Audacious growth

Boulder-based kombucha titan Rowdy Mermaid launches a new immunity-boosting beverage

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Jane Izard

Rowdy Mermaid and its founder, Jamba Dunn, have always done things differently. 

Almost a decade ago, Dunn was just a Boulder dad with a doctorate in philosophy. With some time on his hands, after his corporate employer downsized the company, he started brewing kombucha in his garage.  

He had a feeling kombucha didn’t have to be so acidic, so vinaigrous, so sugary, but the beverage hadn’t yet boomed and alternatives to the few brands in existence were minimal. So he took his research background and a handful of herbs from the garden and created a kombucha that appealed to even his 3-year-old daughter — and, as it turns out, basically everyone. 

Selling kombucha fortified with ingredients that maximize its health benefits, Rowdy Mermaid launched and then grew, quickly.

“I unwittingly started the first functional kombucha company, and it’s a category that still hasn’t really been segmented out,” Dunn says. “Because of that and because of the taste of our kombucha being very mild in terms of acidity and aggressiveness of flavor, we’ve always reached a broad range of consumers; people who didn’t like kombucha but liked what we were making, but also people in the die-hard category. … It meant overnight we kind of reached a broad audience.”

Now, with Rowdy Mermaid soon to be available in Whole Foods nationwide, a rabid fan base, and the distinction of being the biggest single contributor to the growth of the kombucha market, Dunn and company are launching Adaptonic, a tonic featuring fruits, herbs and an extract of the immunity-boosting reishi mushroom, known as the “mushroom of immortality,” loaded with health-boosting beta-glucans, which are known to boost immunity and reduce inflammation. 

Mushrooms are having a moment in the natural foods space, as are “immunity” beverages, but Adaptonic is a new kind of beverage, for all intents and purposes. It doesn’t taste like mushrooms, Dunn says, just the flavors added to it. (The first launch includes ashwagandha blackberry, matcha yuzu, strawberry holy basil and chamomile lime.) Those flavors will appeal to those perusing beverage sections, but, just like when Rowdy Mermaid launched before the kombucha boom, it’ll have to educate consumers on what exactly an adoptogenic tonic is.

Dunn says he’s up for the challenge.

“When I got into kombucha in 2012, only 5% of the U.S. population knew what kombucha was at the time,” he says. “I think people forget that because kombucha is so now widely available; it seems like most people know what it is. There was a time, a very short time ago, when very few people knew what we were doing. Everything we were doing was part of an educational process.

“I’m convinced that people will gravitate toward the product,” he continues, “and hopefully our consumers will do their own research, but right now there’s nobody asking for beta-glucans.”

Dunn says the product launch isn’t about grabbing more market space, but the result of taking a beat during the pandemic and thinking about how the company could leverage its ample resources (it has an in-house genetics lab and several other doctorate degrees on staff) to make something new that people looking to maximize the health impacts of their food and drink might want. The company shelved the release of other kombucha flavors (though it is launching the caffeinated Grapefruit Rise this year as well), and looked for other options.

“We didn’t have a whole lot else to do at that time,” Dunn says. “We dug into the different ingredients we use, we read peer-reviewed research papers. As a kombucha company that has always worked with mushrooms, [that’s] one of the areas we looked at.” 

Introducing a new product in the notoriously difficult beverage market serves as a significant marker in the mind-boggling growth of Rowdy Mermaid. Dunn says, with a laugh, that when he launched the first Rowdy Mermaid taproom (created, in part, to normalize drinking kombucha instead of alcohol, and thus to deter drunk driving), he wrote on a board in his office “Boulder >> Telluride >> the World.”

Such audacious dreams would be met with laughter by others, too, if it didn’t turn out to be the exact path Rowdy Mermaid is taking.