Ethan and Kate Zuckerman set out to make delicious, local kombucha with a small footprint by focusing on saving/reusing bottles. They’ve now saved over 750,000 bottles and are well on their way to one million bottles saved.
Highlights & Takeaways
Blue Ridge Bucha operates with a low-waste / sustainability ethos
Foucs on saving bottles through re-use and through kegging
Episode 97 Transcript
Brendan Hanson: All right. Thanks for tuning into another episode of the Drips & Draughts podcast. Exciting day for us here, we finally have a kombucha episode. I know we’ve mentioned it a few times in the past, but we’ve never got an episode dedicated to kombucha. I got to say thanks to Ethan and Kate for joining me today. They’ve got an awesome story, what seems to be a great company, and they’re pictures are just incredible. The pictures I’m seeing on their website and social media just make me want to run out and find a bottle of their kombucha.
However, they’re on the East coast, I’m on the West coast so, I’m going to have to see if I can get them to ship some out here or something. I got to mention, if I sound a little nasally today, I am. My whole family came down with either the cold or the flu, but, we got it bad and we’re all still recovering. That was last week, hoping we all get over it this week. If I sound a little bit different, that’s why. But, I do have a nice YETI full of hot toddy sitting here on my desk.
Unfortunately, there’s no whiskey in it but, it seems to be helping, makes the throat feel a little better. All right. Before we get into today’s episode, just a couple of small matters, couple little pieces of business to take care of. First, we’ve got t-shirts to give away. We’ve got a bunch of new Cold Brew Avenue t-shirts we’re trying to give away. Couple of ways you can get those. Hop on our website, click on the ask a question link, and just record a question. If we like it, if we play it on the show, we will send you a t-shirt, it’s that easy.
The other way, call our 888 number. It’s 888.620.2739 extension 6. Same thing, just record a voicemail there, if we like it, if we play it on the air, we will contact you and we’ll send you a t-shirt. Simple, right? All right. Our last order of business is to remind you guys to hop on iTunes and leave this show a rating or a review. I think we’ve only got two so far in 2018. Now, it’s a good time to hop on over and show this show a little bit of love like Jason Newland did.
He left us a five-star review that says, “I’ve been listening since almost the beginning. Brendan and Cary and even the intern Ricky have changed everything about how I brew and serve cold brew. I’ve learned so much form these guys and the guests they have on air. The show has evolved so much, I can’t wait to see where it goes in 2018. Keep up the great work, guys.”
Jason, thanks for the review and yes, we actually might have to get you on the show at some point and just talk cold brew and at home. Since Jason mentioned the intern in his review, I think I’m going to read the other review that we’ve gotten in 2018 as well. This one is a five-star review, it’s titled, “Great podcast.” It comes from– I don’t know if this review is legit because, it comes from John from Timesheetify.com.
I don’t know if he’s just looking for a shout-out for his company or what, but the review says, “Really enjoy the podcast. So much valuable information. Bottling, recipes, nitro. Thinking of starting a cold brew business and this podcast is an incredible resource.” John from Timesheetify.com, thanks for leaving the review. Actually, it sounds like a product we might be able to use, we could start having the intern log his hours using Timesheetify.com.
All right, so there it is. John, if you were looking for a shout-out, you got it, but we do appreciate the five-star review. All right, guys, that does it for the long-winded intro today. If you’re looking for links or show notes from this episode, you can find those by going to Dripsanddraughts.com/97. Let’s get into today’s interview with Ethan and Kate Zuckerman from Blue Ridge Bucha.
Announcer: Thanks to our sponsor Cold Brew Avenue, the first stainless steel cold brew system that has reinvented how you cold brew. Easily brew up to 50 gallons using their 100% reusable stainless steel filter system. Visit them at Coldbrewavenue.com to learn more.
Brendan: All right. Welcome back to the Drips & Draughts podcast. As always, I’m Brendan Hanson and today I’m joined by Kate and Ethan. How are you guys?
Ethan Zuckerman: Doing well, doing well.
Kate Zuckerman: Good, thanks.
Brendan: Good. Thanks for joining me. This is a little change of pace from our normal topics, we primarily have been covering coffee, a little bit of beer. We’ve mentioned kombucha before but we’ve never had a kombucha company on. Thanks for taking the time to join me today.
Kate: Yes, thanks for having us. We’re looking forward to it.
Ethan: We are, thank you.
