The inside story on the booming local kombucha business
and why it’s putting Santa Cruz on the map
Fermented yeast and bacteria. If the soda-slurping generations of yesteryear had been told that a beverage based on that combination would be the fastest growing drink on the market someday, they would’ve laughed, or maybe even made a gagging gesture, and offered you another Dr. Pepper.
But the day is here and the drink is kombucha, a probiotic brew of tea and a multiple culture of yeast and bacteria.
The ancient tonic, which has been a staple in cultures around the world for thousands of years, has recently resurged in modern American culture as the go-to item on the natural health food circuit. Santa Cruz has long championed natural foods and been at the forefront of any blooming health trend, so it comes as no surprise that the drink is everywhere around these parts—whether it’s in the hands of the young professional on their lunch break, or as the topic of conversation between a handful of home brewers. Fittingly, Santa Cruz is also home to one of the main kombucha producers, Kombucha Botanica, which brews and bottles its product on the Westside of town.
Despite its increasing popularity, Adam Goodman, the company’s “Chief Kombuchero,” says a lot of people don’t understand kombucha.
“They just hear ‘yeast, bacteria, fermentation’ and think it is all out of control and crazy, and that you’re gonna die,” he says.
Much to the contrary, he tells of a group of scientists that set out to find the world’s highest geographical concentration of centenarians, and found themselves in a town in the mountaintops of Russia, where kombucha was the common denominator.
“When they explored the culture more, they found that everybody had a jar of kombucha brewing in their house and drank it regularly as part of their culture,” he says, listing anti-aging as one of the drink’s professed benefits. “I thought that was a cool story.”
Although no claims are scientifically proven, kombucha purportedly helps bring the body into balance and restore and strengthen the immune system. While the most common and noticeable effect, according to Goodman, is that the probiotics work as a digestive aid to soothe the stomach, kombucha brands and drinkers have claimed that it helped them recover from such serious illnesses as cancer and AIDS.
“It’s not a cure-all,” says Goodman,”but a lot of people who have had cancer or AIDS have used kombucha in conjecture with other things to beneficially boost their immune system.”
Goodman believes the detoxifying substance to be adaptagenic, meaning, “it gives each person exactly what they need.” He shares how his own health has been improved by kombucha. When he first began home-brewing it, he would make cold compresses with the tonic to place on his eczema. After 10 minutes of applying it topically, his skin would feel “all better.”
These are some of the things that make Kombucha drinkers more than just drinkers, but believers.
“The shift is happening,” Goodman adds. “People are ready to question the status quo of corn syrup-flavored drinks. People are done drinking caffeine-loaded stuff and artificially sweet crap. People want what is good for their bodies.”
The Road to Santa Cruz
Running a business, a rapidly growing one at that, doesn’t leave time for much else. Goodman meets me downtown for a midday tea in between checking in on the crew at the Westside warehouse and making deliveries—he makes all local deliveries himself. He holds half a panini in one hand, and gestures with the other as he talks, telling the story of how kombucha first crossed his path.
It was 1995, and Goodman, then a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was traveling cross-country. He befriended some people in New Mexico who were home- brewing kombucha. It was an encounter that, although he didn’t know it at the time, would change his life.
“They opened up their refrigerator and there was this glass jar, back-lit from the refrigerator lights, with this floaty thing in it,” he says, referring to the cellulose mass of yeast and bacteria that floats in the brew. “They put a soup ladle in it, and doled some out into these wine glasses.”
He was immediately enchanted by the drink and intended to start brewing it back in Madison but “it just never happened.” After graduation, he went to Paraguay with the Peace Corp. Then, in 2000, the Virginia native went to South America to spend a few more years “traveling, living, and just chillin’.”
Goodman finally got the chance to reconnect with kombucha in 2004 when he was a cook at a small natural foods store in Moro Bay, California. He began brewing it at home and selling it out of the café in the back of the store, tinkering with flavors like Elderflower and Ginger Tulsi. Over time, he created what would become the Kombucha Botanica product. There was only one kombucha brand on the market at the time (GT’s Millenium, which started in the mid-’90s), giving Goodman plenty of room to create his own, unique brand.
