That didn’t surprise me, but the rest of the changes to the town did.
Despite having called it last time I was there—“This place is going to be the next Portland,” I told my friends—I was sort of overwhelmed by the spruced-up appearance of the streets and the number of new businesses they were sporting. The January air is warm and fuggy with the smell of hops, thanks to all the microbreweries that have taken root here during the past year. And Lower Lexington, formerly a slow skid down into the gutter of Haywood, is now a well-groomed avenue of bookstores, ethnic restaurants, off-kilter boutiques and, of course, taprooms.
At the end of the street, just past a dive bar and a mural of Lou Reed, is the sign I was looking for.
The interior has both the glow of novelty and the patina of an institution, with the bone structure of a Belle Epoque brasserie softened by earthy boheme. Drippy bromeliads splay against the wall. Stickers festoon the veiny oak panels, saying things like “Duke: Clean Up Your Coal Ash.”
The zinc-topped bar is surrounded by artists, hippies with varying degrees of hygiene, homeschoolers, energetic freelancers in search of a healthy buzz, plus the usual Asheville suspects with their neo-barbaric vestments and denticulate ear jewelry. Every variety of kombucha drinker, in fact, except for the desperate housewife in full makeup and yoga pants.
If such a thing even exists in Asheville, this kombucha would not be their thing. This is true bohemian brew, made from mountain soul and native roots, spiked with quality liquor, flavored by the contents of age-obscured brown bottles that line the back wall: Blue Blaze soda syrup, McCutcheon’s preserves, Plantation molasses, mason jars of vinegar, dried chiles, powdered herbs.
Coffee shops make me antsy; bars make me lazy; this place makes me want to bring my computer and a stack of books and stay forever. And I’m not just saying that because three of my all-time favorite kombuchas are on tap.
There’s just a good energy in this joint, exuberant and grounded, passionate and meditative all at once.
Then in walks Mike Numinous, and the good energy goes to eleven.
It was Mike who set up my interview with the Buchi Mamas last year. We talked on the phone a few months later, when he followed up to make sure I had all the information I needed.
What actually happened was that he spent a good forty-five minutes encouraging me in my work. He waxed eloquent about the greatness of living with passion and intention, carving out a way of life that was in harmony with my desires and seeking to give back to others of my true self. That, he said, made me part of the Buchi community.
…And that’s how you inspire brand loyalty, folks.
By the time we got to Asheville, I was planning a visit to the Buchi taproom before I’d even set down my bags.
Mike has clear green eyes and tousled chestnut hair, and is the kind of young man that gets described as “strapping.” He moves with an easy confidence and uses phrases like “mega dank” and “weaksauce.” (NB: the first is a compliment, the other is a disparagement.)
He sits down with us and orders a kombucha flight—all five Buchi blends from the tap, arranged in tall narrow glasses around a five-point star etched into the wooden tray.
I’m trying to restrain my greed out of respect for Bryan, who is trying Buchi for the first time. As I wait for him to finish daintily sipping from his pint of Sovereign (one of Buchi’s new Intentional series), I’m getting tipsy on my “free spirit” cocktail, a sort of whiskey sour made with Bulleit bourbon and Buchi Fire. Between the booze and the ginger and the kombucha’s natural headiness, the drink has a dangerous grumble for which the cayenne punch acts as a merciful release valve.
Yes, I’m getting a little tipsy, and Mike is doing nothing to curb my resultant grandiloquence. A natural poet and part-time “atmosphere rapper,” he flings five-dollar words into the conversation the way a day trader leaves gratuities on a Saturday night.
Buchi has always had a distinct voice wrapped around their bottles. That voice, I realize now, is Mike’s. It’s lofty like a cathedral ceiling and warm like hand holding out a match flame, and it’s looking way farther off into the distance than most eyes are willing to reach.
This last bit–the visionary part–is the part where Mike’s voice becomes inseparable from Buchi’s.
“This mantra came to me recently: I’m the vibe of my tribe.”
The Buchi tribe embodies the original Latin sense of “cult”: a place of careful and intentional nurture. Mike says that half the company’s workforce lives on the 180-acre property in the hills around their brewery, which used to be a wine distribution warehouse before they turned it into the first commercial brewery in the southeast and scaled up production with the help of a low interest loan from Whole Foods Market’s Local Producer Loan Program.
All the workers fulfill specific community roles in addition to their kombucha-specific jobs. For example, Buchi’s CFO Jeff Buscher also serves as the community’s master builder, using his renowned green architecture expertise to plan out the larger community Buchi envisions creating in the next 5-10 years. Company co-founder Jeannine (one of the Buchi Mamas) not only oversees brewery operations but also co-directs Avonlea Learning Community, the magical little schoolhouse that stands at the foot of the property.
The property sort of sprawls against the side of a hill, with the schoolhouse at the bottom and the brewery at nearly the top. The brewery is earth-bermed on three sides…meaning built into the side of the hill so that the building is much more energy efficient, and easier to keep at constant temperature.