Brendan: Awesome. Well, would you guys mind giving me a little background on yourselves and how guys came to get into the kombucha business?
Ethan: Absolutely. Yes. I guess about seven, coming on eight years ago now, we started a small kombucha company. We started just as a share-based company, which basically meant we were selling kombucha six packs out of the back of a ’93 Honda Civic, in a local restaurant parking lot. It worked. Even then, our low mate waste ethos, the sustainability ethos, was to do the returnable bottle model. We would send out six packs, send to folks who would come to the grocery or the restaurant parking lot. They’d collect their six packs. They’d take them home, drink them, rinse them out, bring them back. We’d wash them again.
We were doing that for I guess about a year and then we figured out how to get our kombucha, this idea of bringing our kombucha into kegs and from there stepped into more of a grocery retail bar restaurant environment, where we’ve then taken off from there in the keg model. A little bit of background. Both of us are from Virginia here, where we are now. I was going to school in Northern California, while Kate was doing to school in Southern California.
Brendan: Where at?
Ethan: I was going to school at Humboldt State.
Kate: I went to a little school outside of Los Angeles called Pitzer College.
Brendan: Okay. We’re down in SoCal.
Ethan: All right. Yes. So, someone came into the house that I was living at the time. Brought one of these– SCOBY is my housemate, which is this symbiotic colony of bacteria in the Yeast, from which kombucha is made. These thousands of year process, couple thousand years through making kombucha. One of these came into the home I was living in. We started playing with it essentially, brewing kombucha batches. Shortly, we were brewing something pretty tasty and we were selling it to our university professors at the time and then it’s grown from there.
I guess that was about 15 years ago now. Fast forward a little bit to the parking lot behind restaurant there, we launched into our first shares. Now, eight years forward where we’re– Got a number of different accounts where we sell kegs of kombucha. We also do sell some pre-filled bottles and keep it going from there.
Brendan: Awesome. This started as like a hobby just out of the house.
Ethan: Yes. Essentially, we’re home brewing. When we came back to Virginia, both independently, kind of refound each other here in Virginia. We are a husband and wife duo with this business. We were back here. I was still just kept brewing it as a hobby, just much like all the sauerkraut we make or sourdough breads or yogurt, kombucha is just one of the things on the shelf. People kept saying, “Wow, that’s really good. Are you going to ever do something more with that?” I’m like, “Well, you know, maybe one day we might.” Then the timing is sort of was right with where we were. Kate was teaching yoga at the time. I was building our house at the time and we decided, “Hey, let’s just give this a shot.” We both have passion, entrepreneurial spirit. We love making a good product and so it’s grown from there.
Brendan: Awesome. Yes. Tell us about Blue Ridge Kombucha. Obviously, that’s kind of where the idea came from. That company started about eight years ago?
Kate: Yes, it was about eight.
Brendan: You guys just dove all in.
Kate: Step by step. It took about four years before I was full-time employed by the company. The first four years I was part-time and Ethan was full-time. We’ve been just been adding team members on and now we’re seven full-time and six part-time. So, in that mid-size category in terms of kombucha companies around the country. I love the kombucha, a lot of our friends love the kombucha, and so it felt like the right time to make the leap and say, “Could we actually make a business out of this?” It took a couple of years to figure out, but yes, this is actually happening. [laughs]
Brendan: Awesome. Were you guys married at the time you started this?
Kate: We were not. Let’s see. We’ve been married six years?
Brendan: It didn’t drive you guys apart?
Ethan: No. Closer and closer together. There were moments, let’s be real here. We have two kids also and a house. I mean, we’ve been going for it.
Kate: We’re all in.
Ethan: We’re all in. Our kids are three and five, so they came along the way as well during the whole process.
Ethan: Kate also found a nonprofit right at the same time, so there was a lot going on in the early days.
Brendan: Okay. You guys are true entrepreneurs and just keep yourselves busy?
Ethan: I guess we do.
Kate: We do.
Brendan: What was it like starting a company? That’s a question we get a lot. We’re small business owners here. We talk to a lot of small business owners. Was it stressful? Was it fun? What was the overwhelming feeling throughout that process? Or is it just a mix of everything?
