Pushing ’Booch

Started from the ground up, Vanessa Tortolano and Alla Shapiro’s kombucha culture is spreading good taste and happy bellies.

© 2019 Ruthie Hauge Photography | www.ruthiehauge.com© 2019 Ruthie Hauge Photography | www.ruthiehauge.com

NessAlla Kombucha may be an acquired taste, but its tangy effervescence is something that deserves a rightful place in the broader craft brewing industry. Bubbly, sometimes fruity and sometimes floral, their kombucha is always a little cloudy, and that’s by design.  

“It’s got that CO2 kick to it, so it makes it more sparkling and dry,” says Vanessa Tortolano, one of NessAlla’s two co-owners and founders. “That and the price point is good for everybody, so everyone can make more money.”

If Vanessa and co-owner Alla Shapiro don’t sound like the two hippie mamas who founded NessAlla Kombucha over a decade ago, that’s by evolution. Their homegrown company is the result of trial and error, learning and evolving, embracing change, and striving to be the best. 

What makes it special  

NessAlla Kombucha is different than other options in the beverage cooler. It is craft brewed in smaller batches like in the craft beer industry. It’s “tea-forward,” which means its flavor comes from custom-blended Rishi tea, a Milwaukee-based company known for fair-trade, high-quality ingredients.

The kombucha is made from tea, sugar, and a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast called a SCOBY. It is unfiltered, “live and raw.” The live cultures and yeasts are what Vanessa and Alla call “the floaty bits” and you’ll find some in every bottle. 

“It’s fizzy, fermented tea,” is their short description. 

Vanessa expands on that, explaining, “It’s a fermented product that has probiotics, B vitamins, C vitamins, and amino acids that help your body detoxify and boosts your immune system. We can’t lay any official claims to the health benefits because the FDA says we can’t label anything that’s untested. But people say it helps their bellies feel better. It helps them have a better day after they’ve had a night of drinking. Helps them feel regular. And it’s a good post-workout beverage.” 

“It’s a functional beverage,” adds Alla. “That’s our category.”

“We’re a true craft kombucha, done the traditional way,” says Vanessa. “Just like your home brew, only on a larger scale. We don’t filter it or strip anything out or add anything back in. The floaty bits are proof that it’s true kombucha. Companies are all making kombucha differently now, but there aren’t any gradations of brew. It’s not like with beer where you have a pilsner or a lager or a stout. But that also means there isn’t an official definition of kombucha.”

Very witchy  

A striking theme through the evolution of their company is how steeped their history, process, and products are in the deeply feminine. It’s worth noting that an original SCOBY is called a “mother.” Secondary batches are then fermented with SCOBYs called “babies.” 

“It’s very witchy, and all about women and birth. It’s very feminine,” says Alla.

Even their first license to sell their brewed ‘booch took nine months to obtain, when skeptical state Department of Agriculture staff had never heard of kombucha and required validation from food science experts at the University of Wisconsin. Their first license was approved the week after Alla’s second child was born.

“When we first started, we were one of the first—if not the first—to do craft kombucha,” says Alla. “There were some other kombucha products out there that were made by BIG-big companies. But the first craft kombucha brewers were founded and run by women. It wasn’t until other companies figured out they could make a lot of money that they started popping up all over and investing regardless of their brewing experience.”

Their own birth story  

Vanessa and Alla met in 2003 at Alla’s ex-husband’s art show. Alla was then a new mother and Vanessa was pregnant with her first child and singing with the band at the event. They quickly bonded over their love for organic food, natural birth, and growing herbs.  

Over the course of their early friendship, they both were looking for ways to make money and to pass on knowledge which revealed their deep pull toward entrepreneurship and teaching. Their business partnership began when they started teaching classes at the Willy St. Coop.

“It was fun but it wasn’t generating enough income, at least for the effort we put in,” says Vanessa. “But then I started making kombucha and told Alla how cool it was. We said we should start doing classes in how to make it. Our first class in 2006 sold out and had a waiting list as long as another full class. So we did two back-to-back.”

“When we started we had no idea what to charge for a class. So we charged five dollars,” remembers Alla. “We realized it wasn’t enough to just have the knowledge of how to brew the kombucha. Without the SCOBY you can’t really do anything. Now it’s not hard to come by, but back then it wasn’t as common. We put out a sign-up sheet for people who wanted to get a starter SCOBY and, like, 60 people signed up.”

“We sat out on our front porch all day on a Saturday with babies running around, all these people stopping by to pick up their kits,” says Vanessa. “It was super grassrootsy. That’s how we learned that we could include the kit in the class and charge more money. Everything we’ve learned, we’ve learned on our own. We’ve made mistakes, a lot of trial and error. But then we thought, ‘there are no local kombucha companies. Why don’t we start one?’ How hard can it be to get a little stand at the farmers’ market and sell it?”