“It was apparent that there was a big hole in the market because there was just GT, and they weren’t using organic juices up until last year when the laws changed and they had to comply,” he says. “I felt like there was a need to do something with a 100 percent organic kombucha product.” Relocating to Santa Cruz to start the company was serendipitous—he was looking for a bottler, preferably in a “good hometown,” and landed in a seaside community that prides itself in supporting local businesses.
“It was a good fit—good town, good location, good history of natural products, and a willing bottler,” says Goodman. The launch of Kombucha Botanica three years ago coincided with the emerging popularity of the drink (“a big surge,” according to Goodman), and has allowed Santa Cruz to ride the kombucha wave on the back of a local product.
Whether on account of its individual popularity or a general boom in kombucha consumption, Goodman’s company has been consistently expanding since inception to keep up with demand. As CEO, he is currently managing about 70 accounts, serving northern California and southern Oregon, and producing more than 5,000 gallons of kombucha a month. Kombucha Botanica is set to launch into southern California, Arizona, Nevada and Southern Utah “any minute, any day,” Goodman says.
Kombucha Botanica is also breaking new ground with its latest business venture, kombucha on tap. The idea was first implemented at the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery and is offered at Dharma’s restaurant in Capitola, but became more visible when Whole Foods opened in Santa Cruz and offered it at its coffee bar. Goodman is currently handing more than 30 gallons a day to Whole Foods, where it is then sold by the ounce.
Dan Wolfe, team manager for the Santa Cruz Whole Foods, says that it’s been selling incredibly well and there is a big demand for it. “You can use a reusable container, saving on packaging, and you can buy it in the quantity you want to,” he says.
Goodman, who has doubled his production and sales since 2007 with the help of a Whole Foods Local Producer Loan, has similar hopes for kombucha on tap. Not only will it cut down production costs and allow him to tinker with new flavors by bypassing bottling (“top secret” flavors are in the works for launch this summer), customers can now purchase their kombucha more sustainably.
“Kombucha on tap is the best value because people can come and refill their mason jars or jugs,” he says. “It’s the next big thing.”
Goodman is in talks with Whole Foods about expanding the offer beyond the Santa Cruz store, and is in the process of bringing it to other local grocery stores, such as New Leaf Community Markets.
Also in the future for Santa Cruz drinkers: Signature kombucha cocktails. The Cypress Lounge, in Downtown Santa Cruz, is set to start serving this healthy –or, healthier—spin on the classic libation. “People use soda—which is crap—in their mixed drinks,” Goodman explains. “Instead of junk, a little kombucha in there is a great carrier for the alcohol.”
The company brews kombucha in individual 10 gallon batches, which each take about 18 days to mature. In light of all the growth, just how many batches do they have going? “A gazillion … thousands … hundreds,” says Goodman, gesturing dismissively, “Two hundred, 300, 400 … you know, a couple hundred.” He pauses and rubs his tired, blue eyes. “I need a nap.”
Kickin’ Down the Goodness
A week later, Turtle, one of Goodman’s four employees, demonstrates the brewing process. He is wearing a hair net over his wavy brown hair and another over the small beard that frames his permanent smile. To his right is a giant, steaming vat of tea—a combination of green and black—that will be used to grow the cultures. But before being added to the much smaller, 10-gallon white ceramic vessels that each house a “kombucha baby,” the tea is mixed in with water and sugar in a tub so large that Turtle’s tie-dye-clad coworker, Phillips, is standing atop a ladder to stir it. Kombucha needs the sugar and elements of the tea (nitrogen, mainly) to thrive and grow.
