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MOJO Kombucha – The Untold Backstory

From selling his handcrafted kombucha out of an esky at the local farmers market in South Australia’s McLaren Vale region to multinational acquisition, MOJO kombucha founder Anthony Crabb has cemented his place as a true pioneer of the Australian kombucha category.

After his early forays selling his home brew proved a hit with locals, the softly-spoken entrepreneur left his stable job in the food processing industry, throwing everything at making the business a success.

A decade later MOJO Kombucha is one of the most successful beverage start-up stories in Australia sold in more than 6,000 outlets nationwide, in a category conservatively valued at $106 million domestically. It made history late last year when parent company Organic and Raw Trading Co. was acquired by the world’s largest beverage company The Coca-Cola Co.

Organic and Raw Trading Co Sales Marketing Director Andrew Buttery

We talked to Organic and Raw’s Sales and Marketing Director, Andrew Buttery, ahead of his interview with Natural Core CEO Peter Barraket at this year’s Naturally Good Business Summit.

Grass roots category pioneers

Anthony began fermenting tea to produce his handcrafted kombucha in his backyard in McLaren Vale, South Australia in 2008 after a well-travelled friend introduced him to the wonders of the ancient gut elixir. He perfected his own recipe using a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast for fermentation) and testing his small batches on friends and family before selling it at the local farmers markets.  In those days it was all hands on deck, with his wife Sarah and young children and even his elderly grandfather pitching in to help with their first bottlings by hand.

At that time, Australians were becoming more and more health conscious and were just starting to learn about the benefits of fermented food and drinks.  But few outside of health and wellness circles knew much about kombucha and its benefits.

When Anthony launched MOJO Kombucha onto the market in 2010, he and his team were pioneering what was then a very niche beverage category in Australia for sparkling, probiotic rich, fermented tea – or kombucha. Anthony and Sarah travelled Australia advocating the virtues of their wonder-brew to passionate health food retailers, cafe and restaurant owners and eventually independent and major grocery chains.

“Anthony kept this little bible, an exercise book that you have at school, and in there he started entering the number of bottles sold every week and the value he sold it for. That was our ‘bible’ and it charts the remarkable growth of the company from the start,” Mr Buttery told What’s New in Healthy Products.

During those early days, Anthony focussed on increasing his knowledge of the fermentation process, becoming a leader in traditional fermentation techniques. It was through trial, error and the help of the South Australia Research and Development Institute (SARDI) that the MOJO home brew recipe was able to be produced on a larger scale, allowing true handcrafted kombucha to be readily available. A small team of local workers at Willunga in McLaren Vale continue to handcraft MOJO Kombucha using the original SCOBY and recipe.

Scale and chilled distribution

Scaling any product from garage to large-format grocery store has its challenges, but none so much as with a live, fermented and refrigerated product like MOJO Kombucha. For Organic and Raw, moving into large format grocery retail meant developing some unique processes to maintain a ’true’ kombucha at scale. For example, even today in large scale supply, MOJO is always distributed and sold chilled so the probiotics are kept alive throughout the supply chain to a consumer’s gut.

“The fermenting process is so unique – if you don’t get your cleaning and brewing processes right, you couldn’t produce the consistent quality we’ve achieved. Anthony placed an enormous amount of attention on this for the first six or seven years to make sure we had this right. Those systems have laid the foundations for where we are today,” he said.

He says Anthony credits the success of MOJO in large part to steadfast adherence to these processes and values as foundations to be able to scale manufacturing for nationwide distribution, despite some of the challenges along the way.

“We did have some early discussions around whether we should move away from traditional style but those conversations were short-lived as we formed a very clear view that MOJO Kombucha should maintain its authenticity. Once we knew we had that clear direction, it made it very easy. It’s part of our brand, it’s who we are and we have stayed the course.”

The company has stuck to this approach, outside of developing some new flavours aimed at more mainstream consumers. “We didn’t feel the classic, traditional style with the stronger vinegary flavour profile was necessarily the right product to take to mainstream grocery, so we did some work around the process and ended up with a product lower in sugar, smoother and more rounded with less acetic acid,” Buttery said.

“It was a really genuine bit of innovation to ensure our product appealed to new consumers entering the category while still maintaining the traditional fermentation process.”

The next steps

Kombucha is a rapidly growing category in Australia with sales growing by 174 per cent in the last three years. (Nielsen HomeScan data). Mr Buttery says the focus will be on continuing to expand Australian distribution to meet this demand.

The team remain committed to scaling using the original traditionally fermented recipe, last year launching a new $1 million bottling line to increase capacity by 130 per cent. “It’s fair to say the future for MOJO Kombucha is bright.”