Frugal Living Podcast: DIY Kombucha
In this episode of Frugal Living, host Jim Markus talks with Shannon Zhou, the the founder of Virgin Leaf Kombucha. You can find the full text of the conversation below. You can also listen to Frugal Living with Jim Markus here, on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Amazon, on Anchor.fm, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.
Read a Transcript from This Episode
This is Frugal Living. When we think of frugal living, it might seem natural to think of omission. You can get by without this. You don’t need that. Don’t spend money. Don’t do this. But that’s not the whole picture. For me, a part of the frugal lifestyle is learning new skills. I took up gardening this year. I’m doing more home repairs myself. I’m also learning more about brewing. That’s why I was so excited to talk with this week’s guest. She’s the CEO of Virgin Leaf Kombucha, and she’s an expert at brewing one of my favorite drinks.
Hi everyone. My name is Shannon Zhou. I’m the CEO of Virgin Leaf Kombucha. It’s a kombucha company that’s based in the US Virgin Islands, St. Thomas.
Generally, we’re a frugal audience. We just talk about frugal stuff and I’m personally super interested in kombucha, and I’m really excited to talk to someone who does this, like for a living. That’s awesome. So thanks for being in the show. How’d you get started? How did you get into kombucha?
So I actually started a few years ago. I was working in New York in finance and the lifestyle itself, which is so intense. So during the weekends, I would make kombucha on my own as a way of meditation. And I just got really into it because I would make kombucha in these like two-gallon glass jars. And I have so much that I cannot drink by myself. So I share it with my friends and coworkers when they’re having a fever or something like that. And they just really loved it and seeing people’s satisfaction on their face means so much to me, more than what I was actually working. So that’s when everything started. And personally I’m Chinese. So I grew up in an environment that loves tea and my city makes Longjing tea. I’m not sure if you know that specific green tea, it’s like a type of green tea that’s really famous worldwide. And I just grew up, you know, going to tea gardens. So it’s like in my blood to do this business. So I really, I really love kombucha.
It seems like a pretty natural transition from being a tea lover to being a kombucha lover. But for people who don’t know what kombucha is, can you break that down for us? Like, what is kombucha?
So kombucha is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. So you have this slimy-looking thing. That’s, you know, a by-product of kombucha brewing, and it has a lot of probiotics in it. And you feed the yeast and the SCOBY with basically caffeine. It could be coffee or tea and sugar, and that’s how they thrive in that process. They would consume the sugar basically. And turn that into those healthy probiotics that’s good for your gut digestion.
If someone wanted to start making kombucha, if they already know they like kombucha, how easy is it to get started?
So, actually it’s very easy. I personally grow my SCOBY, my very first SCOBY, from a Raw GT bottle. Jim, I’m sure you can relate to that. You just go to the corner store, you grab a Raw GT bottle, and you drink half of it and use the other half to mix with tea and sugar. And two weeks’ time, you get your own SCOBY, and that’s your own kombucha. So it’s very easy, but the hard part is that it might seem daunting at first, because if you’re new to the idea of SCOBY… It’s a weird-looking thing and it’s a living thing. So it can kind of turn you off. And also there isn’t really a precise recipe for kombucha making, you can’t really just like look online and find a recipe. And you might diligently follow the recipe and it still turned out to be kind of sour or too sweet, and you get frustrated. But don’t worry, it’s not your fault. You know, it’s truly where you live, because you can be in Canada where it’s super cold and the recipe is for brewing in a warm climate like California. But it’s a lot of trial and error that’s involved in this. So don’t get frustrated, definitely try adjusting the length of the time that you brew the tea and how many sugar you add to it. It’s an art. It’s like you have to play with the recipe and see how things go. And everybody’s tastebud is different too. You know, I love mango. You might hate mango. So definitely try to make it tailored to your tastebuds. Just, you know, be open-minded and play with it.