Kate: It’s funny you said overwhelming feeling. I think there’s that edge of fun and overwhelm. That you are riding a lot as an entrepreneur with how you’re approaching it. We know what’s on your plate for the day, some days you’ve got the same tasks but, some days those tasks go overwhelming. Other days, it feels fun and you’re just riding the crest of that wave, other times, the wave’s like breaking on top of you. A lot of it for me anyway is about the attitude that I come to work with and trying to do a lot in terms of self care to make sure that I’m eating well and exercising regularly.
I’m getting the distress moments that I need and the connections with friends and all those things that help me keep it all in balance because, there’s always a To Do list, when you’re running your own company as you know. Just trying to keep it all in balance has been crucial and I feel like I’m always improving upon that. I’ve learned so much about that in the past eight years but I hope eight years from now, I’m even more better at that balancing at.
Brendan: Maybe you can write a book because I feel like I’m terrible with that.
Ethan: We would all benefit from that book.
Kate: Yes, I could use that book.
Ethan: From my perspective, I can completely agree with everything that Kate is saying here, and there’s been another added element in Kombucha itself for really trying to create a commercial Kombucha company which we have. We’re part of an organization, The Kombucha Brewers International, which we meet every year or once a year in LA or outside of LA. This is, I guess, we’re coming on the fourth year here, is that correct? The fifth [inaudible 00:12:14] we’ll be meeting here in the next couple weeks actually.
We come together.
It’s an opportunity to see our fellow brewers and talk with fellow companies around The United States but then also some international companies coming as well. In the early days, the first meetings, it was very much– Everyone was asking each other. “What vessel are you brewing in and what size and what’s your system like?” Basically, what I’m getting at is it’s an industry that is still very, very new.
We’re all basically looking at other similar industries to get ideas from and then creating our systems from there. Beer, wine, cider, these are all more established industries that have more established systems for brewing and processes for packaging. Especially, in the early days, the beginning of our company, I have a very systems engineering type of mind and so to be able to create all of these new systems, I have just been fascinating to well that creative side to come out there.
Here we are, currently sitting in a new space where moving from our home environment, where we had basically a wood shop turn to Kombucha brewery next to our home that we built. Now, we’re heading right over the mountains still in the bluish mountains here to a facility that we’re currently building out. We’re sitting in what is one day going to be the office over here, and we’re building out all the new systems and it’s just that side of the one’s own business, one’s own industry, the entrepreneurial spirit has been just completely exciting. Of course, there are tough moments-
Ethan: -but very, very exciting.
Brendan: Yes, that’s awesome. You alluded to how you guys were pulling ideas from wine and beer and everything else.
Brendan: We’ve seen that in cold brew coffee with the growth there. A lot of ideas are coming from I think the brewing industry in the wine industry as well. You also alluded to the fact that Kombucha brewers are trading ideas. It’s not like one person gets an idea and just hoards that. It’s sounds like a very sharing and welcoming environment.
Ethan: I think there’s a balance there, I know we have collaborated more with other companies on the opposite coast, so there’s maybe a little bit more of that. Folks told us we’re kind of– It’s new, we’re unsure of what the future holds as far as competition. There is a lot of it and I think it’s a healthy, healthy part of our industry. Unlike, say beer, we’re in an area where you maybe as well with of course these micro-brewers everywhere.
It’s how do you distinguish yourself in that market and I think Kombucha is not quite to that place at all but, there are more and more companies coming out every day. It’s just how do you collaborate and also have your own distinctness and what do you share and what do you keep as your proprietary process? What are the pieces there? Where is the give and take? That has been a fun journey as well.
Brendan: Sure, I bet. Let’s jump into Kombucha a little bit. What is it for somebody who might be totally unfamiliar with it? What is Kombucha?
Ethan: The quick and dirty, when you’re at the festival and someone’s like, “What is it?”
“It’s fermented tea.” That’s the basic and, “Okay, I’ll take the IPA.” Wait a minute.
[laughter] Basically, fermented tea. Essentially what we’re doing, what has been for millennia at this point, is, you’re taking a derivative of the green tea plant. So, the Camellia sinensis plant, green or black tea, essentially steeping tea. You’re boiling water, you’re steeping your tea. In most cases, you’re dissolving sugar to kind of make that tea pretty sweet, sweeter than most people would drink tea. Then you’re adding in your SCOBY, which is that, again, symbiotic colony or culture of bacteria and yeast.
