Buchi Kombucha—Brewer Q&A
Based in: Asheville, NC
Distribution: East Coast
We always enjoy a good kombucha brand story—or any good business story, for that matter. Kombucha stories usually involve a small group of people from different walks of life, falling in love with kombucha at some point, and eventually deciding to make a business out of that passion. That is exactly how the Buchi story began—with two women, Sarah Schomber and Jeannine Buscher, whose paths crossed through their shared love of kombucha home-brewing.
Over the course of nearly a decade, they have grown that home-brewing passion into one of the biggest brands in the country, but not without a few bumps along the way. In fact, a few years ago, Buchi went through its most challenging time, when they actually faced the possibility of closing their brewery. Instead of despairing, they came up with innovative ideas and some restructuring—with the help of a dedicated community of helpers—and kept going.
Today, Buchi brews 9 different flavors, including Earth, which is so interesting and complex. We would file it almost in the “Beyond Kombucha” category, because the ingredients and the way they are incorporated turns it into a serious elixir/tonic. It’s very rootsy and robust. There are apple and basil notes in there, and the addition of maple syrup and molasses adds a textured sweetness. Avonlea is another stand-out, with orange creamcicle notes, and a strong passion fruit flavor. All of Buchi's brews have a sharp carbonation (careful opening those bottles!), and are on the sweeter side of the booch tart/sweet spectrum. Seed is another one that blew us away, with its malty herbal notes, and lingering pineapple flavor. And Unlimited tastes like a prosecco mixed with apple cider, and a hint of lime!
We are also really impressed by the way Buchi run their business. They are 15% worker-owned and are in the process of becoming a certified Benefit Corporation. B Corps are a collective of 900+ companies that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. So, in essence, these are companies that are not just concerned with being the best and most profitable, but actually benefiting our Earth. Such a cool, and necessary, collective!
We spoke with founders Sarah Schomber and Jeannine Buscher about their amazing story.
Kombucha Hunter: Sarah and Jeannine, when you met back in 2008, you were both brewing kombucha independently. Did either of you at that point have any aspirations to enter the beverage business?
Jeannine Buscher: I only considered starting a making kombucha commercially about 4 months prior to meeting Sarah. I moved to Asheville with my scoby in tow and found out that the people of Asheville loved kombucha and really supported local businesses. I was in the best culture shock ever coming from Dallas and I was relishing in the many vibrant tailgate markets going to 2 or 3 a week! I decided to start brewing kombucha commercially because I really wanted to be a part of the local food movement as well as help people be healthier.
KH: Whose idea was it to consolidate your home-brewing operations, or did you both kind of know that it would happen?
Jeannine: Our teacher had done home visits to each of our houses prior to the first day of our kids school. We had each offered her kombucha when she visited… she introduced us to each each other, I let Sarah know of my plans to start making more and selling it at the farmer’s market. She said, "Actually, my husband keeps telling me I need to find another mom to start a business with, and then asked if I thought we should do the kombucha business together?" I said, “Well, I guess that would be more fun.” The inspector was already scheduled to come out the next day, so she came over to help me clean my kitchen. She had her 2 month old on her back, and my 6- year-old son and her 5-year-old daughter played outside. We had no idea what we had started at the time… seemed like only just a little more than a hobby in the moment, but it quickly grew to more than that!
KH: Can you talk about how the flavors were developed? Are any flavors that you started with at farmer’s markets back in the early days still part of the line?
Jeannine: For the longest time we just had our base flavor—we really wanted to get our base kombucha down before we started adding additional flavors. We would experiment with some flavors and sample them at Rosetta’s Kitchen, home of The Buchi Bar as well as some markets and festivals. We bootstrapped initially, so we did not have the resources to release an entire line, so we just released one flavor at a time for our first 5 flavors and really took our time with them. Sarah’s husband played a part in the development initially… as he and Sarah had made many different creative blends of mead in the past, but flavor development has always been a team effort. Buchi Fire was our first flavor.
KH: We love the label design—it works so well with the ethos of the company and the rather otherworldly flavors. Can you talk a bit about how the packaging was developed?
Jeannine: Sarah was already bottling her kombucha in beer bottles (she had removed labels from beer bottles). We decided to go with the beer bottle initially because it is what was available at the time - we would get 4 cases of empty bottles at the homebrew supply store before bottling each week. We decided to stick with it as we got bigger as we felt like it spoke to the social aspect of our kombucha….Our label design came directly from the inner depths of [Marketing Director] Zane Adam’s mind…we met Zane early about 5 months into our business and he presented us with our brand, current logo with the elements on the first day we met him. We all loved it right from the start!
Zane Adams: I wanted to create a space in our brew, our visuals and social change platform where our customers could go deeper, learn a little more about the natural world that we live in perhaps learn a little more about themselves in the process. We come out of a community of makers, individuals who are crafting artisanal products that are an extension of our souls and life's work. Some people make amazing ceramics, textiles, furniture—we brew really unique kombucha. People come up us to and shout with exuberance, “I’m a fire sign," or "I'm a Water girl." I think our flavors embody the uniqueness of people who drink us.
KH: Can you explain to our readers what exactly lambic fermentation is, and how you incorporate it into your brewing process?
Jeannine: We use the term lambic fermentation to try and describe how our kombucha fermentation is different from a typical beer fermentation. The beneficial bacteria (aka probiotics) need oxygen throughout the fermentation and a wide and open fermenter helps with the fermentation. For traditional lambic beer brewing, the brewers transfer the wort to large open fermenters for local wild yeasts to settle on and spontaneously ferment into beer. Wild yeasts are also a component of traditional craft kombucha and is one reason that there is so much variety between kombuchas fermentations.
KH: You guys have faced some challenges over the years, the kinds of challenges that could make a company contemplate shutting its doors. What kept you moving forward?
Jeannine: Pure GRIT!!
Sarah Schomber: Community. If it had not been for the support of so many who believed in us, I think we would have given up. It takes a village to raise children and it takes a village to raise businesses like ours.
KH: Can you talk about your innovative (and very inspiring, we might add!) “Sleep On Your Floor Kombucha Tour”? How did that came to life, and what did it do for the brand?
Sarah: The idea that necessity drives innovation and creativity—well, that was the driving force for the “Sleep on Your Floor Kombucha tour.” Our backs were against the walls financially. We chose to not sell out and give the majority of our company to an investor who misrepresented himself and his intentions. So, we had to sell kombucha and lots of it fast to keep our doors open. I slept on dormitory floors along with Zane and Mike [Newman, from marketing], who really scripted the initiative. We couch surfed throughout the southeast, met incredible people, and sold kombucha.
KH: What advice would you give to a home-brewer who just made their most amazing batch of kombucha, and is seriously considering taking it commercial? Any words of wisdom, caution or encouragement you can share?
Sarah: Search your heart, find what resonates and follow it with intention and integrity. If I knew what I know now, I think I might have chosen to produce a product that was not as difficult to get out there, but all in all, I am glad I did. Advice? Be committed to your purpose, be easy on yourself and take every opportunity to thank those who are supporting you directly and indirectly, often. Enjoy the journey—it’s potent and powerful.