Great advice. When I first started making kombucha, I had no idea what I was doing. You know, I would make the sugar kind of the sweet tea first. And then I added SCOBY. Mine was, my very first batch was a gift from someone else who was making kombucha. So they gave me one of their SCOBYs and I started using that. And I was surprised at the difference in fermentation time between the summer and the winter here. In Illinois, winters are very cold. And I had my kombucha set by our back door where it was getting a lot of like the cold, drafty air. And I was wondering, why isn’t this working? Why isn’t this fermenting? It almost felt like having it in a refrigerator, but in the summer, it ferments very quickly. And so that’s a really good point to bring up.
Oh, absolutely. I personally ruined a couple batches just because the change in temperature between like summer and winter. I feel like that’s a problem you’re eventually gonna encounter if you make your own kombucha. Just, you know, keep going.
Yeah, I mean, especially home brewers, the difference between sitting in the sun in one room and being in the shade in a different room, it can be a difference of five or 10 degrees.
My personal experience, the biggest challenge is to stay positive, truly. Just like, it’s not like making a cake, where you can just follow a recipe and it will come out great. Brewing kombucha is a process. It sometimes comes out, you know, different flavors. And even though you did a good job following the recipe and it’s not your fault at all. So I think it’s really important to develop the confidence to play around with the recipe and really add your personal touch. Like what’s your favorite fruit? You want to incorporate that into, you know, brewing kombucha. And at the end of the day, it’s all about creating a flavor profile that excites your tastebuds. So, and SCOBY itself is very forgiving. Like it thrives in warm temperature. It’s dormant when it’s cold. As long as it’s in a dark room, give them some caffeine, some sugar and they’re happy.
There’s two fermentations. The first brewing batch is making it from sweet tea into kombucha. And the second adds carbonation and often a secondary flavor.
I tend to use a frozen fruit or a hundred percent juice to flavor in the second fermentation. What kind of processes do you use?
I actually started out with two fermentation processes when I was brewing at home because it’s just so much easier. You know, I don’t really mind the bits of fruits in my kombucha, but when I turned to the commercial production, I do three times of fermentation process. So like I would do the F1, which takes like a week or two weeks. And then the second fermentation takes roughly four days. I would add the fruits, like what you said, the frozen fruits or juice or herbs, and I’ll filter everything out and put it into the bottle and that’s F3. And I usually leave it out a couple hours and then put it into the fridge. So people, when they get their bottle, there’s no fruit in there. I mean, I love it, doesn’t mean everybody likes it.
That’s a great point. Yeah. Commercially having that finished, there’s no fruit, there’s no bits of, you know, mint leaves or anything else in this. I can understand how that’s important.
Oh, for sure, especially if you’re trying to introduce, you know, people into kombucha, especially beginners. But for us, like, I personally love having bits of fruits in my kombucha because it’s fiber. It’s good for you, you know, why do you throw it out?
One of the things that comes up on some of our podcasts is we tend to talk to a lot of people who either have started their own business or have like, you know, long ago gone into working for themselves or their families. How did you make that transition? You said you worked in finance in New York. How did you transition to this? What did that look like for you?
Great question, Jim. I would say it’s definitely a surprise to a lot of my friends, but it’s actually true to my heart. You know, brewing tea amd following your passion probably sounds cliche, but it’s just something I can do for days without even looking up. And finance, I would say it really equipped me with the basic skill sets, for example, like, attention to detail, how you manage client relationships. It was definitely great experience. And I really leveraged that skill set into brewing kombucha. And if I hadn’t been in finance, I don’t think I’d brew as good of kombucha as I do right now. So how did I start at this business? Well, I think COVID happened, in case you didn’t notice. And I just realized how important health is for myself and the people I care about too. Everybody says health is important, but COVID makes me really realize, like, this is the only thing that you can hold onto that helps you to stay longer and live a happier life on the planet. So, and that for me, really translates into sharing my passion for tea and kombucha with the people that I care about. I’m not doing something that’s super great. Like I’m not a scientist building a rocket, but like, I’m sharing my little love for kombucha ever since I was a kid to the people I care about. And that makes me really happy. And I love what I do a lot.
What more can you ask? That’s perfect. I’m really happy to hear that you’ve gone into something you’re passionate about and that’s something, you know, not a lot of people can say. You’re really following something that fulfills you. You know, like you said, lifelong fulfillment, something you’ve enjoyed since you were a child. That’s really cool. Were there any things that made this more difficult than it needed to be? Or what lessons did you learn from starting this business?
So many difficulties in the beginning, especially building a kombucha company in the US Virgin Islands. First of all, there isn’t really a textbook. We’re the first kombucha company that’s based in the US Virgin Islands. So it’s… We’re building everything from scratch really. And that’s part of the thing I love about this. And, you know, when I was living in New York, you live in Chicago. I don’t know, how long does it take for you to get your Amazon package? Like two days?
It’s no time at all. Yeah, sometimes the next day.
Yeah, OK. It’s kind of the same for me in New York. But in US Virgin Islands, since it’s an isolated island, it takes roughly two weeks to get your Amazon package, let alone building a business where you need a lot of raw materials. And a lot of things comes in the product that you cannot source locally. And it was just like game of patience. Like at this age, you know, especially in this age, it’s hard to be patient, everything’s so attainable in the mainland. So coming here, I definitely learned a hard lesson to be patient. I remember, you know, just sitting on my ass waiting for three months for something to ship from overseas. It was definitely a test to my mental health. But once you get a hold of how things work on island and realize it’s more laid back and people are very friendly, super supportive, you adjust to it and that really plays in your favor. And I really love this type of lifestyle a lot better than before. So it’s a challenge for sure. That’s the fun of it, right? Like building your own business, overcoming challenges, and you never look back and then every day is a new day. It’s been good.
What’s the long-term goal? Will you be satisfied to distribute throughout the Virgin Islands? Or do you want worldwide, you know, global domination of the kombucha market?
So I would say our long-term goal is really produce quality kombucha to the Caribbean area. So we’re thinking about expanding to different islands in the next couple months. The mainland market is a little bit saturated because there’s so many great brands from California. So we want to position ourselves as, you know, a quality product that represents USVI, because there isn’t that many local businesses here. So we want to be one of the few that can support the local economy. And when people think about US Virgin Islands, it’s not just a tourist destination, it’s also the home to Virgin Leaf Kombucha. We actually have this event coming up in California. So we partnered up with Stanford University, and I’m building some starter kits for the students there. It’s really exciting. It’s just like, in the beginning I realized I can’t really ship kombucha for two weeks to the mainland, so starter kit is probably the way to go and you can encourage people to make their own flavor and create their own SCOBY.
It can be so, like you said, it’s kind of daunting. There’s no one recipe for kombucha. There’s very little, you know, research on, like, kombucha. A lot of it is word of mouth. A lot of it is storytelling. I got into this because a friend told me about this and now I get to talk to you about this, and you’re sharing it with the world, which is really cool. I want to jump back one more time. There was one more question I wanted to cover. We’ve talked a little bit about running your own business and kind of the benefits of you being USVI based and being a local business for this local community and that being one of the tentpoles of your business. But one of the other topics we talk about is, you know, financial independence, not having to work for someone else. How does it feel to be your own boss?
It’s definitely challenging, but it’s so fulfilling, because every day there is a different challenge. Especially when you’re your own boss, you wear so many hats. And I found myself filling bottles sometimes for like 10 hours, and other times I’m a designer. So I designed the website, social media, which is really fun. Like I really like doing different things. And especially taking ownership of the success of the company, but also the failures. You’re accountable for whatever this company represents. And that’s something that means a lot to me, because previously, I always had a team, I was working, you know, with five people. Everybody is focused on one thing and if the whole project goes wrong, it’s like hard to find someone that’s accountable. But in this business, when you’re the business owner, you’re the one who people go to with praises, but also complaints. So that’s definitely something that’s so beneficial for me as an individual, because I feel like I’m growing so much by starting this company.
I mean that, I imagine, is incredibly fulfilling. You mentioned wearing a lot of different hats and taking a lot of different roles within your business. I imagine there’s a lot of things you’re doing that you’re doing for the first time. How do you gain expertise? I mean, you know, filling a bottle is filling a bottle, but I’m guessing you’re also, you also have expertise in design. So that’s something you’ve done before, but there are undoubtedly parts of the–
Oh, you haven’t! Oh, I’m looking at you. You’re like, “No, I haven’t.”
