Kombucha Develops On-Premise In Portland

If kombucha culture had to choose a capital city, Portland, Ore., would be a hot favorite.

That’s not just speculation; according to data reported by Square, maker of mini credit card scanners, consumers in the Rose City consume 78 times more kombucha than anywhere else in the country. From home brewers to small operations selling at farmers’ markets to local companies making a splash on the national stage, Portland is awash with booch.

But even as they continue to push further into retail, local brands are seeking innovative ways to develop kombucha as an on-premise offering. Whether it’s presenting kombucha as a base for cocktails, disrupting self-service growler fills, or elevating the social atmosphere around the drink, Portland-based brands are helping kombucha evolve into a sophisticated, multi-faceted drink with plenty of on-premise appeal.

Crafting The Experience

Matt Thomas, founder of Brew Dr. Kombucha, didn’t set out to start a kombucha company. Townshend’s Tea, the premium loose leaf tea company he created in 2006, didn’t begin brewing their own booch until two years later when customers at his tea house on NE Alberta Street in Portland began asking if he made his own. Thomas took his curiosity to the basement and began experimenting, and the results would alter the course of his business for good.

These days, the basement space of the Alberta Street tea shop looks quite different. From the cushioned chairs to the lovingly worn Pac-Man machine tucked in the corner, the room has a warm, casual atmosphere. On a mid-Thursday morning in late August, it’s slowly filling up with customers sharing conversation over a pot of tea or pecking away at laptop keyboards. As the cafe and Townshend’s as a company has evolved over the years, kombucha has become a more and more integral part of its on-premise service.

“It’s an experience more than just a product,” said Thomas about his philosophy towards serving kombucha at Townshend’s nine brick-and-mortar locations in Oregon, Montana and Utah. At the Alberta Street location, the company has six varieties of kombucha on tap; customers can fill a pint glass for $3.50, a 24 oz. glass for $5, or fill up either a mini 32 oz. ($10 new, $6.50 for refill) or full size 64 oz. growler ($15.50 new, $12.50 for refill).

Aside from serving freshly brewed kombucha, integrating Brew Dr. into Townshend’s on-premise offerings recontextualizes how customers may feel about it as a beverage. While the price for in-store growler fills is either the same or close to what is offered at grocery stores and other retailers, Thomas said the cafe is about providing a richer overall experience rather than massive savings.

“People are getting the experience of the tea house when they come here; it’s a beautiful space, there’s a tea garden out back, there’s Wi-Fi,” he said. “We are not afraid to charge a little more for something because it’s an experience.”

In addition to enhancing the atmosphere around drinking kombucha, the cafes are also an ideal place to gauge how new formulations and ingredient combinations will translate to the wider consumer base.

“We always launch a new flavor at the teahouses first in prototype phase to get feedback. That’s how we know if it’s going to work,” said Thomas. “The employees will drink it if they love it, and we can get straight feedback from our regular customers who are drinking kombucha everyday at the tea houses. They are a great testing ground.”

Outside of Townshend’s Tea stores, Thomas is also using the company’s small speakeasy-style tasting room to showcase kombucha as a base for creative craft cocktails. Located in a room in the back of their 10,000 sq. ft. brewery in southeast Portland, the space is branded under Thomas & Sons Distillery, the company Thomas founded to market a variety of tea liqueurs and botanical spirits produced by the Townshend’s.

“Both of our breweries are licensed distilled spirits plants because of the way we remove alcohol,” he explained, referring to the high pressure steam system called a spinning cone column that Brew Dr. uses to separate ethanol from the liquid kombucha. “That means we are able to have a tasting room on-site. You walk in, see the spinning cone column, make a left turn and you are in the tasting room.”

The keyword here is taste: due to liquor laws, the company can do small pours of its products rather than full servings like a bar. Thomas acknowledges that promoting kombucha as a cocktail mixer or a non-alcoholic alternative for social drinking is not something that’s driving the company’s growth, but the purpose is to expand the idea of what an on-premise kombucha experience can be like one sip at a time.

“We are pushing that kombucha cocktail angle [through the distillery],” Thomas said. “A lot of bloggers and online publications are interested in better-for-you cocktails, and with the distillery team we’ve been able to come up with a lot of great recipes.”

As it exists today, the tasting room works as a way to bring customers into the brewery, grow exposure to the Brew Dr. brand and sell a few bottles along the way. But Thomas sees plenty of runway ahead for furthering the concept in bigger and more ambitious ways.

