For Jeff Weaber, founder of Vermont’s Aqua ViTea, kombucha is a product of his twin loves. In 2003, he was working at a small brewery in Oregon, learning the production process. At the same time, his girlfriend (and later, wife) Katina was studying to become a naturopathic midwife. His interest in brewing and her enthusiasm for holistic medicine soon dovetailed.
“That led us to discover kombucha,” Weaber tells me, recalling the first batch he brewed in his Portland basement.
It was perfect timing, Weaber found himself at the dawn of the emerging industry. He soon began experimenting with 20-gallon batches of apple cider-flavored kombucha. The product was an immediate hit with family and friends in both the naturopathic community and the beer-drinking crowd, who kept coming back to his home for more.
Weaber realized it was time to redouble his efforts—and that meant making a big move. Weaber saw the East Coast as an untapped market of potential kombucha converts. The couple packed up their bags and, in 2005, headed east to Salisbury, Vermont. As Katina established her practice, Weaber kicked his operation in high gear, turning his full attention towards establishing Aqua ViTea.
After many successful weeks hawking growlers at the Middlebury Farmers market the Middlebury Co-op approached Weaber about bringing Aqua ViTea into its store.
“I became painfully aware of the cost of packaging which ends up in the garbage,” Weaber said. “We wanted to find a way to do with all this with a conscience, and serving in a glass and storing in a keg was the way to go.” One tap turned to two, and then three. Soon, other co-ops in Vermont wanted in on the action. Eventually, Aqua ViTea even made its way into Whole Foods.
As the company continued to grow, Weaber and his team moved out of Salisbury and into its Middlebury headquarters, an expansive warehouse far larger than Weaber’s humble Portland basement. The headquarters houses a dozen tanks, each filled with 12,000 gallons of kombucha.
Like natural wine and bottle-conditioned beers, kombucha is alive. Yet the industry got a rude awakening in this regard in 2010, when several brands issued voluntary recalls of products that had been found to contain more alcohol than their advertised .5% ABV, in violation of FDA regulations. Because of inconsistent storage and handling post-production, some kombucha had continued to ferment in the bottle, even though it had bottled under the FDA threshold for nonalcoholic beverages. The fiasco created a severe PR crisis that threatened to reverse kombucha’s soaring popularity.
“It was a scare,” Weaber says. “We didn’t want the category to go away because kombucha is such an incredible health tonic.”
In order to ensure consistent ABV levels, Weaber decided that the best course of action was to remove the alcohol from Aqua ViTea’s finished kombucha, ultimately settling on a process using a spinning cone column.
The spinning cone uses vacuum pressure and centrifugal force to distill the kombucha at temperatures low enough to maintain the product’s flavor and its diverse microflora. The resulting de-alcoholized kombucha clocks in at anywhere between .06% and .3% ABV. As of now, Aqua ViTea is one of only two brewers in the country using this technology.
As for the extracted alcohol? Aqua ViTea doesn’t put that to waste. Instead, the byproduct became a product in its own right. Once the alcohol is extracted from the spinning cone, it’s distilled three times before being finished at 88 proof. The result is Aqua Vodka.
“It's a proof of concept product, as it draws attention to the fact that kombucha is an alcoholic beverage unless treated properly,” Weaber says.
Despite the triple distillation, Aqua Vodka still presents a mild flavor reminiscent of the tea with which the kombucha is brewed.
“It’s so deeply ingrained in the fermentation that the flavor sticks around, but you also get acid notes from the kombucha acidity,” says Weaber. “So ‘vodka’ might not even be the right word for it, but it's the closest thing we can come up with.”
Weaber adds that some people taste the tea, while others get fruity notes. While it can be mixed into cocktails, the unique flavor profile of this vodka makes it best served straight. Aqua Vodka is currently available in four states. Weaber says that the Aqua ViTea team are currently experimenting with gin and rum versions as well, which he hopes to unveil in the next few years.
“Our company has been so early in the kombucha category, it has given us the self-identity of innovation,” Weaber says “It’s part of our DNA and we see that in everything we do.”