I’ve never done that before. Like my best friend used to be Excel sheets, OK? I had no idea how to do design, but it’s so fun though, you know. In the beginning, like, you know, as a startup, the funding’s limited. So it’s either hiring a designer or do it yourself. So I chose the harder path and I think it just, you know, I bought like Photoshop and Illustrator, all these Adobe softwares and spending hours on YouTube. By the way, YouTube saved my life. Like YouTube, I will give them like 20% stock share. They’re great. They teach you so many new skill sets and you can use it to build your own vision for the company. And that’s why I like to wear small hats ourselves because nobody will care about this company as much as I do. And I really enjoy, you know, developing these skill sets in the process as well.
I think it’s easy sometimes to forget how amazing it is that we have this wealth of information immediately available on YouTube or Vimeo or any number of, you know, either free or cheap content libraries or knowledge libraries, where people who are experts will teach you how to design or code. Do you have a couple examples of kind of the unique things you’ve come across when you see other people making kombucha?
Yes, so for example, for the first fermentation, fun fact, a lot of people grow their SCOBY and make their kombucha from existing SCOBY. But for us, we only make kombucha with starting liquid. So we actually discard SCOBYs because I personally believe it’s a by-product of kombucha I’m making. And I didn’t really notice the speed of fermentation, whether you have a SCOBY in it or not. But of course, everybody has different methods and preferences. Just for my brand, we don’t really use SCOBY.
What you’re talking about is, it’s a conversation that’s happening among home brewers right now. There are people who swear you need the SCOBY to make kombucha. And then obviously we have existing proof that you don’t start. Starter liquid is all you need to have that growth. And then some people say, “Well, you know, I like it.” Great. You know, you can use it. I like that there’s room for all of that in this conversation.
Do you use starter liquid?
I always use starter liquid, but I still haven’t stopped using SCOBY. So I still drop in the old SCOBY until it gets outrageous. And then I, you know, compost it.
It is heartbreaking to discard your SCOBY. It’s like throwing away a life.
I recently started composting and that is the only thing that makes me feel good about it, because now every time I get to put anything, banana peels, into a compost pile, I feel like I’m doing something good.
I actually compost in the Home Depot bucket as well. It’s like not enough room for the amount of food that I eat. You know what I mean? It’s frustrating. But do you use worms with your compost or just soil?
Just soil. And we have like a tumbler, like a compost tumbler, so it keeps it off the ground. This new group of, you know, university students who are making their own kombucha. Like what is the message you’re giving them right now? Or what else do you want to say to people who have never done this before?
Actually, my goal with a starter kit with these university students are truly like, I try to get them into the door. I did create a really cute starter kit package with everything that you need in there that will give you some fun facts. Like, oh, if you do this, you’re creating vegan leather and that’s super good for the environment. And I also educate them a little bit about Virgin Leaf. We are actually the only company on island that recycles bottles. Like the bottles that we don’t recycle, we grind bottles into sands that will protect the island from hurricanes. Cause we get hurricanes pretty often. So definitely it’s just like an education of… You can make your own kombucha and also you can do it sustainably. I think that’s two things that I want to pass to people through this starter kit.
Until we start looking at it, it’s easy to forget, a lot of times when you buy kombucha at the store, you’re buying either a single-use bottle or you’re buying a bottle that could be single use if you don’t recycle it. And making your own is really a good way around that. When I buy kombucha now at the store, I know that I can use this bottle again for a year or two or forever with my own kombucha, which is cool.
Exactly. And every time you get a little bit different flavor, right?
Thank you again, it was a pleasure talking to you and I really appreciate it.
Frugal Living is brought to you by Brad’s Deals. Special thanks to Shannon Zhou, Sydney Smith, and H. Borkowski. I’m Jim Markus. Thanks for listening.
More about Frugal Living with Jim Markus
To hear more from Shannon Zhou, check out the latest episode of Frugal Living. Frugal Living is a podcast for smart consumers. How do you spend less and get more? The show, sponsored by Brad’s Deals, features interviews, stories, tips, and tricks. Jim Markus hosts season three, out now.
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