Aqua ViTea & App Gap Form Partnership

From Kombucha to Vodka

Two members of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC) Aqua ViTea Kombucha and Appalachian Gap Distillery have formed a new partnership. These beverage producers have created a new artisanal vodka from the excess alcohol that's generated during the fermentation of kombucha. Entrepreneurs Lars Hubbard & Chuck Burkins of App Gap along with Jeff Weaber of Aqua ViTea formed this new joint venture in Middlebury.

Appalachian Gap is making this new Aqua Vodka, 88-proof & certified organic, from the alcohol by-product of Weaber's kombucha. Kombucha, a naturally fermented tea drink, is projected to approach $800 million in U.S. retail sales this year, according to Statista.com. But it is not supposed to be an alcoholic beverage. Weaber and the Aqua ViTea team had been studying for several years how to control the amount of alcohol that is naturally generated during their product's fermentation.

The distillery and kombucha facility operate about 300 yards apart in Middlebury's Exchange Street industrial park. In 2016, a casual conversation precipitated a creative solution to their complementary alcohol problem.

Prior to 2009, no one believed that any significant alcohol remained in customer-ready kombucha, although it was known that the fermentation process did produce some. Kombucha is made from combining brewed black or green tea, a sugar source, and a SCOBY, the acronym for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.

The problem arises when enough ethanol accumulates in kombucha to require regulation as an alcoholic beverage. That limit is defined by federal authorities as 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume (ABV) at any point from the start of production to consumption. Even if the alcohol level is acceptable when it leaves the producer, traditional kombucha is a live product and can continue to ferment in the bottle.

Ten-year-old Aqua ViTea is an established player in the industry. The company produces about 30,000 gallons a month, employing 35 people in a 62,000-square-foot facility. Its line of bottle and draft kombuchas is distributed in 25 states. The Middlebury Food Co-op, another ACEDC member, started to carry Weaber's kombucha, and it then expanded to several other Vermont stores. He operated his small kombucha brewery in the basement of his Salisbury farmhouse. 

Although this competitive industry founded a professional association called Kombucha Brewers International, they were unable to address the common problem of alcohol byproducts in processing. To control alcohol levels, some kombucha makers have focused on tinkering with formulations, including diluting them. Many brewers, including Weaber, say that all of these modified products are not authentic kombucha and mislead consumers who believe they are purchasing a raw, probiotic beverage with specific health attributes. While limited peer-reviewed scientific evidence exists to verify specific health claims, kombucha proponents tout benefits ranging from improved digestive health to strengthened immunity. 

Weaber developed a method to restrict the vitality of the SCOBY to control the amount of alcohol in his kombucha, but, as production grew, that approach did not scale effectively. In 2016, Aqua ViTea found an expensive solution investing in a machine developed for the wine industry. The company started running its base kombucha through a $1.68 million, custom-built spinning cone column that extracts alcohol under low-temperature vacuum pressure. Weaber has also invested in an in-house testing lab run by a microbiologist. The kombucha goes in at about 3 percent ABV and comes out at about 0.3 percent, he said, acknowledging that the initial level requires that the company comply with TTB alcoholic beverage guidelines.

When Aqua ViTea first brought over samples of extracted alcohol to Appalachian Gap for a test distilling run, no one knew how the results would taste. Weaber, Burkins and Hubbard had decided to try vodka because it's a large, diverse segment of the spirits market.

Launched last June, Aqua Vodka has been well received so far in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and California.

Aqua Vodka - CALEB KENNA