Kombucha tea innovator leveraging superior packaging execution to fuel market demand for its novel hydration creations
December 7, 2018
As more and more Canadian consumers are moving away from sugary, fizzy drinks in favor of organic and other ‘better-for-you’ alternatives, companies like Montreal-based RISE Kombucha are finding themselves at the forefront of a relentless health-and-wellness trend unfolding in today’s food-and-beverage industries.
Founded in 2009, primarily as a side project of a larger vegan foodservice enterprise launched by a local entrepreneur group including Julian Giacomelli, the tea-based fermented kombucha beverage stirred up enough local interest and demand to convince the company’s founder that this was a product well-deserving of his extra time, effort and focus.
“We are seeing a growing number of people being attracted to better-for-you products like this,” Giacomelli told Canadian Packaging in a recent interview.
“I think that we are right on-trend, because kombucha is probably one of the most important examples of something that started in the ‘healthy’ food aisles and is now making its way into the mainstream.
“The fact is that 10 years ago the better-for-you product category was a tiny, tiny place,” he says, “where health-food stores were essentially corner stores selling patchouli.
“But now you go to any major supermarket in North America and there’s bound to be an organic section there, and maybe even a RISE beverage in that section,” Giacomelli says.
“I really believe that we are at the heart of one of most important categories of crossover foods that five years ago nobody would have heard of.”
Headquartered in Montreal’s Saint-Leonard borough, the company’s 40,000-square-foot facility— including a 10,000-square-foot on-site fridge room—employs about 100 staff across Canada, with over 80 in Montreal.
The fast-growing RISE Kombucha brand comes in six different flavor varieties that include ginger, lemongrass, mint & chlorophyll, hibiscus & rose hips, rose & schizandra, and blueberry & maple.
Currently producing 12 SKUs (stock keeping units) packaged in 414-ml and one-liter glass bottles, the RISE Kombucha plant employs the recently-installed Modulfill HRS filler-and-rinser and Autocol labeler at the heart of its bottling process, with both state-of-the-art machines produced by the leading German beverage line equipment manufacturer Krones AG.
After years of manually bottling the product while growing the business, the new automatic machines are a dream come true for Giacomelli.
“All of the equipment works so well together that I can’t really separate one piece of machinery from the other,” Giacomelli extols.
“It’s a wonderful set of equipment that was provided to us by a great team of knowledgeable experts,” he adds.
Supplied in bulk by the Montreal location of leading glass packaging distributor Consolidated Bottle Corporation, the clear glass bottles used to package the brand are depalletized and placed onto a conveyor in a single lane that runs through the Autocol labeling system from Krones.
The Autocal labeling system then applies a clear-film wraparound self-adhesive product label—designed by Fluid Creative and produced in rollstock by branding specialists Labelink—onto each passing container at high speed with upmost precision, making sure that the name and logo always appear in the exact same place along the bottle’s profile.
After labeling, the bottles travel into the wet-room portion of the Krones system for rinsing, filling and capping, where the Modulfill HRS will immediately perform an auto-correction for any overfilled or
After emerging from the Modulfill HRS System, the bottled product is conveyed further down the line to be inspected by staff and manually placed inside corrugated shipping cases supplied to the plant by Kruger Inc.
According to Giacomelli, the Krones equipment has been working like a charm, allowing the facility to fill, cap and label 350 bottles per minute for their 414-ml varieties at a maximum rate.
Boasting a Food Safety GMP (good manufacturing practice) certification from leading club store chain Costco, the bright and cheery facility promotes a friendly “people-forward” approach that Giacomelli
believes provides an accurate reflection of the wholesomeness of the natural product they make.
With a wide reputation as an effective aid in promoting gut health, stress relief and energy enhancement, kombucha is widely touted as a far healthier alternative to soda, energy drinks and coffee, all of which can have a negative impact on the system when consumed in excess.
With no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in its formulation, Giacomelli says that the naturally vegan beverage has a lot of appeal for three main targeted demographic groups: urban athletic individuals,
trendy foodies, and the urban creatives.
As Giacomelli explains, these consumers share one major commonality: they want a drink that will give them mental or physical stimulation that does not come in the form of their fifth coffee of the day.
Giacomelli also shares there is intentionally no excessive froufrou when it comes to the brand’s flavors, as he wants the drinks to be simple and straightforward.
