Kombucha is centuries old, although it became a thing in the United States only recently. Now, you can buy the fermented beverage by the case at Costco, and there are bars serving nothing but kombucha in places like California and Colorado; in Chicago, though we’re still getting used to the trend, there are kombucha taps at Foxtrot Market in Wicker Park and Elevate Coffee in Lakeview.
Many health claims are made for kombucha, and primary among them is the belief that the probiotic qualities of the beverage, much like those in fermented products like yogurt and kefir, is beneficial to gut health and the strength of the immune system.
Carving out space on retail shelves for a new kombucha product is no easy task, but that’s what Chicagoan Bridget Connelly and her partners took on a little over a year ago when they launched Luna Bay, which is a hard kombucha, or “booch.”
In 2018 Connelly, who grew up in western suburban River Forest, was working in California for Lululemon, the maker of women’s athletic clothing, when she and friends got the idea for making booch. Chicago seemed like a good place to introduce her product, Connelly says, because even “though outsiders may think of Chicago as all hot dogs and pizza, there’s a huge health-conscious community. Look at the Lakefront on a regular summer day, people are out and active. Being a part of the Lululemon community, I knew that there was a network there, and when I saw the trend for kombucha in California, I realized this trend had hardly been touched upon in Chicago. This seems like a prime time to bring Luna Bay to Chicago, and it ties in with the Lululemon experiential store that opened on North Avenue last summer. That’s the first Lululemon store to have a bar and restaurant, and we hosted their launch party. Luna Bay is the only hard kombucha sold in a Lululemon store.”
Luna Bay is priced around four dollars for a twelve-ounce can, but kombucha is usually priced higher than juice or beer, and as Connelly says, “Our product takes five to six weeks to make, and it’s a non-GMO, gluten-free, vegan, low-sugar beverage. Our customers are willing to pay more for a high-quality product. Even non-alcoholic kombucha is four or five dollars a bottle, so we feel we’ve got the price point right.”
Hard kombucha starts out the same way as regular kombucha. “The first fermentation,” says Connelly, “produces some alcohol, from around .5 to one percent. For the second fermentation, we add a yeast strain that bumps the alcohol up to six percent, which has no effect on the probiotic performance of the kombucha, but which does lower the sugar because the yeast eats it up as it’s producing the alcohol.”
Luna Bay comes in four flavors: Palo Santo Blueberry, Ginger Lemon, Hibiscus Lavender and Apple Bourbon. We asked Connelly about pairing her hard kombucha with food. “Palo Santo Blueberry is like a red wine, so it would pair well with meat,” she says,”and the Ginger Lemon is very light, so it would go well with fish. The Hibiscus Lavender is like a rosé, so something grilled would go well with that flavor. All our flavors are light, so they’re easy to pair or to mix with other spirits, and we send out cocktail recipes every Monday.”
Luna Bay is a woman-run company. “All of us are active, doing yoga and rock climbing and leading very healthy and active lifestyles,” she says, “so we wanted to create something we’d want to drink.”
At the Luna Bay website, you’ll see images of yoga, rock climbing, surfing and dancing on the beach intercut with images of the theater and other Chicago attractions. So, despite the West Coast vibe, there’s a distinctly Midwestern note, and the connection between Chicago and Luna Bay remains strong.
“August 2019 was when we started brewing at Pilot Project Brewing in Logan Square,” says Connelly. “We got a distribution license in September and then in October we got into distribution in Chicago. In December, we launched in Colorado and added a second brewery in Colorado; in March we added California distribution; in May, we added Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine. As of June, we got Wisconsin distribution. We got into seven states in eight months.” The pandemic, of course, put up hurdles. “We were just starting to get momentum in February,” remembers Connelly, “and then [it] hit. We launched in California the day the shelter-in-place warning was issued. Now, a lot of our business has been off-premise at places like Whole Foods, Fresh Thyme, Binny’s, Plum Market and Sugar Beet.
“Chicago is our home base, so it feels good that we’ve been so well-received, though being female in the alcohol space, we had to learn a lot about how to navigate through it. It’s been a cool journey. Our plan was not to grow outside Chicago in Year One; everyone told us it would be impossible. Now, we have distributors coming to us.”
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org