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Hastings company works to bring Kombucha to the masses
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Hastings company works to bring Kombucha to the masses

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Jessi and Nathan Hoeft show off Ensign Beverage bottles last year at Open Harvest in Lincoln.

Jessi Hoeft has been brewing Kombucha since 1995, but she says that for a long time she didn't call it that.

"We called it the weird mushroom under the sink," said Hoeft, who along with her husband, Nathan, owns First Street Brewing Co. in Hastings, which opened in 2016.

Hoeft said that as she and her husband traveled around the country to see other breweries, "We would see that a lot of those breweries were offering non-alcoholic drinks."

When thinking about the need for non-alcoholic drinks in Nebraska breweries, "We decided Kombucha would be a good place to start," she said.

Kombucha is a drink made by fermenting tea. The process uses what's called a "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast," which is commonly referred to by its acronym, SCOBY. The SCOBY is round and gelatinous and resembles a mushroom.

Hoeft, who grew up in Nelson, about 30 miles southeast of Hastings, said the Kombucha she brewed in her early years generally wasn't very good.

But she learned more about the process when she lived in Nashville for several years and was doing a much better job with it by the time she and her husband decided to start selling it commercially.

They formed a separate division, called Ensign Beverage, and started small, doing a few sample batches in 2016 that they sold at farmers markets.

It wasn't until a year later that they finally felt confident enough to start selling to vendors.

But Hoeft said the business has taken off quickly.

Last year they branched out and started selling Kombucha in Lincoln.

"We've seen a big growth curve with this," Hoeft said.

Ensign's Kombucha drinks are available in about a dozen locations, many of which are in Lincoln.

Hoeft said many of the Lincoln businesses that signed on to serve Ensign's Kombucha were already customers of First Street Brewing, but not all of them.

One of the businesses in Lincoln that carries the drink is the Graduate Hotel.

Assistant General Manager Lisa McMeen said that when the the hotel opened its new coffee shop concept, Poindexter, in September, it wanted Kombucha on the menu because it is something that is growing in popularity.

McMeen said hotel staff met with the Hoefts, tasted the product and were hooked.

"It's wonderful. The service was wonderful," she said. "They're great people."

McMeen said the drink is popular with out-of-state travelers who are familiar with it — "They're super excited we have it" — as well as with college-aged guests.

Overall, though, she said there's an education process involved with most people because they aren't familiar with the drink.

Hoeft agreed, saying that while Kombucha is relatively common in places like California and Colorado, it's very new in Nebraska.

"We want to get the word out and let them know what it is," she said.

Kombucha is popular because of purported health benefits. It is chock full of probiotics and is low in sugar.

Ensign has a number of different Kombucha flavors, and Hoeft said it works well both as a standalone drink for those looking for something non-alcoholic as well as a mixer for cocktails.

Right now, the company's Kombucha product is only available via tap at a few bars, cafes and stores, but Hoeft said the company hopes to start canning it and distributing it by the end of the year.

First, the company plans to next move into the Omaha area, but crossing borders could be something that's in the future. Hoeft said she's had interest from vendors in both South Dakota and Kansas.

She said plans for Ensign Beverage also include branching out into other non-alcoholic drinks, including canned teas.

With Kombucha, the sky appears to be the limit. According to a forecast from Orbis Research, the global Kombucha market is expected to nearly quadruple by 2023, from less than $1 billion now to more than $3.8 billion.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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