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Their cup of tea: P.E.I. kombucha-makers planning to expand

A drink invented 2,000 years ago is seeing a major world revival, and an Island couple is reaping the benefits of the kombucha craze.

Heart Beet Organics plans to install more taps in P.E.I.

Verena Varga, left, and Amy Smith with their kombucha taps at Timothy's coffee shop in downtown Charlottetown. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

A drink invented 2,000 years ago is seeing a major world revival, and an Island couple is reaping the benefits of the kombucha craze. 

Kombucha is fermented tea and can be flavoured with anything from fruit to herbs.

"It really fits with our priorities," said Amy Smith, who with her partner Verena Varga owns Heart Beet Organics in Darlington, P.E.I. Their goals are to offer organic produce that is healthy and makes consumers feel good. 

They've been farming on less than a half a hectare since 2010, producing dozens of vegetables in a rainbow of vibrant hues which they sell weekly to customers at the Charlottetown Farmers Market.

As they struggled to fill their shelves there in the winter, they began fermenting vegetables — which has become very trendy — making products including kimchee, hot sauce and kombucha in 2014.

Changing kegs of kombucha at Timothy's coffee in Charlottetown, PE.E.I. 0:47

"We first started making it ourselves, just for us to drink at home, and then we started flavouring it with things that we had grown on the farm," Smith explained.

They start with certified organic black tea, organic cane sugar and a starter culture. They began flavouring with what they had on hand, like ginger and strawberry. 

'Fermenting fanatics'

"Fermenting food was really fun, I think we're actually fermenting fanatics now," Varga said. 

They thought their customers might enjoy kombucha and began selling it in small, 475-millilitre bottles. In 2016 they switched to larger, 750-millilitre reusable bottles because they noticed people were buying several at a time. 

It definitely is a profitable business.— Amy Smith 

"The response was so amazing that we continued doing it through the summer as well," Varga said. 

Demand has been growing in leaps and bounds the last three years, they say — after starting with two-gallon glass jars fermenting on their countertop, they "eventually ran out of counter space," Smith said. 

They invested in stainless steel wine-fermenting equipment, and are now brewing about 300 litres a week — although they have the capacity to brew 4,000 litres. 

"If the demand is there, we wanted to be ready to fulfil the demand," Smith said. 

Kombucha on demand

Heart Beet also invested heavily in 2017 in creating a production kitchen in an existing building for the kombucha and other products.

Heart Beet Organics flavours its kombucha with organic, locally-grown fruits like elderberries. (Submitted by Heart Beet Organics )

"Getting it out of our house, out of the kitchen, has definitely made it a lot easier," Smith said. 

Customers then began asking where else they could buy the kombucha besides the once-a-week farmers market — but the answer was, nowhere. 

In summer 2017, they installed portable taps in three P.E.I. locations: Timothy's World Coffee and My Plum, My Duck and Charlottetown and the Farmed market in Summerside. 

It's easier and cheaper for Heart Beet to bring a keg to the locations every week or two, rather than refilling dozens of bottles, the pair noted. 

"It's going great," said Timothy's owner Campbell Webster. "It's a really fast-growing business ... it's a nice alternative to coffee." 

Webster had never tried kombucha before Heart Beet introduced it, but now he loves it. He's even invested in a television commercial advertising his coffee shop as "kombucha central." 

More taps coming in 2018

Heart Beet had half a dozen requests from other businesses to have kombucha taps too, but were too busy on the farm to accommodate them. In summer 2018, though, it'll be full steam ahead — they plan to install as many as nine more taps, tripling current production.

Amy Smith and Verena Varga sell dozens of varieties of organic produce at the Charlottetown Farmers Market. (Submitted by Heart Beet Organics )

In 2017, kombucha made up 30 per cent of Heart Beet's total sales. 

"This will be our first year where we're going to shift a little bit more focus toward the fermented goods and the kombucha specifically," Varga said. She's excited to try new flavours, including herbs, and to work with more Island businesses.

"Breweries is actually going to be a really exciting area that we're interested in expanding into," Smith shared. Many people don't drink beer but may want to go to bars with their friends and have something fun and delicious to drink. 

Kombucha can also be mixed with beer, wine or spirits to make a variety of cocktails. The alcohol content of Heart Beet's kombucha itself is negligible — they're working with a food safety regulatory specialist to control for alcohol in their Kombucha to ensure it stays below 0.5 per cent.

"It's such a small amount that it's never going to get anybody drunk, I can guarantee that!" laughed Smith. 

'Profitable business'

She said kombucha is a profitable business.

"I think that's why you see so many other businesses when you sort of look at the industry in general across Canada, every year there's just more and more people starting their own kombucha businesses." 

'Our goal is not to get rich, it's to be sustainable,' says Varga. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

The investment in processing equipment was not prohibitive, she said, and people are interested in providing a healthful product. "We're not just looking at creating another sugary soda to put on the store shelves, it's really about replacing some of those sugary beverages." 

For the first time, they are in the process of hiring two employees — one to help on the farm and one, a "fellow fermenting fanatic," says Varga, to help with kombucha production. 

Heart Beet has received program funding through the federal-provincial Growing Forward 2 program for the organic industry which helps them recoup 50 per cent of their investment through grants. In 2017 that was about $14,000, the year before about $7,500. 

"Our investments are nothing huge — we're trying really hard not to go in debt," Varga said. 

"Our goal is not to get rich, it's to be sustainable. And as we're getting older, for the farm is more sustainable for us to be doing something that's a little higher off the ground," she said with a smile. 

Health benefits?

Heart Beet doesn't make any health claims about its beverage. However, its brew is part of a new study of kombucha, and along with several in Nova Scotia is being analyzed professionally so they can tell consumers how much and what types of probiotics, sugars and acids are in it. 

"You can do a search online and you can find out that it is a 'miracle cure' and then you'll find lots of articles that say it has absolutely no health benefits whatsoever," Smith said. 

Timothy's coffee shop owner Campbell Webster says sales of Heart Beet Organics kombucha are going very well. (Sara Fraser/CBC)

What's interesting for the couple is hearing testimonials from customers who tell them they feel healthier drinking kombucha.

"We have customers who said they've had terrible digestive pain for years ... and they started drinking kombucha on a weekly basis and that pain is gone," Smith said. 

"I wouldn't want to make the claim that kombucha can heal your gut, it can heal your digestive issues, but certainly the stories that we're hearing from our customers lead us to know that it is actually helping." 

Heart Beet has heard there are more Islanders getting ready to launch kombucha, but say they're not scared of competition and are happy that the word "kombucha" may be on more people's lips. 

"[It] is not surprising, just looking anywhere else in the world really at just how fast kombucha is growing and how many new businesses open up every year," Smith said.

"I think there's lots of room because every person's kombucha tastes different," she added. 

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca