"Viral isn’t always what it seems. Sometimes it’s contrived, directed, or even bought. With the right amount of tools, knowledge, and help, restaurants can try to fast-track their journeys to Insta-fame," Eater's Vince Dixon wrote in a thoroughly reported feature on the art and science behind viral food.
Some of these creations, like Dominique Ansel's The Cronut® (yes, it's lucrative enough to have its own registered trademark), were a happy coincidence, a spontaneous melding of two simple ideas. According to Condé Nast Traveler, the invention came about after someone noted Ansel's bakery didn't have an homage to America's favorite breakfast sweet—the doughnut—on the menu. Having grown up in rural France eating mostly croissants, he decided to combine the two.
Others, like Black Tap's self-titled "crazy shakes," were no less inspired, but definitively more calculated. The restaurant's former social media manager claimed in a controversial Eater article that not only did she come up with ideas for the milkshakes (in direct opposition to the owner's origin story), but that the whole thing was a big old marketing scheme to draw in social media influencers as well.
And it worked. (I'm no influencer, but even I've been prey to their neon candy-coated, gluttonously photogenic behemoths; see below.)
Which brings me to this year's next rising star: the kombucha float.
Like most soon-to-be-viral food trends, the kombucha float is nothing new. One of the earliest examples I could find on the internet is a blog post from June 2011. The recipe, from one Nudie Foodie (who no longer appears to exist online), calls for a simple combination of raw, vegan vanilla ice cream and a raspberry-ginger kombucha. The kombucha float, she writes, is "a new spin on an old traditional recipe.” Better yet, it is “enjoyed most when drunk on a hot, humid, sunny, summer day.”
Roughly six years and a decent amount of blog coverage later, wellness website Well + Good gave kombucha floats a shoutout in "The Gut-Friendly Ice Cream Float You Need to Make Right Now." Blogger Taesha Butler, quoted in the story, says she discovered the fizzy, slushy concoctions after a local bartender told her and her husband he'd tried one in South America the summer before. So by the looks of it: less a marketing scheme, more a newly discovered favorite.
The year after, Goop (Gwyneth Paltrow's shrine to $200 breakfast smoothies and coffee enemas) jumped on the kombucha-float band wagon. Their take: blood orange or raspberry sorbet with a classic black tea kombucha. Thanks to the Goop-fluence, plus the Well + Good article, we can safely say that by the summer of 2018, kombucha floats were officially a "thing."
It's no surprise that a drink with as much wellness cachet as kombucha would make it onto Goop's list. As CEO and Health-Ade co-founder, Daina Trout, says, "kombucha is a fermented tea, rich in probiotics and healthy organic acids." It's made with just four simple (but really, not that simple) ingredients: tea, sugar, water and a SCOBY (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that's similar to the culture used in sourdough bread and yogurt). "Like a superior soda with all the benefits of fermentation," kombucha has been said to improve gut health and possibly even lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
So how'd kombucha find its way into floats?
For starters, I think it's got something to do with soda's steady decline. According to Beverage Digest's annual report, Coke and Pepsi sales dipped by 2 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively, in 2017; overall, the carbonated-soft-drink category dropped 1.3 percent by volume. Meanwhile, thanks to the exploding wellness category, kombucha sales are projected "to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 23 percent over the next five years," says a 2018 Forbes report.
"At the end of the day," Daina adds, "I think people want to feel good about what they're eating, but they still want to enjoy what they’re eating."
Nostalgia marketing, which invoke the fond memories of days gone by, is probably also a factor. And it just so happens to perform extremely well amongst the Millennial set. Why? "They’re the first age cohort to grow up with technology, and the last to remember life without it," writes Lauren Friedman in a recent Entrepreneur article. "As a result, they love to reminisce about how things used to be."
So maybe it makes perfect sense that a healthy throwback to a classic mid-century treat (the root beer float was supposedly invented in 1893) would become popular right now—and not five, or even seven years ago.
I only first discovered kombucha floats in November, wandering around a food expo in Brooklyn. Amidst the dozens of food and beverage stalls, each enticing visitors to their table with freebies and samples, one for an ice cream brand hiding in the corner beckoned me over with its wares.
Eat Me, the wonderfully direct name of the brand, was offering not only little scoops of ice cream in paper cups (their lavender goat cheese and caramel smear flavors were divine), but also kombucha floats: a rich, smoky nori and Scotch ice cream paired with a bright beet kombucha. The umami fattiness of the ice cream perfectly countered the sweet-tart effervescence of the kombucha. Even though it was peak fall at the time, I knew this was exactly what I was going to be drinking in the summer. It didn't hurt that I could peg it as good for my cheese-clogged gut.
I recently learned from one of Eat Me's co-founders, Amber Odhner, that they'd been perfecting their floats for awhile. "We began pairing kombucha and ice cream a few years ago when local kombucha brewer, Katboocha, launched in Rochester and we teamed up," she told me. "We had paired many a beer float during our ice cream and beer socials, so kombucha seemed an obvious partner for ice cream."
But will they go "viral"?
Maybe. They share a lot of the same qualities that virals foods tend to have, according to Dixon's Eater feature: colorful, sweet, extremely photogenic, and relatable—plus, they appeal to shared experiences (kombucha floats with friends? Yeah!) and emotions (remember what I said about nostalgia marketing?).
It doesn't hurt that kombucha brands are starting to lean into the idea as a marketing tactic. "Kombucha is making its way into all kinds of recipes, from salad dressings to marinades to floats," says Daina. "It’s definitely something we’ve taken notice of, and embraced ourselves."
My guess is that it's going to follow the same trajectory as its cocktail counterpart, frosé (aka frozen rosé). As the weather heats up, you'll start to see it more and more on the menus of trendy, millennial-geared restaurants and rooftop bars. Then, the influencers will come on board and do what it is that they do: take pictures and share them (it's already happening, see?). The last step: You'll start to notice your friends sharing snaps of their homemade kombucha floats on the weekend, at picnics, and backyard parties.
Or at least this is my forecast as someone obsessed with internet foods. Whether I'm right or wrong, that doesn't make these drinkable desserts any less perfect for summer. But my bet's on the kombucha float's steady rise to becoming the drink of 2019, if not attaining Cronut or crazy shake–level status. So we might as well just go ahead and embrace it already (and post it on Instagram while we're at it).
Ready to make your own kombucha floats? You'll be happy to find just how easy they are. All you need are two scoops of your favorite ice cream (be it full of dairy or totally dairy-free), kombucha, a cup, and a straw or spoon for slurping and stirring. Feel free to go wild with different combinations, but these recommendations from Daina are a great place to start. (If you're still unsure, vanilla ice cream tastes great with just about any flavor.)