At 11 a.m., it’s 83 degrees outside and even warmer inside the greenhouse tent in Northeast Washington where plastic barrels of tea sit to ferment.
Wednesday is production day at Capital Kombucha, and John Lee, dressed in shorts, sneakers and a baseball cap, says he has gotten used to the heat.
“Yeah, summertime is rough,” he said, surrounded by glass bottles in the company’s 350-square-foot workspace in Union Kitchen. He used to have an air conditioner, but isn’t sure where it went. Now he and his team of employees rely on a portable fan to keep them cool.
The heat, along with yeast, bacteria and time, are among the elements essential to create a fermented tea drink known as kombucha.
Lee and his staff make roughly 500 bottles of kombucha every week. After a fermentation period of about two weeks, the drinks are flavored with fresh fruit and herbs before being bottled, boxed and delivered to 160 area shops, including Whole Foods, Safeway and Mom’s Organic Market.
“When we got started, there weren’t very many healthy, no-sugar beverages to choose from,” said Andreas Schneider, 30, one of the company’s co-founders. “We wanted to a good-tasting alternative to soda.”
Two years after its founding, the District’s first kombucha brewery is hoping to expand. The company recently turned a small profit, and its co-founders say they are talking to investors about ramping up production capacity.
Annual sales grew five-fold last year, and Schneider said he expects revenue to grow about 200 percent this year. He would not disclose the company’s revenue, but said it was on track to exceed six figures this year.
“To date, we’ve entirely bootstrapped this company,” Schneider said, adding that start-up costs were “in the low five-figures.”
Co-founders Lee, Schneider and Daniel Lieberman met during their first semester of business school at George Washington University in late 2011. Schneider, who brewed kombucha at his apartment, introduced the other two to the drink.
“The first time I tried it, I was like ‘Is this what it’s supposed to taste like?’” Lee, 31, recalled.
They began experimenting with flavors, adding ginger root and honey to some batches, watermelon and cucumber to others. Today, the company sells 11 varieties, including peach, mango chili and basil lemongrass. The drinks are naturally carbonated and sweetened using honey and agave.
“It took us six to eights months to get the flavors right,” Schneider said, adding that some flavors, such as lemon chrysanthemum, got nixed along the way. “After that, it was quick.”
The trio began selling their first bottles of kombucha in April 2012, focusing on local markets such as Seasonal Pantry in Shaw and Smucker Farms of Lancaster County on 14th Street NW.
For months, they worked alongside Pleasant Pops and other homegrown start-ups in a shared kitchen in Petworth. About two years ago, the company moved to its current space at Union Kitchen, a commercial kitchen space in NoMa.
In a typical week, workers make several large drums of iced tea using organic black and green tea blends. Employees check the pH and taste of the mixture several times a day to monitor the yeast and bacteria.
Once the kombucha is fermented, the drinks are bottled, four at a time using a small machine, and sent to a refrigerated warehouse in Capitol Heights. The drink has a three-month shelf life.
“We like to cater to customers who haven’t tried kombucha before,” Lee said. “We don’t want it to be very strong and potent.”
The company currently has four employees, all of whom are participants of Project Empowerment, a District-run transitional employment program.
In January, Capital Kombucha began selling to area Whole Foods stores. A few months later, Safeway began carrying the products as well. Schneider says retailers as far away as New York have also expressed interest in the drink.
“Broadly speaking, we want to introduce kombucha to as many people as possible,” he said.
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