“We might do a separate tasting room in a less industrial, more desirable area of Portland some day,” he said. “We might turn one of our teahouses into a bar by night — we certainly have a couple tea houses that that would work at. That would be a cool way to highlight our spirits and the way you can use kombucha. That’d be cool, but only so much you can do.”

SOMA: Social Drinking Meets Self-Service

For Jean-Pierre Parent, kombucha was initially seen as a means to an end; as a yoga teacher, he noticed that people were hesitant to talk to each other after class, showing some of the shy nature that he said “Portland has in spades.” His way of breaking the ice? Passing around the booch.

“They would all sit around and have some booch and it was very awkward at first, but people got used to it,” said Parent, founder and president of Symple Foods, makers of SOMA Kombucha. On a warm afternoon in late August, he’s sitting on a cushioned bench inside SOMA’s new taproom in Portland’s Sunnyside neighborhood, the company’s second foray into creating a new type of on-premise kombucha experience.

From its humble beginnings, SOMA has grown into a player in the competitive Pacific Northwest kombucha market; their wide range of kombuchas, including honey-sweetened jun and coffee-based varieties, are available on draft and in bottles in Oregon, Washington and Southern California at stores like Whole Foods, Safeway and New Seasons.

Yet even as SOMA pushes further into conventional retail, social drinking has remained a consistent theme from the company’s inception. For Parent, the long journey towards unstaffed self-service kombucha began when he started selling kombucha at a local famers’ market. “We were so busy that we couldn’t help people who wanted to try samples,” he said. “So we turned the kegerators around and told people to help themselves. It just worked.”

Upon moving production into a shared commercial kitchen space in nearby St. Johns, Parent wanted to keep alive the spirit of the farmer’s market, so he got a few tables and chairs and set them up next to a kegerator in the hallway where customers could fill up. That proved so successful that it began blocking foot traffic in and out of the space, so Parent decided to expand further, buying up the final available unit in the building and opening a small restaurant focused on serving raw food. That also proved popular, but also considerably more taxing on the company’s three employees. More importantly, it wasn’t enough to meet the increasing demand for kombucha.

“People would call me everyday like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be five minutes late, can you stay open? I need to fill up my growler,’” said Parent. “So when that happened I was like, we are going to be open everyday from 10am to 8pm for just self-serve to stop bottlenecking the process. The first Thursday that we were self-serve — nobody knew it, we just made the switch and it happened — we outsold any Thursday we’d ever had.”

As he talks, a handful of customers come into the store, some moving with purpose and others stepping forward with curious glances, to which Parent offers a quick rundown of how the shop works. The process is simple: customers swipe their credit card to unlock the door, at which point their information is stored in case of damage or non-payment. Once inside, they can fill a plastic cup, a glass bottle or a growler with one of seven rotating varieties of kombucha (including jun); on the day of our visit, flavors ranged from classic original to mulberry tulsi and coconut turmeric. Payment is processed via a iPad-based cashier app.

As simple as it sounds, opening a unstaffed taproom that’s open from 5am to 1am daily carries its share of challenges. For starters, Parent said the current home was actually the company’s third choice of location, having been twice turned down by landlords who disapproved of the store’s concept. Once they found a workable space in Southeast Portland, they spent weeks completely remodeling the space. Even after that was completed, opening was delayed for a year while SOMA waited for permit approval from the city.

Roughly four months after its debut, Parent said the taproom has been mostly successful.

“This is fun, but I think I’d like to keep it simpler in the future,” he said, noting that the store had briefly sold some prepared food from its cooler but stopped after some instances of theft. “Put in a cooler, make sure they have enough bathrooms, that kind of thing.”

The third SOMA taproom, located inside a local yoga studio, will be more basic, but Parent sees room to expand the concept outside of Portland. He is considering a franchise model for the tap rooms where brewing would take place on-site, with SOMA providing the ingredients and support.

“We would send all the concentrates, the tea, the sugar, the flavors, the honey, everything” said Parent, adding that he’s looked at Austin, Tex., and Vancouver, British Columbia, as potential sites for further brick-and-mortar kombucha shops. “We give them a great water filter as part of the package and they just put it in the water and dump the stuff in and do the testing to make sure everything is ready to go, then put it in kets and on tap.”