In this episode, we discuss the journey of Jessica Kohanek, founder of Koru Kombucha and a single mother who turned her passion for kombucha into a thriving business, all while balancing the demands of raising a family and teaching full-time. Our guest started making kombucha to improve her health and well-being but quickly fell in love with the process and its benefits. She began brewing large batches and supplying local businesses until her business grew to what it is today. Through trial and error, she refined her recipe and now brews her delicious kombucha at St. Paul Brewing Company.
Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Makers of Minnesota podcast, where we talk to cool people doing cool things. And I’m here with Jessica Kohanek, and she is the founder of Koru Kombucha. Did I say that right?
Yes. Perfect. Thank you. Hi, thanks for having me.
Yeah, thanks for being on the podcast today. We’re in a little audio trouble, but I think we’re all situated now.
Jessica, tell me about your foray into kombucha making my foray into?
Okay, well, back in 2017, I want.
To point out too, that you’re, like, in a classroom.
Yeah, I teach full time. Okay. So I’m here, the kids just left, and I just had my end of the year meeting with my par person, so that just got done. And now I’m doing this, and I’m super excited. And when we’re done, I’m going to go flavor some kombucha, go shopping for some ingredients and get that. It’s a busy day. Busy week, always busy. Yeah, I like being busy. It works out for me.
What made you start deciding to make kombucha?
Okay, I’ll try to make it it’s a long story, but I’ll make it short. Basically, back in 2017, I teach high school now, but back then I taught little kids Montessori for second 3rd graders. So I had about 36 to 6789 year olds in my class, so I’m doing that full time. I was working towards my K through twelve art license back then, so I was going to school at Bethel four nights a week. And my son I’m a single mom, and my son was in hockey in the goalie. So I had all this going on, and I’m like, I’m so tired, like, going to class that night and getting everything done. And my body doesn’t do well with caffeine or sugar, so I’m not a pop drinker. And coffee makes me ill, so, I mean, I love the taste of it, but it doesn’t do well with my body. So a friend of mine at the time said, I heard kombucha is really good for energy and this and that. It’s a healthy wave without getting all your sugar and caffeine and whatnot, but it works. So he kept bringing me kombucha, and after about two weeks, I’m like, oh, my God, I was going to class that night without yawning, and I could get through the day a lot easier. I dropped a few pounds. I just felt really good. I just felt really good. I’m like, this is magical stuff. I need to learn more about it. At the time I’ve heard of it, it was like a California thing or East Coast thing and what is this? And so I started researching and buying a bottle at $4 a pop when you’re a single mom wasn’t a good idea on a teacher salary. So YouTube, how do you make kombucha? And did it. And then I started making and having fun with making flavors and getting it to the PH that I liked and the flavors that I liked, and I could personalize it. And I’m like I like mine. It’s a little bit better than the store stuff. Anyways, this is great. So I went from two gallons, and then I went bought another two gallon. And so I was going through it, and I’m like, mom, sister, friends, you guys got to try this stuff. This is freaking amazing. Like, all the benefits that’s coming out of this. And so I started making more, and then I had, like, glass jars all over the house. So I’m like, okay, well, I went and bought a 30 gallon fermenter and then another one, and then story keeps going if you want to keep yeah, okay. So I went what was it? I wrote a teacher’s grant to go to Hawaii to study the flora and fauna of Hawaii and won it. So I went to Hawaii for almost a month with my son at the time and met all these amazing people. And it just so happened when I was there, I met these people that were making the Hawaii Kombucha, and I saw what they were doing and how they were doing it. I can do that. So I came home and did it, went down to Kansas City with the brokery kombucha thanks, guys. And bought 490 gallon fermenters from them. And I’m like, yeah, I’m doing this commercially. I got to share this kombucha with the world. Let’s go. Let’s do this. And I started looking at shared kitchens, and I’m like, I can’t afford this. I can’t afford that because my stuff takes up too much space, and it wouldn’t be logical to do this. A friend of mine, Ryan, who was one of the owners at Stack Deck Brewery downtown St. Paul, he said, Just come here and brew. I’m like. Okay. Thanks, man. So we tried it out. I took a break from school to do this. March of 2020, everything shuts down the month I moved in there. But I just really focus on making it commercially and getting in. My goal was just to be really