It’s all about the ‘booch’: Black Hills State University student, alumna launch kombucha business
Editor’s note: Carissa Hauck, originally from Belle Fourche, S.D., and Bianca Hutzler, originally from Germany, met as students at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D. Today they’re partners in Scobi Kombucha – “handcrafted, artisanal, small-batch kombucha, made in Spearfish, S.D.,” the company’s website (ScobiKombucha.com) states.
A Black Hills State class in Small Business Management helped the partners get the business up and running, as the two explain in this Q&A.
By the way, kombucha – aka “booch” – is a fizzy, fermented, sweet-and-sour drink made with tea.
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Bianca, you grew up in Germany. How did you wind up in South Dakota?
Bianca: I came to the U.S. about three years ago through an exchange program. I stayed at Black Hills State, where I got a scholarship for one year. Then I decided to get my degree from the university, because I really liked the program and the fact that you can combine entrepreneurship with their business specialization.
So, I'm in my senior year now, and I’ll be getting a bachelor's degree in business administration with a specialization in entrepreneurship and marketing.
How did the school appear on your radar?
Bianca: It's a funny story, because I didn't choose Black Hills State at all. It chose me.
In the interview for the scholarship, they ask, “Are you more a city person or a country person?” I told them that if I were to end up on a farm or a ranch or somewhere in nature, that would be fine. I didn't want to be living in a huge city.
To be honest, I was hoping it would be Colorado with its mountains, or California, or a warmer place. Then I ended up in Spearfish. (laughs)
But I instantly fell in love with the Black Hills and the community, and that’s a big reason why I decided to get my degree from the university.
What have you liked about it?
Bianca: It’s the whole package.
I love the nature here; I think the Black Hills are just beautiful. But the biggest things for me are the people, the community and the university – the friends I’ve made and the business program.
Carissa, I gather that the kombucha brewing started with you?
Carissa: RIght. I have been brewing kombucha at home for a few years now. I had always been into making things with my hands, so my sister – she actually had a scoby and shared some with me, and …
Carissa: A scoby. That stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” It looks like a mushroom cap, and it sits on top of the sweet tea base that you brew.
Then as it ages, it ferments the sugar from the tea and converts it into the probiotic live culture that gives it that sour, sweet kind of tangy flavor that people love.
The scoby grows as you brew more and more tea, so you can peel the different layers apart and give it to someone else. That’s why kombucha also is called a friendship tea – like friendship bread made with sourdough starter.
So, my sister gave me one and showed me how to do it. Using that same scoby culture, I’ve been making kombucha for a few years and sharing it with Bianca – by then, we were roommates – and with family and friends.
Then an accident intervened.
Carissa: Yes. I graduated from Black Hills State in May 2018, and right before graduation, I had an accident with my knee that required surgery. So, I’d been planning to apply for human resource management jobs, but the knee surgery threw that out the window, because I had to recover for the rest of the summer and fall..
I didn't have much to do, so I was at home, brewing kombucha. And Bianca said, “Why don't you make it into a business? It's so good, and people really like it; you've only gotten positive feedback. You should go for it.”
And I thought, “OK, well, I don't have anything else to do.” (laughs)
So that’s where the idea started.
And that’s where Bianca’s Small Business Management class came in.
Carissa: Right. That fall, Bianca had to come up with a business idea for the class, and she asked me, “What if I pitched the kombucha business plan, and we see how it goes?” I said sure.
And she did, and people liked it!
She got a team together; I was an honorary team member, bringing what I had put together so far. Then with the help of the resources from the course, we developed a full-fledged business plan. It was great.
Bianca: That class was a great support system, because we had the resources and knowledge through the professor and the other students.
We entered business-plan competitions, and in one of them – an on-campus Shark Tank event – we won first prize! That meant we won some start-up funding, and that really helped us start our production, which we’ve been working on ever since.
Kombucha or “booch” production is fairly serious, correct? Given that you have to guard against contamination and the like.
Carissa: Yes, it took us a long time to get all of the legal and health-code elements worked out. It's a very new process, especially in South Dakota. There are only one or two other people who brew kombucha on a commercial level in the state, so even then South Dakota Health Department doesn't have a whole lot of knowledge about it. We are all kind of learning together.
Do you have a kitchen?
Carissa: We are renting a commercial kitchen space that’s available on evenings and weekends. And we have a special room that we remodeled to keep all of the kombucha in a sanitized and temperature-controlled environment.
Carissa: We started commercial production earlier this year, and we have a few retail accounts in the Spearfish area and in Rapid City, S.D. So the plan is to expand in the Black Hills area; and for us, this is always connected with a lot of educational work, because a lot of people in the Midwest don't know about kombucha.
Of course, that is also our opportunity, because there is so much potential. In California, for example, there is kombucha everywhere. We have driven around California, and it's wild; even gas stations have kombucha advertised. “We have kombucha on tap here,” the signs say.
So it's becoming more and more mainstream, and as you know, the trends on the coasts tend to creep in to the central part of the country.
When we were doing all of our market research, Bianca and I were thinking this is perfect timing for us, because kombucha is on the rise.
Bianca: And especially in the Black Hills, where we found that booch is a good fit because people are so outdoorsy and living very active lifestyles. In the past few years, we’ve seen two more yoga studios open up in Spearfish, for example.
Clearly, it’s a trend that people are becoming more aware of their health, and it's great to be in a business that we are passionate about ourselves and to be making a product that we drink ourselves and we love.
Where can people find Scobi Kombucha?
Bianca: We’re at Sawyer Brewing; that's a new brewery in Spearfish. And we’re in the Green Oven Bakery in Spearfish, and Breadroot Natural Foods Co-op.
At the brewery, their main motivation to carry us is that they want to have an alternative for people who don't want to drink either alcohol or a sugary soda. So, kombucha is really great alternative. And it has that hipster feeling to it, I would say.
Did I read that you’re trying to use local ingredients?
Carissa: Yes. We source our ingredients locally, and our flavors are inspired by what's available in the Black Hills area. So there are local berries and local fruits that are in season, herbs from a local herb farmer and other things that inspire us and are incorporated into our brand.
Beyond that, it’s all handmade, at night and on weekends in that commercial kitchen. We have two other people on the team who help us with brewing.
The learning curve has definitely been steep, but we support each other and we get a lot of support from our family and friends, and even the community has been very supportive.
It has been a great experience so far, and we're excited for the future.
Editor, Prairie Business