Luna Bay Hard Kombucha: Talking with Co-Founder Bridget Connelly
Tuesday at 11:31 pm
Preface: I’ll probably remove this paragraph later. If it seems odd for me to be posting about new products, sold at stores that are probably closed during the current pandemic and the civic unrest; well, I agree. But catching up to articles I’ve been writing is just my own kind of therapy. My attempt to manage some order here in the Upside-Down. I can only keep doing what I do here. Reserve my bigger rants for my personal social media. And prepare for better days to come.
Bridget Connelly is co-founder and CEO of the company. She worked with brewer Claire Ridge to formulate recipes in the Chicago, where they were scaled up to commercial batches at Pilot Project Brewing on Milwaukee Avenue.
Hard kombucha is one of the alternative drinks making the rounds lately, that’s not hard seltzer. It’s based on tea and added flavors, with sugar that’s fermented by a SCOBY, a colony of yeasts and bacteria to give it a sour flavor, as used also in ginger beers. This creates a low alcohol brew, to which Luna Bay then adds yeast to bring the alcohol by volume up to 6%.
Bridget explained that she had been watching the craft beer scene in Chicago for some time. “I’m from Chicago, born and raised in the Oak Park/River Forest area. Then I’ve lived on and off in California for the last 10 years. When I first moved out here in 2010, I watched how the craft beer scene was really blowing up. I hadn’t really seen anything like that in Chicago and I just watched how eventually that did come to Chicago a couple years later. And I’d just seen how other trends like the juice trend would become popular here and then eventually it would go to Chicago.
“So when I moved back to California, about three years ago from Australia, I saw the hard kombucha space start blowing up out here. It’s been the best selling category in Southern California over beer and wine and hard seltzer. I saw it take off, and my my dream was to bring it back to Chicago, my roots.”
Last year, when she was back in Chicago, Bridget worked with Claire Ridge, a family friend who was brewing kombucha. “She works with the Green City Market and, gets all of her fresh produce from the farmers’ markets there to make it. We partnered with a microbiologist, and a sour beer brewer, and between the four of us really honed in on the recipe. Claire and I knew what we needed to do to make hard kombucha, but we didn’t understand the science behind it as much and we didn’t understand refermentation and what that would look like in cans.
“Having that microbiologist to really fine-tuned the recipe with us– as well as our sour beer brewer for getting that flavor profile, because its fermentation is similar to a sour beer–really helped us hone in on that Luna Bay flavor and taste and to get that 6% ABV and to be able to can a wild fermentation product.”
Claire and Bridget worked to scale up product, building up Claire’s personal SCOBY like a sourdough starter, then began working with Pilot Project’s incubator brewery.
“They have 10 barrel tanks to launch you with a pilot test batch with them and they get into the 20 barrel tanks, and they sell you on tap there. They have over 20 different taps. It was a perfect spot for us to play around with the recipes and figure out how it translated from the smaller vessels that we were in to the larger tanks, and play around with the cultures we need.”
Connelly went further into their motivation, and the decision process for getting their kombucha to market: “I think people are gravitating towards things that more mindful and healthy. People are more conscious of what they’re putting in their bodies. We were coming up with a list of what motivates us. One, we wanted to make it with yerba mate tea because no one else had been making hard kombucha with yerba mate tea. Claire and I decided that tea has like a slightly different flavor profile. That’s one of the key factors.
“Then color was another one for us; a good quality metric for us was that when you open them, you’ll see these beautiful colors. That’s not from anything added, that is purely from the ingredients that we use. And then going into the ingredients, we wanted to always be sourcing non GMO ingredients. So we look for fresh hibiscus and lavender flowers, we made our own blueberry puree. And we found fresh ginger and lemon juice. Those ingredients really bring out the flavor and they really bring out the color, which is something you’ll notice when you open them.”
Luna Bay has three flagship flavors, Ginger Lemon, Hibiscus Lavender and Blueberry aged on Palo Santo wood. “Claire is a yoga instructor, and she would use Palo Santo wood in her yoga classes. When we would be brewing at her house, she was always burning Palo Santo wood. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we just add this to one of the flavors and see what happens?’ We started putting the wood in bags and soaking them into the product. And it just created this beautiful aroma and this woody flavor profile with the blueberry. And sometimes people even say the blueberry, the wood, and the yerba mate, has almost a coconut-y flavor which is very different. It’s unique. It’s very, very popular because there really isn’t anything like that on the market.” The brand has a limited release, Bourbon Apple, using apples from Chicago area farmer’s markets, with more special releases to come.
Since launching from Pilot Project last August, Luna Bay has gone to packaged production at Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. in Denver. The kombucha is currently available in 12 oz. four-packs. It remains on tap at Pilot Project and at other tap accounts, and is now coming in 16-ounce single cans. The 16-ouncers were for convenience store sales, including the Lululemon store at 944 North Avenue in Chicago. The “experiential” version of their workout wear stores features exercise classrooms and workout studios, a restaurant and a “grab & go” section. “We are the first hard kombucha to be sold in a Lululemon store in the world. So that’s really exciting,” Bridget said.
Luna Bay has expanded distribution to Foxtrot Market stores on the North Side, and from there to Whole Foods (on tap in some of their stores), Binny’s Beverage Depot, and Fresh Thyme Farmer’s Markets. Since December, they’ve launched in Colorado, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Bridget said it was also worthwhile for her company to have many female leaders. “We have a wonderful brewer on our team,” Joanna Denne at Crazy Mountain. Julie Papas is their national director of marketing and sales, while co-founder Claire Ridge heads marketing in Chicago.
I think it’s exciting that we’re Chicago-born and we’re the only female founded hard kombucha company, and I think we’re just paving the way for other women to be able to be in this space as well.”
Bridget points out that though the hard kombucha craze originated on the coast, their Luna Bay carries its Chicago origins in its logo: “The moon is Luna, so that’s female energy we wanted to infuse into the design. And then the little wave on the bottom is for the “Bay” and for water. The product is mostly made of water and Claire teaches paddleboard yoga and grew up on lakes, and I like love the ocean, I love surfing, I love being in the water. And then the four stars on the side of the moon are from the Chicago flag, because for us, it was like a ‘city meets coast’ brand and we wanted to represent to places that are really integral to who we are, and to what Luna Bay is all about.
“As we grow, we’ll get into new markets we’ll connect with those markets and expand our production facility, but Chicago definitely will always be our home and we wouldn’t be here today without the city of Chicago and their wonderful support for Luna Bay.”
I have been sent cans of Luna Bay for my own perusal. I’ll be writing about them in a later post.