THREE MILE PLAINS, NS — Almost 20 years ago, Gabrielle Pope was in her basement apartment tinkering with fermenting drinks. Little did she realize at the time, but she was not only developing a love of kombucha but also a career.
Pope, who owns Dr. Kombu Brewing Company, said she first learned about kombucha when she was 20 and attending university in British Columbia. She was immediately fascinated and took a workshop.
“I lived in this tiny, little 300 square foot basement suite and had all of these weird ferments going all the time,” she said with a laugh as she reflected on the early days.
Kombucha is a fizzy, tangy drink made from cane sugar and black tea that has been fermented using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast — or SCOBY — and then flavored with herbs, spices and juices.
Over the last decade, the natural drink has enjoyed a surge in popularity.
“It’s also full of probiotics and it’s very good for your digestion. A lot of people find it helps with dozens of different health ailments,” said Pope, adding that she’s not a doctor and cannot confirm or deny any medical claims.
She only has her personal experience to go on.
“When I started making it in my tiny little apartment, honestly, it just made me feel good. I loved drinking it. I just kept making it,” she said.
Since her humble beginnings of making ‘booch’ in her apartment, she’s come a long way.
She now operates out of a spacious industrial workshop in Three Mile Plains.
With one full-time employee — Mike Flynn, who is the production manager — and a couple of part-time employees, Pope said they produce about 150,000 liters of kombucha annually.
“It’s a very small team. I really like that aspect of it.”
How it starts
In 2014, Pope and her partner Jay Hildybrant, who is a cider maker, moved to Nova Scotia from Vancouver. They purchased a home in Gaspereau and began working at Bulwark Cider in New Ross.
Pope introduced her then boss, Dominic Rivard, and his wife, Clare Rivard, to kombucha. It was a beverage they frequently discussed.
“It was something that we always kind of talked about,” said Pope, adding, with a laugh, “Fermentation nerds are fermentation nerds.”
In 2016, after Pope and Hildybrant had left Bulwark Cider, the Rivards reached out to Pope to see if she’d be interested in starting a kombucha company with them. She jumped at the chance. They began production in New Ross, officially introducing the product to the Valley in early 2017.
The business moved to Three Mile Plains, located minutes from Windsor, in 2018. During the pandemic, in early 2021, Pope bought out her partners to become the sole owner.
“It’s really cool being a woman-led business. I’m quite proud of that,” said Pope, noting that it’s not without its challenges. And the pandemic, with all the supply chain issues and public health restrictions, has been interesting to navigate.
“This world is very uncertain right now; rolling with the punches is the only thing you can do,” she said, noting she continues to adapt to meet the needs of her customers.
The core brand of Dr. Kombu Brewing Company is Sòlas Kombucha. There are eight regular flavors — with Bliss and Clarity, two drinks from the original lineup, being the top sellers.
Kelly Marie Redcliffe, the executive director of the Wolfville Farmers’ Market Cooperative, said Pope joined the WFM a number of years ago and has been a valued vendor.
“She started with us before kombucha was a well-known product in this community and introduced many of us to its fizz and deliciousness,” said Redcliffe in an email interview.
“Gabrielle is a very community-minded vendor and cares about sharing her knowledge and experience about the benefits of fermentation.”
Redcliffe noted that when the pandemic hit and the market pivoted online, Pope “not only began selling her products through WFM2Go, but she also was one of our most steadfast weekly volunteers.”
Redcliffe described Pope as someone who is “dedicated, smart, kind and passionate” and believes her business will see continued success.
“I think kombucha is no longer a novelty health product, and just a delicious beverage that happens to be healthy. So, I think it has room for steady growth, but I am no expert on trends,” she said.
Whenever possible, Pope said she sources Nova Scotian ingredients for her Sòlas Kombucha line.
For example, in 2021, she started using Van Dyk’s wild blueberry juice for Bliss. She uses orange blossom water and rose water from a farm near Berwick.
From start to finish, she said it typically takes 30 days to produce a variety during the summertime, but about double in the winter.
They use a process called continuous brew, meaning they draw from the tanks, trying not to disturb the culture floating on top too much.
As such, every bottle is unique.
“When you’re working with wild ferments, there’s so many variables — and the variables are all things we can’t control. It’s a weird beast,” she said.
Pope can’t stress enough that kombucha must be refrigerated.
“It is alive. It is still fermenting. If it is not kept temperature controlled, it can get very excited and create C02 and explode, even,” she said.
Sòlas Kombucha can be found at many smaller retailers and at some craft breweries and cideries. It’s not available in large supermarkets, and Pope doesn’t think that will change.
“I think kombucha has plateaued a little bit just because of all of the cheaper American brands that the big box stores have brought in,” said Pope.
Based on her interactions with the larger chains, she doesn’t see Sòlas Kombucha being carried anytime soon. However, she’s thankful for the support she has received, citing almost 200 retailers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are carrying her product. For example, Schoolhouse Brewery, Horton Ridge Malt and Grain Company, Chainyard Cider in HRM, as well as several Pharmasave locations throughout the province — including Windsor, Wolfville and Canning — offer their brand of kombucha.
“The response, in general, is great. And people who are looking for local seek this out,” said Pope.
She said kombucha is an excellent alternative to drinking alcoholic beverages while out at restaurants or bars.
“My favorite thing about it is it’s a really cool option if you’re going to a bar or a pub and you’re not drinking, or you’re the DD or something. You actually get to indulge in something fermented, but it’s not alcoholic,” said Pope.
Cam Hartley, the owner of Schoolhouse Brewery, agreed. He carries Sòlas Kombucha in the taproom of his downtown Windsor business.
“Everything (we serve) in our taproom we like produced in Nova Scotia. So, it kind of fits our mandate for that,” said Hartley.
The fact that it’s made mere minutes away, on the Windsor Back Road, is also appealing. Additionally, since Schoolhouse Brewery doesn’t offer fountain pop or drinks of that nature, kombucha is a unique alternative.
“It’s a local, non-alcoholic craft option for us,” he said, noting it’s nice to see beverage makers supporting one another.
“There’s definitely a camaraderie among the Valley beverage producers,” he said.
Pope said she’s not sure what the future holds for her company, but she has many more product ideas she’d like to explore, including a line of alcoholic kombucha — something that is quite popular in the United States. That option is still in its infancy.
“I think I’m just going to continue to be creative with doing products and see where we go with those,” said Pope.
Given the large food-safe facility she rents from Ocean Crisp Apple Company, she has the space to get creative. Her eyes light up when speaking about the possibilities, and said she can’t thank Nova Scotians enough for the buy-local support she’s seen.
“One of the things that I love about my move to Nova Scotia is people are so connected to local and they’re so willing to get on board with that. That’s so cool.”