Got scoby?

Upstart Kombucha’s Boulder roots and national aspirations

Susan France

In other communities, one might knock on a neighbor’s door to borrow some butter or sugar. Maybe some milk. But in Boulder County, you’re as likely to get a request for scoby.

Scoby, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, is the living ingredient that turns tea into kombucha. And Boulder’s Upstart Kombucha co-founder Caleb Hanson has been in the position — and maybe it’s safe to assume a common position in Boulder — of having to reach out to a neighbor to salvage a home-brewed kombucha batch.

“We were making a bunch of batches, and we didn’t have enough starter or scoby,” Hanson says. “My wife came in — she had been up the road — and said, ‘One of the neighbors has a bunch of scoby that he’s looking to get rid of. He’s got too much of it.’”

Thus, the origin story of Upstart Kombucha reads like a bad joke: How many Boulderites does it take to make a batch of homemade kombucha? The punchline: One software engineer to build a fermentation chamber in his basement, two software engineers to brew it, and one neighbor (let’s assume a software engineer) to provide his leftover scoby. But it was out of those trial-and-error episodes that Hanson co-founded Upstart in 2013 with Josh Garner and Brian McKinney, of whom all were working in tech, but had been homebrewing beer and kombucha for several years.

Today, Upstart operates out of a facility in East Boulder with four 800-gallon tanks. The facility is climate controlled to 75 to 78 degrees to keep batches from going funky. The same starter, or “mother,” Hanson used on that fateful homebrew batch is the one that has fed thousands of batches since. But the techniques Hanson says the three learned early on are still in play today, even if the scale has changed.

“When we started, we were doing five-gallon batches. At one point I built a hotbox in my basement where I could control the temperature, and we had 20ish five-gallon batches going at once. The whole house smelled like kombucha,” Hanson says.

Upstart produces four mainstay kombuchas — mint green, rose bud, lemon ginger and berry black — and throw in occasional seasonal offerings, like chai spice. The kombucha is intentionally more approachable than perhaps other offerings — brews are relatively low in acidity, flavors were honed to appeal to consumers that don’t drink kombucha everyday, and there’s no scoby floating in it. In a burgeoning beverage category, Upstart is trying to carve a niche as the “gulpable” kombucha, one that you could switch out a beer or soda for, and that promises moderate health benefits — the three initially became kombucha drinkers after consuming the tea after runs. Hanson says it had immediate benefits.

“Especially after a long run or hard run, you feel really spent. Your stomach is upset and you need to eat something but you don’t really want to,” Hanson says. “There’s something about [kombucha] that just kind of calms your system down and gets you to the point where you’re ready to move on with your day.

“We have one woman who was training for the Leadville 100 who would stop in at mile 30 of her run, get a drink and keep running,” he says.

Susan France

I can’t vouch for nor endorse any health claims, but I can say that kombucha was first introduced to me years ago — as it may have been to you — as hangover tea, and more often than not, it worked liked literal magic.

But pigeonholing kombucha as a niche drink is exactly the tide Hanson says Upstart is trying to beat back against. The three founders took the leap from homebrewing into professional brewing because they saw an opportunity for the drink to expand its boundaries. They weren’t alone.

“We knew we were smart enough to see the opportunity, but we also knew we weren’t the only ones to see it,” Hanson says, adding that it was validating, and not threatening, to see other companies launch when they did.

“If you’re getting into an industry and no one else sees the opportunity you see, you’re probably wrong,” Hanson says.

There is another benefit to competition: because few people outside select communities in California, the Pacific Northwest and Boulder County know about the drink, the burden of informing potential customers nationwide about kombucha is shared between members of the brewing community.

“In a lot of industries, if a new competitor came on the market, you’d be happy if their product sucked. But we’re working against that. We have to counteract that, ‘You had a bad kombucha.’ To [consumers] the category is the product right now,” Hanson says.

Too, there are issues that arise in this growing industry that may be unique to Upstart’s founders. As computer folk, Hanson says they expected there would be more data available to drive decisions about what the company produced and when it produced it. In software, he says, data is everywhere, but in consumer goods, “We’re like four steps removed from the customer.”

Now, Hanson says they’ve found the proper channels to collect data but they had to use their own ingenuity to gather information in their precious early months.

“In the early days I spent most of the day stalking people in the kombucha aisle at Alfalfa’s because we wanted to know, ‘Are they reaching for us?’ and if they’re not, why not. I was actually taking those multicolored circles for filing and marking the bottle at the back of the rack to see how far it moved forward in the day because we didn’t get sell-through information from them. It was a matter of hacking our way into that data,” Hanson says. “That was a blind spot for us; we didn’t think about that data not being obvious.”

Hanson says the groupthink at Upstart also shirks the idea that brewing kombucha is an art. There’s a time for creativity — in developing flavors and marketing the tea — but the process of brewing is science. And the brewing process requires a lot of attention to detail. Because Upstart brews with all its ingredients (as opposed to adding in juice after the tea-brewing process), they have to be cognizant of how flavors change while brewing, how they change at different quantities and how they hold up after the brewing is complete.

They’re constantly experimenting, with six batches at any given time in a set-up that’s similar to their old homebrewing rigs. When a flavor hits, it’s tested on family and friends, then given a shot in their small taproom and then, if it’s a hit, it’s bottled.

Hanson says he’s not concerned about business being siphoned by a wave of people fermenting and brewing kombucha and other foods at home, and that as former homebrewers themselves, the Upstart founders are eager to encourage and help people create their own tea.

“If we can help them do it right, they become word-of-mouth advocates for the category,” Hanson says. “Our goal is to help them make good kombucha at home. We actually did a few classes just teaching people so they’re going to end up with a safe, delicious end product.”

And if anyone runs out of scoby, can they knock on their neighborhood kombucha brewer’s door?

“We actually hook people up with starter all the time if they’re interested in it,” Hanson says.