Timing is everything. For a product or brand to make a remarkable impression on a consumer, they almost need to come into existence just when the newly aware potential customer is realising that it might quite like just such a product. I personally felt this way about the Theonista brand of natural, fermented craft beverages. One day I was learning about kombucha and its powers of gut flora transformation, but still quite sceptical on this whole ‘nurturing-my-own-SCOBY’ commitment, and the next I was pushing my trolley along only to discover a ready-made, kombucha brew blinking at me from behind the orange juice concentrates. I’ve loved the brand ever since and so when the opportunity to pick Meghan’s brain, the founder and brewmistress of this much-loved brand, I was practically fizzy with enthusiasm. Want to know how a perfectly timed product like kombucha enters the marketplace? Read on.

Meghan Werner’s story begins in the land of the free and brave, in New Mexico. After a fair bit of relocation via Southern California, Maryland and Seattle, she graduated with a BA in Cultural Studies and a Masters in Public Policy in Public Health and Economic Development, both from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland.

Her career saw her first working in the public health field doing research and project management when an opportunity to do similar research via a paediatric and maternal malnutrition and HIV/ AIDS-related job in Lesotho lured her across the pond.

At this juncture, I find myself, even more, curios as to how that particular trajectory turned into the brewing of colonies of symbiotic cultures. So, I asked.

So, not that your work in Lesotho doesn’t interest me – because almost everything does. But where/ how did your love for kombucha come into the mix? Is it only new to us here in far-away-SA and more of a trend you were familiar with from the US?

I discovered kombucha in my early 20s while trying to find ways to address years of digestive issues despite nearly a decade on a pretty clean plant-based diet. What I learnt was that it was a really powerful healing tool for my body. When I arrived in Cape Town five years ago, I was excited to even find kombucha but dismayed that the products available here didn’t have the same flavour profile to those I was accustomed to. Nor did they, and this is the most important, cultivate the same health and energetic effects in my body.

I’m surprised you found any at all, yours was the first brand that seemed genuinely ‘visible’ to me.

Well, I also couldn’t seem to find anyone brewing it locally, from whom I could get my own SCOBY.

Quick pause – to those still new to the kombucha trend a SCOBY is a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast that resembles a disc of solidified jelly. You were saying?

Well, the city I lived in before (Seattle) was the kind of place you could just swing a stick and hit someone brewing their own kombucha, not to mention kefir and kimchi. Of course, there have been people in South Africa brewing kombucha for decades, but it was more popular among the older generation of folks who are currently grandparents. It’s only recently resurfaced as a more well-known (if still not yet quite mainstream) practice.

After about a month of striking out on my quest for a culture, I arranged for a SCOBY to be brought over from the US with a friend and that one tiny starter culture has now created a massive family tree of offspring in our brewery as well as all over South Africa via our home-brew kits.

Fascinating! So a large part of the SA kombucha market is offspring from Seattle? I love it. So, how did you turn yourself from your previous career in public health into a bustling kombucha brewer here in Cape Town?

When I first arrived, I was totally burnt on public health and policy so I taught yoga for a couple of years (something I’d been doing since 2007 on the side of my more conventional career). That’s how I supported myself in Cape Town in the beginning while running Theonista on the side as a passion project. I was also making organic chocolate products to sell at markets mainly just to keep myself busy when I started making kombucha. Friends would ask for a few bottles here and there and it eventually reached a few of the right people who requested to sell my kombucha in their stores and restaurants.

Is that the official title – ‘ kombucha brewer’?

My ‘title’ is brewmistress – it always raises some eyebrows, but it’s just more accurate and less self-important than “founder/CEO”.

You spoke of the benefits you discovered regarding drinking kombucha. Tell me, why should I add kombucha to my lifestyle?

Purported benefits of kombucha include enhanced digestion, immunity, energy, improved condition of skin & hair, and detoxification.

Traditionally fermented raw Kombucha is full of living probiotics, organic enzymes, polyphenols, vitamins, minerals, and organic acids.

All great things that I assume we don’t get in sufficient quantities these days.

Yep, and rumour has it, it’s also an excellent hangover cure…

Gosh, who started that rumour I wonder. I’ll have to put that theory to the test. Speaking of putting it to the test, I’ve been trying to ween my mother on to it, but she struggles with the acidic taste (which I, of course, don’t mind as it’s quite similar to craft cider to me) But is there a way to ween oneself onto kombucha?

Absolutely – try putting as little as 100ml into your fruit-based, nondairy smoothies. You may also just need to find the right flavour to suit your preference. That said, as much as I love kombucha, I realise it isn’t for everyone and I don’t think you need to torture yourself. If you hate it, there’s no need to force it. You can get your probiotics in another way.

Let’s get back to the flavours though. Tell me a bit about Theonista’s flavours. How did you choose them?

I normally have 10–12 flavours at any given time. We have a really extensive core range of over 10 options right now but in the past year, I’ve also introduced seasonal flavours (i.e. Summer, Equinox, etc) that allow me to offer new flavours using botanicals, spices, and/or fruits to create options which are seasonally inspired.

I love that! There’s probably also an underlying natural health synergy towards consuming what is seasonally abundant. What’s the most popular seasonal flavour to date and do you take requests? ; p

That would probably the Equinox, a citrusy, floral blend made of various lemon-scented botanicals sourced from Good Hope Gardens near Cape Point. We’re always open to suggestions and do make some small custom blends especially when we have a limited supply of something special. For example, the Secret Gin Bar behind Honest Chocolate in Cape Town offers our kombucha on tap both straight-up and as a mixer for special cocktails, they create to go with the flavours we infuse into the kombucha. Sometimes it isn’t sustainable to offer certain flavours on a mainstream level but that makes it extra special to work with chefs or mixologists to utilise the small amount available.

Gin bar? Got it –  say no more. So now, how come if I can get all this great tasting kombucha from Theonista and neighbourhood gin bars, should I bother buying and understanding SCOBYs and how to brew my own?

It’s a bit like baking bread, making your own yoghurt, or even growing your own vegetables. Brewing your own Kombucha gives you a more intimate connection to the end product and also allows you to personalise it along the way. We’ve also had lots of people tell us it gives them a whole new appreciation of how challenging it can be to make high quality, and especially consistent, kombucha. But even if every batch turns out different it can be a fun way to get more involved with the source of your food and ultimately I’d like to believe that kind of thing has a positive influence on the food culture and food system overall.

So true. Your most recent kombucha flavour that caught my eye is the activated charcoal infusion. That’s like two great trends in one. Can you tell me more about that one?

Activated charcoal is a powerful detoxifying agent that works by adsorbing chemicals throughout the entirety of the GI tract. It is commonly used medicinally to reduce bloating and as an antidote to many organic toxins, chemicals, and poisons.  The charcoal we used is derived from coconut shell.

NOTE: Because of activated charcoal’s ability to adsorb chemicals, is recommended that you wait two hours between consuming this product and taking any vitamin supplements or medications.

Okay, so what are the top 3 things that home kombucha makers get wrong and what advice have you got for perfecting home brews or getting creative with them?

  1. Mistaking normal yeast buildup for mould
  2. Bottling too soon
  3. Bottling too late

(Laughs) Like I said before, timing is everything. If you can make beer bread with cider – can you make kombucha bread too?

Definitely, but I don’t have much personal experience doing this.

Ah, challenge accepted. And for that matter – are there any other awesome ways I can get kombucha into my lifestyle? Kombucha popsicles? Warm Kombucha Winter alcohol-free cider? The Gin bar already beat me to the cocktails…

Sure! Try slowly simmering a fruit flavoured kombucha (rooibos pomegranate, for example) with berries until it’s concentrated enough to make a coulis to drizzle over ice cream or pancakes. Other ideas to try:

  • Include in smoothies or fresh juices
  • Use in salad dressing in place of vinegar
  • Make condiments such as kombucha ketchup or mustard (again usually in place of some or all of the vinegar component)
  • Popsicles (we actually did some amazing ones with kombucha and Farmer Angus’ bone broth, believe it or not)
  • Jelly candies
  • And yes – cocktails galore!

Let’s touch on the faithful practices behind Theonista. What makes your product distinctly eco-oriented?

There’s a whole bunch of information regarding our eco practices on our website for anyone who wants to delve into the details, but here’s a brief overview:

  • We use 100% recyclable PET bottles that are food grade and certified BPA and phthalate free. We opted to use this option instead of glass, which some estimates show uses 30-70% more petrol to transport due to weight. A plastic bottle that ends up on the street or in the sea is a bottle that someone didn’t put the effort in to recycle.
  • 100% food waste is composted at local farms
  • 100% of boxes in our first 3 years were reused/repurposed (all collected from local businesses—this amounted to thousands of boxes a year)
  • we print directly on the bottle to avoid extra inks, dyes, glues, and paper wastage from conventional labels
  • we support organic, local, and seasonal sourcing
  • We also happily pay a premium to support wild & biodiverse grown rooibos from a farming cooperative rather than buying from commercial monoculture supplier
  • We use organic teas whenever possible, unbleached non-GMO sugar, and strictly 100% fruit, root, and botanical extracts or infusions (no colourants, flavours, or added refined sugars) to flavour our kombucha

There are a tonne of great ethical ventures listed on their website so be sure to support this brand if you’re buying kombucha on the go!

What’s next for Theonista?

We’ll be significantly ramping up our production and further increasing national distribution of bottles and on-tap options as well as introducing a new premium range that has some exciting characteristics we’re looking forward to sharing soon.

Last question – I’m desperate for some gut health refreshing fizz and I can’t get hold of a Theonista kombucha – what other kombucha brands are on the ‘safe list’. Are they all good or is it becoming like the coconut water industry where some are under the guise of healthy drinks but really full of junk and additives?

It’s great that South Africa has reached the point where the market can support multiple kombucha companies, but as you point out the risk in so many people jumping on any bandwagon is that quality can definitely get diluted.

I’ve tasted most of them at this point but it’s actually hard to keep up! Mainly it seems the prevailing challenge is consistency rather than integrity, and since I’m not on the inside of others’ operations I’m not qualified to make definitive comments.

I sense a but coming…?

There are definitely a few sketchy companies out there. Here’s what I’ve seen, read and tasted:

  • making absurd and frankly dangerously illegal claims on their labels (I’ve seen one that literally claims to “prevent cancer” and “enhance athletic performance,” among other things, which makes you wonder about the integrity of both the maker and the product)
  • seriously under-fermenting their product (making it pleasantly sweet and mellow but lacking the beneficial compounds that develop during the proper fermentation period)
  • over-fermenting and essentially making vinegar
  • claiming to be raw yet not requiring cold storage.

I’m obviously pretty picky about kombucha but Liz from Tea of Life does a great job (and is also a really nice person!) and her brand is always my second pick for sure but honestly I think it comes down to individual taste preferences and luckily there should be something for almost everyone at this point, with even more to come.

Fantastic. Thanks so much for sharing all of this with us Meghan. I for one am delighted you imported that very first SCOBY from the land of Frasier, coffee, mountains and endless rain.

Head this way to try some of the delicious flavours in the Theonista range or even getting your own kombucha home brewing kit.