Every October, cooperatively-owned businesses around the world celebrate National Cooperative Month. No matter what type of co-op it is—whether it’s an electrical utility, credit union, or food cooperative like our own BFC, it is our shared values and principles that steer our businesses forward, and this is the month to share our successes! Look for signs calling out cooperative food companies, follow us on Facebook for fun facts, and view our website events calendar to see our scheduled tastings and demos featuring cooperative companies. And in this month’s Food for Thought, we are taking the opportunity to share the story of one cooperatively-owned business that is locally owned…and quite possibly chilling in your fridge.
Wells Street in Greenfield, MA is a powerhouse location for numerous thriving local businesses, and the home of Artisan Beverage Cooperative, producer of: Katalyst Kombucha, which we have on tap here at the BFC; Ginger Libation, a sparkling “pre-prohibition style” hard ginger beer; and Green River Ambrosia, a line of meads often made with local honey and fruits. The roots of Artisan Beverage date back to 2003, when Jeff and Will brewed their first kombucha recipes while living at the Sirius community in Western Mass. Eventually they rented a space in the Franklin County Community Development Corporation (FCCDC) to ramp up their production. There they met a fellow brewer named Garth, who was producing Ginger Libation and Green River Ambrosia. Their shared passion for fermented beverages and enlightened business philosophy had them bouncing ideas off each other. In 2005 Katalyst Kombucha LLC started, in 2007 Green River Ambrosia LLC was created, and they grew these companies in parallel. As their sales, their team and their product offerings continued to grow, they knew it was time for a different direction, and by 2013 they had come to the realization that creating a cooperative would be the best way to carry them into the future. After much time spent researching their options, they concluded that a worker-owned cooperative best fit the needs of their business and their hearts, and Artisan Beverage Cooperative was born. The structure, values and people-powered principles of the worker-owned co-op model appealed to their desire to be the best employers possible. With its emphasis on collective responsibility and structure of common ownership, a worker co-op creates incentives for seeking out great people and rewarding great work. Artisan Beverage’s staff are well-compensated, have paid time off, and a great leave policy, with aspirations for even more benefits in coming years. In addition, owners and local “preferred stock” investors have the ability to earn monetary dividends when Artisan Beverage has a great financial year. With five owners at the helm and more staff considering ownership, they can take pride in being an integral part of a flourishing local economy that provides more than just a paycheck.
As we chatted over a seriously delicious Chaga Root Beer Kombucha in their tap room, Garth and Jeff shared why they love being a worker-owned cooperative. Jeff loves the “shared responsibility” across the whole business with his fellow owners; regardless of job title they rally around the same goals and principles, which hold them all accountable. Whether it be loading trucks, cleaning, marketing, or sourcing materials, many days inspire a collective, all-hands-on-deck mentality. He told me he never imagined he’d wind up owning a brewery, never mind one that would get this big, but as a cooperative business he loves it! Currently Artisan Beverage employs a total of thirteen people, five of whom are owners. After two years, anyone can become an owner if they choose to do so, and Jeff and Garth are both optimistic more staff will join them soon. Once their ownership exceeds eight people, they will then have to run board elections; Garth is excited by this prospect, as he believes deeply in the cooperative business model. He said their monthly board meetings are one of his favorite elements of the business, as they allow the five owners to share ideas, create strategic direction, and then vote on the direction they will take moving forward. They continue to educate non-owners on the benefits to encourage staff to become part of the team.
Jeff and Garth told me it can be harder to raise capital than it would be as a conventionally-owned business, but they have been able to garner community financial support by selling non-voting “preferred shares” to community members. This has allowed them to invest in equipment, their staff, and to pay shareholders interest, which helps to boost the local economy without the support of national banks—also a positive in some minds.
