In Memphis, where BBQ is as much a cultural identifier as music or our location to the Mississippi River, healthy options are becoming more prevalent.
One of them is kombucha. Brewed for thousands of years in China, one local entrepreneur is putting her own take on the esoteric brew to make it more tasty and marketable.
“I didn’t like it at first. So, I would go to other cities and try their kombucha. They were better than the national brands — when I had local kombucha,” said Angel Jackson, owner of Replenish Kombucha, which has products in local stores including Whole Foods and the Curb Market.
A seasoned traveler, her peregrinations would often take her to the West Coast, where kombucha was a more established product.
“When I traveled to other cities, they would have kombucha. I started reading about it, and thought it was great. I had also read it helped people with diabetes build their immune system,” said Jackson, whose mother-in-law died of complications from the disorder in 2015.
Diabetes can also make the gut reject probiotics, which help maintain healthy bacteria. Probiotics can lower glucose and insulin levels in those with the disorder. Kombucha has those probiotics present that can benefit diabetics, leading to an overall boost to the immune system.
In 2013, Center for Disease Control and Prevention stats show 12.2 percent of Shelby Co. adults had the disease, up from 9.4 percent in 2004.
“The more I read about [kombucha], I found all these other benefits like helping asthma and people on chemo,” said Jackson.
Eventually, she decided to brew a batch herself.
“I started to make it in my house. I tweak this and I tweak that. There are things we do with Replenish kombucha to make it better tasting and more clean as opposed to tart. Many kombuchas have lots of sediment with freshness being the plus on our side,” said Jackson.
Kombucha is made much like beer. After an organic Indian tea is brewed, kombucha yeast, called a scoby, is pitched in along with a small amount of sugar to begin fermentation. After sitting for a minimum of ten days, Jackson and her husband flavor the mixture with flowers, fruits, herbs and spices to add flavor. A small amount of alcohol, 0.5 percent, is present. Refrigerated, a batch lasts for six months, although the flavor profile changes.
They brew six batches, or 55 gallons, every 10 days.
“We never have any left at the end of a cycle,” said Jackson.
The flavors they are currently offering are Hibiscus Berry, Lavender Love and Sweet Ginger.
“We are bringing back a flavor that did really well last fall — Dry Hopped Orange.”
“I love her kombucha. I’ve tried some of the national brands, and I don’t like them at all. I taste them and have to get rid of them. I buy the 64-ounce one and it will last a little over a week,” said Penni Walker, who has been a customer of Replenish Kombucha for two years.
Walker’s introduction to the fermented tea was through her yoga teacher, who makes her own. When she saw Replenish at the Downtown Farmers Market, she tried a sample and has been a devoted customer ever since.
“I loved the idea of doing something healthy for myself. I’ve actually been trying to get off diet Pepsi, and it’s has helped me offset drinking the diet Pepsi,” Walker added.
Like many entrepreneurs, the roots of Jackson’s small business extend to her family. Shopping with her mom, she spent a lot of time in health food stores and co-ops absorbing the concept of food as medicine at a young age. Born in Atlanta, Jackson moved around a bit in early childhood, settling in Memphis at age 12 to be near family.
“I grew up believing there are natural remedies to maintaining wellness and for cures,” said Jackson, who also teaches ESL at White Station Elementary for grades 3-5.
That belief strengthened when a family member was diagnosed with bone cancer. Jackson began experimenting with fresh juices, green in particular, as a way to “build health.” In 2013, this led to a business and she began selling blended teas out of a small trailer outfitted by her husband.
After a few years, the grind of operating a food truck was wearing thin, so she parked the truck and opened a brick-and-mortar retail store, Replenish Cold-Press Juice Bar, in early 2015 at 2965 N. Germantown Parkway. Following the death of her mother-in-law later that year, the business changed focus, the juice bar was closed, and the location became a kombucha brewery.
“We were open as a juice bar for maybe ten months,” said Jackson.
To meet demand for her product — as well as have the right equipment to do the job — Jackson sought the help of local entrepreneurship hub, Epicenter, which has resources available to small businesses.
“Angel is a recipient of one of Epicenter’s pilot capital programs, the Friends and Family Fund. This fund is designed for small entrepreneurial businesses in the Memphis area to meet a one-time capital milestone,” said Jessica Taveau, chief brand officer with Epicenter.
Replenish Kombucha is the first recipient of the new Friends and Family investment fund. Epicenter will meet quarterly with the company to review results and provide insight.
For Replenish, the $8,400 capital milestone went to a new walk-in cooler in order to create capacity for current demand and growth. With the investment, Jackson expects 2018 sales to triple.
Related: "Memphis Money: Community-based startups struggle to find capital beyond debt-based platforms"
It will allow possible expansion to 18 retailers and nine grocery stores.
While some startups have the benefit of family members pitching in to fund a business idea, others don’t. According to Epicenter, the need for family and friends funding is particularly acute amongst minorities and women who are business owners.
The pilot initiative is designed to fill the gap.
Jackson is also working with grocery giant Kroger to get her products in their stores locally, although they are still in the process of becoming a vendor. They currently sell at Whole Foods, The Curb Market, Kitchenette at Shelby Farms, City Silo, Memphis Farmers Market and several local eateries.
Ultimately, Jackson is eying regional expansion as the ultimate goal for her business.
“Our goal is to have the largest distribution in the southeast region. I’d love to have a six-hour radius from Atlanta to Louisville to Dallas,” she said.