Growing beyond home-brewing

Are you a home-brewer whose friends regularly tell you how great your ‘booch tastes? Do you give away bottles and wonder what it would take to make enough to sell? Did you know that the majority of commercial companies started, like you, by brewing in the kitchen at home?

Perhaps you know of a local yoga studio, cafe, or farmers market where potential customers are willing to pay for the product of your passion.

But how to grow?

Let’s assume you already know how to brew great-tasting kombucha at home. You have a garage or a spare room with enough space to convert it into a nano-brewery. You are willing to invest the time and money to go from brewing one or two gallons to make five, ten, or more gallons at a time.

What does it take in terms of equipment, time, and money to rise to the level of commercial production?

We looked into what it takes to produce enough kombucha that can be kept cold in a keg and served on draft to local customers.

Here’s what we found.

Scaling-Up or Scaling-Out?

The first decision you need to make is whether you are going to scale-up, from smaller fermentation containers to larger ones, or scale-out, where you multiply the number of smaller vessels. Some of the biggest ‘booch producers on the planet have scaled-out.

Health-Ade Kombucha has warehouses reputed to hold over 300,000 of the original 2.5-gallon glass jars that Daina Trout and her team started with back in 2012. Likewise, GT Dave is rumored to brew vast quantities in individual glass jars.

The Fermentation Farm in Costa Mesa California also brews in small containers.

You will probably need a larger vessel to boil water and brew tea, but since you already know the formula that works in smaller containers, fermentation should not be a challenge. If you decide to go this route, then all you need is some storage racks and a way to keep the ambient temperature of the fermentation room at 75-78 degrees Fahrenheit. Think space heater hooked to a thermostat and insulation.

But let’s say you decide to scale-up. Then you will need to source larger fermentation vessels as well as learn how fermentation changes as the container size increases.

Turnkey Systems: Keg Outlet

Keg Outlet has three videos on YouTube that show home-brewers, who already know the basics of fermentation, how to scale-up to commercial production. The cost of a system capable of fermenting five gallons and serving from a keg, starts at around $700 if you use the stove to boil water, hand filter the tea and flavorings, and dispense from a keg kit that sits inside a domestic refrigerator. It rises to $1,600 and beyond when the water is heated on a propane burner, fermented in a unit with a built-in filter, and served from a custom kegerator.

How to Make Kombucha in Large Batches to Serve on Draft

This three-minute video outlines the basics of brewing large batches of kombucha. Rather boiling and steeping tea in the typical one or two-gallon stainless steel stovetop pot that many home-brewers use, they demonstrate how to use the equipment they sell to scale-up. Options include:

How to Add Natural Fruit Flavor to Kombucha During Second Fermentation

While no additional equipment is listed, this two-minute video shows how to add fruit to the fermenting vessel for a couple of days to flavor, and how easy it is to strain the liquid by using a kettle with a built-in filter.

How to Keg Kombucha and Serve Kombucha on Draft

Once the kombucha is ready for consumption, some choose to transfer it to various sized bottles that need sanitizing, capping, and labeling before being sold. A much cheaper and easier option is to use kegs and sell it on draft by the glass. Keg Outlet show how in their final video in the series. The equipment choices are:

Turnkey Systems: Stout Tanks

We wrote about Oregon-based Stout Tanks last year. Their guest posting listed prices for the equipment they sell to scale-up a home-brewing operation. Then in May, we interviewed their President, Bill Nootenboom, about their new ‘Symbiosis’ horizontal fermenters that were announced at KKON last year.

The equipment sold by Stout Tanks starts at 7-10 gallons and goes up to over 200 gallons.

Their kombucha-specific website page lists a range of stainless-steel fermenters, boilers, and brite tanks. They note:

Our stainless steel kombucha tanks are designed with top manways or side manways that will allow you to either lift out the SCOBY from the top of the tank, or from the bottom of the tank.  This is especially important in large batches, as the SCOBY can get very heavy.

Prices for the Stout Tank equipment ranges from a low of $770 (for a 10-gallon brew kettle and seven-gallon fermenter) to $1,800 for a 66-gallon Symbiosis fermenter. The majority of their product line is more suited to the needs of brewing 100-200 gallons than an initial scale-up to 5-10 gallons.

You’ll find, however, that many companies who started selling at farmers’ markets and small cafes say their biggest problem was keeping up with demand. Designing a larger system that will still fit in a small space such as a garage saves having to do a second expansion almost as soon as you complete the first round. Indeed, our recent listing of 17 brewery videos includes a couple that specifically mention starting with 40-45 gallon capacity and scaling up from there.

Keg Dispensing

Whether you choose to scale-up or scale-out, the easiest and cheapest way to sell ‘booch is by the glass.This avoids the costs of bottling and labeling. This 14-minute video by Mark Carreno shows a home-brewer making kombucha and then flavoring it in the keg.