It’s like this pancake mat that has been passed down for generations. That mat lives on top of the sweet tea that you’ve created. There’s two main stages of brewing kombucha. The first stage is that one I’m describing, the aerobic stage, where you place your SCOBY on top of your vessel. You put a nice cloth over top of it, basically, to keep dust or fruit flies out. But, you’re encouraging air to come into the mix. It’s an aerobic process. The bacteria and the yeast are basically fermenting that sugar.
They’re feeding off the sugar. They’re creating your D vitamins, acidic acids, digestive enzymes, the probiotics. In some cases, if there’s a more yeast present, then they can create an alcohol. They can create the gases CO2, various things like this, but essentially, you’re taking what is something very, very sweet to something that could be a table vinegar. You’re fermenting out that sugar.
I feel like the art and the science of kombucha is really where to harvest that first stage. For us, we like to have a little bit of tang and we also like to have a little bit of sweetness as well. We will find that right spot, we’ve got a little sweetness, a little tang, and then we’ll go into our second stage, which in bare-bones essence, is going into a bottle basically. Where you then go into an anaerobic environment.
Brendan: You’re stopping the fermentation processes.
Ethan: Yes. Almost. You go into the second stage where this is the opportunity in most cases to get CO2s, especially if you’re in home brewer environment. You would take your kombucha now that’s not carbonated and you would put it into a bottle, and then you would cap that bottle, and you would allow, maybe add a little bit warmer temperature, you would allow the sugar to be assimilated a little bit more with the yeast and bacteria in there, and then you would create your CO2 that way. You kind of create this natural effervescence. Then nuances of flavors can come during that process as well.
Ethan: That’s the basic bare-bones. There’s flavoring. In our case, I think probably most kombucha companies have a ginger. We have our ginger. Ginger’s one of these popular flavors. That one, for us, is we add that flavor infusion into the second stage process. We’ll have brewed with our green and black tea base and then going into the bottle equivalent. Now, we don’t go right into a bottle because we’re a larger facility but, going into the bottle equivalent, we would have already fresh pressed all these ginger root. And, so, you’ve got this amazing strong ginger juice basically, that then we’re just adding a little bit into the bottle to get that nice ginger fizz flavor that a lot of people love.
Brendan: Okay. When you first add the SCOBY, it’s basically just green tea and sugars at that point.
Brendan: Then when the flavoring happens, a majority of the fermentation’s been done and that’s when you’re starting to add in and mixing the flavors.
Ethan: Yes. There are two, I mean, and I’m just going to talk in broad strokes, but there are two main areas where flavoring can happen. One of those is in that first stage. Brewing with a green tea or a black tea is going to give you a different flavor. Then you can go from there. You could do elderflowers or rosehips, or a variety of other things can certainly happen in that first stage to get different flavor profiles out of the first stage. You’re brewing with a SCOBY there that can be– That means that can be somewhat sensitive to certain things.
For example, mints and lavenders, and things that have high volatile oils can cause some problems for the SCOBY’s longevity. If you say you wanted to make a lavender flavor, you might be better served adding that lavender infusion into the second stage process, where now the SCOBY is out of the mix. You can infuse flavors into the second stage, or you can brew in with the first stage. Again, those are broad strokes, so every brewer has a number of different things that they’ll do to incorporate different flavors into their process.
Brendan: Okay. What’s the typical time it takes to brew a batch of kombucha?
Ethan: I would say the typical time is between seven to 14 days. I think some people would go longer, 21 days, even longer. Some people can go shorter. I think seven might be, but, I’ve seen probably some of the shortest fermentation time and a lot of that has to do with the level of acidity that you want in the kombucha, and the amount of tang you want. A greater fermentation time would give you more tang, but at the same time, talking with fellow brewers in Texas, they start out their water is just much higher on the Ph scale.
So, to get their level of acidity down, they just have to brew longer to get there. We happen to have more acidic water in general on our mountains here, so our implementation times are going to be quicker as a result to that, if that make sense.
Brendan: Yes. Interesting. A little bit of science behind there.
Ethan: I tell you the art and the science of brewing kombucha.
Brendan: For sure. One thing I hear about when I hear about kombucha is health benefits. What are the health benefits? What makes kombucha so healthy? I know it’s becoming more popular but, you used to be able to only find it at health food stores, Lawson’s Whole Foods, those types of places. What is it about kombucha that’s so healthy?
