Kombucha (kom-BOO-cha), a fermented tea beverage, has fast become a favorite for thousands of shoppers at our Co-op, and NessAlla has been serving up their fresh local kombucha here since 2008, shortly after the company began.

Vanessa Tortolano (a former Willy Street Co-op employee) and Alla Shapiro shared a passion for herbs, healing and empowering others through natural healing before setting about to form their company, Ness-Alla, LLC. Now, two years later, they are brewing kombucha in space rented at the Weary Traveler on Williamson Street and share equally in day-to-day operations.

For those who are unfamiliar with kombucha, this information from the NessAlla website (nessalla.com) may be helpful in explaining its properties and benefits:

“Kombucha is an effervescent, tangy health drink. Kombucha contains probiotics, B-Vitamins, C-Vitamins, antioxidants, amino acids and live enzymes, just to name a few. Kombucha is made using a strong solution of tea, sugar and water which is fermented using a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. We call her SCOBY. This is the mother culture, which feeds on the sugar, tannins, and caffeine. It then converts the tea into kombucha, which hosts a slew of health benefits to aid your body.

“The probiotics help the flora of your intestines, the live enzymes aid in digestion, amino acids aid in detoxifying your body and oxygenating your blood.* Many people claim kombucha is a valued addition to their daily health regimen. Everyone’s body is different and so you should drink kombucha in moderation and see how your own body reacts. Each person experiences different reactions and you should consult your health practitioner to see if it may interfere with medications.”

[*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.]

We recently caught up with these two busy moms and they shared some of their history, challenges and plans for their small business with big potential.

The beginning
LO: What was the impetus for the two of you to found this company together?
VT: As a cashier, I began seeing kombucha going through the lines at the Co-op and took an interest. I asked Alla about it and she told me she had been brewing it for seven years and we started brewing and experimenting. At this time we were teaching herbal classes [at the Co-op] and thought that it would be pretty easy and fun to teach a kombucha brewing class, as there seemed to be a big interest in the subject. We set up classes and they sold out, leading us to making more and more kombucha. Word began to get out that we had good stuff and people started asking us if they could get some from us. We thought, let’s set up a stand at the Eastside Farmers’ Market. How hard could that be? Well…much harder than you would think. To be in the market we had to create a business, get a license, and the hardest part, secure a certified kitchen and approval of our brewing method, which no one was familiar with. We had to get approval for our method from the head of the Food Safety Department at the University of Wisconsin before the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture would certify us. Madison also has a shortage of certified kitchens and we are very grateful to the Hunter brothers and Underground Catering for helping us out with our first kitchen space.

Company structure
LO: What is the structure of NessAlla? Are there other owners?
AS: Just us, although we have a cast of supporters who we could not function without. These include Scott Shapiro, Christopher Berge, Brian Smith, Addie Greenwood, our families and of course our locally supportive community of Madison. Without our community we would not have made it this far so fast.

Kombucha education
LO: Where/how did each of you learn about the importance of kombucha or how to brew it?
VT: Alla was raised in Russia with it unknowingly until she began brewing herself in her 20s. She was again turned on to [kombucha] by her herb teacher in California. I took an interest after drinking a first bottle from the Co-op and began researching and experimenting as soon as I got my hands on a SCOBY [the kombucha culture].

Division of labor
LO: Who does which tasks?
VT: We both do whatever it takes to get it done. It is completely 50/50 and we are both busy moms. We support each other constantly.

The brewing
LO: Please describe some of what is involved in the production of kombucha.
AS: We brew in small batches using a continuous-brew cycle. We range anywhere from 50 to 100 gallons per week currently. We project that will double or triple by the end of the year.

Upsizing
LO: From your initial brewing for personal use, what were some of the idiosyncrasies or changes to production that were needed to account for the larger volume?
AS: Mostly it was the amounts of ingredients. The recipe stays the same and you develop a taste for what it should taste like. Large-scale production has led us to discover ways to balance brews gone awry, and correct imbalances. We also needed to learn how to streamline production time according to health codes. The whole business is one giant learning curve.

