Kombucha has seen massive global growth in the last few years, and one company was on the cusp of that trend here in NZ. Now they’re doing the same for the hard kombucha, pushing that category into supermarkets.
Happy Hour is a brand operated by Mama’s Brew Shop - a female-owned and operated craft kombucha business, with both an alcoholic and non-alcoholic offering.
I asked co-founder Liv McGregor how Mama’s Brew Shop got going.
Says Liv, “We started our Mama’s Brew Shop journey about five years ago. My co-founder Rene and I had both been kombucha homebrewers for a long time, and were in the thick of the baby/toddler stage. We were both really disillusioned with the non-alcoholic offerings available at the time, and wanted something that felt considered and grown-up, especially in a social drinking situation.
“Kombucha is an awesome fit for that - you have the satisfaction of an alcoholic drink - in that it’s fermented - but without the alcohol.
“We were really looking to solve our own problem. We wanted something that looked and felt beautiful, and wasn’t loaded with sugar.
“Rene is a medical herbalist and nutritionist. She has an amazing technical knowledge and ability with herbs so it made sense that Rene became our head brewer. That’s one of the reasons our flavours are all based on herbs and spices. But it also gives us a point of difference - we wanted to stay away from fruit and juice flavours, to keep it unique and grown up.
“We tinkered with our recipe in giant jars in our kitchens. It took a bit of work to make sure we could scale up our formulations. Working with a scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) is like working with an unpredictable child - it’s not as simple as just making a bigger batch!
“At this point, our youngest kid was 6 months old. We needed to be around home for nap times so we converted Rene’s garage into a brewery so we could work from home.
“We outgrew that fairly quickly and moved to the main street of Helensville into an old butchers shop, where we opened New Zealand’s first kombucha taproom. We’ve since moved out of that space and sold the taproom as we needed a bigger brewery - the taproom didn’t make sense if we weren’t also brewing onsite.
“We designed our kombucha as a non-alcoholic drink to be had in social drinking situations. With that in mind, our initial sales focus was through on-premise venues. But when lockdown hit, and 99% of our customers had to close their doors, the ongoing viability of pursuing that as our primary channel looked very different.
“The cheap international brands have made it hard to compete in a supermarket, so we spent 2020 perfecting and launching our hard kombucha range - Happy Hour. Happy Hour is specifically designed to be retail friendly. We launched Happy Hour in November 2020, and it’s been authorised for sale in supermarkets.
“Hard kombucha is a big trend in the United States. We have always wanted to make a hard kombucha, and the awareness of kombucha in NZ is now high enough that the timing of our pivot to an alcoholic version makes sense.
“The hard kombucha process involves a double ferment - initially we ferment the tea as we would for our non-alcoholic kombucha, and then we pitch champagne yeast and it goes through a secondary ferment to bring the naturally occurring alcohol levels up to 4.5%.
“Happy Hour is such a great option for people who want to have fun but are conscious about what they put in their bodies, and also want something crafted, artisan, and made by real people. Happy Hour is a great way for us to diversify our portfolio without compromising our values as a small independent craft kombuchery.”
I asked Liv what the biggest learnings they’ve found in their business journey so far.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we first started,” laughs Liv. “I think there’s a certain amount of naiveté needed to take the leap of starting a business.
“I think there’s a lot of parallels between starting a business and having small kids - motherhood is amazing training for entrepreneurship. No one understands working day and night without thanks or pay quite like mums!
“We’d be bottling and brewing throughout the night, bringing kids to sales meetings etc. It really forced us to be efficient and move faster with everything we were doing, and that’s helped our growth in the long run.”
I asked Liv what were some key things they were focusing on to grow.
“Happy Hour is our number one focus at the moment. It has the most potential for growth both within the company and in general.
“We’re one of New Zealand’s first hard kombuchas, which means we’re growing the whole category. As other companies launch in the category, it helps us grow overall, but it’s a double-edged sword because it also introduces more competition to the market.
“Branding and design are also key to our growth, especially in terms of awareness of the brand. Overseas we’ve seen a lot of kombucha brands pigeonhole themselves with a pretty hippy vibe. We’re aiming to appeal to a much wider audience.
“The hippy vibe has also contributed to the perception that kombucha has to be a health tonic. Our view is that it’s just a great drink - the health benefits are a bonus. So we’re also pushing back on that perception as we keep moving forward.”
I asked Liv what advice she’d give to new entrepreneurs.
“Get started. Your initial plan will never play out the way you expect it to. Be super open to feedback and refine it as you go.
“Try to lose your ego and get as much objective feedback as you can. You need new perspectives on how to approach things because when you’re in your business everyday, it’s so easy to become tunnel-visioned.”
Finally, I asked Liv what’s next for the business.
Says Liv, “We are all hands on deck to make sure our summer sales are awesome!
“We’re looking at new flavours and of course pushing Happy Hour as much as possible.
“And longer term, hard kombucha is much more stable as a product than our non-alcoholic range - so we’re taking Happy Hour global!”
For more info and to buy online, visit: https://mamasbrewshop.com/