Kate: Yes. You know, different companies have a different approach to this. For us, we steer away from making health claims specifically. One reason is it’s highly frowned upon by the FDA. [chuckles] Another reason is just we feel like there hasn’t been a ton of research yet done on some of the claims that are made about kombucha. So, it doesn’t feel comfortable for us to advance those.
One thing that we can say is that, it’s a great alternative to a sugary soda or an alcoholic beverage if you’re looking for something that is going to be lower calorie, low sugar, non-alcoholic. It’s definitely a more healthful option than many of the beverage options that are on the market. We feel like that’s a very comfortable thing to say. Certainly, anecdotally, we hear from a lot of people that it improves their digestion.
That’s probably the most common thing we hear and there are probiotics in kombucha so, we feel comfortable talking about the health benefits of probiotics. Which, there’s more and more research coming out about that, and some very interesting things even linking gut health to mental health and immune system health. I think we’re going to see in the coming years a lot more concrete information coming out about not just probiotics but kombucha specifically. But, it just feels like we’re not quite there yet to speak with authority on that subject.
Brendan: Okay. Makes sense. Then, going back to the brewing you guys, how do you guys come up with the flavor combinations that you end up releasing? Is it just a lot of experimenting or local fruits and veggies?
Ethan: Yes. Exactly. Basically, we’ll come up with an idea, see if we can bring it into fruition. Some of that has to do with seasonally available fruits, vegetables, herbs, things of this nature. Others are just where does our mind take us and can our palates follow basically. Yes. That is definitely a very fun part of the process. There’s a lot of creativity in that, just bringing different flavors together.
I think one of the things that’s, maybe every company says this, but we feel what differentiates our kombucha is that it is very flavorful. In a sense that we really focus on a high-quality kombucha base. You’re getting that, this is kombucha, it’s got the tang, it’s got the sweet and then how to weave in flavors to that by not masking what is the base and then not also having it just disappear. I think that is a really fun piece for me. I mean we travel all over the country quite a bit and I’m always hunting down the kombuchas, who’s brewing what, what is it tasting like.
Brendan: You could tie it all.
Ethan: I have to, right?
Ethan: It’s just really fun. For me, the first thing is I always just try to identify the base, that kombucha in there and then just see how the flavors are woven into that. I feel like there’s some stigmas out there that, “Kombucha, it’s like smelly socks, it’s dirty feet. Yuck, I don’t want to touch that vinegary stuff?” Kombucha is like that. You can find that kombucha. But, kombucha is also really flavorful.
I mean, when it’s done, what I feel is, essentially when it’s done with the idea of a tasty beverage in mind, oh, man, it’s very tasty. Now, at the same time, it does have that tang so I think it’s taking our western palates in general time to allow that piece of the puzzle to come in more often, now I like our palates are driven more by sweetness. So, to be, let the palate shift a little bit to some tanginess, it takes a little growth in some areas.
Brendan: Yes. I probably have to agree with that. We’re conditioned to sweetness, aren’t we?
Ethan: We really are, yes.
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Brendan: Let’s change gears a little bit and talk about you guys and low waist model. I saw on your website, I guess it’s maybe a tagline for the company, big flavor, small footprint. Tell us about you guys’ thoughts on that and how the company operates.
Kate: It’s something that’s been with us from the beginning when we were considering taking something that had been a hobby on a small scale and bringing it to potentially larger audience. One thing that Ethan and I kept coming up against was this sense of, well, do we really just want to be creating another consumer product? Do we really just want to be bottling something and knowing that those bottles are going to be ending up in the landfill? Because, it was just the environmental awareness was something that had been just a part of our lives on a personal level for a long time.
That’s when we came up with the concept of doing it initially as the share based model where people would return the bottles. They would get washed, they would get refilled, and the bottles would not be thrown away, they would actually be owned by the clients. Then from that, we developed into the keg model once we wanted to bring it to a larger audience, we realized that we had turned more into a bottle washing company than a kombucha making company. We said, “Well, we’ve hit the ceiling of the people that we can serve at 100 clients but, we wanted to take the kombucha to more people.” We set it up in the keg system.
Now, people buy a bottle, we have three different options. There’s a 12 ounce, a 32 ounce and a 64. People can buy whatever size they like, they can go to their favorite retailer and they can fill up on whatever flavor they like, they take it home, they wash it out, they bring it back, they use it again. We have been keeping track over the years of how many bottles are saved through this process and we recently hit the milestone of three quarters of a million bottles.
Brendan: That’s awesome.