Artisan Beverage Cooperative breaks down into 55% Katalyst Kombucha, 40% Ginger Libation and 5% Green River Ambrosia meads. Their most popular product is their Ginger Devotion Kombucha, which aligns with the national trend: about 50% of all kombucha sold in the United States is ginger-flavored. Other popular varieties for them include Bliss Berry, which combines kombucha, blueberry and ginger juices, and Green Lovin’, which contains kombucha, blue-green algae and cordyceps mushrooms. The kombuchas take approximately twelve days to brew, at which point they add in the juices and other ingredients to create their signature recipes. In their early days, they brewed in small, 1- and 2.5-gallon jars, but as they grew they expanded to 10-gallon ceramic crocks. These support a finer flavor, inspire a small-batch mentality, and allow for more control over the growth of the kombucha. They brew more than 50,000 gallons each year, but put much effort towards keeping an artisanal spirit. They continue to play with new recipes that they offer in their tasting room as a testing ground before bringing to a wider market—I am personally hoping the Chaga Root Beer makes the cut, with its dazzling flavor and dynamite nutrients.
Ginger Libation has a very solid following, and we sell many, many bottles of it each year here at our Co-op. Recently they produced a Coconut Ginger Libation, which we will stock for Co-op Month and perhaps beyond, based on its popularity. Ginger Libation is brewed and fermented in stainless steel and takes many more weeks to ferment than the Katalyst Kombucha, as it is an alcoholic beverage. Ginger Libation is a product that mixes the flavor of wine and mead with the carbonation of beer to deliver a unique and delicious refreshment. Every year they produce a limited run of Local Libation that contains Old Friends Farm Ginger, which you’ll find at co-ops and independent retailers in and around Vermont and Massachusetts, all of which speaks to their philosophy of supporting the local community at every level of their business, from the ingredients to the shelves.
Artisan Co-op takes a deep pride in their food safety and cleaning protocols. With new national regulations coming for kombucha, they expect new opportunities, and at the same time await the future direction of the industry with some anticipation. They strive for the highest quality products, with organic and local being of the utmost importance. It is nearly impossible at their size to have a wholly local product, but they do their best. They always focus on purchasing ingredients and other services from other cooperatives, organic farms and organizations that align with their cooperative values, no matter where they’re located. Their grapes and grape juice come from a New York farming cooperative, which, though not organic, is low spray and operates with a detail-oriented, small-farm perspective. Their ginger is organically and sustainably grown on a mix of Peruvian and Hawaiian farms. Blueberries are sourced from a farm in Heath, MA called The Benson Place—Katalyst juices the berries on-site to ensure that their Bliss berry Kombucha has the freshest flavor possible! And they’re partnered with many other, more local organizations that provide fruits (like Chang Farm in Whately, MA, growers of organic shizandra berries), honeys (like New Hampshire Honey Bee) and other partnerships. They are always seeking new and high-quality ingredients and continue to research new ways to acquire ingredients produced with fair wages, respectful labor practices and organic growing methods.
They also have a deep and growing relationship with Equal Exchange, another worker-owned cooperative you may be familiar with on our shelves, from whom they source all the sugar and tea for their kombucha. As Jeff said, the sugarcane business is filled with unfair labor practices in many small countries, and Equal Exchange has helped to increase both wage rates and working conditions on sugar farms. The Artisan team is very happy to work with an authentically Fair Trade, organic company that is striving to treat farmers in a dynamic and respectful manner. Katalyst now proudly places the Equal Exchange logo on their bottles and wants to continue to invest in this relationship.
As we talked about growth strategies, Jeff and Garth said they want Artisan Beverage to grow in a thoughtful and genuine manner, while maintaining their high quality and regional distribution. They are unsure of how big their collective ownership will want the business to get over time, and with new regulations and increasing costs of ingredients and materials, some of the future is uncertain. However, one thing is for sure: both Katalyst Kombucha and Ginger Libation are growing markets. This allows them to offer a lower cost to consumers, make a bit more money, and of course reduce the amount of materials/waste they place back into earth. In a recent board meeting, while envisioning potential futures for Artisan Beverage, one of the many things up for discussion was the possibility of a new location with increased capacity for production. And they’ll be having conversations about their distribution methods, which could increase their capacity to take on larger accounts and expand their reach beyond co-ops and independent food retailers. With a cooperative business model, engaged worker-owners, and a delicious, top-quality product, they know that the future will bring much excitement.
Join us here at our Co-op Thursday, October 11th from 4-6 pm for the National Cooperative Month edition of our monthly wine and cheese tasting, where you can taste both Katalyst Kombucha and Ginger Libation with a local cheese pairing.
By Jon Megas-Russell