After their long process of applying for a license to sell their brewed tea, they set up a stand at the east side farmers’ market with a fold-out card table and a patio umbrella they took turns holding on the windy day. Market sales were strong, but not without challenges. Glass bottles of early recipes of the volatile, fermented tea filled with fresh ginger and juice exploded in customers’ cars on the drive home.

“We even had to switch from the old bottles that sometimes leaked,” Vanessa says with a laugh. “They were actually barbeque sauce bottles and were the cheapest we could find. Other companies copied us and their first bottles were for BBQ sauce.”

Moving on up  

Their first brewery was in the basement of the Weary Traveler. They quickly outgrew that space in 2009 and moved to one on Winnebago Street. More growth prompted a move to Park Street where the company was in production for around six years.

The NessAlla team knew they couldn’t grow more if they didn’t move again, and an opportunity came with partnerships in developing the Garver Feed Mill building near Olbrich Gardens. The turn of the (last) century building was originally built for food manufacturing and is now going to be embraced by artisan foodmakers once again.

“The Garver space is amazing,” says Vanessa. “It’s special because we designed it. About four years after we moved to our Park Street facility, we grew to where we started looking for a larger location. We called Baum (real estate development, specializing in historic preservation) and Bachmann (construction) when they were looking at Garver. They did all the restoration and build out, but we got to help plan it.”

Madison’s local business scene: pros and cons  

Though NessAlla keeps growing, they aren’t planning on leaving Madison for Milwaukee or another larger city any time soon. Their families and their community are here. But what makes Madison a unique place to run a local business has both strengths and weaknesses. 

Vanessa laments that there are limits to growth and available capital, but she also is quick to say that “the best part of being a locally owned business in Madison is community support. But like any place, you’ll have your lovers and your haters. I think had we been men we would have been more supported.”

Alla agrees. “You just have to look at local publications with how many breweries are popping up and the write-ups they are getting—front page stories—compared to how many Vanessa and I have gotten in the past 11 years. People didn’t really take us seriously when we started. We were two women, mothers, and we looked like hippie-dippie moms at the time—not the suave businesswomen we are today—but we were doing something nobody had done before, something no one had heard of. But people were like, ‘good luck.’”

Vanessa and Alla agree that while they were dismissed in the early days of their company, they also had little marketing knowledge and no investors. They learned everything from scratch and were entirely self-funded. Their initial kombucha classes at the Willy St. Coop became the seed of the marketing, word of mouth publicity, and funding they needed to grow in baby steps. 

“It was inevitable that somebody from Madison was going to make kombucha,” says Vanessa. “It’s the vibe of the town, with Willy Street and the campus. It’s just that we got to it first.”

Not just product growth  

The growth of their business has meant they have had to change and grow, learn and let go. And it’s fundamentally changed them both as people. Mostly, it’s given them the weight of responsibility.

“You do feel responsible for the livelihood of your employees and your children and whether you’re contributing back to the community that’s been contributing to you,” explains Alla. “My life has gone through complete changes; I’ve gotten a divorce after being married for 20 years, and now I’m in my mid-40s with a business and I’m rediscovering myself. Who am I in my guts? That’s what’s going to come through. The kombucha has been a central part of our world, our children’s world. My youngest was strapped to my back for the first half of our company’s existence.”

Vanessa isn’t singing with the band anymore, but still does a lot of performance through stand-up comedy and improv “with all this kombucha energy all the time,” she says with a knowing smile.

“This is where I get hippie-dippie,” she explains. “The way the SCOBY works, it’s a symbiotic community. You’re ingesting that community into your body. Your gut is so important and people are just starting to realize how important gut health is to our whole bodies. You’re ingesting that symbiosis and it emanates. You start connecting with people in a new way, you start communicating and taking care of each other in a new way. 

“I am a bisexual and polyamorous person. I have the man who I live with and raise children with, and I have a girlfriend who is amazing. I’ve become a better communicator. We’re supposed to be connected to each other, sharing and taking care of each other. Love is cool. It’s been a journey of discovery of ourselves.”

Next steps for NessAlla  

As they settle into their new space at the Garver Feed Mill, they plan to continue to grow and experiment with flavors and emerging trends.

A new line of beverages launching this year includes three flavors of kombucha with cannabinoids, which they have been offering in kegs. CBD typically comes in an oil form and users are enjoying health benefits, pain and inflammation relief, and anxiety management. Because oil and water don’t mix, their kombucha is a water-soluble infusion. 

“The CBD-infused kombucha has a good amount of CBD: 25 mg per 16 ounces,” explains Vanessa. “We’re herbalists. We aren’t adding something as a gimmick. It’s something that can help people’s lives and we want to help people feel better.”

It’s the goal of the NessAlla Kombucha team to become the best, most well-known kombucha in the Midwest because they believe their product speaks for itself. They also want to continue to give back to the community that has invested so much in the women who founded the successful company, and to their dedicated employees.

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