RocBucha, Mother of Goodness
Interview by Laura Gallup
Kombucha: What was once thought of in the U.S. as a hippie health trend is now being offered on tap and by the bottle at mainstream grocery stores, and there’s a crowd of small producers riding the wave. Kombucha is the end result of a fermentation process where bacteria and yeast are added to tea and sugar, producing alcohol and acid. The bubbly beverage can range in taste from pure vinegar to very sweet, depending on the fruit, herbs and spices added in. The jury is still out on the exact health benefits, but proponents of the drink say its probiotics are good for gut health. We talked with Heidi Vorrasi of RocBucha to see what it’s like to produce kombucha out of her 150-square-foot facility in Brighton.
EFL: How did you get into the fermented tea biz?
Heidi Vorrasi: We’d been making kombucha at home and giving it to our friends and neighbors for quite a while. Once we ran out and tried some of the brands in the grocery store; we found that we didn’t like any of them. That inspired me to see if I could make it on a larger scale. I researched for five or six months, seeing what was available in Rochester. I wondered: Can I do this? What’s the first step? What are the big things I need to think about? After I wrote my business plan, then I really just flipped the switch and said “Let’s go!”
EFL: Were there obstacles in starting the business?
HV: It’s not something you can do on a very low budget. You do have to have a commercial kitchen—it’s specialized, not something you can share with another product. Kombucha ferments under special conditions: It needs to be above 72° and you can’t even have a window open in case a wild fungus comes through. The hardest thing for me was just the learning curve, like, once I scale up this much, making sure that everything is staying consistent and the quality is really important.
EFL: What’s it like to run a small business in Rochester?
HV: There’s so many little things I learned along the way that have been helpful. When I first started delivering kegs I wasn’t labeling them, I figured “There’s only one RocBucha keg—they know what’s in it.” But the store asked me to label the flavor; it’s little things like that. I work with local vendors for everything, even the local restaurant supply store for equipment. It costs me more but it’s worth it to build the relationships and keep the money in the local economy. And when I have a problem, someone’s always willing to help. Even the other kombucha producers in Rochester—we get together and bulk-order things together. It’s really community over competition.
EFL: Tell me about selling at the farmers market.
HV: Being at the Brighton Farmers Market really allowed me to get to know my customers and their preferences, and to educate them on kombucha. And even to work with the other vendors to know exactly who is picking the apples I was using. Whenever possible I use local produce, I even experiment with nontraditional items like gooseberries. Last year I used peaches from Lagoner Farms and apples from Noto Fruit Farms.
EFL: What does your kombucha taste like?
HV: It is a little bit tart and tangy, but not vinegar-tasting. It’s a very bright, clean, fresh taste. I don’t heavily carbonate so it’s not super filling, as some kombuchas are. I stop fermentation at a point where I think it still tastes really good. And after you’ve been drinking it, you feel good. I certainly notice that when I’m traveling and don’t have regular access to it, I feel differently.
Laura Gallup is the managing editor of Edible FLX as well as the marketing and events coordinator for the Ithaca Farmers Market. She grew up eating strawberries by the bucketful on her dad’s farm in Hector, NY.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of the magazine.