Blue Ridge Bucha—Brewer Q&A
Based in: Afton, Virginia
Distribution: DC, VA, MD
Virginia’s Blue Ridge Bucha may sound like a new kid on the block, but they’ve actually been around for seven years! Not as Blue Ridge, though, but as Barefoot Bucha. They recently underwent a complete rebranding, due to a trademark conflict with a large wine producer. (The flavors did not change, however). They turned to their customers to help find their new name, and that’s how Blue Ridge emerged. It suits them well, because the Blue Ridge mountains is where they source the water for their brews, and it’s also the backdrop for their operation and the community that has supported them for nearly a decade.
These brews are decidedly more on the dry side, which we love. There’s a nice bite that is very satisfying, and the flavors don’t overpower. Elderflower Sunrise, which contains elderflowers, hibiscus and reships, has a soft and very mellow floral note, while the bright red-colored Black Raspberry (far right) puts blackberry and blackberry front and center, yet once again, with a nice dry finish. It’s the kind of “fruity” drink that adults and kids alike would enjoy. Much like Bluegrass Bucha, which contains cascade hops and is probably the flavor we found most delightful.
We chatted with founder Ethan Zuckerman, who runs the company with his wife Kate, about their fascinating history, their low-waste business model—every bottle they sell can be refilled at one of their many on-tap locations throughout Virginia, Maryland and D.C.—and some words of advice he has for aspiring commercial kombucha brewers.
Kombucha Hunter: Ethan, can you take us back to the time when you first started brewing kombucha in California, with your roommate? We'd love to know how you developed the process back then, when kombucha wasn't nearly as popular. Are any of the flavors you currently brew at Blue Ridge, inspired by any of the flavors you brewed back then?
Ethan Zuckerman: I was living in Northern California in 2003 when my roommate and I inherited a culture from a friend. At first we had no idea what to do with it. We started looking for resources, but there wasn't much available at the time. We did find a great little book by a man named Gunther Frank, and that served as the inspiration for our trial-and-error process. There was definitely a lot of error—but over time, we developed a process that gave us a consistently tasty kombucha. Two current flavors that originated back in those days are Blue Ridge Bucha's Original Ginger and our Elderflower Sunrise.
KH: For you guys, the alcohol scare in 2010, which forced kombucha off the shelves temporarily, actually turned out to be a great opportunity to kind of launch your brand. Can you talk a bit about that time period in the company's story?
Ethan: At the time, we had just launched an experimental share-based program where clients could sign up for weekly six packs and get a variety of flavors each week. We weren't ready to go commercial yet, we were just testing the concept—getting feedback and developing flavors. As chance would have it, at the exact same time, there was an alcohol scare in the commercial kombucha industry and it was pulled off the shelves at several local stores. People who had been drinking kombucha regularly couldn't buy it at the store, and were looking for an alternate source. Word spread quickly, and overnight we had almost 100 clients. We decided to go sell our kombucha at retail stores and restaurants when we realized that we weren't able to take on any more clients because we didn't have time in the week to wash all the bottles people were returning for refill.
KH: We love your low-waste business model. When you started thinking of going commercial, did you already have the refillable bottle concept in mind?
Ethan: Yes, we had used the same bottles in our share based program, although they hadn't yet been screenprinted with our brand name. We knew that in transitioning to a commercial business we didn't want to lose sight of our low waste returnable bottle model, so that's why we decided to go the on draft route.
KH: After you discovered that you'd have to change the company's name, did you immediately think: crowd-sourcing? And what does the new name personally mean to you?
Ethan: The idea of crowd-sourcing the name came up early on when we realized we would need to rebrand. Our refillable bottle model is all about working together with our customers to make positive change. We have a committed group of people in our local region that support our company and mission—it's probably a closer customer relationship than a lot of food and beverage production companies have. Our customers had been so supportive during the lawsuit over our old name, we decided it only made sense to open the process up to our community. We trusted that a great new identity would emerge—and it did!
Blue Ridge Bucha was actually on our short list of options when we originally named our company. We both grew up in this area, we brew our kombucha in the Blue Ridge using fresh mountain water, and the natural beauty and outdoor lifestyle here mean a lot to us personally. We also distribute our kombucha only in states that have the Blue Ridge Mountains—it was important to us that the new name impart our commitment to remaining a handcrafted, regionally-based kombucha brewery. Also, we love the way it sounds: Blue Ridge Bucha has a nice alliteration to us. Now that we've made the change, it feels like it was meant to be.
KH: What advice do you have for home-brewers, who are contemplating jumping into the marketplace now?
Ethan: There's a lot of growth in the industry right now and it's a fun time to brew kombucha! If you have something unique and delicious to offer, it might be time to consider brewing on a commercial scale. Making the jump to brewing for a commercial audience means you'll need to be open to adjusting how you do things in order to make the transition successfully and with integrity. Be sure to follow all FDA regulations carefully, accurately disclose your ingredients, test and accurately report your alcohol content, and otherwise behave in an upstanding manner as a business owner and kombucha brewer. A professional approach will strengthen the industry overall, and will help you grow successfully. Support your fellow brewers, and try to see them as inspiration rather than competition. And remember: Owning any kind of small business isn't for the faint of heart. When you deeply care about your product and your team, it's a 24 hour job.