The Fermented Tea Known as the Elixir of Life
Kombucha, a Russian word that means “tea mushroom,” refers to a drink of fermented tea that dates back to the late 19th century. While sharing the same name, Russian fermented tea is entirely different from Japanese kombucha, a rich, salty black tea that uses kombu, or kelp. Kombu is also used to make dashi, a soup broth and cooking stock made from edible kelp. As owners of The Brewkery, Amy Goldman and Sean Galloway have transformed their Lucky Elixir brand of locally-made kombucha – a modern, mushroom-free version of the Russian fermented tea – into a thriving business.
The Brewkery’s initial business concept was headed in a different direction. Galloway, who lived in the Northland for 20 years, homebrews beer on a hand-built system and Goldman bakes artisan sourdough bread. The couple conceived of a combination brewery and bakery which spawned the name The Brewkery. They discovered that opening a brewery required substantial capital and navigation through paperwork and local, state, and federal regulations.
Meanwhile, they spent weekends during summer 2015 baking and selling bread at the Merriam farmers market. Goldman often used brewer’s yeast and spent grain in her breads from Galloway’s homebrewing batches. Ultimately, the couple decided that operating a full-time retail bakery wasn’t their path forward at a time when other neighborhood bakeries were opening.
“Baking sourdough bread is also labor-intensive,” says Goldman, “It is physically demanding.”
Since they couldn’t legally sell Galloway’s homebrewed beers at the market, they turned to another beverage. Goldman also made kombucha at home. They decided to sell flavored versions of the effervescent fermented tea at the farmers market. Soon, Goldman and Galloway realized that they had a potential hit on their hands.
Long before they delved into the original brewery-bakery concept for The Brewkery, Goldman took a FastTrac course at the Kauffman Foundation to test their business idea.
“We learned to start small. So we started selling bread at the farmers market,” says Goldman.
Another FastTrac lesson came into play. Galloway and Goldman also remembered to remain flexible with their business plan. They shifted from beer and bread to kombucha as their primary product and focus.
“We wanted to find something that sells,” says Galloway. “I asked a friend to teach me how to make kombucha. Two weeks later, we began selling it at the market. It’s not as regulated as beer and is easier than baking.”
Fermentation is a natural process where bacteria and yeast convert sugar to acid, gas, or alcohol. Brewers and vintners rely on fermentation to produce beer and wine. Similarly, kombucha’s fermentation process begins with a SCOBY, or symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. The Brewkery produces Lucky Elixir kombucha using sweetened black tea from Hugo Tea Company, based in North Kansas City. Post-fermentation and bottling, Lucky Elixir has an alcohol level of less than one-half of one-percent, essentially making it non-alcoholic.
Bringing the product to a retail market presented challenges.
“We had to determine the nutritional value, have the product tested, source ingredients, and reduce the alcohol level to make the kombucha viable,” says Goldman. “Instead of natural carbonation through a secondary fermentation, we used forced carbonation.”
Sourcing glass bottles for packaging also proved vexing.
“It’s hard to find a source that’s willing to help the small guy,” says Galloway, “and to find the right bottle design, size, and price. We had to figure out how to ship a palette of 4,000 bottles and where to store them.”
After spending months on product development, The Brewkery began production and hand-bottling at Flavor Trade, a food manufacturer and commercial kitchen in Midtown Kansas City.
“We work around other clients and schedules in a shared kitchen,” says Galloway. “It’s hard to grow a business in a shared environment in an efficient manner.”
The Brewkery launched all-natural Lucky Elixir kombucha in late April 2016 as a bottled line of 12-oz. beverages sold in area health food shops and retail stores. The four flavors include Aroniaberry, Ginger Lime made with fresh ginger root, pumpkin pie-inspired Spiced, and Citrus Hop which uses Citra hops to yield a hint of grapefruit. They introduced a raspberry flavor at the Merriam farmers market this summer.
Goldman and Galloway enjoy the many aspects involved when growing a business from production to sales and distribution.
“The chemistry of kombucha is fun and very scientific,” says Goldman. “It’s also creative.”
At this stage of bottling and sales, Galloway views the business as a “proof of concept.” He adds, “We’re testing the market as we grow.”
Lucky Elixir’s flavored kombucha is sold at 17 area stores, including Grain to Glass and Colony Espresso and Beer in North Kansas City, and on tap at the Merriam farmers market on Saturdays through October 8. Visit Brewkery.com for locations.