A kombucha brewer talks about cargo cults, Heidegger’s philosophy, and how to succeed as an entrepreneur.
I know what you’re thinking–another kombucha-related post? What else can there be to say about it?
That’s what I thought, too. Honestly, I was ready to lay the subject of my favorite drink to rest. Sure, I’d still do reviews–because duh, reviews (usually) mean free booch–but I wasn’t expecting to find any new interesting stories about it.
The thing is, kombucha has gone a little mainstream.
It used to be that kombucha brewing was a job like being a luthier or a blacksmith or something–a career for hardy dreamers only. The market for this weird fungus-fueled drink just wasn’t big enough to support much beyond a brewer’s passion.
The result, of course, was not only great kombucha, but great stories about why the endeavor was worth it.
But then kombucha got all bougie. It’s currently the fastest growing segment of the US beverage industry, worth a cool $500 million and counting. Yeah, maybe it’s not exactly threatening the existence of PepsiCo, but it’s a big enough deal that soft drink giants are buying in, investing major money into commercial kombucha operations.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m happy that more small-scale brewers are able to make a living off their product, and I love that the co-op shelves are populated with local alternatives to the big name brands.
What I don’t love is when the local alternative tastes like Fanta gone flat and, worse still, shows no real that-for-the-sake-of-which. You can call me an elitist, but if I’m going to drop $5 on a store-bought bottle of booch, I want to it to taste of the love affair between a brewer and her/his scoby.
When I visited Boulder, Co. last year, my question wasn’t whether I’d find a local kombucha–it was how many. This is a city of overachievers—the kind of place where millionaire software developers leave work by three so they can be on the neighboring peaks by four. People here are obsessed with personal performance and anything they can put in their body to fuel it.
But my expectations were low…and yes, my complacency in my “connoisseur-ship” was high. Best case scenario was to taste, photograph, and roll on.
The first two local kombuchas I tried proved me right.
But then I visited Rowdy Mermaid.
A sense of brilliant order pervades the warehouse space in East Boulder where Rowdy Mermaid kombucha is made–and I don’t mean the Martha Stewart kind. This, rather, is the order you find in a Bach concerto or the kind of math problem that gets described as “elegant.”
Early afternoon light raises the smell of tung oil from the reclaimed wood bar. A spotted dog named Nico lazily patrols the parking lot. 1960s Europop croons from the recessed speakers, and patrons coast in on mountain bikes as the taps fizz in welcome.
Jamba, the owner, greets them with a gesture that is equal parts welcome and caution. His infant son is sleeping in a car carrier next to the giant industrial fan that stands between the taproom and the brewing room, keeping the tanks at a stable temperature. Our half-whispered conversation maintains the status quo until an employee enters with a hearty greeting.
The baby’s eyes pop open. Jamba releases a sigh of yogic release.
Undeterred, the employee flashes a diastematic grin and introduces himself to me–“Leodavid. All one word.”–then picks up the baby and whisks him away to the puzzle factory down the street.
Jamba’s look of glowing health belies the lines of experience in his face; his manner combines a publican’s welcome with a scholarly deference. The people who pass him their growlers across the counter adopt that faux-casual pose which shows that they’re looking for an excuse to linger.
A few minutes’ conversation with Jamba is not standard taproom fare. Politics, nutrition, child-rearing, and snatches of cultural history are not only brought up, but discussed respectfully. The atmosphere is much like an eighteenth-century smoking room discussion among landed gentry. Only instead of brandy, the snifters hold seasonal flavors with names like Strawberry Hibiscus and Cherry Kom-Pow.
Living Ginger, their best seller, has a glorious burn, thanks to pepperberry and Himalayan sea salt that emphasize the main ingredient. Flower Grow‘s overtones of rose, chrysanthemum and chamomile are balanced out by robustly brewed green rooibos. My personal favorite is Deep Forest, a sassafras- and reishi-infused conversation stopper that tastes like root beer might after a week at Burning Man.
I’ve always told kombucha noobs how easy it is to brew your own. But be advised that tasting Rowdy Mermaid as your first kombucha will ruin you for home-brew forever. The flavors from each tap are as finely tuned as a Stradivarius, at once delicate and intense. It’s no surprise, when you consider the pristine contents of each bottle–organic tea and immaculate plant-based flavorings exactingly brewed in pure Colorado snowmelt.
The surprise is what brought them together in such perfect harmony.
