By Nolan Arentz –
Kombucha … Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t. Technically speaking, this simple tasty drink consists of tea, fermentable sugar, a colony of bacteria and yeast working together, and whatever kind of natural flavors one so desires. For ex-Engineer Jake Haneman, and now owner of Bootlegger Kombucha, those Minnesotan flavors are expertly chosen and named: Look Lemon Berry, Sturdy Girl Apple Cinnamon, and Hearty Woodsman Ginger. Not only are the names showcasing Minnesotan values, but the rest of the business’s operations as well. An integral part of this company is to make sure that practices are sustainable, organic, and that it’s easy to tell where this brew comes from.
Brewing this ancient elixir has been in Jake’s family for generations, so the process was never that foreign for him. He claims that it comes from the “Hippie Biker” side of the family. I don’t know many bikers that brew kombucha, but then again, I don’t know many bikers. I can however personally attest to the kombucha drinking culture in my own hometown. Even though this culture has always been a part of Jake’s DNA, he didn’t just shoot straight towards making it a business. There were some steps along the way.
The first and most challenging step was being diagnosed with cancer back in 2000. This cancer made its way into his nasal cavities and promptly gave him sinus and allergy issues that wouldn’t allow him to leave the house for days. This new health concern elicited Jake to take a hard look at his diet and lifestyle, which after doing so, the Kombucha brewer decided to drink more of this healthy drink and personally vouches for the health benefits. Regaining his health, Jake decided to try his hand at engineering. He was working as an aerospace engineer manager based in Colorado, and while traveling all around the country, he decided this venture was too much of a walk in the park, and wanted to do something that would be a little bit more of a challenge. This is where the birth of Bootlegger Kombucha happened.
Kombucha brewing wasn’t exactly a staple of the Minnesotan culture four or five years ago. It can prove to be a tough issue when it comes to trying to fund start up costs of a business. Therefore, Jake and one other business partner fully funded the business. Not only was the funding self established, but Jake even made his own kombucha storage tank from scratch. Finally, all that hard work and years of learning to become an engineer was paying off. This hard work and personal know how landed Bootleggers first delivery in May of 2016. Fast forward three years later, you’ll be able to find this product in local stores in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and even in corporate headquarters of Best Buy and that “one football team” in Minnesota.
I was able to take a little tour of the quaint brewery. All in all, Bootlegger has two employees, Jake and his son. Well two and a half if you count the bouncer, a big ol’ Great Dane rescue dog named Grover. Right away I observed the homemade kombucha tank with a couple of taps leading out. I would try to explain it, but I am no engineer. It was a big wood box and inside were some kegs being kept cold with wires all over the place. That’s about as technical as I can get. Tasting the product out of the taps was more of my speed. Jake let us sample a new lavender brew that was yet to be released. It was as cool, crisp, and refreshing as a mirage in the Sahara that turns out to be real. I’ve never been to the Sahara, but I can imagine that I’m not that far off. In the back of the establishment, I looked upon where the magic happens. There stood an impressively shiny fermenter. Jake explained to us that he ferments his product for a full thirty days, whereas his competition only ferments for a couple of weeks. This is where the smooth crispness in his brews come from. I’ve had other kombucha and I always had a bitter aftertaste, but not with Bootlegger. The brew master also informed us that he sends his strains of yeast culture to a lab to get its genetic DNA cross referenced against all other known strains of kombucha. This allows Jake to know how similar his drink is to other brewers that use the database.
After the tour was over, we stood sipping on some kombucha and conversed about how challenging it is to start a business from scratch in an industry that wasn’t particularly popular in the Driftless. Jake noted the challenges of there not being any real guidelines for kombucha brewing, or if something brakes, he must figure out how to fix it himself.
Engineering and brewing kombucha seem to have more overlap than previously thought. Despite these challenges, Jake plans to keep expanding and offering his product in more stores and restaurants in the Midwest. Once the chat was over, he sent us on our way with a growler of that lavender refreshment. Needless to say, I added one more line to my grocery list after that experience.
Where did I stay after my time with Jake at Bootlegger? Great question. It was at the Graduate Hotel Minneapolis. An impressive and cozy hotel right next to the University of Minnesota.
Visit Bootlegger’s Website HERE