Kate: Which just feels great right. It’s just like little by little we can see the ticker going up and then you get to these big milestones, you look back and you’re like, wow, eight years and 750,000 bottles. That’s a small business but big impact over time.
Kate: That’s been really central to just the way we have done business from the get go. There’s other little things that we do around the business, in terms of composting brewery waste and looking for all if we do events and things it’s all compostables that we’re using. There are also other things that we can do as a business to be more aware but, the business itself operates around this idea of reuse.
Brendan: I like that. I got to throw it in and that’s actually one of keg outlets taglines is saving the world from bottles and cans, one keg at a time. I like that you guys are a proponent of that.
Brendan: You mentioned you have retailers, is it basically growing filling stations that you’ve got set up at different retail spaces?
Kate: Yes. We have little fountains, we call them kombuchha fountains, and they’re basically kegrators that we’ve assembled and customized in various ways and then people can come fill up on different flavors of kombucha. Then there’s also places like restaurants, coffee shops, things like that, that might have a dedicated draft lines to our products so they’re choosing to maybe bringing something non alcoholic alongside their alcoholic options in some cases, they devoted draft line to our kombucha or these box that have one of the fountains where you can tell.
Brendan: Awesome. That’s great. Then you guys also mentioned you’ve got upcoming taproom project, you’re sitting in the new office of that location right now. What made you make the jump from the home space to let’s get a facility?
Ethan: If we were sitting at our home space together having this interview, you would see oh wow it’s time.
Brendan: It’s really maxed up.
Ethan: It’s really maxed up. “Well, what are all those auxiliary buildings doing outside? Oh you probably need a larger space.” That was probably the biggest. We started about eight years ago this business, our eldest, our son he’s five years old now and our daughter’s three years old. All the while 10 steps to the brewery has been great with little kids right there. Now, they’re a little bit older, big brother goes, his little sister, they go to their daycare. We’re stepping off the property more and more now. Combining those two pieces, we’re really outgrowing our current space and we’re spreading our wings in a sense, a little more we are leaving more.
Makes sense to shift. Where we have been brewing, we’re essentially on our property in more of a residential area and we’re talking way back in the woods, but, at the same time, it’s not a place where we receive the public and have tasting. This whole time have wanted that opportunity. So, stepping over the mountain into the [unintelligible 00:31:10] valley here, we will have that opportunity. We’ll have more space under one roof, where we will be able to stretch out a little bit. There’s still not a very large space but larger than we currently are operating in and then the opportunity to have a little taphouse, a little taproom, is just really exciting for us.
Brendan: Yes, that’s awesome. Tell me about the taproom a little bit. How many taps? How many different flavors will you guys have on tap at one time?
Ethan: Yes. We’re talking about that now, actually. Our current process is to really doing out the production space which will hopefully within a couple of weeks we should be stepping into. We were just having a meeting today, walking around looking at the tap room space and seeing what we want to do. We’re thinking 10 to 12 taps of Kombucha and then looking at what else can we– We have fellow cold brew makers in the area dedicating cold brew line.
Are we going to get the ECHO license or not. We’re not sure we have a number of Microbrews and wineries here who, they’ve put us on draft, near facilities will be great if they’ll reciprocate. Just looking at, does that makes sense to open that door and then also we’re creative folks. We love other things, too. What other concoctions can we create to put on draft, or that will be predetermined.
Brendan: Sure. That’s cool. As you build up the brewery side, can I ask what a typical batch size for this is when you’re brewing?
Ethan: Yes. Absolutely. Kombucha, I would say most people in a home brew environment would probably have about a gallon jar. Some people step up to two gallon jars and there might be some people who are working at of five gallon crocks. That’s pretty much all the information you can find available on the internet, will be how to brew one gallon or two gallons.
It’s really been a journey this scale up. We have other Kombucha companies we’ve been in their facilities, checked out. Some were operating upwards of couple of hundred gallons. Some are still in two gallon glass jars or five gallon crocks. We have developed our process to where were in 250 gallon vessels. They work just great. The biggest jump actually was from our two gallon glass jar to the first 25 gallon kettle and it was like, ” All right. Can we make this lead?” And, then, from there we just scaled up. We did 25 gallons to 50 gallons then we jump from that to our 250. That’s where we’ve been.
