With few exceptions, the timing of the pandemic wasn’t good for anyone. But it was particularly bad for NessAlla, Madison-based makers of craft kombucha, which had just moved into a new brewery in Garver Feed Mill.
As bars and restaurants closed their dining rooms, “our sales plummeted while our overhead did not,” said Alla Tsypin, who founded the company with Vanessa Tortolano in 2008.
NessAlla got Paycheck Protection funds but no break on the rent from Garver. Business immediately dropped by 40 percent. Suddenly what used to be the busy season — spring and summer — was slower than December.
“We knew at that point, we either shut the business down or we figure out a way to keep it going, keep it alive,” Tsypin said. “Chapter 11 seemed like the way to go to restructure and try to find new buyers.”
Brook Hanson, founder of Upside Grounds coffee company, and Jillian White, who has a background in marketing, have absorbed NessAlla as a brand under the Upside Beverages umbrella. Tortolano has moved on to “new adventures,” while Tsypin will stay on as the resident herbalist and R&D specialist.
“The three of us have awesome ideas about directions to take NessAlla,” Tsypin said. “We’re trying to figure out how to grow the businesses individually and simultaneously, and what that’s going to look like.”
New kombucha crew
The world of kombucha looks quite a bit different than it did more than 12 years ago when NessAlla launched from the basement of the Weary Traveler Freehouse on Williamson Street. In a story in 2009, 77 Square writer Susan Troller included the pronunciation (“kom-boo-cha”) and described the beverage as “a traditional fermented tea” with a “light, slightly sour taste.”
NessAlla has eight regular flavors, including traditional oolong, raspberry, mango turmeric, juniper rose and lemongrass ginger. Its three premium kombuchas, made with jasmine green tea, white rose tea and mosaic hops, and matcha respectively, were originally made with CBD. They will not include it going forward. (This expands distribution opportunities, Tsypin explained.)
“We’re just working on more and more flavors,” Tsypin said. “We’re looking to grow it, do some more innovative flavors and ideas and lines of beverages, expanded from what we already have.”
During the challenging past year, NessAlla lost distributors. But they’ve tried to hold onto their space in grocery stores, and they’re starting to see bars and cafes request kegs again.
“We don’t want to lose shelf space, which is so precious,” White said. “We didn’t want to start taking away flavors and risk losing that.”
“With kombucha too, you hear, ‘Oh, that’s my favorite flavor,’” Hanson said. “We want to learn before making any changes.”
That Tsypin is an herbalist was a draw for Hanson, who launched MOMbie coffee, infused with electrolytes, a few years ago. She’s close to choosing a local roaster for MOMbie, and has already brainstormed “five or six ideas for new infusions” with Tsypin.
“Healthy coffee,” the trio says, is one of many potential new beverage lines for Upside Beverages — beverages that, as Tsypin said, “enhance your health, beyond the black and white of what a beverage can be.”
NessAlla makes customized lines of kombucha for Colectivo Coffee and Lunds & Byerlys in the Twin Cities, and is working on a few others. Hiebing, a marketing agency with offices in Madison and Austin, Texas, is working on a rebranding of the company.
NessAlla’s kombuchas are “still brewed traditionally,” Tsypin said. “We’re not filtering everything out and putting stuff back in. We’re not adding anything post-fermentation. Our process is still very traditional compared to other kombucha companies in the market.”
The group says competition among kombucha brands is a positive sign that indicates growth in the market, sort of like how there’s a craft beer for most every taste.
“It surprised me that only 4% of people know what kombucha is,” Hanson said. “So for us, that means growth, but also educating people. It’s great to see all these kombuchas, but ... not all kombuchas are the same. We’re like the fresh-squeezed orange juice and not the Tang.”