Inspiration can come from anywhere. As the co-founder of Inspired Brews Kombucha, Jessa Stevens has taken that idea to heart.
“A lot of times a dessert makes a really great kombucha flavor,” said Stevens, calling from the company’s fermentory in Philadelphia. “Like what you would find at a really high-end gourmet dessert company. We think about what flavor combinations they might come up with and sort of how to bring that into a kombucha flavor.”
Inside Inspired Brews’ 750 sq. ft. production space, located a few blocks west of the Delaware River in a neighborhood called Old City, customers can see that process happening before their eyes. Around eight to 10 varieties, made with local organic produce whenever possible, are produced at any given time and flavored in five-gallon glass barrels. In terms of flavor profile, the brews range from potent root vegetables — the beets, carrots, ginger and mint in Philly Rooted — to sweet strawberries, as in the dessert-ish Philly Strawberries and Cream. Flavors are rotated as produce comes in and out of season, allowing Stevens to make adjustments as inspiration strikes.
“As soon as strawberries come out, we have a few strawberry flavors,” she said. “The next year we might be inspired to make something completely different as well, so we’ll have our seasonal flavor and then we might morph it into a different strawberry flavor.“
That open-minded approach has served Stevens well on her journey as a kombucha entrepreneur, which began after she discovered the bubbly fermented tea while running her own graphic design business in Dallas. The purported health benefits were initially a bigger draw than the flavor, but soon she found herself craving it all the time. Her interest brought her in touch with Jennifer Snow, a lawyer and experienced home brewer. She sent Stevens home that night with a starter culture, and over the next few months, their friendship grew as they shared each others’ kombucha recipes and ideas.
The early results from their experiments in homebrewing were encouraging: friends and family gave them positive feedback, while Stevens grew experienced enough to begin teaching kombucha education classes around town. Upon moving to Philadelphia, however, Stevens still hadn’t had serious discussions with Snow about starting a business. But as she began to teach brewing classes around town, she was introduced to the city’s small business community and met the owners of the local juice bars and coffee shops that posted flyers for her classes at their stores.
“I was blown away by the support from other food entrepreneurs in the area,” said Stevens. “It’s really tight-knit, everybody kind of knows each other and it’s especially fun to be able to promote other businesses that you also think are doing great things. That was one of the reasons we decided to start doing the collaboration flavors.”
A look at some of the 15 to 20 collaborations that Inspired has released thus far show the broad potential for partnering with local businesses. For example, the company worked with Back On My Feet, a local non-profit group that offers assistance to the city’s homeless population, to create a special flavor to promote a road race event, for which a percentage of the profits went to the charity. Stevens said the company is currently working on a new product jointly created with Halcyon Floats, a local floatation therapy center, that will be sold at its two locations.
Yet Snow, still in Texas, still has a hand in shaping Inspired’s offerings. Varieties like Dallas Bishop Beet (beets, tarragon, rosemary, grapefruit and Texas local honey) and Dallas Cranberry Ginger (cranberries, ginger root) showcase flavors from the Lone Star State.
“Basically, we were doing everything a business would need to do in each of our cities, and then collaborating on flavors every now and then,” said Stevens of her partnership with Snow. “We help each other in getting through different brewing issues and growing issues just by talking things through.”
After getting off the ground, the opening of the fermentory in February 2014 marked a new chapter for Inspired. Stevens said the brick-and-mortar location gives the brand a deeper connection with consumers and the local community.
“When people walk in, if they’ve had our stuff outside of the store at another location, they are able to walk right into everything that we’re doing,” she said, adding that the space is also used for kombucha “cocktail hour” events and as a pop-up venue for local entrepreneurs, as well as hosting kombucha brewing workshops. “We’re able to better explain probably than a barista at a coffee shop what kombucha is, what its benefits are, how we are making it and what ingredients we are using.”
In addition, the fermentory location offers select flavors on-tap and growler fills based on a subscription program. After a $10 initiation fee to join, users can pick a plan based on either 1 L or 0.5 gallon fills. Prices for the smaller size range from $10 for one fill per month to $35 for four fills, while fees for the larger container range from $20 for one fill per month to $70 for four fills.
Outside of the fermentory, Stevens has also been working to establish the brand’s presence across retail channels. Along with independent natural grocery outlets in the Philadelphia and Dallas areas, she said Inspired Brews was available in local yoga studios and select bars and restaurants, where it’s presented as both a non-alcoholic social drink and a base for cocktails. Each 16 oz. bottle retails for $7 to $9.
Yet as one the first major U.S. cities to adopt a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, Philadelphia also presents a unique challenge for a beverage start-up like Inspired. While Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have been its loudest opponents, Stevens said she has had to adjust certain recipes that featured honey, maple syrup or molasses, to circumvent the tax.
“We didn’t use it for sugar content, we used it for flavor, so there wasn’t a ton in there,” she said of natural sweeteners. “But if it was on our label, we got taxed about $0.25 extra per bottle. So all of our wholesale customers, if we had any of those in them, would not buy those flavors.”
That aside, the mutual support enjoyed by Inspired Brews and the city of Philadelphia is another example of a kombucha startup developing a distinct regional character and appeal. It’s quite possible that the city’s next generation of kombucha entrepreneurs will find their initial spark of inspiration at Stevens’ store.
“Philly is amazing because you just run into the same people and see the same faces a lot of the time, but you get a lot of the fun benefits of a big city,” she said. “It doesn’t get enough credit. It’s so different coming from Texas, but I love it.