On tap or in a can, Bootlegger Brewing perfects kombucha.
In 2015, Jake Haneman took a wild leap with his career. He left his successful engineering job to launch what was at the time a somewhat obscure concept: a kombucha brewery.
Kombucha tea, a fermented tea drink made using a culture of a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (commonly called a SCOBY), was developed in China and has been around since about 220 B.C. Haneman was introduced to the sparkling, slightly sour drink by his sister-in-law in 2003. “I was introduced to it knowing nothing about it,” he says. “We were drinking it before it was mainstream.”
In 2005, Haneman was inspired to start brewing his own kombucha at home in 2- and 5-gallon batches using the SCOBY that had been in his sister-in-law’s family. “I had been brewing kombucha for eight to 10 years when I started Bootlegger,” he says, adding that he had been looking to leave his corporate job and start his own business, but he wasn’t sure what type of business to pursue. “My friend and business partner had said “Why don’t you do kombucha?’ I had not given it a thought,” he says.
Soon Haneman started brewing kombucha in a 35-gallon fermenter in his basement and graduated to 600-gallon batches. “I was so naive,” he says. “I had never dealt with large-scale brewing, manufacturing of food and beverage or distribution—all that stuff. It was definitely a trial by fire to get started.”
His previous work as an engineer, consulting with companies to improve their production, came in handy as he learned the industry and launched Bootlegger. “It definitely helps you to stop, look and evaluate,” he says. “It trained me to think in terms of choke points or bottlenecks. Usually, it’ll come down to one thing.”
While Haneman’s kombucha venture might have seemed somewhat obscure when he launched the business, the drink has grown in popularity over the past eight years, and so has Bootlegger Brewing Kombucha, which is distributed throughout a large portion of the Midwest. Haneman produces about 1,200 gallons of kombucha tea each month using a blend of green and black tea, SCOBY, finished culture and sugar. “I start with a combination of green and black tea because it adds different nutrients,” he says.
Haneman ferments the tea mixture in 600- or 1,200-gallon batches in his Apple Valley brewery. One batch is typically made on a 30-day fermentation cycle. The kombucha is somewhat naturally carbonated through the fermentation process, but Haneman finishes batches in a bright tank, similar to finishing beer. Some of the kombucha is canned and distributed to grocery stores, and some of the kombucha is sold on tap at local restaurants, coffee shops and breweries.
Bootlegger Brewing Kombucha’s distinctive lumberjack branding is indicative of the bold flavors that Haneman has developed. The kombucha brewery started with three flavors: Hearty Woodsman Ginger, Sturdy Girl Apple Cinnamon and Lookout Lemon Berry. “I started with the ginger, lemon berry and apple cinnamon because they’re approachable,” Haneman says. “When we started, a lot of stuff that was out there was very exotic, and I wanted to make kombucha more approachable to people who hadn’t tried it before, so I kept those simple.”
Plain kombucha naturally has some notes of apricot or stone fruit, Haneman says, so he seeks out flavors that will be complementary. “If it were up to me, I would have so many flavors. I like to play around,” he says. “I think of flavors almost visually, like how things pair together … It’s all about finding flavors that carry through.”
Bootlegger Brewing offers its three initial flavors, as well as Legendary Lavender, in cans. Haneman gets a bit more creative with the keg offerings. Bootlegger Brewing’s current signature keg flavor is HopsSquatch with Passion Fruit. “HopsSquatch is dry hopped with a blend of New Zealand hops and passion fruit puree,” Haneman says, adding that since the hops are never boiled during production, they don’t get bitter, and they lend their aromatics to the kombucha.
“Everyone thinks their baby is cute, but I do think we have some of the best kombucha that I’ve tried,” Haneman says, noting that he’s mindful of keeping the sugar content fairly low when creating new flavors.
Kombucha’s sparkling sweet-tart flavor is reason enough to drink it, but it also has a reputation for being healthy due to the antioxidants and probiotics found in its ingredients, although it’s hard to find scientific studies supporting the health benefits of kombucha. Anecdotally, Haneman credits drinking kombucha with his health. “I prefer having [kombucha] in the morning to coffee,” he says. “It’s kind of like clean energy instead of anxiety energy.”