HUNTINGTON - As a counselor, teacher, and musician, Huntingtonian Mark Smith has made a name for himself educating others and doing his part to create a smarter, kinder Tri-State.
But, of late, he is increasingly also known for elevating the area's beverage game as one of the first homebrewers to take kombucha to market.
Winners of $10,000 from the Strong Mountain Communities program at the first-ever West Virginia Good Jobs Conference at Tamarack in Beckley in November, Mark Smith and his wife Gina Hart-Smith have spun their exploration of a healthy hobby - brewing kombucha - into an official side business that has launched in Huntington.
Officially placed at The Wild Ramp for Small Business Saturday, Elevate Elixirs' kombucha and its kombucha shrub (drink mixers) are now found at Butter It Up, River and Rail Bakery and Studio 8, where Gina Hart-Smith is one of the area's veteran yoga instructors.
A Point Pleasant, West Virginia, native and Marshall University graduate, Mark Smith said the couple was introduced to kombucha, the newly popular but ancient fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened black or green tea drink, when they were attending the Floyd Yoga Jam, a big festival in Floyd, Virginia, about four years ago.
"Initially Gina didn't like it, but we had it shortly after that at Bonnaroo, and she can be prone to dehydration at festivals, so we stumbled upon this really cool kombucha stand, and we found a ginger kombucha that we both liked. It instantly made us feel better, like a tonic," Mark Smith said.
When they got back, they began buying kombucha at Healthy Life Market and then reading about the history of this fermented tea believed to be created in Manchuria but which has spread around the world to every inhabited continent.
"In Russia they have a variation of it they call kvass and in Germany it is hero's beer, which is kind of cool," Smith said of kombucha, which commercially has an ABV of less than 0.5 percent alcohol. "They believe it is what Genghis Khan's soldiers carried in their flasks to give them fighting stamina and endurance, so it was kind of like the first sports drink before there was sports drink because it had vitamins and electrolytes."
Feeling better from drinking the kombucha, Smith said they began homebrewing it, which is produced by fermenting tea using a "symbiotic 'colony' of bacteria and yeast" or SCOBY, in kombucha terms.
"I have always been curious about brewing stuff. I became really intrigued by it, so I ordered the organic kombucha SCOBY through the mail. My wife thought I was crazy at first getting bags of goo in the mail," Smith said, laughing, "But she thought I was less crazy once we started second ferments and flavoring it with different herbs and things like hibiscus."
Smith said the flavoring and experimenting with various fruits and herbs came naturally.
"I've been interested in herbs since I was a kid. My mammaw and pappaw used to go see Catfish Man of The Woods (internationally famous herbalist Clarence "Catfish" Gray) and they would come back with big bags of herbs, so I have always been fascinated by it. That is where most of our modern-day medicines are from - plants. It is nothing new at all; it is a matter of rediscovering something old."
They began reading and paying attention to kombucha trends in the U.S., where more than half of adults 25-34 regularly drink kombucha.
In fact, according to a recent article in Forbes magazine, kombucha is considered the fastest-growing product in the functional beverage market with sales estimates of $1.8 billion by 2020. Analysts believe this is due in part to the new alcoholic segment of the kombucha market.
The Smiths, who do not make alcoholic kombucha, began dialing in their favorite flavors and then slowly figuring out a way to experiment with whether they could take such a product to market locally.
Since Smith plays in the regionally traveling band Moonshine Crossing, he began trying out different flavors on friends at some of the region's campout festivals.
"I would take a bunch with me. After the first night when a lot of people were kind of hungover, we would give them some, and they would be like, 'Oh wow, I feel almost instantly better because of all the vitamins in it,' and that's when we were like, 'Yeah we may be onto something.'"
Once he was up and successfully brewing various flavors, Smith also started a Facebook subscription group. He would brew batches of kombucha and dole those out to a small group of friends to get their feedback on what they liked best.
"I would bring it to their doorstep, and that enabled me to experiment with different flavors and get feedback," Smith said. "Most of the flavors have been big hits. Ginger is the one that I have made the longest, and hibiscus is a flavor that I have kept since the beginning."
The Smiths did the subscriber group for the past couple years, and then this spring they really began ratcheting up their business idea, setting up an LLC in May thanks to Unlimited Futures, as well as beginning the Strong Mountain Communities' Good Jobs Business Plan Competition, during which they worked with a coach to develop a feasibility study for their business and to pitch their business to a panel of judges.
On their Facebook page, the Smiths said it took a village to guide them through the processes of becoming a small business to become part of the West Virginia Grown program, in hopes of capturing and bringing local flavor to the national boom of kombucha.
Smith, whose day job is as an English as a second language and life skills teacher at Mountwest as well as the Putnam County Learning Center in Eleanor, West Virginia, said it has been really neat to affect change at the local level.
"... when we were doing the Winter Market ... at The Wild Ramp, a mom and two little kids came over, and I was doing samples. They said, 'Mister, can we have a drink?' And the mom was like, 'They are probably are not going to like it, they only like Coca-Cola and soda and stuff like that,' but they both chugged it down and they were like, 'How can we get some?' They ended up buying a couple of bottles and then were asking for more, and the mom was elated that they were drinking something besides sugary drinks, so it does feel really cool making West Virginia healthier one bottle at at time."
The Wild Ramp's market manager, Chasten Toler, said the market is excited to have someone local who is producing both kombucha as well as kombucha shrub, which is an organic, flavored mixer that can be used for anything from seltzer water to liquors to make mixed drinks.
"It is incredible to have someone doing kombucha, especially in West Virginia, since we cover the whole Tri-State area. It is even cooler to have a hometown boy fill this need that we do need," Toler said. "It is also awesome to see the state and the people recognizing what we are doing, especially in this climate where everything is negative and bad. There are good things happening, and good people doing those things, and it is good to be a part of it."
After the win to help launch their business, Smith said they are keeping in contact with HADCO and RCBI, trying to find affordable ways to upscale their business to get it into a commercial environment - they currently utilize The Wild Ramp's kitchen - as well as automate their bottling and labeling process before growing to other markets such as Charleston and Morgantown, where folks have asked to carry Elevate Elixirs.
Smith said he is also experimenting with even further localizing flavors.
"One of the flavors I have thought about doing is like a paw paw or a persimmon to incorporate more West Virginia kind of flavors," Smith said. "I just did a batch of elderberry, which is the favorite of all the ones that I have made, but I just have that one at the house."
Smith, and in particular Gina Hart-Smith, also have fine-tuned and flavored their kombucha shrubs (now on sale at The Wild Ramp), which are natural mixers (like lemon lime and pomegranate) using herbs and fruit that can be paired with any drink, from tea or seltzer water to liquors like vodka and rum.
"One of the exciting things about them is that they can be used as mixers for drinks with alcohol like vodka and rum," Smith said. "You can go to the liquor store and buy a top-shelf bottle of liquor but then the mixers are all artificial colors and flavors and high-fructose corn syrup. It is very hard to find anything natural to mix it with. But it (the shrub) is flexible, so it works with tea or seltzer water, so you can mix it with any drink of choice ... The shrub thing has really taken off because of the farm-to-cocktail movement, so I think we can really put West Virginia on the map with our kombucha shrub and hopefully with our kombucha too."
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