By and large, kombucha brewers tend to get off the air of alchemic mystery that shrouds their craft. Making this “health drink” (making no claims here) from scratch involves equal parts gross-out and hocus-pocus. If something goes wrong with your booch, typical practice is to ask around for advice until you find a solution, or else just wait for the day when you wake up and find that the problem has magically gone away.
For someone with Jamba’s educational pedigree–a B.A. in Egyptology followed by a creative writing residency and a doctorate in continental philosophy–I’d have expected the kombucha world’s devoted inexactitude to annoy him.
Quite the contrary, he says–it was exactly what he needed. He’d felt an intellectual dearth in his life ever since completing his Ph.D., and this field was like a new frontier for Aristotelian inquiry.
“Understanding kombucha ferments was somewhat on par, for me, with trying to understand Heidegger. There’s so many threads that you have to put together to get the full picture of what’s going on here.”
Unlike beer, wine or spirits (all of which Jamba had dabbled in previously), kombucha brewing had not only a less rigorous scientific grounding, but also a more tenuous relationship with its environment. Jamba ticks off the chaotic, constantly changing factors that cause a batch to work or not:
“Timing, for one. Mineral content: more minerals means more yeast production. Elevation, air flow, temperature, mass quantity—how much you’re brewing at a time. Starter pH. Tea region: different black teas produce different levels of ethanol. Tank shape, particularly height and width. How you add the sugar. How you add the starter. The temperature you start your brew at…”
(By the time he finishes, I’m feeling pretty sheepish about the glass jar of scoby that’s currently sloshing around in the back seat of my Jeep.)
Taking the concept of “skilled amateur” to new heights, Jamba hired a scientist to help him parse out the kombucha fermenting process with Aristotelian rigor. In the process, he was producing more kombucha than he could give away, let alone consume on his own. At the point when his daughter’s demands for her daily kombucha ration began to be accompanied by fitful twitching (proof that the scoby doesn’t “eat” the caffeine, as some home brewers opine), he knew that it might be time to act on a dream he’d been harboring for some time.
“I told somebody a long, long time ago ‘You know what would be really awesome? A kombucha taproom. Where somebody just made and sold kombucha like beer.'”
Still, it might never have come to anything if his primary dream hadn’t failed him…for the third time.
“We had a series of management changes.”
Jamba picks his way through this sentence like a minefield.
After finishing his doctorate, he’d taken a job creating software for a start-up. He compares the environment to the “cargo cults” that would arise among remote islanders visited by American warships that docked among them. Bequeathed with an abundance of western goods–shirts, medicine, food in boxes–these islanders would maintain a quasi-religious devotion to the way of life that they’d got a taste of, believing that someday the ship would return to bring them lasting happiness and prosperity.
“The American version was the combination of the corporation and working for stock.”
Jamba remembers the early days of Silicon Valley, when it seemed like everyone was on the verge of becoming millionaires, and all you had to do was work hard and wait for your company to go public. Jamba had served more than one company as part of a passionate programming staff who put time, sweat and love into a product, only to have their hopes deflated by CFOs who cashed in their stock and jumped ship at the critical moment.
By the time he’d moved his family and career to Boulder, only to have the same thing happen again, he was ready to abandon his faith.
“The idea that somehow working for a corporation that was going public was the savior…it just made me realize that swimming in place was all it was. Why would I be working that hard for other people that in the end were just going to pull the rug out from under you?
“Instead of complaining about my job and then one day not have a job, and be too old to get a job, I thought well, if I’m going to fail, I might as well fail at something that I love.”
As it happened, Jamba was already living in the best possible place to open a kombucha business. He’d fallen in love with Boulder during his MFA/mountain climbing days, and the intervening years hadn’t changed the city much. The population had grown, but the new people had been drawn there by the outdoorsy spirit of the place, and remained just as devoted to it as the locals.
Jamba effuses about the fruit trees that line the sidewalks–his daughter picks from them on her way to school each morning. And while Boulder residents will spend hours making their way up a mountain, they are loath to drive from one end of Foothills Parkway to another. Instead, the city retains a small-town feel by virtue of everyone walking or riding their bikes–when Jamba and his wife first moved there, they used their car so infrequently that the tires all went flat without their noticing.
In an environment like this, a locally brewed kombucha taproom would seem a foregone success.
But things get weird when money gets involved.