This four-minute video from MTO Kombucha in Virginia shows the inner workings of a kegerator.

Case Study: Mark Young of Brew Loka

As mentioned in our recent Brew Loka profile, Mark started brewing in Bend, Oregon. He built an innovative home-based solution in a spare room. He’s been kind enough to share pictures of the equipment he used and explain the minor remodeling involved. This shows what a cost-conscious approach taken by someone with average DIY skills can accomplish.

Mark used two 120L Speidel fermenters he bought from More Beer for $150 each. These are available in a range of sizes, starting at 12 liters for $45.

He controlled the fermentation temperature with two heating belts per container. The Beverage Factory sells these for $25 each. The lower one stayed on permanently, and the upper ones turned on or off depending on the temperature of the fermenter, as indicated by the stick on thermometers.

Mark started out keeping his kegs and freshly-brewed kombucha cool in a modified freezer that used a $39 Inkbird temperature controller to set the temperature a couple of degrees above freezing. This was far cheaper than an equivalent-sized refrigerator. This 28-minute video shows how a typical home freezer converts into a ‘keezer’ that dispenses multiple flavors of kombucha.

When Mark outgrew the freezer, he built a small walk-in cold room. He made this out of foam insulation panels (shown to the left of the middle picture below), where the fermented ‘booch is stored in kegs. This uses a window A/C unit with a $349 Coolbot controller that cycles the AC unit to keep the cold room just above freezing. The flexible tubing vents the warmed air to the outside. The A/C unit and other materials can be sourced from any home improvement store for around $500.

More Cost-Conscious Solutions

This 12-minute video gives clear instructions on how to covert a mini-fridge fridge into storage for two 5-gallon kegs with dispensing taps mounted on top. You’ll find a good supply of used mini-fridges for sale on craigslist for under $100.

Learning from Craft Beer Brewers

There’s a host of online resources for scaling up a home-based craft beer operation which can be adapted for kombucha brewing, Here’s a detailed description of how to convert a garage for home beer brewing. This shows how another beer enthusiast built a home brewery in a detached garage. This shows how to build an all-electric brewing system. Here’s another basement-based electric system.

Consulting Resources

There’s a lot more to launching a commercial operation than acquiring equipment.

From recipe formulation to product testing and consistency as well as sales and marketing and securing the necessary licensing, anyone looking at commercial production needs to consider all the angles.

There are also time and labor costs to consider in any larger-scale production. This blog post by the Happy Herbalist discusses how to estimate annual costs. It uses the example of a six-barrel (186-gallon) nano-brewery, but the formulas would work for smaller volumes. He offers to consult with potential brewers and nets it out:

We can design and install a Kombucha Brew House to fit your budget.  Starting at a basic $9,000 bare bones to a 6 BBL semi-automatic Kombucha Brew House typically runs $20,000 and a 9 BBL automatic (labor-saving) Kombucha Brew House for about $49,000. Training, setup, and Turn-Key operation is also available.

Hannah Crum, the author of The Big Book of Kombucha, offers flexible consulting services for anyone interested in getting started or in upgrading their current operations.

From home brewers exploring a potential business opportunity to established Kombucha bottlers seeking to take it to the next level, we offer a full range of services that are tailored to fit your brand’s needs. We offer a variety of ways to tackle issues to allow you, the brewer, to find the solution that fits with your ethos, style, and company budget.

Hannah helps launch commercial brewers by advising on a food safety monitoring (HACCP) plan, sanitation standards, DNA Sequencing, as well as providing wholesale quantities of cultures and starter liquid along with husband and partner, Alex LaGory.

Full Disclosure

I started my home-brewing adventure with a porcelain continuous-brew kit I bought from Hannah Crum’s Kombucha Kamp eight years ago. I now have five of these 2.5-gallon containers. I’ve daisy-chained a series of wrap-around heating pads controlled with a mechanical timer. It’s not pretty, but I get five gallons every 7-10 days, which is more than the two pints a day I drink. The rest I put into recycled commercial bottles to give away to friends. I’m guessing this is the upper limit for any home-brewer, and the next step would be to start commercial production.

Disclaimer

The content of this article is accurate to the best of our knowledge and is presented for general informational purposes only. Check with local food and beverage licensing authorities before proceeding. The opinions are those of the editor. Please send suggestions or questions to ian@boochnews.com. Comments are welcome.

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1 Response

  1. the_editor says:

    Here’s the way Floater Joe down in San Clemente keeps their ‘booch warm in winter:

    Moving the brewery has taken twice as long as expected only to be way too cold to ferment kombucha properly. The Solution: my temperature controlled “fermentation station”, “hotbox”, “Kombucha Kavern” whatever you wanna call it. Will be pumping out kombucha faster than ever with higher quality and consistency. Fresh kegs will be available next week.

    Floater Joe Warming Cabinet

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