In an unassuming building off the main drag in Ypsilanti, a small husband-and-wife-owned operation creates a unique brand of living alcoholic beverages: kombucha beer.
Unity Vibration Living Kombucha Tea LLC grew from an idea that Tarek and Rachel Kanaan first developed when they lived in California in 2008. They moved back to Michigan in 2009 and launched the company from a room in their home in Ypsilanti, initially selling kombucha tea products at farmers markets around Southeast Michigan.
From that humble beginning, Unity Vibration has slowly carved a niche for itself in the beverage market. In fact, the company’s Bourbon Peach kombucha beer, fermented in the style of an American wild ale, was named one of the top 25 beers of the year in 2013 by Draft Magazine.
But the company almost didn’t make it. Whole Foods stores had just started stocking Unity Vibration’s products in 2010, when the retailer almost immediately pulled all kombucha products off its shelves after the federal government began investigating other producers.
All kombucha, including the traditional teas, contain a small amount of alcohol. Beverages with less than 0.5 percent alcohol do not need to be marked with the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning for alcoholic beverages and can be sold to the general public. However, many of the kombucha products being produced across the country – Unity Vibration’s included – had an ABV of about 1 percent, meaning they needed to be marketed as an alcoholic beverage, like beer, and restricted to customers over 21 years old.
The almost immediate setback for the fledgling company turned out to be a “sign from the universe,” said Tarek Kanaan.
While the company continues to sell its kombucha teas, the crackdown forced it to shift its focus to what’s become its signature product line of higher-alcohol kombucha beers.
It was difficult to boost the product’s ABV given the parameters of kombucha production, which is temperature sensitive by its nature because it uses living organisms such as yeast and probiotics – similar to those found in yogurt – during the fermentation process.
Kanaan developed the production process and recipes behind the beverages through a period of trial and error. The final recipe features what the company describes as a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, including Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces.”
“It’s a most interesting culture, and it’s good for you,” Kanaan said. “It’s non-pasteurized with living yeast that’s served alive versus cooked and forced carbonated.”
Although Unity Vibration initially tried to avoid positioning its products as beers because they could move more volume of non-alcoholic beverages, they found they could generate higher margins by selling alcohol even if the volume was smaller.
“We resisted beer,” he said. “But our sales were slow until we started selling it as a beer. … We really came to beer by accident.”
Unity Vibration’s beers are now sold in 11 states, including Michigan. Kanaan acknowledged the company has had to educate consumers about the ancient, although relatively obscure beverage. The company has participated in a series of Michigan beer festivals to help spread the word about its products to the traditional craft beer community.
“Craft beer drinkers are awesome,” he said. “We target a lot of demographics, including the vegans and yoga (practitioners). It’s all across the board.”
In shifting their focus to beer, the creators intentionally shaped the products to be a reflection of their ideology. For example, they packaged the kombucha beer in 22-ounce bottles to encourage consumers to share the beverage with friends, rather than hoard it for themselves.
That ideology also extended to the company’s recent expansion. Unity Vibration doubled its space to 4,800 square feet and plans to add a tasting room to serve drop-in visitors that often stop by the production facility. To fund the project, the Kanaans turned to crowdfunding to raise about $136,000.
“It was a lot of work, but it was worth it,” he said of the crowdfunding process.
The company produced 568 barrels in 2013. With the new space coming online, Kanaan hopes to grow the annual production rate 200 percent by the end of this year.