle (i.e.150ml) of our WonderBrew Kombucha to test your body reactions. You may even mix with water to dilute it a bit if you wish. If your body feels all right over the next few hours, then you may slowly increase your consumption to a bottle a day. However, if distress symptoms appear, you should reduce the amount to a level that your body can take it. In short, start off with small amount and slowly increase to the amount that you find comfortable with.

8. We hear that pregnant/breastfeeding women should not take kombucha – is it true? If so, why? And are there anyone else who should be wary of kombucha?

It is always advisable for pregnant or breastfeeding women to consult doctor before drinking kombucha just to be on the safe side. Young kids and people who are alcohol intolerant should also seek medical advice before drinking. However, drinking moderately in small amount should be fine, if permissible by doctors.

9. Now let’s talk about WonderBrew Kombucha – how did it all come about?

It was purely by coincidence that I learnt about kombucha in September 2018 from my friend and now partner, Adam, who had a very positive feedback after trying it in Bali. Didn’t know much about it but I was hooked on the supposed probiotic benefits that kombucha has that could potentially improve my poor gut health.

One fine day, I happened to stumble upon kombucha while shopping at a local grocery. I decided to try one and instantly fell in love at first sip with the surprisingly good taste! After much online research, I signed up for a kombucha brewing workshop conducted by my second partner, Boon, who has a good eight years of experience making kombucha. I started drinking for a week and felt great with enhanced energy level and better bowel movements. That gave me confidence and intrigued me to delve into kombucha.

10. How did this translate to a business opportunity?

As a consumer, I discovered three key pain points in the market that have been deterring the growth of kombucha in Malaysia. It is really difficult to find 1) value for money and 2) great tasting kombucha, as well as 3) lack of easy access to kombucha in general. There are not many places offering kombucha and in groceries, one can only find a handful of brands of which majority is being imported from countries like Australia and USA. Most brands are priced steeply at RM15 and above for a bottle which is a great turn-off for many first-timers. Lastly, many have recipes and taste profiles developed for foreigners, which may not be tantalising to local taste buds.

Centring on these three key factors, I founded WonderBrew with Adam and Boon in November 2018 hoping to solve these problems for all the existing and upcoming fans of kombucha in Malaysia.

11. What sets WonderBrew Kombucha apart from the rest?

WonderBrew Kombucha is a brand founded by Malaysians for Malaysians. It is a lifestyle beverage brand that is more than just selling healthy drinks. We have a big dream to empower people to become a healthier, happier and better version of themselves, starting from a healthier gut!

WonderBrew is founded to make affordable, great tasting Kombucha available to the masses. Our flavours are locally inspired, locally sourced from organic farms and of course, locally crafted as well. Besides, WonderBrew is also about being a sustainable business. All our raw ingredient wastes are composted and we incentivise customers to recycle glass bottles with us.

Hence, when you are holding a bottle of WonderBrew Kombucha, you are not only endorsing a home-grown brand, you are also supporting local farmers and the green movement.

12. It’s been more than half a year since WonderBrew Kombucha started – what were some of the major challenges you faced?

As a new start-up, we are greatly restricted by the limited resources we have to grow our business. As a result, we are more cautious when it comes to spending our resources albeit the many plans we have for WonderBrew. We plan and prioritise our goals to achieve a healthy and sustainable growth. We are very much about self-sustaining from cash flow generated from sales.

Another big challenge that we face, just like in many traditional businesses, is our cash flow. Being in the supplying business, our payment from cash sales may not be immediately available especially in the case of consignment, which often include our cash being tied up for an average of 30-40 days. Hence, this makes planning ahead even more important to us.

Being a start-up means sometimes you may have to do everything by yourself even though you are not an expert in it. Currently, we are running on an eight-men team and despite each of us having our own role, we do not mind to go beyond that to help each other out. Personally, I enjoy and learn so much from my partners when we are working together.

13. Upcoming plans for WonderBrew Kombucha for 2019?

As part of our mission to bring kombucha to the masses, we have an aim to be in 100 locations by the end of 2019 by expanding into groceries, organic shops, fitness centres, cafes, convenient stores and offices, just to name a few. In the next few months, we should be available in other cities as well such as Penang, Ipoh and Johor Bahru. Concurrently, we are also expanding our online delivery services by partnering with reputable brands like GrabFood and Foodpanda so that more people can enjoy our kombucha with just a click away.

Rapid expansion aside, we are also making sure our product quality and safety is maintained and up to standard by investing in better equipment and facilities. To give customers more confidence, we are glad to say that we are in the midst of applying for Halal Certification, which we expect to be ready by 2019.

To constantly innovate is part of WonderBrew’s DNA. We are always looking out for new recipes and conducting R&D to create unique flavour that will surprise and tantalise your taste buds. In fact, we have two more new flavours coming this year. So, stay tuned for them!

Find out more about WonderBrew Kombucha here.

Explore More