A New Kind of Fermentation for the East Coast
Kombucha is a fermented beverage that has been improving people’s’ wellbeing naturally for thousands of years. However, it is only within the last few decades that it has become a part of American culture. For this reason, the people of Vermont were not always able to get their hands on the health-boosting drink. Jeff Weaber, owner of Aqua ViTea, was able to take advantage of the benefits of kombucha when he lived on the West Coast, but when he moved to Vermont, he noticed that it was difficult, if not impossible, to buy kombucha there.
Weaber started his career around the year 2000 by brewing a more common beverage: Beer. Because his wife, Katina, is a naturopath, health was always on the front of his mind, and led him to the discovery of kombucha as a natural remedy. In fact, as he and his wife’s schedules diverged more and more, kombucha became a way to keep them together.
“Our lifestyles started diverging pretty dramatically. I would be drinking beer at six in the morning trying to get ready to open the pub, and she would be studying for midterms,” Weaber said. “So along the way, I discovered kombucha. I was looking for a way to be able to apply the fermentation knowledge that I had gained in the beer world to something that she was studying.”
By 2003, the couple was brewing kombucha regularly and sharing it with friends. They began selling the beverage at the Middlebury farmer’s market. This endeavor was as much an attempt to get to know their neighbors as it was to sell the product to a new population.
To get that initial relationship in order to build your business, you need a financial institution like Opportunities
The neighbors picked up on the trend, and in 2007, the local co-op approached Weaber, asking him if he would be interested in selling kombucha at the shop. He accepted, but all he could provide was a small kegerator. The community didn’t mind. They nicknamed it the “kombucha fountain” and brought in their own containers to fill, eliminating the cost and waste associated with bottling.
That fountain kept the business flowing. In the same year, the farmer’s market stopped operating, so Weaber was happy to have a place in which he could continue to sell the beverage.
“We put a single keg on tap in there, just an original flavor, and the people that had been buying it at the farmers market all started buying from the co-op,” remembers Weaber. “Then we went to City Market, and then we went to Healthy Living, and that’s how it all got started.”
In the early years of the business, the kombucha was brewed in the couple’s basement. “Our first batches were about 10 or 15 gallons, and we were making them in old kegs with the tops cut off. Then we started buying nicer equipment and expanding the footprint of the house to accommodate the growth,” Weaber explained.
The home became a haven for health in the community, and this was not just because kombucha was brewed there. Katina ran her practice in the upper area of the house, and Weaber worked in the basement. It was a close-knit family business, but it needed room to grow.
In 2013, the couple took the operation to Bristol. With the 500% expansion in space, Weaber’s production grew to 250-gallon batches. However, the enterprise even outgrew this new building.
That was when Weaber began to talk to Woodchuck Cider about opportunities for growth. At the time, Woodchuck was operating out of a 60,000-square-foot facility, but its owners were looking to move. Now, Weaber is moving into Woodchuck’s old space, where he will be able to brew much larger batches to supply throughout the East Coast.
Aqua ViTea kombucha is already available at many of the co-ops and health food stores throughout Vermont. Even convenience stores and gas stations around the state have the product on tap. The company has expanded its offerings from Maine to Washington, D.C. “There’s kombucha on tap all over the place now, and the mainstream grocery stores are picking it up,” said Weaber.
Even though Aqua ViTea is seeing massive growth, Weaber is proud of the company’s integrity. There are only two or three other companies that sell Kombucha on the East Coast. However, companies that sell the product in bottles create more waste at a higher cost. Aqua ViTea does about 70 percent of its sales directly from the tap.
Companies that bottle their products have to pass along the costs of the glass, caps, and labels to their customers. By reducing packaging costs, Aqua ViTea allows customers to pay just for the liquid.
“Because we started the company with no capital, we only had the money to offer a self-serve fountain in the stores. That became the differentiator for us and still is,” said Weaber.
The self-serve option helps customers get a great health benefit from an affordable beverage. Kombucha is brewed from a variety of microorganisms that feed off of the nutrients from tea and sugar. As the microorganisms digest those nutrients, they release probiotics, amino acids, and enzymes. Wherever you have nutritional or health deficiencies, kombucha can help to provide the remedy.
Many people think that if something is healthy, it’s probably not tasty. However, kombucha breaks that stereotype. It’s a little bit sweet, and it’s flavored with natural fruits and spices, like elderberry, lime, or ginger. It has been likened to a healing alternative to a sugar-filled, chemical-laden soda. In fact, Weaber’s mission was to provide the community with a beverage that’s tastier than soda and has several health benefits. In many ways, he has succeeded.
Although Aqua ViTea produces a product that helps improve the population’s health, the company gives back to the community in other ways too. Whenever possible, the company sources its ingredients from local businesses. For example, their organic black tea comes from Middlebury’s Stone Leaf Tea House. Weaber also continues to run trials using local sugar sources, like honey and beet sugar.
Weaber places importance on supporting small businesses because he can commiserate with the challenges that other local entrepreneurs face. Although Aqua ViTea began with only about $5,000, quick growth necessitated more financing.
“It was hard to get any sort of business loans at the time, because the bankers couldn’t even pronounce the name of our drink,” Weaber described. “They didn’t see any future in this crazy beverage. It hadn’t hit from the West Coast yet because we had kind of jumped the wave, so to speak, and gotten out here before there was any kombucha on the market.”
When Weaber needed a larger space and more money, he encountered a completely different scenario with Opportunities Credit Union. He had heard about the financial institution’s mission to help local community startup companies, and he met with Senior Business Development Manager, Greg Huysman.
“Obviously, their approach is a little bit different than that of other banks. Our lender, Greg Huysman, with whom we have a close relationship, understands our product,” raved Weaber. “The people on the board drink our kombucha, and that was certainly a help, because people at the other banks still can’t pronounce the name of the company or the product.”
Weaber didn’t just obtain business lending from Opportunities; he ended up moving all of his accounts to the credit union. He now has a small business loan, savings account, mortgage, line of credit, and term loan with the financial institution. Putting his finances in one place has helped him collateralize some of the earlier business loans.
He praises Huysman’s style of personal relationship management as one of the primary differences between most financial institutions and Opportunities. Whereas other banks just looked at the numbers when Weaber approached them for a loan, Opportunities Credit Union listened to his story.
Weaber credits Opportunities for coming through to provide the business lending to help him grow Aqua ViTea to where it is today. “To get that initial relationship in order to build your business, you need a financial institution like Opportunities,” said Weaber.
Weaber steers all of the local entrepreneurs that he meets to Opportunities. “Opportunities has been a good lender for us and understands the problems of early-stage companies,” Weaber said. Without the support of a financial institution that was willing to listen to his story and learn about his product, Weaber may never have had the chance to bring this nourishing beverage to the local Vermont community and beyond.
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