A gutty decision
NessAlla Kombucha grows SCOBYs and the bottom line in east Madison.
Alla Tsypin with Vanessa Tortolano lifting a 25-lb SCOBY from a 55-gallon vat of kombucha.
Photographs by Shawn Harper
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Plenty has been written about kombucha [kom boo cha], an effervescent, fermented tea packed with vitamins and probiotics and brewed for thousands of years. First rooted in China — or Russia (there is some debate) — the drink’s surge in popularity, particularly in the U.S., is likely being driven by a population growing more interested in healthier living and an awareness of what humans are feeding their bodies.
When certified herbalists Vanessa Tortolano and Alla Tsypin launched NessAlla Kombucha 11 years ago in the basement of The Weary Traveler restaurant on Williamson Street, the company was one of the first craft kombucha brewers in the world. For the first few years, the business partners spent most of their time educating people on the benefits of “booch” while brewing 20 gallons a week.
These days, the company is producing 100 times that amount.
NessAlla’s operations continued to grow at its second location on Park Street, but with its lease ending and the opportunity to expand to the soon-to-be-completed Garver Feed Mill in January 2019, the co-owners decided to move the company forward in a huge way as Garver’s first tenant.
Surrounded by daily renovations coupled with a new apartment complex going up on Fair Oaks Avenue, this is still very much a construction zone. But in just a few months, the muddy acreage will transition to a hub of activity largely related to local food production, plus short-term rentals in the form of micro-lodges.
Inside the first brick building, NessAlla produces 2,000 gallons of craft kombucha each week and distributes it in 16-ounce bottles, 64-ounce growlers, or five-gallon kegs to retailers, restaurants, and bars throughout Wisconsin and in bordering states. Less than half of the product — about 40 percent — remains in Dane County.
Kombucha has been making headlines lately. In terms of the beverage marketplace, refrigerated kombucha is part of a category of fermented beverages that in 2017 surged 37.4 percent to $556 million, according to foodnavigator-USA.com. More recently, the owner of another Madison company struck a deal on ABC’s Shark Tank to bolster its home-brewing kit business.
Making the effervescent drink starts by boiling Rishi teas and raw sugar in water.
Tsypin and Tortolano met in herbal class and became fast friends. “Vanessa and I bootstrapped the company,” Tsypin says. “We had $50 and a credit card. In hindsight, business school may have helped, but it may have put us in a box, too. We had to think outside the box and go with our gut.”
Tsypin, whose family emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1978, was raised in Minnesota. Not only was she familiar with the fermented tea, she was brewing it at home as part of a personal commitment to a natural diet and herbal medicines.
Tortolano, a Hawaii native, musician, and stand-up comedian, was first introduced to kombucha while cashiering at Madison’s Willy Street Co-op years ago. “I saw a lot of it coming through the lane so I started drinking it and loved the taste and how it made me feel, so I started researching it,” she says.
There still is an ongoing debate as to how kombucha should be defined and legislated, so while they can’t make broad statements touting its health benefits, Tsypin and Tortolano can certainly speak from personal experience.
“It makes me energized and alert,” Tortolano reports, yet the amount of caffeine (equivalent to two sips of coffee) and alcohol is miniscule.
Vats are covered with cloths and sit for several days, allowing SCOBYs to grow naturally.
Alcohol occurs naturally due to the fermentation process, with most kombucha sold on store shelves containing less than 0.5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). For comparison sake, the average beer contains 4.0 to 7.0 ABV, and wine contains even higher amounts.
“It’s not an alcoholic drink,” Tortolano states, “and it’s not the caffeine that makes me feel healthier.” Rather, she suggests, it’s kombucha’s ability to oxygenate the blood and brain that creates a more sustainable effect.
Tsypin was plagued for years with stomach issues and credits the probiotic elements of kombucha with making a huge improvement in her gut health.
We visited the local company recently to learn what kombucha is, how it’s made, and learn about the living organism that makes fermentation possible.