The front hallway has a kitchen area at one end–complete with a four-tap keg–and a warren of shelves at the other, where festival/event supplies are kept. Just beyond is the bottling room, which has allowed the brewery to scale to producing 1,900 gallons a week and bottling for over 700 retailers. This elevated capacity came in particularly handy during the great kombucha scandal of 2006.
(Mike enlightened us about that, by the way. It wasn’t Lindsay Lohan. It was a FDA inspector in Maine who had a stick up his ass…my words, not Mike’s.)
The first lineup of Buchi flavors was the Elements series–Air, Water and Earth (my personal favorite). A year later, they began work on their Intentional series, meant to embody the values around which their community was taking spontaneous shape.
Of these, my favorite is Seed, a flavor you can only get from Whole Foods because it was developed as part of their local producer loan program. Bryan, however, likes Avonlea, which has raised over $3,000 in its first year to help add enrichment programs for the school. We compromise on taking home a case of Sovereign, a ginger-peach-molasses brew that has a little bit of cream soda flavor deepened by spices and extracts native to the Katuah bioregion.
This brings up another part of Buchi’s signature ethos: disdaining flavors that bear simple description. You’ll never find a Buchi “Grape” or “Super Greens.” Each flavor has a familiar anchor–they like to let people be able to say “it kind of tastes like elderberry soda” or “it’s similar to an old-fashioned root beer”–but it’s important that it not taste quite like anything else out there.
This is particularly important as kombucha is the fastest growing segment of the US beverage industry, with an artisanal cachet that rivals craft beer and a health value quickly surpassing that of cold-pressed juice. The market is getting swamped with carpetbagging brewers whose business practices are as inferior as their product.
This makes it a delicate time for Buchi’s own growth–it’s their opportunity to set the pace for other brewers. Jeff the master builder said it this way: “We don’t want to be the biggest; we just want to be the best.” To stay true to their kombucha, Buchi has to become a lot more than just something to drink.
Fortunately, that’s something they were already working on.
We stand on the side of the hill at the top of a switchback trail, looking out over the roof the brewery into the rose-tinged skeletal treeline that hedges the land. Lights are coming on in the houses below. The air is thick and still, the cold warmed by the pulse of surrounding life.
These are some of the oldest mountains in the world. They are said to generate the kind of vibration normally only found in the Amazon wilds. And at this time of day, watching the hills’ tawny blondes and greens fade to rose, brown and black as lights appear, one by one, in the houses below, it’s as easy to feel these vibrations as it is to believe in the mountain legends of “little folk” and the healing powers of vortices.
We all fall quiet, and I fear it’s going to get awkward. But it doesn’t. What falls is the feeling you get from passing a bowl of food in a foreign country; you might not all taste the same thing, but what lingers is the warm sensation of shared abundance.
We all know that when it comes to brand-building, sharing and social profit is so hot right now. For Buchi, it’s been a cornerstone of their business ever since it outgrew the Buchi Mamas’ kitchens. The company is committed to providing both seed money and guidance to their employees’ outside ventures. They go the extra mile to support like-minded producers around the country (Numi tea, Gaia herbs and Mountain Rose herbs are essential components in every bottle of Buchi). They work tirelessly to achieve B Corporation certification. And each flavor in their Intentional series shares profits with a paired social cause, from food security to protecting the rights of artisanal food producers.
And then there’s the on-the-ground ethic of sharing. Things like choosing local and independent distributors, developing an on-site food pantry for employees, and buying or giving away product whenever possible. Mike himself was roped into the tribe by one of these “Random Acts of Buchi”–he left a health fair in Knoxville, Tn. with a 24-pack of kombucha and an invitation to visit the farm in Asheville.
Ever since college, Mike had crossed the country looking for an organization where his talents and ambitions aligned. That visit to the Buchi farm sealed his conviction–it felt like something between Narnia and summer camp. He immediately came home and penned an impassioned application letter to the Buchi Mamas.
In a brand so focused on sharing, Mike is definitely the guy you want on the front line. From buying Buchis for the people behind him in line at the co-op, to filling us a growler with the last of the Holiday keg (this year’s was particularly good), to performing a spoken word poem inspired by his tenure as part of the Buchi tribe, he communicates a message that goes way beyond the bottle.
“Most people want a cohesive integrated life, and they haven’t quite figured out how to do that in combination with capitalism. If somebody asked what the beating heart of Buchi is, it’s an experiment to see how we can train compassion and commerce to work together. Our community is mach 1 of that. And it’s a pretty damn good start.”
It’s rare to find a company, let alone a person, whose ideals truly transcend their product.
It’s equally rare to find a community where members are held together less by what they do than why they do it.
I don’t know when we’ll end up in Asheville again–I hope it’s soon–but until we get there, we’ll be spreading the Buchi love everywhere we go, and joining them in the quest to make life a little more delicious.