Don’t like sugary sodas? Avoiding syrupy fruit juices? How about a lightly carbonated, fermented, iced tea subtly flavored with mint, lemongrass, mango or peach? If that appeals to you, it’s good news for three GWSB graduate students who have started their own business brewing, bottling and selling the tea — known as kombucha — at stores and cafes in the greater Washington, D.C., area.
Capital Kombucha is the brainchild of John Lee, Daniel Lieberman and Andreas Schneider, who came together last year to launch the enterprise. Lee and Schneider are MBA students; Lieberman is an MBA/JD candidate. All three are expected to graduate in 2013.
Lee and Lieberman, who took third prize in last year’s “Pitch George” business plan competition with their idea for “Ubrew” – a self-heating, portable beverage container with a removable tea cup – had been meeting regularly to brainstorm about a business they might be able to quickly get up-and-running.
Schneider, meanwhile, who grew up on an organic farm in upstate New York, where his parents worked, had taken to brewing and drinking his own kombucha after having learned of its health benefits from his father. Kombucha is reputed to help with digestion, among other positive effects.
“I think he started drinking it during the summers on the farm,” said Schneider. “He was out on the tractor all day. He was always looking for healthier things to bring out there to keep him hydrated. He recommended I give it a shot.”
In November 2011, the three united around the concept of creating and selling their own version of kombucha, which wasn’t being produced in the Washington area. They wanted it to be all natural, non-alcholic and less pungent than traditional varieties, which have been drunk for thousands of years in Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia.
Capital Kombucha was officially formed in February 2012, with the first bottles ready for sale two months later.
Kombucha is made by brewing tea, then adding sugar and the kombucha culture, which is similar to what’s used in producing vinegar. Over a period ranging from one week to one month, the culture metabolizes the sugar and caffeine in the tea into beneficial acids, probiotics and electrolytes. Small amounts of carbon dioxide are a byproduct, adding a soft carbonation to the finished product. The result is a drink that’s low in sugar and caffeine, with only trace amounts of alcohol remaining.
“We wanted to brew a kombucha that was good for you and tasted good,” said Lieberman, who had learned about flavoring beverages while working as a bartender and disliked the bitter quality of the commercially produced kombuchas he’d tried. “Soon we had a formula that was better than anything else we tried before—and we’ve tried everything.”
The trio decided on a recipe that used small amounts of sugar during fermentation. They developed a proprietary tea blend, and buy natural flavorings for four kombucha varieties – mint-lime, mango-chili, peach and lemongrass-basil – through DC Central Kichen.
The tea is brewed and bottled in a commercial kitchen, rented by the business, in Washington. While Lieberman lent his flavoring expertise, Schneider functioned as the trio’s “master brewer,” and Lee ensured that everything ran as leanly and efficiently as possible.
“We chose to do this, because it allows us to maintain strict quality controls over each batch, and taste is such an important part of what we’re doing,” said Lee. “We’re proud of the fact that we have personally produced every bottle sold so far.”
The three are financing the enterprise themselves but as it expands – Capital Kombucha is now available either on tap or in bottles at 20 retail locations, including stores, cafes, yoga studios and gyms – they hope to attract outside investors. They may also consider contracting with an independent bottler.
If a Sept. 29 kombucha tasting at the grand opening of Dawson’s Market in Rockville, Md., is any indication, the three have found a way to make kombucha appealing to children and adults. As shoppers clustered around the table where Lee was pouring samples, they commented on the drink’s refreshing quality and light effervescence. One 12-ounce bottle of Capital Kombucha has 50 to 70 calories, five to eight grams of sugar, and sells at Dawson’s for $3.49.
While the students are excited about their success – Lieberman and Schneider recently did a brew-your-own kombucha demonstration at the DC Green Festival that drew a lot of interest – the business has absorbed tremendous time and energy. Still, it’s a cost that seems worth it.
“We’ve all become much more aware of the value of a minute,” said Schneider.
Posted by gwsb on October 9, 2012 | Filed under: GWSB News.