Product selection
LO: What and how many products are you producing?
AS: We have returnable half-gallon growlers. In March we released our line of 16 oz. bottles. The growler flavors are blueberry, lemongrass ginger, and our seasonal, which will change four times a year. Currently our seasonal flavor is a springy blend of dandelion, lemon balm, red clover, hibiscus. In the 16 oz.-size we have all of the three above as well as passionfruit and traditional oolong.

Flavors
LO: Describe a bit about the differences from one flavor of kombucha to another.
VT: We use all Rishi Tea in our brewing and that is where the flavors come from. We don’t add any juice. In the seasonal blend we try to use local wild-crafted herbs. All of our blends, except for the lemongrass ginger, are made with the oolong tea, which is a fermented blend of green and black tea. It has a very full-bodied flavor all on its own and then we blend in rooibos teas to create the other flavors which are complex and fruity. The lemongrass is a black tea blend. Kombucha needs black tea as its highest nutrition and keeps the brew healthy and balanced.

Business philosphy
LO: Please talk a little bit about your business philosophy.
AS: First and foremost, we strive to encourage health in our community. NessAlla has grown on local support and so we strive to source all of our materials locally. We love to work with local businesses. They tend to be the most pleasant and excited about what we are doing. Our tea is from Rishi Tea in Milwaukee. Our water is from our own reverse-osmosis system from Culligan, our sugar is bought at Willy Street Co-op and is from Frontier Cooperative, and our bottles are from Milwaukee as well. Often, we also strive to be as green as we can by composting our tea, recycling the bags the tea comes in, reusing our bottles, and reusing our boxes till they can’t hold anything anymore.

Organic certification
LO: Are you certified organic, or seeking certification, or are there particular issues that would make it difficult to become certified organic?
VT: We are not certified and it is not on the agenda in the near future. It is very costly and extensive, as you know. However, all of our ingredients are Fair Trade and Certified Organic. Go Organic!!!

Work load
LO: How many hours a week or day does NessAlla currently demand of your time?
VT: We work every day. Some days are more work-filled than others. We work around our families to make sure we maximize our time with them. There needs to be a delicate balance of family, personal, business and pleasure.
Just try a sip
LO: How would you try to convince a person with picky taste to try kombucha?
VT: We let the kombucha do the talking…we don’t like to be pushers. We have had non-lovers turn borderline fanatics so we just sit back and let the magic happen. You ever see a kombucha-dance before?
Entering the mainstream
LO: Kombucha is a very traditional beverage in some cultures. Why do you think it took so long to become more mainstream in the natural foods industry? Was there a particular event that sparked more awareness?
AS: Our culture loves sugar. Kombucha is not very sweet. In fact, it’s a more savory/sweet taste and our palates have needed some training or conversion over time. People are, now more than ever, beginning to take more control of their health. With the rising costs of health care, and the need to just know your own body and take care of it, more and more people are looking for preventative measures to ensure their health. [Other kombucha bottlers] really paved the way for kombucha brewers like us. They have been around a long while. The West Coast has been in the forefront of health and vitality and that is where it began in a big way. In our community, it began with addition of [other bottlers] to the shelf.
VT & AS: We are proud to live in a place where local businesses thrive even in a time of economic downfall. It is what will keep our communities going. We would like to thank the Willy Street Co-op for believing in us and being our springboard into the business. You were one of our very first customers. And a big shout out to Joe Weinberg for being our very first, very loyal customer.

Also, we will be at the East Side Farmers’ Market at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center this season selling flavors that you cannot get anywhere else in the growler and 16 oz. sizes.

Get some at the Co-op
NessAlla’s kombucha is available by the glass from the Juice Bar or bottled in the cold case with the orange juice and eggs across from the Juice Bar.