Aqua ViTea outgrowing space in Bristol, begins move to Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — It was around a decade ago that Jeff Weaber began brewing a healthy, fermented beverage called kombucha at his family’s home in Salisbury. It caught on with his friends and neighbors, which inspired him to make a commercial venture out of the drink, made simply from tea, sugar, water, and a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.
Thanks to a lot of hard work and boosts from fellow beverage companies, Aqua ViTea Kombucha has evolved into a thriving enterprise that has exceeded Weaber’s expectations. Surging demand in 2012 led the company to move its operations from that Salisbury home into 3,000 square feet of space at the Bristol Works business park in Bristol.
“We thought 3,000 square feet was a huge jump for us,” Weaber said during an interview on Thursday. “Then we needed to take out a right of first refusal on another 3,000 square feet (at Bristol Works) before we paid our first month’s rent.”
Sure enough, Aqua ViTea quickly filled that additional space and was looking for more. Weaber has now found that space at the former Vermont Hard Cider Co. headquarters at 153 Pond Lane in Middlebury’s industrial park. Weaber confirmed Aqua ViTea’s ultimate goal this year of consolidating all of its operations at the Vermont Hard Cider facility, where it is now conducting administrative operations, brewing, kegging and cold storage for its six varieties of kombucha, hailed for its vitamins, enzymes, organic acids and probiotics.
Production of the kombucha will continue to occur at Bristol Works, though the company has hired a microbiologist to devise a plan for transferring that function to the former Woodchuck hard cider plant, where seven huge tanks have been reserved for the popular kombucha. Those tanks can hold a combined total of around 36,000 gallons of liquid, according to Weaber. He explained that the kombucha is currently being brewed in open horizontal tanks, which facilitates the fermentation.
“We have to learn how to make our production work in those (vertical) tanks,” Weaber said. “Trying to evolve to vertical tanks is a challenge.”
But it’s a challenge that Weaber is confident will soon be solved. And when that occurs, Aqua ViTea will be able to accomplish something it hasn’t yet been able to do: Build up a solid inventory of kombucha instead of seeing all of it fly out of the door when it is ready. In Bristol, output has been limited to around 4,000 gallons per week.
“Here, we have an almost unlimited capacity for inventory,” Weaber said of the Middlebury facility.
During the company’s tenure in Bristol, Aqua ViTea has experienced 75 percent growth annually and has farmed out its distribution, allowing for deeper market saturation throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, according to company spokesperson Jill Kiedaisch.
At this point, Aqua ViTea is renting roughly 20 percent of the 62,000-square-foot Pond Lane facility, owned by J.P. Carrara & Sons. Vermont Hard Cider still holds a lease for the building, though it has transferred virtually all of its production to a new, state-of-the-art cidery off Exchange Street. The company still occasionally produces its cider at the Pond Lane building, but has welcomed Aqua ViTea with open arms, Weaber noted. Vermont Hard Cider has made available equipment and staff to help Aqua ViTea with kegging and other operations.
“They’ve been so great to work with,” Weaber said of the cider company. “They purchased some equipment just for us.”
Aqua ViTea has already talked to Carrara officials about eventually absorbing more space within the Pond Lane facility, once it becomes available. There, Aqua ViTea can continue to grow while having access to infrastructure not available in Bristol — such as municipal sewer service. Weaber noted Aqua ViTea recently added a new piece of equipment, the cleaning of which would generate enough wastewater to exceed the company’s current septic system allowance in Bristol Works.
Moving production to Middlebury will mean using a new source of water, which is a major ingredient in kombucha. But Weaber is confident in the quality of Middlebury’s municipal water, which has received kudos from the multitude of beverage companies now headquartered in Addison County’s shire town. The list includes Otter Creek Brewing, Vermont Hard Cider, Appalachian Gap Distillery and Stonecutter Spirits. Weaber is pleased to have Aqua ViTea join the pack. He has already benefitted from a lot of knowledge from the leaders of those companies.
“It feels like we are moving from second grade to college,” he said of the learning curve his company has been able to negotiate. “This end of Exchange Street is such a beverage hub.”
More space should allow Aqua ViTea to add to its current staff of 21 full-time employees. Weaber has a goal of turning his $2 million company into a $10 million company within the next three years.
Weaber will miss Bristol Works, but is confident Aqua ViTea’s space will be quickly snapped up once it is vacated.
“Having so many businesses in one space has been great,” he said of Bristol Works.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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