The ever-growing interest in gut health is for good reason. Having a more balanced gut leads to better nutrient absorption, digestion, and even more benefits that are still being uncovered. One way to help get there is by drinking a probiotic beverage like kombucha—and in West Louisville, Kentucky, a company has been brewing delightful beverages with a mission of bringing people towards better gut health.
Elixir Kombucha is a Keyhorse-backed company founded by Corey and Danielle Wood. Inspired by the magic of brewing “booch” at home and seeing the positive effect on their loved one’s health, they took their delicious product to the next level in distributing it to wider consumers who are seeking improved gut health and non-alcoholic options.
We asked Corey and Danielle a few questions about their journeys, inspirations, and predictions for the future of the beverage industry.
How did you become interested in kombucha?
CW: Danielle and I have backgrounds in healthcare. For as long as we can remember, we've been fascinated with the effects of lifestyle choices —namely diet and exercise—on overall health and well-being. This led to an interest in gut health around 2013 when my aunt introduced us to kombucha and educated us on the importance of fermented foods and probiotics. After she gifted us a kombucha culture, we began brewing our own and giving most of it to my cousin, who suffers from gut health issues. Our homebrewed "booch" relieved many of his symptoms, and from that moment on, we were convinced that this beverage was special. Between 2013 and 2016, the size of our homebrew grew, our friends and family members began clamoring for our kombucha, and, little did we know, a massive wave was forming in the kombucha industry.
DW: At first, as Corey said, his aunt gifted us a culture (SCOBY) when we went down to Knoxville. Corey brought it home and immediately took to the homebrewing process. I was indifferent to it initially because the culture weirded me out. Keep in mind, a one-gallon batch should produce a SCOBY roughly half an inch in thickness. In kombucha fermentation, a new SCOBY grows on the surface of the initial one after every brew (self-replicates). Before I knew it, we had a one-gallon glass jar filled to the brim with kombucha cultures on our kitchen counter! Corey was diligent about getting a new batch back on the moment the first batch was done, but we hadn't quite nailed our process. The kombucha was not great and because of that, I had a hard time convincing myself it was something I wanted to partake in daily. Corey would hand me a glass of a new flavor he had made and just say "Drink it. It's good for you". I'd hold my nose and down the hatch. Eventually, I developed a taste for it—and a lot of kombucha drinkers will tell you this: When you have it consistently, you notice your body begins to crave it.
I started jumping in on the brewing process at home because I already had a love for sweet tea. The thing I feared the most, the SCOBY, became my new obsession. I was fixated on watching it grow throughout the fermentation process. I also thought the secondary fermentation was too cool. Briefly, secondary fermentation is when you take your finished kombucha, add juice/fruits/herbs/spices, bottle it, and let it sit out for a few more days. The added sugar source begins another fermentation process, but putting a cap on the bottle is what traps CO2 in, causing it to dissolve into your liquid. We weren't soda drinkers, so the fact that I could make my own bubbly drink at home was exciting for me. From there, it sort of became "whatever ripe fruit we have in the house, that's what is going to be our next kombucha flavor." Suffice it to say, they weren't all home runs, but experimenting was really fun.
What inspired you to co-found a company?
CW: We didn't originally set out to turn our homebrew project into a business. But, as luck would have it, in late 2015, my sister mentioned our homebrew to a local juice bar and before we knew it, a business opportunity was presented to us. We didn't know the first thing about starting or running a business, but we knew we had a deep passion for the product and its impact on gut health. So, we pulled some money from savings, found a commercial kitchen incubator in West Louisville, and launched Elixir in 2016.
DW: As Corey mentioned, that fateful day at the end of 2015, the owner of a local juice bar said, "If you ever make this commercially, we'll carry it." I remember the exact moment that we looked at each other and asked, "Are we doing this?!" We jumped at the opportunity to create the life we wanted for ourselves. Brewing kombucha was just our little passion project at home. We never imagined we would turn it into a business, but the love and curiosity for the process were always there.
Consumers want something different, and it's driving innovation in craft beverages.
Tell us about your team: Who’s on it, and how did you meet?
