Kombucha is an ancient probiotic drink made with fermenting tea with a culture of bacteria and yeasts called SCOBY. It was discovered more than 2000 years ago in China and traveled all over the world. Touted as the elixir of life, the drink keeps the gut microbiome diverse by supplying good bacteria to it, detoxifies our body, increases metabolism and boosts immunity. Let’s jump right into her story of how Mountain Bee Kombucha got started, what keeps Honey going and where Mountain Bee is headed.
Tell us about your story of how you started off Mountain bee kombucha? When did this vision first occur to you?
I had stumbled upon the concept of the beverage, in 2016. I was volunteering for an art festival, where I got to know about various kinds of ferments and Kombucha. I did not jump right away into it, I got the starter culture ‘scoby’, but I didn’t go ahead with fermenting because I was scared and didn’t know if I had spoilt the culture because I traveled from Goa to Bangalore. All those insecurities led to me just throw the starter culture in my home compost.
In 2017 I traveled to the US, and I stumbled upon a lot of kombucha in retail stores. I got really excited by how it had gone mainstream and it was bottled up too. I could finally try how it tastes. When I first tried it, I was really impressed by the kind of complexity and the kind of health benefits it had. I don’t drink alcohol or beer, and that kind of craftsmanship in beverages isn’t found in non-alcoholic drinks easily. Kombucha was a great option for sober customers who usually end up opting only for apple juice, ice teas or simple aerated drinks.
So I met with the Zero-waste chef, Annie-Marie Bonneau and attended her workshop on fermentation. She is an amazing human being. I went to help her in one of her sourdough baking workshops, I asked her if she could share a little bit of her ferment culture, and she happily shared a little bit of her scoby. I brought it back to Dallas and started brewing with it. I started sharing the kombucha with my friends and family. I brought it back to India, praying it survives the travel. And it did surprisingly. I also observed there was no option for readily available probiotic drinks in the Indian stores. I was surprised that India, being a country which produces the finest quality teas in the world, had not explored kombucha enough. So I branded my product and started Mountain Bee Kombucha.
Why is a product like Kombucha popular among the vegan community and sustainable lifestyle enthusiasts? How can Kombucha be made sustainably?
Definitely, it has been interesting how kombucha is a demand in sustainable communities and the vegan market. I guess the relation lies in the process of how my product is made. The first thing that appealed to me was the immense health benefits, it’s a fermented product which is a great alternative for vegans. It originated in China & Japan 2000 years ago and yet you can make it very Indian. You can make the ingredients local. The relation to my country was very important for my process.
The second thing was resources, I wanted to only work with fair trade and organically grown tea. When I started researching fair trade tea, I kept a lookout for companies that paid their plantation workers fair wages and grew organic quality grade tea. Tea is one of the most exploited community business there has been. There is a history to this, where the tea estates were owned by Britishers, and they were passed down to wealthy affluent Indian families during independence. The laborers are workers who are at the owner’s mercy and they do not own any land, there is a lot of resentment amongst the local communities in the ill-treatment of the labor force in this industry. A lot of books mention these stories as well.
I wanted this story to be available to masses as well. We talk a lot about tea, but not everything is right with it. There is a lot of exploitation in the supply chain, and the tiny efforts we make to bring the concept of fair trade into social media is something that matters to us. I do want to convey this to the masses and it’s close to our brand.
What have been some of your roadblocks in setting up this business?
A lot of us do not understand the concept of fair trade, many feel there is no need for it. People are not aware of why we are going organic, why can’t we use any tea? Why is the price higher? These are some basic questions I’m asked which becomes a roadblock in awareness. I’ve also been asked for physical proof of the fact my ingredients are organic or not. I am not an expert, but I do my best to make sure they come for fairtrade farms. Somewhere people who do not connect to “why organic or fair-trade matters” do not acknowledge the product. But yes there are many who look for the same and understand the story about why we are dealing with these uncertainties and buy our product.
What is the bulk of your clientele at the moment?
To an extent we could say many of our customers are people who are well traveled, or aware of the product, or have healthy diets but having said that our idea is to bring it to everybody in the country. Health doesn’t have to be an elite concept. Currently, it might be attracting the urban crowd, but we are aiming to make it more relatable and local. We want to make sure we reach everybody and keep the business inclusive.
How do you get customers who are trying kombucha for the first time in their life?
We do find both kinds of clientele, people who have already tried kombucha and people who are trying it for the first time. It has been really interesting to see how they react. We get reactions like “I don’t like tea, I don’t want to try kombucha” and we have to explain to them how it tastes nothing like tea, and it’s a craft beverage. Changing perception takes a little push. Sampling helps in getting people to try something new.
What has been a peak moment for you so far?
It’s too early to say what’s a peak moment so far. Whenever we interact face to face with our clients in the market, we get instant feedback. “This is one of the finest kombuchas we have tried in India”, or “Oh finally a kombucha which is not excessively sugary”. So there has always been positive feedback. We keep really interesting flavors as well. We are collaborating with Noble farmers which produce exotic mangosteen fruits, which used to be imported before but now even local farmers are growing them because of increasing demand. With that, we are creating mangosteen kombucha which has been high in demand. It has been encouraging to feel that joy of seeing Indian kombucha spread. The reaction from people really proves that you don’t need to go to another country to try this world-class product.
What motivates you to continue on this journey with Mountain Bee Kombucha?
The process of brewing Kombucha itself is an exciting ordeal which I enjoy a lot.
It is a thing of beauty. You can literally see nature’s forces turning something so simple into something so complex. It’s just tea, but when you introduce light, bacteria, and yeast in the tea, the kind of chemical reactions that go into the tea itself like what you find in your chemistry books. You can see the nature in action in the bubbles that are coming out of the fermentation process, its live food. It is humbling, and it shows the power of nature. It motivates me to keep making more and spread the joy.
What is the next milestone for Mountain Bee Kombucha? And what do you think of the future of Kombucha in the beverage industry?
Make mountain bee kombucha available to every Bangalorean. And having an identity of Indian kombucha starting in Bangalore. I really believe it will just grow from here on. If you are looking for fine craft beverage which isn’t alcohol, kombucha is your answer.
Interview Curated by Mridula Joshi