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Aqua ViTea: Healthy Culture

Updated: Mar 22, 2022

Aqua ViTea CEO Jeff Weaber speaks on how he built Vermont’s most successful kombucha company from the ground up

The first sip from a bottle of well-brewed kombucha is a unique and revitalizing experience. Complex and satisfying flavors are enhanced by effervescent bubbles, which electrify your tastebuds as you begin to feel a healing glow throughout your body. Over the past several decades, kombucha has spread through the American marketplace like wildfire. After moving beyond its original niche market of health-conscious gourmands and discerning naturopaths, legions of new kombucha converts have been introduced to the crisp, acidic, and refreshing taste of this probiotic elixir. As demand for kombucha continues to increase across the country, Vermont’s most successful kombucha company, Aqua ViTea, is meeting the challenges of a burgeoning market with grace and mastery.

Aqua ViTea’s founder Jeff Weaber has managed to grow his brand into a regional industry powerhouse over the past decade-and-a-half without sacrificing the quality of his product or compromising on his values at all. A holistically-minded entrepreneur, Weaber first got exposed to kombucha after moving out to Oregon with his wife Katina. According to Weaber, he and Katina first fell in love while they were studying Buddhism abroad at a Monastery in Bihar, India. After returning from their spiritually-focused travels, he and Katina moved to Middlebury before heading to Oregon. It was in Middlebury that they got their first true taste of Vermont living. “We spent the summer there working at a small restaurant on the water,” says Weaber. “The restaurant was called Mister Up’s, and it’s still there today. We started to become enamored with Middlebury right away. We then spent a winter together in Stowe. Katina was set on going to medical school, so we relocated to Oregon, so she could do that. We knew right away that we wanted to figure out a way to come back to Vermont. Even then, we realized that the eventual goal was to live here.”

Once he and Katina arrived in Oregon, Weaber worked for a cabinet builder in Eugene, where he refined his carpentry skills while developing connections in the local social scene. While in Eugene, Weaber also became interested in the craft of brewing. “There were a lot of potluck events, and I got to know a home brewer there. I ended up brewing a lot of beer with him when I wasn’t busy making cabinets.”

After he and Katina made their way to Portland, Weaber continued to work as a cabinet maker, and eventually found his way into a brewery. The people who owned the brewery noticed that Weaber had an inquisitive mind and an interest in brewing, and they put him to work in the brewhouse. “We lived a pretty interesting and dynamic lifestyle out in Portland,” says Weaber. “Katina was studying naturopathic medicine and eating all kinds of exotic foods that I had never heard of, and I was working at the Lucky Labrador Brewing Company and Pub learning to brew beer. Eventually, I got introduced to kombucha for the first time by one of my co-workers there.”

Weaber recalls that the first time that he ever tasted kombucha was a true “eureka” moment. “One of the guys that I was working with at the pub was somewhat of a naturopathic extremist. He showed me the Sally Fallon Nourishing Traditions cookbook, and we read about kombucha together. A week later, I walked into a small co-op in Portland, and there was a person in there who was giving out samples of kombucha. I took the first sip of it and my mind exploded. I thought ‘Oh, my God…This is amazing!’ After the first bottle, I felt an immediate and noticeable shift. I just felt healthy and balanced. You could say that I caught the kombucha bug then and there.”

After that fateful day, Weaber found out that his friend was brewing a homemade batch of kombucha, and he became inspired to attempt to brew his own. Weaber then was able to find a small symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast with which to brew his homemade kombucha, and subsequently brewed his first twenty-gallon batch. After several successful runs, Weaber became known in the Portland community as the de-facto supplier of home-brewed kombucha at local potluck parties. At the same time that his passion for kombucha was continuing to grow, Weaber was also studying the entrepreneurial strategies of the owners of the brewery that he worked for. “Watching them really gave me some insight on what entrepreneurship looked like, and also how being early to market, having a passion for what you do, and building a brand from the ground-up could bring true fulfillment. It made me want to build my own brand and start working for myself.”

As Weaber found himself itching to spread his entrepreneurial wings and start his own business, he began to notice an uptick in demand for the homemade kombucha that he was selling to his friends and acquaintances. “It made me think that I had something that could be marketable with the kombucha. Both the workers at the pub and Katina’s naturopathically-inclined friends were frequent customers. At that point, the seed was planted for the beginnings of my professional kombucha operation.”

After Katina finished her naturopathic degree in Portland, Weaber and Katina moved back to Vermont and bought a farmhouse in Salisbury. For the first year that they were there, their primary focus was setting up Katina’s naturopathic practice. During that initial period of transition, they began to take their home-brewed kombucha to local farmers markets to test whether or not people were open to it. Weaber then made a connection with a local farmer, who helped to advise him on how to seek out state approval for his kombucha brewery operation. “When I was living out in Portland, I heard about a raw juice company that got shut down. It made me realize that it might have been fairly difficult to start a raw beverage company in Oregon at the time. When I got to Vermont and got involved with the food scene, I looked around and found that Flack Family Farm was making kimchi and marketing it in the local community as ‘raw.’ I then approached Doug Flack and asked him questions about the best way to approach the state government about my raw fermented product. He really helped me navigate that early stage.”

