Getting to Know Aqua ViTea Founder, Jeff Weaber
Meet Jeff Weaber, founder of Aqua ViTea Kombucha in Middlebury, Vermont. Jeff’s vision is to bring naturopathic principles of vitality and wellness to the masses. Learn about the early days of the Kombucha industry circa 2007 and Jeff’s journey from craft beer brewer to Vermont entrepreneur.
Craft Beer Brewing in the Post-Grunge Heyday
In 2004, Jeff was brewing beer at the Lucky Labrador in Portland, Oregon, a microbrewery on the scene before the rise of craft beer. There was creativity, innovation, and the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of the operation. Jeff helped the brewery scale to meet increasing demand.
The brewery team was scrappy. Jeff learned everything from managing contractors to purchasing equipment to electrical work. This is where he first discovered his entrepreneurial ambition and drive to understand all aspects of how something works.
“It was the rise of DIY and Portland fully embraced this mentality of back-to-craft. This was the Renaissance period of my life. I learned woodworking, homebrewing, remodeling homes, I was the GM of a brewery, I volunteered on an organic farm. I was also fascinated by my wife Katina’s Naturopathic Medicine curriculum, which explored concepts of harmony between the body’s systems to create wellbeing from the inside out.”
“In college I lived in an Intentional Community of students. We did everything ourselves. We lived out in the forest and chopped wood. Who chops wood to survive in college? Vermonters have a similar spirit.
When we arrived in Vermont I wanted to bring people together in a similar fashion. We bought an old farmhouse and immediately set to work remodeling the space to make it a place where people could come together and contribute their talents and ideas. We added a fire pit, soccer field, bocce court, vignettes where people could comfortably gather. We convinced some of our Oregon friends, including the artist behind Aqua ViTea’s distinctive art style, Michael Kin and his wife Melissa, to join us in creating this community. We brought Vermonters together who were once isolated, in a place where they could share symbiotic skills and ideas.”
“We also wanted the space to allow us to start multiple businesses. Katina built her Naturopathic Clinic, I raised cows and started a meat share. And then, there was Kombucha…”
In 2007 the concept of Food as Medicine was not widespread. Kombucha, with its restorative properties at the very gut level, highlighted the relationship between food and healing, and the naturopathic principles of holistic wellness, verses treating symptoms.
“Vermont is fertile ground for quirky perspectives and ideas, a la Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry’s. I didn’t want to start a business involving a raw food product in Portland because I had witnessed how Oregon treated and regulated these products. I knew Vermont would embrace the concept. Yet Vermont has its own unique hurdles for businesses – infrastructure, resources, lack of diversity, geographic remoteness, weather, taxes, regulations, available funding. Those who choose to start a business here do it with intention, knowing they’ll need to persevere and innovate through these challenges.”
Growing a Category
Not only did Jeff help build a beverage category that was completely bizarre at the time- a living culture in a fermented beverage, Jeff introduced the Kombucha on-tap concept to the Middlebury Co-op in 2007.
“By its very nature, the model not only encourages sustainability through reusable packaging, but that minute it takes to fill a growler is a precious moment of engagement with our food, beyond grabbing a product off a shelf. There’s something grounding and connecting about the process. Plus it helps consumers understand the value and reusability of everyday packaging, which is critical in the face of climate change.”
Co-ops were generally receptive because bulk food is part of their model and their customers get it.
Conventional stores needed convincing.
“It is incredibly satisfying to walk into a meeting where buyers have their cynicism blinders on, yet it only takes one person at the table sharing their excitement over Kombucha to convince people there’s something to it.”
Fountains were launched all over New England, and now other beverages have caught on – cold brew coffee, fresh juice and cider. Aqua ViTea has spent over a decade educating consumers about Kombucha, mostly through art and storytelling. Now the industry is more mainstream, thanks to early adopters. Today, Aqua ViTea operates out of a 62,000 sq ft brewery in the heart of Vermont and is the largest east coast Kombucha producer.
Like much of the world, the company experienced a creative pivot in 2020 when the pandemic hit. “No one knew what was going to happen, things we’re looking bad. Suddenly, we had a resource that everyone needed – organic alcohol that could be converted into hand sanitizer. For years, we’ve been extracting the alcohol from our Kombucha to create a truly non-alcoholic beverage. We never guessed it would become so valuable and potentially life saving.” The company was able to donate thousands of gallons of alcohol to hospitals, first responders, food banks, essential worker childcare centers and elderly communities.
What’s next for AQVT? “We’re moving towards adaptogenic, functional flavors, getting back to our roots of food as medicine, while continuing to produce accessible flavors for those who are intimidated by Kombucha but have come to accept its not going away and it’s probably good for them. Its an acquired taste that many wear like a badge of honor.”
A Day in the Life with a Vermont Entrepreneur
Follow Jeff through a day in the life of Vermont business owner:
6:30 am “I built our sleeping area into an alcove with windows on three sides, so I wake up surrounded by the sunrise. One of the reasons we chose to live in Vermont is the simplicity of the lifestyle. I have three kids, ages 8 to 13. Because I don’t need to set aside time for an hour-long commute through traffic, I’m able to take my time with them in the morning.”
7:30 am “By now our large Bernese Mountain Dogs are stirring and pushing to be let out to harass the cows. I like to walk with them around our pond and clear my head for the day.”
8:00 am “Typically Katina is seeing patients in the Clinic, which is attached to our farmhouse, by 8 am. If it’s cold season, or I’m feeling under the weather, I raid her homeopathic medicine chest of herbs and tinctures.”
9:00 am “Now in the age of video calls, I can take a couple morning calls from home. I’m happiest when I’m creating and working with my hands, so on my best day I can sink into a woodworking or landscaping project around the farmhouse before heading to the brewery.”
10:00 am “We’ve built a talented team of Kombucha enthusiasts, so the brewery is humming with the rhythm of the bottling and canning lines and music is playing throughout the building.”
11:00 am “One of my favorite places to create is our Lab. Nothing excites me more than brainstorming and tinkering with flavor concepts with our Cellar Team. We have a full-time microbiologist, brewers with years of experience, dedicated staff in every area. Kombucha is a nuanced beverage that thrives on skill and intuition.”
12:00 pm “We host monthly Crew Lunches to bring the team together, everyone on the bottling line, in the warehouse, on the finance team. We share updates, wins, challenges. It’s important to me that everyone stays connected.”
1:00 pm “I sneak in a quick game of ping-pong in our Lounge. Chris, our Cellar Chief, is our resident champion.”
2:00 pm “In the afternoon I may have a podcast interview or meeting with a key partner or check in with the marketing team to talk about creative projects. Everyday looks different and keeps me on my toes.”
5:00 pm “I love to invite folks over to the farmhouse for impromptu get togethers. We grill over the firepit, the kids play soccer and roam the property in herds. Everyone contributes, whether it’s their favorite craft beer, homemade cheese, or flatbread pizza with veggies from their garden. It’s everything you think a Vermont gathering might be like.”
7:00 pm “I couldn’t help myself, I built a regulation bocce court in the yard. We also have a pond that freezes over for ice hockey. I love these pockets of activity throughout the property. I love looking across the fire to see my friends’ faces in the warm glow. I feel truly blessed to have cultivated this Vermont lifestyle and built a community of people where everyone is accepted.”