To begin with, the commercial kombucha brewing world isn’t nearly as companionable as the amateur scene. The big companies, Jamba says, keep their doors shut tight in protection of their “secrets,” and the smaller brewers are beginning to follow suit.
Furthermore, when a restaurant proposes to set up a kombucha tap, some brewers will make it a condition that no other kombuchas be served there; others will offer to pay for line installation if they can usurp the existing kombuchas.
This situation elicits the biggest sigh from Jamba. The close-knit brewing community had always served as his respite when the software business sold its soul to the corporate takeover. It’s disheartening to find his kombucha colleagues heading in the same direction.
“We need to make money as a company, but that’s not why we’re here! We should all be working together to help one another.”
When you give someone something–food or drink–as hospitality, they’ll eat it. But offer it for sale, and you sometimes encounter some positively medieval prejudices…even in a city as progressive as Boulder.
Jamba has had people refuse to touch his kombucha, or pour samples out on the ground in front of him. One time, an entire van of taproom visitors explained to Jamba that one of their party was so freaked out by kombucha that she’d chosen to stay in the car.
“Somehow [to her], it was no longer a beverage. It was democratic, non-Christian, anti-war, and against the mainstream. A threat.”
Jamba had an inkling of this attitude toward kombucha, but he never realized it was powerful enough that someone would refuse to come out of the parking lot while their entire family was hanging out in the taproom.
“I can only assume that was a very long drive.”
His smirk is not without sympathy. The branding of many kombucha companies is such that people can’t help but associate the drink with leftist politics, Eastern religious practices, specious health claims, and ideological stances that have nothing to do with the beverage itself.
That’s been yet another good reason to ground his whole brewing operation in science.
“We make no claims about anything. We’re trying to divorce ourselves from ideology. We’re just here to make a beverage–love it or not.”
Jamba has scaled some of the world’s tallest mountains, guided archaeoastronomy tours in Egypt, completed a Ph.D. in a foreign language, engineered language software for Rosetta Stone, even published in McSweeney’s. Still, he avows that starting a business is the hardest thing he’s ever done.
A kombucha business, in particular, combines all the finicky little problems of brewing with the larger scale issues–in one day, he’ll move from contending with a dockworker strike that drives up the price of ginger beyond what they can pay, to reconciling a new shipment of labels with the discontinuation of the bottles they were designed to fit, to breaking apart wildcrafted Michigan chaga (a bark-like fungus) with a hammer.
No matter the situation, Jamba describes it with consistent reverence:
“It’s an interesting problem to have.”
It’s not that hard, he says, to take from a problem being impossible to being interesting: you take your life savings and invest it all in the endeavor, then add two children and mounting inflation. Having the endeavor be something you love might feel extra vertiginous, but it’s really not that different from doing something you hate. As Jamba has seen, the corporate world can fail you just as suddenly as passionate entrepreneurship can.
Judging by his example, the key is to face it all with humor and equanimity, temper your resignation with appreciation, and trust in your own instincts.
“You just have to make it work. Every day, it’s just invention.”
Barely two years old, Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha is a venture capitalist’s dream. It has all the contagious crackle of a start-up and the grounded energy of a community mainstay.
Throughout the week, the taproom is the scene for discussion groups, workshops, yoga practice, concerts, book clubs, and creative congresses of all kinds. Jamba regularly invites other brewers to visit Rowdy Mermaid and talk shop. (Just the day before, he’d entertained the legendary Hannah Crum at the taproom.) Even the brand’s social media is more creative forum than marketing pinboard–you’ll find as much food for thought as for your gut.
Yes, the scientific pedigree of Rowdy Mermaid sets it apart from other kombuchas. But the science is only the kombucha’s efficient cause; the final cause is the belief that finding ways to do what you love is inherently worthwhile.
Like many overachievers, Jamba felt his life up to this point was an exercise in impressing people–his parents, his teachers, his employers. Kombucha brewing offered a realm where he didn’t have to impress anyone but himself.
“Kombucha was fun. I realized a long time ago, when I was going to grad school, that I loved raising herbs and making tea. I realized that maybe it didn’t need to be all this crazy intellectual work. Maybe it was just as simple as making tea and being happy.”
You don’t have to be into kombucha to want to hang out at a place like that.
And if by chance you are into it, it definitely makes that kombucha worth writing home about.
Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha Tasting Room is located at 2516 49th Street in Boulder, Co.
Find them at their website, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Get on their email list to learn about cool events at the taproom.
You can also find their kombucha at a growing number of stores.