local, really like coffee shops, people in St. Paul. I just wanted to kind of invert Grove, where I’m from, and supply my people right, that were around me and at least do that. And I’m still teaching full time, so I didn’t want to get all crazy big. And so that worked out really great for a while. Stackdack is no longer and so I spent a lot of time emailing breweries from all over the Twin Cities. Hey, do you have space for me? Do you have space for me? I probably got 15 to 20. No, I’m sorry. Good luck in your adventure. We don’t have that much space. And when I finally went to Eleven Wells Distillery and talked to the guy there, he’s like, we don’t have what you need. Why don’t you go talk to the guys at St. Paul Brewing. I’m like, I swear I did, but I checked my emails and I didn’t. But I went over and talked to Bob, who’s the head brewer over there. Awesome guy. Everyone there is awesome. And he’s like, yeah, we can make space. Let’s do this. I got to talk to Rob, the owner, and they made space for me, and I’m like, at the time, I was ready to in my mind, I was ready to start my own shop and be done with teaching. But I’m still there, and it’s been almost two years, I think, now, but I really learned I’m in a different teaching job that I absolutely love. I’m teaching at an alternative high school. I’m the electives teacher, so I get to do art and cooking and careers and teaching about the real life stuff. So I’m doing a really good job of balancing both things, and I’m still taking in a few new what’s the word I’m looking for not clients, but just places to sell kombucha. Thank you. Real Taylors. Yeah, I just got into Red Rabbit on grand, and, yeah, it’s just fun, just an adventure, and I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future, but just keep growing as it comes. Organically, I guess.
Yeah. And so how much kombucha? Like, you sent me six flavors, and they’re all really interesting lemongrass. There’s some berry. How much kombucha is the normal amount to drink per day for gut health benefits? Because I don’t think people know.
Good question. I suggest when people come to me for kombucha first, I ask if their body is used to probiotics in the first place, because some people will take pills or powders or whatnot or eat fermented foods, so I kind of figure out where they’re at. If your body is not used to probiotics at all, I would suggest a third of the bottle throughout the day, a third in the morning, a little bit in the afternoon, in the evening, just to kind of see how your body feels, because everybody is different. And when I first started, I would drink the whole bottle, and I was fine. Some people have issues that kombucha is known to help out, so it might have more effect on your body. And kombucha is known to kind of I always say it’s kind of like cleaning out a junk drawer, right? And so the probiotics and the kombucha, well, you got to get everything out of there, all this yucky stuff, and get it out, and it kind of flares up, and it’s like a mess. What did I do? This is a huge mess. But then you kind of put back what you need, and it kind of helps in that I compare it that way. So to answer your question, I would start if you’re not used to it, like a third of the bottle, maybe 3oz at a time. Okay. If you’re nervous, start with 1oz because it is a detoxifier. Right.
And then is it started with plain distilled vinegar or do they always use cider vinegar?
I don’t use any vinegar, so I use gunpowder, organic green tea, and I use cane sugar. So I make my tea, add the sugar, let it cool down, add like 15% of previous batch, how many gallons you’re using? It’s kind of like starter fluid, like when you’re making. So I call it starter fluid and then add that. And then you add your SCOBY, which is your symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. This living organism that’s going to eat most of the caffeine and the sugar that’s in there and ferments it. You know how, like, cabbage turns into sauerkraut? It’s like you got your sweet tea turning into kombucha. So I don’t start with any vinegar, but if you let it sit long enough and ferment long enough, the acidity gets really low. So it tastes like vinegar. Yeah, it gets to that point.
So you’re fantastic to me because I love that you’re so passionate about this and just found it on YouTube and you mentioned being a single mom. And I don’t know unless people are single moms or single parents that they can really put themselves in that space, which is you’re trying to provide for your family, whatever that looks like to you. You also are the only person that can parent whatever that requires. And so you have to be super strategic in your decision making, yet you want to have a good life for yourself, right? And it’s kind of a process of trial and error and it takes a village so that you go out and just ask everybody for help and figure these things out is so true of how I feel like single moms have to be or single dads, because you can’t do it all alone.
