Social media-based Duluth Kombucha bottling, delivering fermented tea

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There’s a new brewery in town, and it delivers — though don’t expect lagers or ales to start showing up at your door. This startup bottles lively teas that are, in fact, alive.

Rachelle Rahn founded Duluth Kombucha this spring after she started brewing the fermented tea for herself, and she’s since sold gallons of the stuff using only social media and word of mouth.

“I’m such a DIYer,” said the 24-year-old. “I’m always curious about how things are made.”

For those curious about how this thing is made: Kombucha is a mix of tea and sugar feeding a SCOBY, or symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeast. The SCOBY is like a sourdough starter, and new batches use parts of it to lend probiotics to the tea, plus a trace of alcohol and carbonation. It’s often flavored, and in Rahn’s case, it’s always flavored with different combinations of whole fruits and vegetables.

“I haven’t repeated any flavors yet,” she said.

That’s over the course of thousands of ounces brewed in small batches that have all sold out, without a website or storefront to speak of.

“About 90 percent of business is over Instagram and word of mouth,” Rahn said. “I also have a Facebook page.”

Rahn will post available flavors, such as watermelon-lavender and beet-apple-turmeric, that customers can order in 16-ounce labeled bottles or 64-ounce growlers — the glass coming from a homebrew supplier and the labels made locally as well.

“I just feel that’s really important, keeping it local,” she said.

Though she’s been offered the Zeitgeist Arts Cafe kitchen to brew her teas, most of her work is done at home in a process she says “looks like something out of a sci-fi movie,” with colorful jars full of floating SCOBY colonies.

Because Duluth Kombucha falls under cottage-industry laws, Rahn has to sell directly to consumers despite interest in getting it on tap locally. While she’s got big plans for the business, she’s all right with biding her time and letting things line up before growing too fast.

“I’m still working on trying not to put the cart before the horse,” she said.

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Born for business

When she was very young, growing up in Arizona, Rahn would pick flowers from the side of the road and sell bouquets. When she was still in high school, she got her first college degree.

The entrepreneurial spirit is strong in this one.

“I always felt the need to go into business on my own; I always felt like an entrepreneur,” she said.

After coming to Duluth for school and getting her second degree in 2012, Rahn worked for Verizon for a bit, but the corporate atmosphere wasn’t the right fit. She was a personal trainer for a while, but that didn’t feel right either.

Now Rahn works at Duluth Grill and Zeitgeist, and owns rental properties in addition to her kombucha business that can see her up at 6 a.m. and asleep as late as midnight. She doesn’t mind, she said, since she’s finally found a long-term outlet for her creativity and business sense.

Kombucha also aligns with her sense for health and wholesomeness, which is what got her into brewing in the first place.

Two years ago Rahn was sick, and her boyfriend said maybe this funky fermented tea would help.

“Oh yeah I’m already doing that,” she remembers saying, though she had yet to take the dive. When she actually tried it, she was hooked.

“I started feeling better and drinking it more,” she said.

The jury’s still out as to verifiable health benefits as no clinical trials have been performed, though that hasn’t stopped the industry from exploding in recent years as more and more startups are lining up to compete with the leading Millenium Products Inc., which sells GT’s organic kombucha. A MicroMarket Monitor report last year said the kombucha industry could be worth $1.8 billion by 2020.

Bottles of Duluth Kombucha could someday be a big part of that, even if it’s just a drop in the bucket today.

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What’s next

It might not be long before this Instagram-based business finds its way into a storefront, as Rahn has dreams of opening a tap room to pour her brews and hiring a few employees.

“OMC Smokehouse wants me to be right next to them,” Rahn said of the planned Lincoln Park restaurant owned by Duluth Grill’s founders.

She’d love to be part of the greater effort to revitalize the neighborhood, though with OMC just getting started on its construction and nothing in writing yet, Duluth Kombucha won’t be moving in overnight.

While ramping up to production-level brewing at a storefront will increase availability and reliability — not to mention revenue — it could take out some of the fun.

“I really enjoy doing small batches,” Rahn said. “If something goes wrong I know it.”

She’s tweaked her recipe in the past after customer feedback to tone down the carbonation; her recent Popeye concoction made with green veggies and fruits had just a subtle effervescence and much less of the vinegar punch that comes with commercial brews.

No doubt she’ll continue refining her recipes for customers as the business moves from jars in a kitchen to tanks in a taproom. So though Rahn is brewing her own way, the input from the community makes Duluth Kombucha Duluth’s kombucha.

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Online

Duluth Kombucha can be found on Instagram @duluthkombucha and at facebook.com/duluthkombucha.

Written by Brooks Johnson as published in the Duluth News Tribune

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