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Loan could create a beverage hub in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury town officials on Tuesday agreed to float kombucha brewer Aqua ViTea a $125,000 loan to upgrade its Pond Lane headquarters with new equipment.
The hope is that the company could someday share the equipment with other small beverage companies seeking to get their start in the beverage industry, and in the process build the town’s reputation as a beverage hub.
The money would come through a revolving loan fund containing federal funds under the control of the town of Middlebury. The Middlebury selectboard unanimously agreed to lend Aqua ViTea all of the money in that fund, pending approval of the Middlebury Business Development Fund Advisory Board. Aqua ViTea will need to pay back the money over a five-year term at a compounded rate of return of 2.5 percent.
Founded in 2007 by Jeff Weaber, Aqua ViTea brews, markets and distributes kombucha, a probiotic tea beverage hailed for its vitamins, enzymes, organic acid and other healthy ingredients. The growing company moved from Salisbury to Bristol in 2012 and soon ran out of space. Almost a year ago it moved into the former Vermont Hard Cider Co. headquarters at 153 Pond Lane in Middlebury. Aqua ViTea, which employs around 24, is currently only renting a portion of the 62,000-square-foot Pond Lane facility, owned by J.P. Carrara & Sons.
Weaber and Aqua ViTea CFO Jordan Benjamin are now advancing an even bigger vision for the company. They hope to ultimately buy 153 Pond Lane, along with some sophisticated brewing and bottling equipment, to not only advance the Aqua ViTea brand, but to also benefit nascent beverage companies looking to break into the industry in an affordable way.
“We’re looking to bring other beverage producers into that space,” Weaber told the selectboard on Tuesday.
To that end, Aqua ViTea has a shopping list that includes:
•  A new bottling line and labeling system.
•  A “spinning cone column.” Company officials described this equipment as a unique distillation system used for aroma recovery, flavor extraction, alcohol management in alcoholic beverages, and essential oil extraction. It would be the only machine of its kind in Vermont, according to Jamie Gaucher, director of Middlebury’s Office of Business Development & Innovation. Gaucher is helping Aqua ViTea officials with their expansion plans.
Aqua ViTea’s plans also include applying for three distinct licenses for the production of alcohol under one roof, to broaden the scope of beverage tenants that the Pond Lane facility could accommodate.
Gaucher said Aqua ViTea’s proposal to provide incubator space for like-minded companies would further burnish Middlebury’s reputation as a beverage hub. The town is already home to such companies as Vermont Hard Cider, Otter Creek Brewing, the App Gap Distillery, the Drop-In Brewery and Stonecutter Spirits.
“If we can make this group of services and equipment available to other beverage companies, not only would that help some of the smaller companies that can’t afford a major capital expenditure around this type of equipment, it would give this place some gravity. I think it would be attractive,” Gaucher said.
Selectboard members were unanimous in their support of extending Aqua ViTea the $125,000 loan. The Middlebury Business Development Fund board will soon gather to consider the action.
“As a concept, it’s a terrific one,” Selectwoman Donna Donahue said.
“This is absolutely brilliant,” Selectman Nick Artim added. “This is one of those opportunities that can differentiate us from the rest.”
Selectboard members Heather Seeley, Victor Nuovo and Laura Asermily were also supportive, though with some words of caution. Asermily said she hoped a large loan award from what is a limited revolving loan fund wouldn’t set a precedent for future large requests from other businesses. Seeley and Nuovo were concerned about completely depleting the fund and thus having nothing left for other loan applicants.
“I don’t want another company to come up and say, ‘I could’ve used those funds,’” Seeley said.
But given Aqua ViTea’s was the only pending revolving loan application — and the only one to have been filed in several months — the board endorsed it. Once replenished by Aqua ViTea, the revolving loan fund will again be available to other applicants.
“This is a great opportunity, and I don’t want to see it pass,” Nuovo said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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