It feels like a really nice manageable size to really keep that artisanal feeling for us. One brewer can be standing up there with the paddle and just stirring this giant cold drum. It’ feels great, it’s real great. From the quality craft side, we’ve actually at this scale we’ve been able to really hone in and have more controls on our grand science experiment, which is our beverage. We can really hone it in and have every batch just to be that much more consistent and we’ve locked in our flavor better than we ever have with our current system which is awesome.
Brendan: Awesome. That’s great. Yes that’s through beer, coffee, everything. Having that consistency is something that obviously keeps people coming back for your product. That’s great.
Ethan: Yes. It’s pretty critical and at the same time I feel like Kombucha kind of source, Kombucha drinkers know that Kombucha now I can’t say all but ours and many Kombuchas, it’s raw. It’s unpasteurized so, it’s alive. There’s going to be variation from batch to batch but, I agree with you, and that’s one of the things that we’ve really prided ourselves on. It’s how to maintain consistent batch from that ginger to the other ginger. The other [unintelligible 00:34:41] of sunrise, to the exit of sunrise, they’re going to be a little bit different but for the most part, they’re as close as we can get them which is great.
Brendan: Nice. All right. Just a couple more questions before we wrap this up. Kombucha is obviously becoming more and more popular. Would you guys consider it a mainstream beverage yet?
Kate: It’s interesting, you can now walk into Kruger, here on the East Coast for example, and find multiple brands of Kombucha, mostly the national players. I think one thing we really appreciated about companies like GT Synergy or some of the other national brands that are coming in on the scene now is that, they’ve really done a lot to develop mainstream awareness and appreciation of Kombucha as another craft beverage. We feel like it provides then a great niche for us as smaller more artisanal, more regionally based producers to come in and offer folks another Kombucha experience that they can try.
I won’t say that it’s quite hit the exact mainstream yet but it’s definitely growing and that’s one thing we’ve asked ourselves over the years like, “Okay, when are people going to stop being interested in this or is this just a trend that people are into right now? But, it seems to be very steady and growing year over year both for us and as an industry overall.” I do feel like it is heading more into that mainstream.
You said earlier, you used to be able to find it at just a healthy retailer and now you can walk into any major grocery store pretty much anywhere in the country and find at least one and usually two or more brands of kombucha on the shelf.
Brendan: Those national players are helping build awareness, then do you guys see that you’re still having to do a lot of education when maybe you are at an event and somebody is trying kombucha for the first time?
Kate: Not sure but, we’ve kept some just back of the napkin data on this over the years and whereas when we first stepped into Whole Foods, which, that was about five and a half years ago, something like that. When we first stepped in there and we would go in and do tastings with people, 90% of the people had not heard of kombucha in our local Whole Foods in the central and northern Virginia area.
Now, it’s more like the complete inverse where 10% of the people haven’t heard of kombucha. We are still though in this tiny little subset of the world by standing in a Whole Foods asking that question and we realize that but, it is growing, awareness is growing all the time about it. Although, we do some education on it, it’s a lot less than we did when we first started where nine out of 10 people, that, what we were really trying to get across was, “What is kombucha?” And, that has really changed. Now it’s more like, here is your local certified organic kombucha option, would you like to give it a try?
Brendan: A lot less educated now than at the beginning?
Kate: For sure yes.
Brendan: Then one last question going along with that. When you first introduce somebody to kombucha and give them some to try, what’s the typical reaction from people?
Ethan: It’s funny. We’re at events or at a tasting, it could be a large music festival, could be a farmer’s market and someone’s walking fast, we’re always offering samples of course like, “Would you like to try?” Depending on that person someone might be like, “Oh, my gosh I had that once back in college, I’m never trying it again.” We can get beyond that like, “Well, you haven’t tried our kombucha, would you just one just one little sample just to see?” Nine times out of 10, and this speaks to our kombucha that we make. People are like, “Oh, I’m pleasantly surprised there.” It’s like “Oh, I didn’t realize kombucha was first of all it’s tea, I didn’t know it was cold and carbonated, interesting.”
I feel like we’re getting a lot of positive feedback, people are interested, at the same time, you get those sorry screwed up faces as if someone just tasted a lemon like, “Oh, my gosh I had no idea that was there.” Often times, our kids will be around there as well and again they’re pretty young, they are just mean. They drink the sauerkraut juice, they love anything fermented, but hey drink a lot of kombucha.
