As you step into Wild Kombucha’s premises, a tangy blast meets the olfactory senses. It is the gorgeous scent of kombucha emitting from dozens of fat fermentation jars arranged on high racks across the hall. Inside each glass drum of varying sizes, floppy pieces of symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (scoby) are brewing strains of probiotics.
In a large stocked refrigerator, glass bottles stand at the ready for deliveries.
The nation is still under the Movement Control Order due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but these are busy days for owner Jason Tan. Tall, brawny and looking more like a competitive Crossfitter than a stoic chemical engineer-turned-kombucha entrepreneur, he is fully engaged and has more orders than usual.
“It’s been a bit crazy but I’m counting my blessings to have the taps running,” he says.
He provides a quick overview of the probiotic tea — its detoxification, immunity-boosting and gut-fortifying benefits make it much more than a healthful alternative to a sweet, refreshing drink on a hot day.
Kombucha is a beverage fermented from the culture of bacteria and yeast and has long been on the shelves in countries such as the US — and Tan’s link to it can be traced back to his childhood and a debilitating case of chronic eczema.
“Naturally, skin specialists prescribed steroid creams. But medication was only a temporary relief. Within days, the rash would return with angry blisters,” he recalls. “It was painful to shower and sleep, contact with the bed was agony and it was sometimes impossible to eat.”
People who suffer from skin ailments know the frustrating cycles of steroid creams, anti-inflammatory pills and the subsequent relapses and flare-ups. Painful and itchy welts lined Tan’s skin as he hid behind long-sleeved tops and the security of his bedroom in his youth.
He finally found relief in a strict gluten-free diet. The scarlet weals on his skin began to heal, as did his self-esteem.
To this day, Tan embraces a regimented lifestyle of fitness training, personally prepared meals, work and rest. He still gets the occasional flare-up, like the time he relocated to Qatar for his engineering career, and it is something he has to manage.
In Qatar, an exhausting lifestyle of long stressful hours that ran late into the weeknights and through the weekends as well as poor air quality triggered the return of his old nemesis, making basic routines like washing up, sleeping and eating a misery.
When Tan had had enough, he packed up and returned home, determined on a career overhaul.
Back in Kuala Lumpur, he started to experiment with the scoby his brother Jonson had given him. He used it to produce probiotic tea, which had once helped clear his dreaded eczema. Amazingly, consumption of the tea once again alleviated the problem.
Tan, a health pedant, began to see some intriguing patterns as his body healed. “I began to understand how critical it was to have robust gut health and a fully functional immune system. It affects everything in your body and your appearance.”
Realising what kombucha could do for people’s health, he started looking into manufacturing and distributing the tea as a viable business.
Wild Kombucha began on a home-kitchen scale as Tan experimented with various brews using natural and quality ingredients such as real fruits. Word got around and orders quickly poured in from family and friends. The business grew organically and within six months, it was relocated to a commercial production laboratory — where Wild Kombucha currently operates — and began receiving orders from cafés, fitness centres and other food and beverage outlets.
Today, Tan has customers who write in to wax lyrical about Wild Kombucha’s contribution to their health. “There are some customers who suffer from chronic skin problems like psoriasis, who find improvements after a month on the product. It’s not a cure for health ailments as there are many other factors like sleep, diet, exercise and stress management. But it is certainly heartening when others are benefiting from my products like I have,” he says.
Changing careers was challenging at first, but feeling good and healthy again was enough of an impetus for Tan to continue pursuing his new venture.
“It’s fulfilling being able to help people live better. I believe in kombucha. It’s not a marketing ploy as there are actual health benefits to it. As I was recovering from my time in Qatar and considering the trade-offs between my health and my career, it was a solid no to going back to the old lifestyle. I needed something I believed in,” he says.
Anticipating growth in the kombucha market in Malaysia, Tan hopes to eventually supply the product throughout the country before exporting it to Singapore.
This could mean either expanding on an industrial scale with a one-product focus or keeping the business boutique-sized and cosier with the introduction of repurposed kombucha products. End-of-life scoby can be dehydrated into candy or converted into skincare serums or cleaning solutions. The possibilities are interesting — in which case, the favoured choice for Tan would be to open a small kombucha bar or café with fancy offerings such as kombucha floats, popsicles and vinaigrettes.
Whichever way he decides to scale up, this connoisseur’s priority is to maintain the quality of his products. “With supermarket-bought kombucha, there is the issue of consistency. Sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes sour. You wonder if you’re really tasting kombucha,” Tan explains.
“As good as it may seem to be a major factory producer, the integrity of the product is more important. For now, it’s about fine-tuning and deriving a delicate balance between both directions. There’s so much to learn about the market as kombucha is still in its early days in Malaysia.”
Wild Kombucha’s latest potable offering is coffee kombucha, a refreshing fermented coffee for sensitive guts. It contains probiotics for good digestion. Fermenting coffee is a challenge in itself, as coffee is acidic and renders the brew sour when layered over kombucha, but Tan has nailed it in this new edition.
The brand is also a welcome presence in community and corporate events such as hipster bazaars and fitness outings. Interestingly, it even supplied kombucha to skincare brand Fresh for the rollout of their black tea facial treatment essence and rose deep hydration facial toner in Malaysia. Wild Kombucha has also teamed up with fitness apparel player Lululemon at its local consumer engagement events.
These companies look at kombucha as a product that is in keeping with the trend of being healthy.
Naturally, in the initial years of business, entrepreneurs are often reminded of the easier way of life while in somebody else’s employ. Tan, however, has no regrets. “I like how I have some time for myself in the mornings to work out and prepare meals, to interact with friends more frequently and to rest properly. But there are periods in a business where things are hectic too. It’s down to organising and learning to be efficient with the myriad things to do as a start-up.”
This article first appeared on April 27, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.