CW: We are lucky to have a team made up of intelligent, motivated, scrappy individuals—and, most importantly, they are genuinely good people with shared values. Patrick Kinsella, our Director of Operations, is a self-described "recovering" mechanical engineer, has been an advisor to us for several years, and accepted a position on the team last year. Danielle and I attended high school and college with Patrick and have been close ever since. He's a generalist, building financial models and gross margin calculators one day, and disassembling and fixing process pumps the next day. Lisa Oechsli is our Packaging Technician and is almost single-handedly responsible for making sure our customers’ orders get filled on time. The cousin of Corey's with the gut health issues? He's actually Lisa's son, Louis Bowman, who does graphic design and animation for Elixir. He designed our trademark logo and has created some incredible content for our company over the years.
Where do you see the craft beverage industry headed in the future?
CW: There are two massive waves impacting craft, non-alcoholic craft beverages right now:
(1) Alcohol moderation (or "sober curiosity") has been a trend that started small but is recently growing exponentially. Gen Zers are drinking way less than previous generations. Dry January, Sober October, or Any Other Alcohol-Free Month are snapshots of an underlying paradigm shift. Many people are beginning to re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol and are choosing to abstain, some for a week or month at a time, and some are choosing to cut it out altogether. It's all upside: improved sleep, healthier skin, better mood regulation, and even positive impacts on gut health. All of this is opening up the door to alcohol alternatives. Non-Alc Beer, Zero Proof Spirits, and Kombucha are all perfectly positioned to address this market demand for tasty, fun beverages without booze. Consumers want something different, and it's driving innovation in craft beverages.
(2) The second wave is the increasing awareness of the importance of gut health and its impact on overall health. We could talk about this subject for hours. The gut plays a role in a number of bodily processes. Nutrient absorption and digestion are the obvious ones. But recently, there are studies linking the immune system, systemic inflammation, and even mental health to the gut. All of this new information is beginning to inform consumers about dietary choices, and it's creating a gravitation toward gut-friendly products like kombucha. We are only at the beginning and we are excited and grateful to be making a product that so many people value from a gut-health perspective.
DW: I agree largely with Corey's answers regarding the moderation movement. I think Covid generated a pretty big spike in alcohol consumption, and coming out of that, people started to evaluate their behaviors or attitude toward alcohol. Look at the NA section of liquor stores nowadays. It's wild! There are so many options and we think kombucha is a fantastic choice for everyone, but especially those who are trying to moderate or achieve sobriety. It's low in sugar, there are B-vitamins and organic acids, and it's carbonated and fermented so you get that similar drinking experience you might have with a beer or seltzer.
You're also seeing a huge boom in the functional beverage space. Things such as adaptogenics, caffeine, CBD, vitamin-enhanced, electrolytes, etc. But kombucha is old school. The functional properties have been there for millennia.
What does success look like to Elixir Kombucha in the short term and long term?
CW: We are a product-driven company, but we are certainly mission-backed. Our goal is to promote human flourishing, and our current focus is gut health. Short term, this means getting our kombucha into more hands (and bellies). Our current focus is a regional expansion to address the overwhelming demand for our kombucha. This will largely be driven by increased distribution. We have the partnerships lined up, so our focus this year is to scale up production. Long term, we want to expand our mission to include promoting the flourishing of not only individuals through gut-friendly products but also the flourishing of our community. West Louisville has been home to Elixir since 2016 and is currently in the early days of a revitalization. Elixir is keeping operations in West Louisville for the foreseeable future, and we plan to expand our mission to create a positive impact on an area that has been frozen out of opportunity for too long.
DW: Corey’s answer to this is spot on. I feel like we have achieved a level of success already by surviving the first five years. Most small businesses fail before this marker, even without the global pandemic factor. It is because of our local community that we were able to make it through. There were moments that we weren't so sure, but Louisville buys local like no other. Because our city has helped make us what we are today, we want to return that gesture and continue to make a meaningful impact in our city through job creation and the creation of a healthy, tasty beverage. We're learning so much about our gut microbiome and how much it impacts our overall health and well-being... from our immune systems to our digestive and mental health. We've been in business for seven years, but we feel like we're just getting started. Long term, we would like to continue to expand our distribution to be a major regional/semi-national player, have a product line extension, expand our D to C model, and have a customer-facing establishment.
Find out more about Elixir Kombucha at elixirkombucha.com. Are you a startup based in or looking to relocate to Kentucky? Keyhorse’s current quarterly investment cycle is open! Apply now.