We’re always offering it to kids as well and it’s really interesting that more and more kids seem to be appreciating, especially when they can see their peers drinking it. We’re part of a community of folks who take our kids to school and why not the whole school community, we’re the ones who are always bringing kombucha and all those picnics and pallets whatever they are. We’re always bringing kombucha until now all these little kids, they can’t get enough of kombucha, just funny. Pallets are growing, it’s interesting.
Brendan: That’s nice to see him drinking kombucha rather than sodas.
Ethan: Exactly, yes.
Brendan: All right guys, one last little thing, this will be of interest to some business owners who might be starting up looking, to name their company. I noticed that you guys used to go by different name, care you tell us anything about that, why you’re now called Blue Ridge Kombucha?
Kate: When we initially started the company, we wanted to find something that really spoke to the low waist model and we liked also the alliteration of Barefoot bucha, it really stood out to us. Unfortunately, there was another large beverage retailer that went by the same name, Barefoot Wine, which is owned by Ian J. Gallo, they are the largest wine company in the world. A few years in, we got a letter from them just letting us know that they were also called Barefoot and hey they noticed we were called Barefoot. Then we went down that legal path with them which I would not recommend to anyone.
I feel like we’ve put that behind us now and amicably settled that relationship or that disagreement with them out of courts, real grateful for that. We didn’t really see any potential overlap between our product and their product, in terms of, places where we were sold or who was really interested in drinking it, consumers we were going for all felt very different to us.
But, it is one thing when you’re just starting out very small, you don’t want to pen yourself in too much, you never know the direction that your company might eventually grow and so in retrospect, even though a couple thousand dollars for a really thorough trade mark search was– That was pretty much half of our start up budget of our company, it wasn’t even in the realm of possibility at the time that we started up, but in retrospect, it would have been wise to dig into that little deeper and actually consult with a trade mark attorney and make sure that we were using a name that we weren’t going to run into trouble with in the future.
Because it did– A number of years into being in business and with the stakes much higher and with multiple employees that you’re responsible for making sure they have a job the next day, there’s a lot more stress involved with the name change at that point than there would be with just maybe picking your second favorite name from the get go. That was just a big learning process for us and something that we now recommend to other small businesses just starting out. Is really dot your i’s and cross your t’s in that respect because you don’t want to have that wearing it’s head when you’re–
Brendan: Yes, well into business.
Kate: Yes, for sure.
Brendan: Makes sense, so the take away from that is do the research upfront?
Brendan: Get the third party involved.
Kate: Yes. And spend the money even if it feels like a lot
Kate: It would be less than it would be later. [laughs]
Brendan: You guys got a good story out of it, I’m sure.
Brendan: I don’t thing a lot of people can say that. Awesome, you guys, thanks so much for joining me today. If people want to find you guys, where can they do that, either physically or online, or both?
Kate: Yes, we are throughout the Mid-Atlantic region which currently for us is Virginia DC and Maryland and looking on our website blueridgebucha.com would let you know specific retailers. If you’re just interested in learning more about the company or the low waist model, I would encourage folk to check us on Instagram or Facebook.
Brendan: All right, and we will put it links to all these in the show notes. Alright Kate and Ethan.
Kate: Well thank you so much Brendan.
Brendan: Thank you guys.
Kate: Yes, this has been great.
Ethan: Yes Brendan, thank you for taking the time.
Brendan: Absolutely you guys, thank you.
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Ad Voice: So, if you’re looking out to start your journey with cold brew or draft coffee, check out the ultimate guide to cold brew coffee and serving coffee on draft. A free 34 page eBook offered on Kegoutlet.com. You can get there through drips and drafts website by going to dripsanddraughts.com/ultimate guide. A huge thanks to Kate and Ethan for joining me today. If you haven’t already, go check them out online, you’ll find them at blueridgebucha.com and you can also find them on Instagram, twitter and Facebook all under the handle @blueridgebucha, B-U-C-H-A. They’ve got a great story, I hope you guys enjoyed hearing it as much as I did, and to be honest, I think I’m going to brew some kombucha at home soon.
They really peaked my interest. So, if I get into that process, you guys, you listeners would be the first to know because I’m sure I will document it and even do an episode on it. Alright, once again if you’re looking for links or show notes from this episode, you can find those by going to dripsanddraughts.com/97. One final thank you to Kate and Ethan from Blue Ridge Bucha, I’m Brendan Hanson, I’ll see you again next week.