Happy Mountain Kombucha—Brewer Q&A
Based in: Portland, OR
Distribution: OR, WA + ID
Every once in a while, we try a kombucha that makes us do a happy dance and giggle with delight. Happy Mountain, which hails from Portland, OR, is such a booch. It’s the kind of kombucha we go gaga for: Perfectly, and we mean perfectly, fizzy; crisp, clean, a bit dry and not too sweet; with nuanced, unique flavors that don’t overpower but definitely impress.
Now going into its third year, Happy Mountain recently added two new flavors—Honeydew Melon and Spiced Chai—to their line, bringing their flavor total to 6. They also redesigned their packaging, going from long-neck bottles to rounder shapes. We love the change! And the new flavors: Amazing! Honeydew Melon, which uses white peony tea as the base, is light and smooth, with a hint of the honeydew dancing on the palate and even a subtle trace of strawberry; Spiced Chai, meanwhile, has that distinct spice note, but it's soft, balanced perfectly by cardamom, black peppercorn, cloves and cinnamon. This one uses Chinese black tea as the base.
White peony leaves, jasmine flowers, lavender flowers—these elements create beautiful, balanced flavors and new experiences for the palate. They don’t add juice, but rely on naturally occurring flavors in their flowers and leaves.
Happy Mountain (originally called Oregon Kombucha) was started six years ago as the in-house kombucha at a Portland loose leaf tea company called Tea Chai Té, and in 2015, Happy Mountain was taken over by Ben Calkins, who has increased production while still keeping it very much hand-crafted and small batch. They continue to use Tea Chai Té’s tea as the base, and you really can taste the high quality of the tea.
We chatted with co-founder Ben Calkins about the past, present and future of this wonderful, hand-crafted brand.
Kombucha Hunter: Can you tell us a bit about how Happy Mountain came together?
Ben Calkins: The idea of HMK started as Oregon Kombucha as the in-house kombucha for Tea Chai Té. A few years later, I met with Dominic Valdes and decided to join forces. Dominic's knowledge of tea and my experience in the food and outdoor industries were the perfect storm to fuel Happy Mountain Kombucha. Since then, Kyle Moore and Andrew Gay were brought on to take the lead on brewing operations. Our first brew room was in a 8x8 tent. We have moved warehouses 4 times in the past 2 years and each time doubled our capacity—and we're almost ready for another move! We take pride in working together and constantly improving our craft. Although there is only 4 of us at HMK (all of which own part of the company), we are aware that we couldn't do what we do without the friends and community we have built around us. We are very thankful for the many artists, friends, adventurers, and companies that we have built relationships with over the past two years. We couldn't do this without them!
KH: Why did you decide to go with Melon and Chai as the new flavors? Anything in particular inspired the creation of these two?
BC: We're super excited about our two new flavors. We started working on the Honeydew Melon early last spring, but just didn't have the resources needed to launch it in time for the summer. So instead of waiting until next spring, we thought we would launch it with the release of our Spiced Chai. We get all of our tea from our friends at Tea Chai Té, who has been blending tea here in Portland for over 13 years. They specialize in chai tea, and felt it was only natural for us to make a Spiced Chai flavor for HMK. We also really wanted to create a kombucha that gave you that cozy winter feeling that hot tea does in the cold. We feel that although our kombucha is still raw and served cold, it tastes perfect in a snowy cabin next to a warm fire.
KH: We love the new packaging: the bottles and labels. Why did you decide to repackage now, and who did the design/art direction?
BC: Thank you! We love them too! It really was a collaboration of a few people. Our old packaging was great, although the logo (the seed of life) can be found everywhere and didn't stand out in a way to allow us to create a brand around. We also really wanted to embrace our Pacific Northwest roots and thought what better way to do that than use actual mountains on the labels. All of our labels have a different PNW photographer that we worked in collaboration with. On each bottle, you can find their Instagram handle as well as the GPS coordinates of each mountain. We did this to encourage people to go out and find that mountain, that it is a real place in the PNW and that anyone can actually go there. We also wanted to highlight all of the amazing photographers that are doing a great job at showcasing how beautiful it is up here and inspiring people to go out into nature.
KH: You guys don't use any flavor in second fermentation. Can you tell us a bit about your process and what makes it unique?
BC: Yeah! So our process is what we think sets us apart from other kombuchas. We brew our white tea with spices, herbs, and natural extracts, we add organic evaporated cane juice (sugar), then we add our culture and starter. Then we wait. Then we strain the kombucha and package it up for you! Never do we use any artificial flavorings or add any juice to our kombucha. By not adding juice, we keep the sugar content low and keep the health benefits from being diluted. Resulting in a very tasty kombucha that is bright and refreshing without the need for juice or added flavoring. Our goal is to get more people to drink kombucha, so we make it as healthy and easy to drink as we can!
KH: 2016 was quite a year for kombucha—so much growth! Any new challenges you encountered this year as commercial brewers?
BC: HMK will officially will be 2 years old in February, so it's been a huge year for us! Everything we brew is small batch. We brew 4 gallons at a time and we decide it's ready when we think it tastes ready. This attention to detail is a very time consuming process that makes for great kombucha, but is one we have been trying to find ways to scale. As we continue to grow, we want to make sure we do not compromise the quality of our kombucha and will make sure to stay true to our small batch methods!
KH: And on the flipside, what have been some of the most gratifying experiences this year for you?
BC: We just recently started selling our kombucha in Bellingham, Washington and Boise, Idaho. In 2017, we hope to expand to a larger brewery and offer our kombucha in Seattle and the rest of Washington state. We're still a small company with big dreams, but we are blown away with the response to our kombucha and the support we have received. We love the community of adventurers that we are part of and look forward growing that community.