Turtle leads me through a door in the back in quest of a good example. The kombucha itself is described as many things—a mushroom, “that floaty stuff,” and most commonly, a pancake. Turtle picks up a bucket, and, lifting a corner of the white cloth that covers it, tips it so I can see. He nods toward the tan mass sprawled across the bottom, “Pancake, jelly fish, alien … call it what you want,” he says. I now understand why “pancake” is most fitting—the culture, which will grow to the size of whatever surface it’s provided, is thin, tan and doughy-looking.
The 3,000 square-foot warehouse has vibrant purple walls and a cheery atmosphere. The boys play reggae or “mellow, spiritual tunes” while they work to supplement the mood and help nurture the growing kombucha with positive vibrations, a part of the process Kombucha Botanica takes very seriously.
“It’s different than most work environments because we have a spiritual connection with the product,” says Colin, another of Goodman’s employees, also wishing to go by one name. Colin is dressed in all black but maintains the same goofy smile as his coworkers. “It even says on our bottles, ‘We imbue our product with high vibrations,’” he says, adding that the crew begins each day with a ceremonious intention—although he won’t give more detail than that they use top-secret mantras. Following suit, Goodman decides not to have the warehouse photographed out of a desire to “perpetuate some of the mystery” that surrounds the enigmatic drink. But, looking over the racks of babies-in-bloom, he assures that his process has nothing to hide—rather, their technique is a source of pride for the Botanica team.
“What is unique about us is that we do these 10 gallon batches,” he says, “we aren’t mass producing with some 500 gallon vats. We are truly a microbrewery, an artisan level producer with the best quality control.”
Goodman never pictured himself as a business owner, but now that he is, he’s sure to stick to his many principles. He uses organic fair-trade sugar from Paraguay (where he worked with the farmers while serving in the Peace Corp), and only premium ingredients. For example, they use E3 Live blue-green algae in the Green Passion flavor, which is a pricier, but much healthier, supplement. “I know the other companies out there are putting algae into their kombucha that isn’t good product,” he says. “They’re cutting corners and using cheap, low-grade product. Our choice is to source the best ingredients.”
Just as the many experiences of his life led him on a long and winding road to starting a kombucha company, they have also influenced his beliefs and attitudes surrounding how to run a business. “Everything has its connections and synchronicities when I sit back and look at the different steps—in those times, I didn’t realize if it would be helpful or not, but definitely it’s all connected. It all leads you to where you are.”
He remembers his first “real job” with Guayaki, a yerba mate beverage company also based out of California, that got his foot in the door of the natural beverage market. In college he majored in Political Science and Environmental Studies and was involved with the movement for corporate social responsibility, all of which instilled values in him that he carried over to Kombucha Botanica.
“I believe that a good business has a lot of power,” he says. “Businesses run on a good business model can have a great impact on the world.” Kombucha Botanica is run on what is called a triple bottom line business model, emphasizing a social, environmental and economic element. “Usually a business is just an economic bottom line,” he says. “This is a way to make a for-profit enterprise, but with dual missions.”
The company accomplishes its social element by sourcing fair trade tea and sugar whenever possible, and its environmental component by donating one percent of its profits to the Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project as part of the One Percent for the Planet program. “The Homeless Garden Project is also one of those multi-faceted organizations,” he says, adding that it was important to him that he keep that one percent local. “There is a nice impact of goodness goin’ on that we kick down to them. They have a social mission and an environmental mission. That resonates.” And, at the heart of it all, Goodman believes in the power of his product.
“It’s an ancient culture, an ancient food, that is very detoxifying—and here we are in the most toxic environment we’ve ever been in,” he says. “It’s what people need.” He can remember a few times in modern American culture when kombucha came on the radar only to soon fade away. But he says that this time around, the “ancient tonic for the modern world” is here for good.
“There is a changing of consciousness – people want to eat and be healthy,” he says. “The kombucha niche is the dawning of a new beverage era. It has come and gone in the past, but the people weren’t ready. Now they are. It’s carved a place in our world, and it’s staying.”
Learn more at kombuchabotanica.com