The story behind Aqua Vitea Kombucha sounds almost too homespun to be true, but founder and CEO Jeff Weaber’s passion for brewing combined with his interest in healthy living led to what is a growing regional kombucha brand made from locally-sourced ingredients. Previously a brewer for The Lucky Labrador Brewing Co. in Portland, Ore., Weaber moved to a 15-acre farm in Salisbury, Vt. in 2005 with his wife, Dr. Katina Martin, a naturopathic doctor. Besides running a farm, Weaber and his wife made a commitment to supporting a healthy community, so Dr. Martin began a natural family health clinic in their house, while Weaber started microbrewing natural, raw kombucha in the basement. Naming his brand Aqua Vitea, “the tea water of life,” Weaber began selling fresh original Aqua Vitea kombucha on tap at the Middlebury Farmer’s Market and then on tap in local food co-ops. Interest in the product grew as health-minded consumers were drawn to the probiotic benefits of the fermented kombucha as well as its refreshing taste. Weaber began bottling the product in 2008 and the line now includes flavors Black Currant, Elderberry, Cranberry and Ginger and the company also makes a line of cultured teas, Rooibos, Jasmine Pearl and Ginseng Oolong. Aqua Vitea now has a growing regional presence in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York and has since moved into a state-of-the-art production facility in Bristol, Vt. Beverage World caught up with Weaber to find out more.
— Heather Landi
BEVERAGE WORLD: Why do you think kombucha has gained so much attention recently?
JEFF WEABER: I think there are a number of things going on. People are learning what probiotics are, and that’s huge, as when we first started making it we spent a lot of time educating people on probiotics and the health benefits. People also are looking for an alternative to drinking soda and kombucha is great because it has that effervescence that people crave from soda.
BW: Your product is sold on tap, which is unique. Why sell it on tap?
JW: It was kind of born out of a principle of trying to have a low impact on the environment, but also the necessity of boot-strapping the company and not being able to afford to buy glass while knowing that people were going to throw [glass bottles] away. It’s a unique part of our business as the tap systems are all stand-alone units that we put in the stores, like independent natural foods stores and co-ops, and we have to maintain and service the machines and finance them for the stores. People come in with growlers and sometimes full-gallon containers to fill up...About 70 percent of our product goes into kegs.
BW: What’s some unique feedback you’ve gotten about the drink?
JW: When I was out there peddling it myself at the farmer’s market, a lot of old-time Vermonters said it reminded them of switchel, a sort of farmers’ Gatorade—a homemade thirst-quenching electrolyte drink and all the farmers would have their own recipe.
BW: What role does your environmental commitment play in the business?
JW: I think our environmental commitment plays more into the economics of our business at this point and sourcing our ingredients as local as possible. For instance, we get our cranberries from the Vermont Cranberry Company, and now our growth has caused them to grow, so that has a ripple effect. And it’s not like the environmental carbon footprint conversation that a lot of people have. But being able to support good farmers to grow, that has a strong environmental impact as well.
BW: What does 2014 have in store for the brand?
JW: We have been self-distributed this entire time, but we finally signed with a distribution company...We are going to be moving into the mid-Atlantic—starting with Maryland,
Virginia and the D.C. area.