You have to be resourceful, that’s for sure. Smart. Good decision making, like you said. Great. Jonas came around with me quite often. He was old enough. He’s 17 now. When I started, he was 13, he went to Hawaii and he’s watched this whole process. And it’s definitely a process, man. I started with buying old bottles from this awesome lady out in Minnetonka, like, driving almost an hour just to go get used bottles. And I’d wash them, sterilize them, delabel them, relabel them in five gallon buckets in my kitchen with oxyclean stuff, and then just for how much things change. And then he’d help and he’s learning about businesses and how to run it and how to save money and how to use your money wisely and have just bank accounts and all the things. So it’s been a total learning experience for both of us. And I wanted to involve him. And he loves it and he loves helping. He’ll help me bottle and deliver, and he’s driving now, so it’s awesome. It’s great. Yeah.
Are you making money yet?
Yes, I have the separate bank account where I’m keeping I’m trying to build it so when I am ready for my shop, I’ll have a down payment. I am doing certain things like paying my phone bill with it and making double payments on my car so I can be done with that. But I really keep the personal business separate so I can be wise about that with later on with money.
And is your hope to open a kombucha shop, and is there such a thing?
They’re sporadic. They’re all over the west coast. East coast? Albuquerque. I’m going to go visit one this weekend. There was one up in Duluth. It’s no longer, but yeah, it would be awesome to have a kombucha shop. And I have amazing, beautiful female friends that are doing small business things that I’d like to collaborate and keep the community alive. Have classes. I love art. I teach art classes. I have a beautiful friend who’s an acupuncturist who specializes in Chinese herbal medicine. I’d love to work with her to make kombucha is medicinal as it is, but even to make it more specific for different ailments, using her knowledge in the Chinese herbal medicine with that. I worked in the restaurant since I was 15 years old, so I have the feeling of those and customer service. And it would be awesome just to have a place to read and have plants and books and music and live music and a place to gather. And I think that would be amazing.
Yeah, well, and some of the best coffee shops are coffee shops that are also record stores or coffee shops that are bookstores. I could totally see that with kombucha and even at some point because it makes a great mixer for distilled and non alcoholic cocktails too.
Oh, for sure. Yes. And it’s a fancy glass, and all of a sudden you’re having a little mocktail. It’s some fruit, and it’s fabulous. I love it.
So right now, to find your koru kombucha, where would we shop right now to find it?
Generally? Okay, so I’m pretty local, but I’m also, like, at Northern Grounds up in Ilia making a delivery in a couple of weeks.
Yeah, we talked about that. That’s where my cabin is, and I’m looking forward to maybe I’ll see you.
Up there this summer.
Oh, if the ice ever goes out, it could be Memorial Day. But yes.
Yeah, well, that’s what Jones like. Can you get here before Memorial Day? But yellowbird is awesome. Over on Selby in Lexington, the corner store in inverter of Heights. That’s the little gas station that I used to go to when I was a kid to buy my candy. So I love that. Of course, St. Paul Brewing Company represent Utopols goes through more kombucha of my kombucha than anyone. Urban growlers. Another brewery. So it’s like, go get something. They all have amazing food and pizza too. So it’s like, grab a pizza grab a Kombucha on tap if you’re not feeling like drinking or mix. Half beer, half kombucha is another thing. So if you don’t want as much alcohol, but you want and you add a little fruit flavor to your beer yeah.
Like your own sour, almost.
Yeah. That’s great.
And Urban Growler won the best fish fry in the Twin Cities, so if people want I’m not surprised they know.
What they’re doing over there. They’re awesome.
Yeah. Well, it’s super nice to meet you and to talk with you. I’m going to keep my eye on you, because I can just tell sometimes you talk to people and they got the thing, or they don’t have the thing, and you have the thing. I just think you need the time to get all your resources together. But I think your product is tremendous. I loved the labeling. I liked the packaging. I thought it tasted super great. Thank you. Yeah, I’m all about it.
Love goes in there. Thank you so much.
Yeah. Koru. Kombuchi. Kombucha. Not kombucha.
It’s like when a kid pronounces something wrong, it just sounds adorable. Like, people do that all the time. Like, it’s cute.
Yeah, it’s almost cuter in some respects. But it’s great to talk with you, and I’m sure we’ll run into each other. Again. Thanks for being awesome.
I’m looking forward to it. Thank you so much. Appreciate it. Bye.