Business brewing : Katalyst Kombucha & Green River Ambrosia, now Artisan Beverage Coop, moving into bigger space

The Recorder. September 26, 2014. By Richie Davis.

About a year old as a co-op, but making drinks that date back more than 2,000 years, one Greenfield business is brewing some big changes on Wells Street.

Artisan Beverage Cooperative, which formed out of Katalyst Kombucha and Green River Ambrosia, is getting ready to move into production space that’s double the 2,000 square feet it now uses at the Franklin County Community Development Corp. Venture Center to boost production of its alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages.

The move to larger rented space down the hall from the CDC’s Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center is tied to the shared kitchen’s own expansion plans, with a new 4,000-square-foot freezer and cold storage area being built where mead, “ginger beer” and the fermented kombucha beverage are now being produced.

ABC, with sales this year expected to reach about $1 million, is also committed to buying local agricultural products, from Warm Colors Apiary honey for its meads to Simple Gifts Farm ginger for its Ginger Libation beer and Clarkdale Farms cider for its Apple Cyzer. And doubling the size of its production space, says production manager Will Savitri, should help the business, of which he’s one of eight worker-owners, further boost sales.

“Both the alcoholic and nonalcoholic sides have been steadily growing,” said Savitri, who started Katalyst Kombucha 9½ years ago with his wife, Kelly, and by his friend Jeffrey Canter after working as a cook at Sirius Community in Shutesbury. The business, which soon outgrew the CDC’s commercial kitchen and moved into space next door, producing the ancient fermented Chinese herbal drink in a variety of flavors, began in 2007 renting production facilities and staff time to help Green River Ambrosia make its honey-rich mead. Earlier this year, the two businesses merged as a cooperative, which Savitri said has helped streamline the operation, motivate workers and become a better candidate for loans and technical help for the expansion.

That expansion should help with growing sales for Kombucha, which the coop produces in seven flavors, including Bliss Berry, and Shizandraberry made with berries from Whately’s Chang Farm. Sales have been growing, especially, in the kind of “kegerators” in place in about 50 locations, including River Valley Market and Cornuciopia in Northampton and All Things Local in Amherst, where customers can have their bottles or flagons.

Now, the Kombucha — produced in 300-gallon batches — ferments for a couple of weeks in 10-gallon ceramic crocks, stacked four high, in a roughly 300-square-foot space in the Venture Center, but the co-op’s 14 workers are experimenting with ways of having it ferment instead in a 300-gallon container to reduce the labor involved.

Although there is some distribution of Katalyst Kombucha in bottles down the East Coast as far of Florida, 80 to 90 percent of the drink is sold in New England, said Savitri, who has seen growth of the drink, especially the reusable kegs. Instead of delivering it from the back of their cars, the coop now has a delivery van bringing the nonalcoholic Kombucha to accounts around the region four days a week.

Ginger Libation, which Savitri says is actually more of a ginger wine because it contains no malt or grain but is instead fermented with sugar, pineapple and lemon juices, has been growing steadily in sales. The co-op now makes about 1,000 gallons a month — a rate that Savitri hopes to about double by next spring, through use of taller, stainless conical tanks in the new space with a higher ceiling, with a fivefold potential production capacity.

Although it had been just sold in Massachusetts, with Whole Foods Market the top seller, Ginger Libation now also sells in Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine, through recently added distributors, and is now on the West Coast as well.

“Ginger Libation growth has been significant,” Savitri said. “That’s where we have an opportunity to see the biggest growth.”

Today, the cooperative brews a single 300-gallon batch monthly of mead — in six flavors. The product sells especially heavily between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, according to Savitri, and its sales growth has been hampered by soaring honey prices driven by dramatic bee colony collapse and the fact the co-op is committed to using local honey.

“If we could find more high-quality honey, we could expand,” he said. “Our (honey) costs have almost doubled in the last three years. We’re really interested in supporting local beekeeping,” including maybe even forming a honey cooperative of local beekeepers from which to buy honey.”

That, like an eventual move into a space of its own — one that Savitri imagines could even be a destination farm-based brewery that could drive home the message of supporting local agriculture, may be off in the future. For now, ABC has used its co-op status to get two expansion loans from the Cooperative Fund of New England last year as well as technical assistance from PV Grows, the consortium focused on making the region’s agricultural base more viable.

Savitri says the co-op hopes to boost Ginger Libation sales fourfold and bring about a 200 percent increase in Kombucha production over the next three to five years.