You might not know who Reid Emmerich is, but if you're a kombucha drinker, you've tried his product. Until a week ago, the environmental scientist (who goes by "boochmaster" on Instagram) produced the low alcohol fermented tea wine for Portland's Urban Farm Fermentory.
In 2011, Emmerich subleased space from the fledgling cider producer for his nascent operation, The Maine Kombucha Company. But when he applied for the right to make kombucha as a beer, the state liquor inspector told him it wasn't legal to have a brewery inside a winery. Neither he nor Fermentory owner Eli Cayer could afford to restructure the space; instead, Cayer acquired a license to produce kombucha as a wine, and Emmerich allowed him to absorb The Maine Kombucha Company.
Unfortunately, Emmerich said, there was no contract involved — simply a handshake and a never-honored verbal agreement that he would own 50% of the kombucha component of the Urban Farm Fermentory. After what he described as four years of mostly uncompensated toil and failed negotiations, Emmerich finally walked out, taking with him his recipes, techniques, and all the equipment he bought with his own money, and thus much of the company's kombucha infrastructure.
Cayer gave Eater an official statement from the Urban Farm Fermentory:
Reid came onboard the Urban Farm Fermentory in the second year to help develop the kombucha program and is a great guy with a lot of passion for kombucha so obviously it is sad to see him go. He grew into a great kombucha brewer and learned to work with all the locally sourced ingredients we provided him. We wish him the best in everything he does.
Instead of losing a kombucha brewer, the UFF is actually gaining a head fermentor. Yvette Schussler has been working with me to head our cidah and mead production for a while now and has worked closely with Reid and will be focusing on all beverage fermentation.
Emmerich told Eater his side of the story, including his intention of starting over.
So you folded into the Urban Farm Fermentory. Was there an agreement made?
It was a handshake with the assumption that it would be finalized. At the time everybody always said, "Oh, get it in writing, get a contract, get a lawyer involved," and I was optimistic that would happen, it didn't need to happen just yet. We were in such an infant stage, I figured with time that would be clarified.
"We looked each other in the eye and said there it is, done deal."
The agreement was that I didn't want to give up what I had had with my company, which was 50% ownership [with Chris Hallweaver, who departed shortly prior to the merger to help run Northern Girl food processor, hours away in northern Maine]. I told Eli, "I don't want to take your cider or your mead, your portion of the UFF, I just don't want to lose my portion of kombucha." There was a handshake, we looked each other in the eye and said there it is, done deal, let's start making kombucha tomorrow. There was an agreement but unfortunately it wasn't contracted.
Fast forward a couple years: the company began to grow not only in-state, but also to the Boston area. What role did kombucha play in that?
Kombucha has played a major role in the growth of the Urban Farm Fermentory. There have been a lot of ideas that have come and gone through the UFF, but what it comes down to is cider and kombucha. Kombucha is the significantly larger and more powerful a player in the market than the cider.
"I was not being acknowledged and compensated."
What convinced you to leave after four years?
The biggest factor was that this agreement that I had based all of my intention and energy and commitment on never came to fruition, and I realized it never would. My vision from the beginning was to own and operate, or co-own, a kombucha company. That got complicated as we grew. The company was worth money, I put in a lot of time and energy, worked for free, my own equipment, a lot of my own ideas, the recipes were pretty much all me, no one else made kombucha, and I was not being acknowledged and compensated for it like I thought I would have been from the beginning. I guess that was my own fault, but it's bittersweet, saying goodbye to my baby, my dream, my creation.
The plan is to keep that dream alive and to own or co-own my own kombucha company. The other part of my leaving is that I've always wanted to make the best kombucha possible, and I realized that was impossible at the Urban Farm Fermentory, where my goals diverged from the company's. I want to make delicious kombucha, using it as a vehicle for flavor exploration, and I want to use the highest quality ingredients, whether they're local and foraged or exotic like organic tea and sugar, fruits, and more.
Stay tuned, it will happen, my kombucha will be available for the people. My process is my process and I have a lot of intimacy with the product and a lot of attention and intention with kombucha. It's a key factor in producing a quality product. The UFF is going to try its best to continue to make kombucha, but I think it will have a challenging time. The process is a learning curve and I've been doing it for a while now.
You had originally intended to start a kombucha brewery instead of a winery. Will you pick that up again?
Yeah, that is the intention. Back in the day when we submitted the forms, it seemed legally the most accurate avenue to go down. Kombucha really belongs in its own category, there should be a new one for low alcohol fermented health beverages, but if there is one of the three I'd say it fits more neatly into beer.
"My kombucha will be available for the people."
Fermentation is all about fermentable sugars. With beer the sugar is grain; kombucha it's sugar cane, which is actually in the grass family, and is much more closely related to grain than to fruit. That's how I got into making kombucha in the first place, by making beer. I'd like to do something different in the world of beer as well, possibly blends with kombucha, possibly herbal beers using ingredients people are not necessarily using right now.
You have a lot of loyal fans who came in regularly to the Fermentory to have a drink or fill a half-growler to take home. Is there another product in the market you'd recommend in the meantime, or should people make it themselves?
Among my favorite things about working at the UFF was the fans. If people are looking for another product, I'd recommend trying Synergy from California, Katalyst from western Mass., Aqua Vitea out of Vermont, but making your own is definitely an option. I like turning people on to making their own.
And homebrewers still buy beer from the store, right?
Myself included. Just because I can make a decent Belgian wit doesn't mean I'm not going to buy Allagash ever again. Homebrewing beer is how I got started with kombucha. It's a game changer.