Aqua ViTea is very lucky that Kate Turcotte joined us last year as Quality Manager. Kate developed and now oversees systems and processes that ensure that we deliver authentic, non-alcoholic Kombucha and that Aqua ViTea enjoys a safe and productive workplace. Kate and her husband, Zack Munzer, are the new(ish) owners of Orb Weaver Creamery, an iconic VT cheesemaking farm (you can read about Orb Weaver’s cool history in this Seven Days piece). We sat down with Kate to discuss food safety, her background growing up working on a farm, and the symbiosis between making cheese and Kombucha.
What are your primary responsibilities at Aqua ViTea?
My title is Quality Manager, which is a little deceptive since everyone’s job at Aqua ViTea is working to create the highest quality Kombucha. I see my role as making sure we are all tracking and communicating from production of our base Kombucha to when a customer buys one of our bottles off the shelf. This involves a lot of forms, spreadsheets, and paperwork, but balanced with lots of Kombucha drinking. I’m a big believer in recordkeeping and try my very best to make food safety fun.
You grew up in Northern Maine, so what brought you to Vermont?
I came to Vermont in 2005 to study ecological agriculture at the University of Vermont. I grew up working on a small diversified farm and didn’t have a clue about my future career path. I wasn’t serious about becoming a farmer but thought that if I had to go to college I should at least learn a trade and wanted to be outside. I started working at Shelburne Farms my sophomore year as an assistant cheesemaker and stayed there for 10 years. I still love visiting my family and friends in Maine but Vermont has become our home.
Why do you refer to yourself as “a cheese dork?”
It is funny that what started as a part-time summer job has turned into my life’s work. I could go on for awhile about how cheese is fascinating but mostly I think it’s incredible that something as seemingly boring as milk can become so many different flavors, colors, textures, and tastes. This occurs through the hard work of bacteria, yeasts, and molds breaking down the protein and fat structures, it’s pretty incredible. Both cheese and Kombucha are similar in being an ancient food developed way before we had technology or microbiology labs.
How has your life as a farmer/cheesemaker translated to working at Aqua ViTea?
I think understanding where and when to track and when to relinquish control. It’s important to record all of the data points, both qualitative and quantitative, to understand why one batch turns out better than the other. When I make cheese I’ll track acidity, temperature, weather, time, the cows diet, and also the music I am listening to. We can try our best to control variables but I think it’s important to embrace the wonder and mystery that happens when you are relying on microbes to do the bulk of your work. Nature can throw you curveballs and you can either get upset or hope to find better flavors.
What do you like to do outside of work and farming?
I try my best to walk with my dogs Lily and Jackson everyday. I love to read, listen to podcasts, and make ice cream. I’m looking forward to warmer weather for the swimming holes and scooter rides with my husband, Zack.
What is your favorite Aqua ViTea Kombucha flavor?
Hibiscus Ginger Lime for the complexity of flavors and the social mission (a portion of HGL sales are donated to the Trinity Yard School in Ghana.)