After Aqua ViTea was officially launched in 2007, Weaber was able to grow the company by bringing his friends into the fold and staffing his business with positive-minded people. “At that point, my wife’s naturopathic practice had taken center stage. I initially saw the kombucha operation as an opportunity to have an on-farm cottage industry-type brand and product. In the early days, we talked six couples into coming to our farm, and they all brought different skill sets. A few of them were naturopaths who have since settled down throughout the state. One of them was a talented artist named Michael Kin, who did the art for our labels. He also served as a jack-of-all-trades early-on, and he helped to deliver and brew the kombucha at a point when we were constantly growing.”

Weaber says that as Aqua ViTea continued its successful growth trajectory, he had to quickly learn a number of valuable new skills. “I had to learn how to do finance, manage QuickBooks, put a business plan together, raise equity, and talk to bankers. We also had to figure out logistics for deliveries.” Weaber adds that additional challenges included distribution, delivery routes and promotion. “We were doing a grassroots type of store-to-store delivery operation for stores from Burlington to Rutland, but it became less practical as we moved towards the Boston area. There were delivery routes where it was up to an hour-long drive between stores. We didn’t know how sales forces or brokers worked, so we actually went door to door to promote our product. We were probably losing money the whole time that we were dealing with those challenges, but we learned a lot as a company during that period and grew stronger from it.”

By reaching out to family members and local agencies for advice and help, Weaber was able to effectively weather the oft-tumultuous changes that accompanied the growth of his business. “Growing up, I watched my mom leave a steady job to start her own company in the basement of my house. I was in middle school, so I wasn’t paying a ton of attention, but that stuff got recorded in the recesses of my mind. I actually asked her advice on how to approach banks, but most of the help that I got came from people in the state of Vermont. Specifically, a gentleman named Steve Paddock, who worked for the Addison County Economic Development Corporation, showed up one day with a blank pro forma financial statement that we filled out together. He also helped me figure out how to approach the National Bank of Middlebury to get my first loan. Since then, I have probably tapped into just about every avenue of assistance that is offered in the state. Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund has been a huge help for us, and Lawrence Miller (who started Otter Creek Brewing) has also been a huge help to me. He actually ended up being the Secretary of Commerce for Vermont. He can talk science of fermentation all the way through investment strategies, and I have an immense amount of respect for him.”

Today, Aqua ViTea has moved from their original farm location in Salisbury, and currently employs a team of thirty full-time employees at their Middlebury facility. The operation has scaled up considerably since its early days, and Aqua ViTea now delivers to states across the eastern seaboard as far south as Maryland and Virginia. Refusing to compromise on production standards, Weaber and his team still go to extreme lengths to make sure that their product has retained the same quality as their very first batch. “From a production perspective, scaling kombucha is very difficult. From the start, the challenge was taking a product that traditionally is brewed one gallon at a time at home and learning how to make it quickly. Not only that, we had to make it in a small space at a high level of quality with authentic methods, and we had to distribute it effectively. We spent countless hours developing a system that accomplished those goals, and we’re proud to be still using that system to this day here at Aqua ViTea.”

Weaber says that one of the things that allowed Aqua ViTea to initially broaden its reach while maintaining its quality was its self-serve draft model. “Packaging – especially glass bottles – can be very expensive. We tackled early production and cost challenges by pushing the self-service draft kombucha model. Not only could we decrease the number of times we had to visit stores due to the fact that we were delivering kegs, we also reduced waste at product demonstrations. Being able to pour people small sips rather than waste multiple bottles at a time really helped our bottom line.”

One of the things that separates Aqua ViTea from other kombucha companies is their commitment to alcohol extraction. Weaber says that his insistence on low alcohol-by-volume kombucha comes from a deep-rooted desire to provide a product for his customers that is both healthy and delicious. “We’re selling our kombucha as a health beverage, and also as something that can have a really meaningful impact on how people consume carbonated beverages in this world. In order to truly consider ourselves a healthy alternative to sugary beverages that can have very negative health effects, we had to be healthy in every sense. Knowing that, when I found out unknowingly that kombucha can have an alcohol content as high as 3% without alcohol extraction, it just did not sit well with me. I needed to figure out how to keep kombucha alive and loaded with gut-healthy microorganisms, but still be under 0.5% alcohol-by volume. I founded this company with a health mission, not a money mission, and I’ve always kept that in mind. We want our product to be a

manifestation of healthy values in every sense, and we work hard to make sure it lives up to our standards.”

Reflecting on his entrepreneurial journey, Weaber likens the experience of running a business in Vermont to a long and winding drive through the Green Mountains. “From where I live, I have to drive over two mountain passes to get to Interstate 89. I think the drive I take to get there serves as a perfect metaphor for what it’s like to start an independent business here. It’s not an easy journey to get to the main lane, but it’s beautiful the whole way. You might feel like you’re alone on the road sometimes. You might even get into some rough patches of road and go through some tough twists and turns. It’s still a beautiful adventure that’s well worth experiencing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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