Massachusetts local Garth Shaneyfelt had dabbled in the joys of home-brewing for some time, but it was mostly a hobby. He remembers reading Sandor Katz’s early books like Wild Fermentation, where he was taught to try new things, and, “If it looks black or smells rotten, toss it, but you’re probably going to be fine.” When Garth met up with kombucha-masters Will Savitri and Jeff Canter at a local co-op, he knew they were destined to do business together. “We were talking about mead and bees and fermenting things, so we decided we could do that as well!” And so they did.
Katalyst Kombucha—which now operates under Artisan Beverage Cooperative (ABC)—has been fermenting up a storm ever since, offering a variety of home-brewed kombucha to the New England area. We got to chat with ABC’s General Manager Garth to discuss recipe innovation, their unique Tap Program and how ethical sourcing is important to their company values.
R.K.: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
G.S.: We’re now Artisan Beverage Cooperative, which is a co-op that merged our mead company (Ginger Libation) with Katalyst Kombucha in 2013. Katalyst started in 2005. The two founders had been home-brewing kombucha and it was really loved by everyone in the community. It was going well, so they wanted to make a business out of it. They started making it at a shared kitchen in the Franklin County Community Development Corporation area, where I met them. It took about a year and a half of ramping up, brewing and hand-bottling it in teeny little crown-top bottles, and the kombucha has been rocking ever since. In 2007, they moved into their own space because they needed more room and larger brewing systems and that’s around when I got involved in the company!
R.K.: How do you source your ingredients and create your recipes?
G.S.: It’s been a slow process. They started with whatever they could get among the open market, but tried to get all organic sugar and tea for the base. For the last few years, we’ve been working with Equal Exchange, and we’re really trying to cement that relationship. We pre-bought our sugar at 40,000 pounds this year through Equal Exchange from a co-op in Paraguay, supporting an entire village down there! We’re paying a premium for direct-trade but it’s worth it.
We try to source from folks we know or can trace. Our ginger comes direct from Hawaii at Kauai Organic Farms, our grape comes from a grower’s co-op in upstate New York, and we get the organic blueberries from Burke Hill Farm up in Maine and do the pressing here. We get 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of juice berries, which we use in our Bliss Berry! We also source our 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of tea each year through Equal Exchange, who has worked out a direct trade and community support for these tea plantations in India! For our green flavor, we work with E3Live out in Oregon, as they’re very good at algae and certified organic.
R.K.: What is your favorite flavor?
G.S.: I really like the Schizandraberry flavor, which is a Chinese berry and one of our more unique varieties. It adds a nice tartness with a little bit of sweetness and tang and makes a lovely pink color which looks nice on the shelf. We get the berry puree from Chang Farm in Whatley, Massachusetts.
We do a number of unique, experimental flavors in our Tap Program as well. We once made three kegs of spruce kombucha because I harvested a bunch of spruce from a tree in my backyard and it gave it a nice little flavor! We also do on tap a hop flavor, hibiscus and jasmine, pineapple for summer, and cranberry for fall.
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
G.S.: Well, in 2010 there was the whole kerfuffle with United Natural Foods and some kombucha up in Maine detecting above 0.5% alcohol, so there was a whole recall and it really threw the whole industry for a loop! When we merged all the companies to become a co-op in 2013, we had to work on balancing our workloads here instead of trying to have two different parallel companies. So now it’s sort of a process of how do we continue to grow, but not having the space to grow too much. We want to continue to work with the places we really want to work with, especially co-ops and farm stands, which have been our life blood through the whole process. As we work with distributors, the challenge is making sure we keep that personal touch. At the end of the day, we’re manufacturing and packing beverages in glass bottles, pretty much by hand, and a lot of people don’t go that route. It’s challenging and messy but we like it here. We’ve got good people. We’re plugging along!
R.K.: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
G.S.: Starting the kombucha in this area was probably wise in retrospect because the largest kombucha producer is in California, so the marketplace was pretty busy out there. For a while, we were the only ones from New England. We had a little niche and there were also a lot of food co-ops in this area so it was really good to work with them, connecting to their mission of supporting local.
R.K.: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
G.S.: I hope there’s more locally made stuff and more people are able to make a go of it! The craft beer market has exploded and there’s a gazillion of them out there but the fun thing about that is when you go to a different area, it’s cool to try something new—what’s made from there locally. That diversity is our strength and makes things more interesting.
R.K.: What other local food and wellness brands are you a fan of?
G.S.: We sort of joke that we’re on Fermentation Alley here in Greenfield, Massachusetts, because right across the street from us is Real Pickles who started in the incubator space as well. They’re a regional company, and buy all organic veggies to make great kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles! It’s fun having them as neighbors, and there’s a great small-food culture here in general. We’re working with the Kitchen Garden Farm 15 miles South; they put on a big Chili Fest coming up in a few weeks. Our tasting room is open Fridays and Saturdays too!
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
G.S.: Probably in the next two years we’ll be moving to another location because we’ll need more fermentation space! In terms of our brand reach, I hope we’re out there, available more and continue to grow our Keg Program. As kombucha has become more mainstream, I’ve even seen it in bars and nightclubs so hopefully that continues. The newly reopened TT the Bear’s has a couple taps of our kombucha as they’re an 18-plus club.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own wellness or food business?
G.S.: I won’t say do a business plan, but definitely do your homework and start local especially for food stuff. There are a lot of hoops to go through, and typically your local board of health will be pretty helpful. Also look for incubator spaces, as there are a lot out there these days. People you meet are great resources, and can help you scale up to a commercial size when you’re ready. Often you hear stories like, “I make this BBQ sauce in my kitchen… if only I could sell it for $4 a bottle, I’d make a mint.” But at the end of the day, you need labels, packaging, delivery and all of that so having the community support is helpful. Not everybody needs to buy a fork lift; you can share one with a couple dozen other people!
R.K.: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
G.S.: Our logo has a mystical, somewhat hippie vibe I guess, being in Western Massachusetts. Harried, but reasonably happy. We’re scrambling all the time trying to make it all work!
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