“We try to make flavors that are approachable to the everyday person, even though kombucha is something they have probably never tried,” Giacomelli explains. “We focus a lot on color because they’re all-natural beverages, with no coloring tricks involved at all.
“All the colors come from the teas and the ingredients,” says Giacomelli, noting that the company is very focused on the brand’s premium overall presentation and clear product transparency.
“We have selected a clear bottle on purpose, so the color of the product plays into the overall packaging presentation,” he states. “That’s the result we’re looking for when we add new flavors to our portfolio—choosing colors that really complement it or work well with it.”
As Giacomelli relates, the process of making kombucha closely resembles that of producing beer, whereby fermenting the ingredients converts carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids, using yeasts or bacteria under anaerobic conditions.
The principal ingredient for kombucha tea, harvested by RISE Kombucha internally, is analogous to the sourdough or yogurt starter that is produced by the blending of yeast and bacteria.
The end result is a living cellulose that reproduces itself to reach enough mass for producing Kombucha.
“Kombucha is not just a brewed tea with an extra ingredient,” Giacomelli points out.
“You take a brewed tea, like a green, black tea or white tea, and you introduce some sugars to activate the fermentation process,” Giacomelli explains.
“Once the fermentation takes place, the body on which the fermentation has occurred transforms into the symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria,” says Giacomelli, adding this key ingredient must be kept in top
shape and refrigerated on-site.
To produce the final kombucha product, “Our staff essentially make a tea, add some of this kombucha culture, some water and some sugar and then ferment that mixture to create this new drink.
“It’s not just adding an ingredient,” he says. “The tea and the microbial content from the yeast and bacteria actually ferment and create a new product that is bubbly.”
According to Giacomelli, RISE Kombucha goes to great lengths to sources high-quality, fair-trade and organic teas and herbs from a number of different regions of the world, including Asia, while the sugar comes directly from an organic co-op in Paraguay.
As he explains, the fermentation process has a lot of science involved, making it necessary to monitor the process closely to ensure the product does not get spoiled along the way.
Since kombucha is a brewed and fermented product made without pasteurization, it naturally produces trace amounts of alcohol.
According to Giacomelli, the trick is to make sure that the alcohol contents always remains strictly below 0.5 per cent, as anything more would classify kombucha as an alcoholic drink.
Another important consideration during production is using the right amount of sugar, so the final product does not have zero residual sugar.
“It wouldn’t really be drinkable,” he states, “but you don’t need to have anywhere near the sugar what a can of soda contains.
“There is a certain level of sugar required for fermentation and then a little bit more to make it palatable,” Giacomelli says.
Says Giacomelli: “Making sugar water runs counter to our whole movement of providing an alternative to sodas.”
“Currently, we bottle one flavor per day, and switch out the size each day,” Giacomelli relates. “For example, we will do one batch of Blueberry Maple in one day, whereby at some point in the day the workers will
switch from the small-bottle format to the large format on the same line.
“They’ll switch the labels and the box sizes as they go along, so we end up emptying out one batch of one flavor each working day.”
Giacomelli says he is very encouraged by the steady rise in the sales of RISE Kombucha in the Canadian market, adding that he hopes to replicate that success south of the border, where the company has recently opened up to distribution locations in Vermont and New York City.
As Giacomelli explains, the brand’s clear and transparent packaging that lets the color of the finished product do most of the talking is a perfect complement to the product’s purity and authenticity.
“I think that our continued evolution, focus and scrutiny is core to who we are as a brand,” Giacomelli proudly states.
“We have won awards in the past and we hope to continue to be recognized for our innovative and attractive packaging, which is a big part of what differentiates RISE from some of the other kombucha companies,
in my opinion.”
While Giacomelli says the company may consider some product experimentation down the road—citing cannabis-infused kombucha as one possibility for future new product development—it is not a priority for
the time being.
“One of the things that could be difficult for us is certifying the use of actual cannabis, and I don’t think that would be the case for us here,” Giacomelli says.
“We would look at what might be possible in a partnership,” he says, “but for now we’ve got a lot on our plates in just continuing to optimize production and ramping up our marketing development and research.”
As he concludes, “There is still plenty for us to do in pushing the limits of what we need to do to become a truly great manufacturer of kombucha, and our new Krones equipment is the perfect ingredient for us to get there.”