In a city known better known for its coffee scene, Puget Sound Kombucha is starting to make some noise.
Since launching the brand in 2015, husband and wife team of Emily and Casey Malone have cultivated a distinct local identity for their brews. From the name to the packaging to its presence at some of the city’s popular coffee chains and even on the Washington State Ferry, everything about Sound Kombucha is tied back to its roots in the local community.
“We know being a local brand can appear somewhat limiting, but we don’t see it that way,” Emily Malone told BevNET. “We wanted it to be obvious and form that connection with Seattle and have people in Seattle know that this is something made in Seattle.”
Like many kombucha brand origin stories, the Malones, who moved to Seattle in 2011, began by brewing their own batches at home using one-gallon jars. As the company began to take shape, so did its brews; from early on, Sound has avoided using juices in favor or a more purist, tea-forward approach to its five blended varieties — Green Tea, Black & White, Earl Grey, Spiced Rooibos, and the recently launched Mint Mate. Malone described Sound’s kombuchas as being drier and closer to a carbonated iced tea.
“I think kombucha in general, the drink has changed a lot, and as it has become more popular and I think in the rush to make it a more mainstream beverage, I think a lot of brands have strayed too far from the roots of the drink,” said Malone. Each of Sound’s five flavors are made with organic ingredients and contain four grams of sugar per serving and 30 calories per 16 oz. bottle. “We decided early on that we didn’t want to use any other flavors but the tea. We really felt like we could get a good enough, strong enough, tasty enough drink using just tea.”
As they prepared to bring the product to market, the Malones noticed that kombucha didn’t have a strong presence in Seattle. Despite being a beverage that area consumers were familiar with, the city lagged behind Portland, Ore.’s reputation as a kombucha capital of the Pacific Northwest .Emily Malone cited that a motivating factor in Sound embracing its role in shaping the nascent local culture. Looking back now, she sees a slowly evolving scene.
“It’s similar. There are a few more local brands on the market, and those are more targeted at farmer’s markets and on-tap service,” she said. “We are really the only [local brand] that has a significant bottled retail presence on shelves.”
Thus far, Sound has focused its efforts squarely on building in its own backyard. From its 1,300 sq. ft. production space in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, the brand distributes to natural retailers throughout the metro area and as far as Olympia, about 60 miles south. Beyond store shelves, Sound has established a presence at some of the city’s noteworthy institutions, such as Safeco field, home to baseball’s Seattle Mariners, popular local coffee house chain Caffe Ladro, and on all Washington State Ferries. The company also sells to restaurants and has a kegerator lease program for yoga studios and smaller-scale outlets.
Sound’s delivery service, however, gives the brand a unique urban appeal. Combining the modern convenience of subscription services with the old-school charm of the neighborhood milkman, the brand offers plans where a six-pack or 12-pack of 16 oz. bottles is dropped off weekly in a reusable cooler bag at your front door or porch. The empty bottles are then picked up the same way. The plan costs $15 every two weeks, and breaks down to about $2.50 per bottle, or about 40 percent off the normal retail price.
“It was a really fun way to connect with local customers,” said Malone. “We just honestly wanted to make it as accessible as we could, and by offering reusable bottles and reusable cooler bags, we were able to cut the cost down a lot, so we are able to offer a delivery service at a significantly cheaper rate than you would find at a grocery store.”
The service is also a way to test out new flavors, such as Mint Mate, a light and refreshing brew made from a yerba mate base. Available as a seasonal flavor exclusively for home delivery subscribers last summer, Mint Mate is the first of three new varieties set to launch by the end of the year, along with Lemon Zest and Berry Hibiscus, that offer consumers a slightly different taste.
“Those are both great ways to connect with people who looking for something that’s more like the sweeter kombuchas, but they still don’t have any sweetness added, it’s still just using the steeped tea,” Malone said.
The brand’s new labels also reinforce the spirit of Washington; each features iconic representations of the Pacific Northwest — trees, mountains, whales, and, of course, rain all included — created by a local artist. While aesthetically similar to the previous labels, the new look aims to spark greater visibility on shelves with bigger, clearer type.
With Sound pushing ahead, Seattle’s growing kombucha scene may yet give Portland’s a run for its money.
“People out here are really tuned in to health and nutrition, so they are looking for things that are cleanses and tonics and all those types of things, especially that low sugar aspect,” she said. “That’s what we hope people will notice about ours, is that it really is clean and pure and true to the beverage itself.”