By Meredith Wagner | Arts & Life Editor
Quickly becoming an influential player in the beverage world, kombucha is popping up in cities large and small, asserting its prominence and uniqueness in a relatively new market of fermented tea. Waco is not exempt from the growing probiotic trend, and one Waco business in particular is dominating the local market, bringing kombucha to the community on tap and on wheels.
Bare Bucha has been in business for about two years as the only local kombucha producer, though its recent ventures have make Bare Bucha’s product mobile for Wacoans to enjoy at various locations throughout town.
Kelly Doolittle, manager of operations at Bare Bucha, said that, although many Austin-based companies sell their kombucha in Waco, Bare Bucha is the only local company that produces and sells exclusively in Waco.
“We are the only people in Waco who make our kombucha here, and sell it here,” Doolittle said. “There are several Austin companies that sell it here; Austin has at least five to six big companies that all sell nationwide.”
Doolittle said Bare Bucha is one of four businesses in Waco that have formed a close partnership. “There’s four businesses that are kind of all tied together: Urban Produce, which is a greenhouse; Happy Harvest, which is a restaurant; Homegrown Farm, which is a farm; and Bare Bucha, which is a kombucha business,” he said.
The “Bucha Van” parks at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market every Saturday morning and at various locations in Waco throughout the week. Additionally, a number of local businesses sell bottled Bare Bucha products off-wheels. Since the van has rolled around, Doolittle said their business has increased both in exposure and sales.
“The van has significantly increased our image,” Doolittle said. “The design, structure and uniqueness of the truck have increased productivity and sales significantly,” adding that this may be the case because “most people prefer [kombucha] on tap, more than they do the bottles.”
According to Doolittle, the kombucha market in Waco is limited but growing, and much of its growth in popularity can be attributed to Waco’s close proximity to Austin.
“Because of Austin, [the state of] Texas is one of the biggest consumers and sellers of kombucha in the United States,” Doolittle said. “There’s a market for kombucha here, and we’re not necessarily trying to create it, but strengthen it. There are a lot of people who are adventurous, who are into this health-type stuff. Even if they don’t know what kombucha is, they’re very willing to try it.”
At the same time, Doolittle said some of Bare Bucha’s customers are nervous that kombucha may harm them, which he said stems from multiple news headlines in recent years. However, many of the problems that arise from consuming kombucha are often caused by inexperienced home-brewers who try to make it without taking proper precautionary measures. Doolittle said the owner of Bare Bucha, Toby Tull, has been training and experimenting with the process for years.
“It’s a very lengthy process. Most home brewers get very quickly shut down, because there’s so much to learn and so much to perfect,” Doolittle said. “Thankfully, Toby had been doing it on his own for a very long time. He kind of perfected that process. [Bare Bucha] will not harm you unless you just so happen to have an allergy to one of [the ingredients].”
According to Doolittle, kombucha didn’t emerge in American culture until the 1990s, which is relatively new compared to other popular beverages.
“Kombucha didn’t come into America till about the mid-’90s, so it’s still a very relatively new drink in the United States. Most people still have no idea what it is,” Doolittle said.
To educate others about the effects and components of kombucha, Doolittle said he simplifies his explanations to three simple ingredients: tea, probiotics and flavoring. Although kombucha calls for an intense and detailed fermentation process, its components can typically be boiled down to these foundational ingredients.
Doolittle also said there are two primary reasons he thinks Bare Bucha’s customers consume kombucha.
“People drink [kombucha] for two reasons: they just like the taste of it, or for the health benefit,” Doolittle said. “A good reason to drink kombucha is the potential health benefit.”
Claims about kombucha’s health benefits are largely unfounded, as few studies have been conducted and even fewer draw overarching conclusions surrounding its health qualities. Despite the lack of research, Doolittle said it is well-known that the probiotics from the fermentation process replenish the good bacteria in your stomach that is often insufficient.
“Your stomach controls how well your body works,” Doolittle said. “Your stomach produces a ton of bacteria all on its own. [Kombucha] is putting the same amount of healthy bacteria in you that your stomach makes but that you [may have lost].”
Doolittle said he has been battling a health condition for a long time, and that consuming kombucha on a regular basis has improved his health as far as he has been able to tell.
“I have a really bad health problem and, because of my weak immune system, I need things to help boost that,” Doolittle said. “Kombucha, as far as I can tell, does help. I usually drink 16–18 ounces per day.”
Forbes reported that the kombucha production process can vary but “generally involves a double fermentation process, wherein a SCOBY (a pancake-shaped symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) is placed in a sweetened tea mixture and left to ferment at room temperature for 1-3 weeks.”
“A lot of people stop [at the first fermentation process],” Doolittle said. “The second part of the fermentation process is the flavoring.”
Bare Bucha produces a variety of flavors ranging from pomegranate basil to ginger lime to “tropic thunder,” a mixture of cranberry and pineapple often described as the “Capri Sun” flavor.
Doolittle said he initially started working the Waco Downtown Farmers Market with Urban Produce, one of the three other businesses in partnership with Bare Bucha.
“This is the fourth vendor I’ve worked for at the farmers market. I have been with the farmers market since about six months after it started,” Doolittle said. “I absolutely love the market. It is a home to me. It is a family to me.”
Doolittle also said the market is unique to Texas and serves as a true representation of Waco.
“I’ve been to numerous other markets in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, all over Texas and outside of Texas, and none of them have this feel,” Doolittle said. “When the farmers market first started in Waco, they were 100 percent about saying, ‘Whatever you bring to the market, 1. You better make it, or 2. you better grow it.’ That doesn’t exist at other markets.”
The Waco Downtown Farmers Market is open every Saturday morning form 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking lot at the corner of Fifth Street and Washington Avenue.