Brewing, bottling tricky in Eagle County
GYPSUM – Before he got into the kombucha tea business, Ed Rothbauer loved living in the Vail Valley. And this is where he wants to stay, although it might be easier to do business somewhere else.
Rothbauer and partner Steve Dickman started High Country Kombucha in 2005 in the home they shared in Avon. Rothbauer had started brewing his own kombucha – which is becoming popular as a health drink – in the 1990s after suffering a broken back in an accident.
Recovering at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver, a fellow patient told Rothbauer about the drink’s healthy properties. Rothbauer, who was using a wheelchair at the time, started drinking the stuff and, he says, had movement in his legs 30 days later.
Today, Rothbauer walks stiffly and with a cane, but he’s walking, and a believer in kombucha’s benefits.
Other people are sold on the drink, too, which is why Rothbauer and Dickman’s home brewery was soon at its capacity. The partners soon rented a small commercial kitchen in Eagle. Thanks to a deal with the Vitamin Cottage natural grocery stores, that small kitchen was also maxed out, at 244 bottles a week.
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“It wasn’t enough to pay the rent,” Rothbauer said.
The company was starting to roll, and moved into a brewing and bottling facility in Gypsum’s Airport Gateway commercial area, where it was soon moving 4,200 12-bottle cases every month.
The entire U.S. kombucha business shut down in 2010 – thanks to the presence of too much alcohol in the drinks made by the country’s biggest kombucha maker. That ran the drinks afoul of national and state liquor laws.
After that, all the companies involved in the commercial production of kombucha adjusted their formulas, and High Country started on the road back to full production.
That hiatus could have been an opportunity to move to a place with lower rent, easier transportation and cheaper labor costs, but Rothbauer and Dickman decided to stay in Eagle County.
“We’re ‘high county’ kombucha, after all,” Rothbauer said. “The legend is that the (kombucha spores) first formed in the Himalayas, so it’s a product of the mountains … Consumers wouldn’t buy it if was made in (Los Angeles).”
Then there’s the fact that Rothbauer and Dickman like living here.
That combination has the partners committed to staying in Eagle County, despite some challenges to running a company that manufactures and distributes a heavy product.
Shipping can be tricky, although Rothbauer jokes that moving kombucha cases east or west is a downhill trip either way. Weather can also delay trucks, further fouling shipping schedules.
Kevin Selvy understands High Country’s problems. Selvy and his wife, Marisa, founded Crazy Mountain Brewing Company in Edwards a few years ago. The Selvys wanted to brew beer in the mountains, but quickly discovered that high-elevation brewing has its own set of problems.
“It’s not a very practical place,” Selvy said. It turns out that sea-level beer recipes have to be adjusted to work at high elevations, and the municipal water supply in Edwards can vary widely in its chemical and mineral makeup, since the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District will often use different sources for drinking water – the district can use streams, reservoirs or wells.
“It’s really hard,” Selvy said of transportation for his company’s products. “Getting to the West Coast is manageable, but the East Coast is really expensive.”
These days, Crazy Mountain trucks beer to a Denver-area warehouse, from which the product is shipped to various distributors.
Despite the problems, Selvy can’t see going anywhere else. He and Marisa moved to the Vail Valley for a reason, just like Rothbauer and Dickman.
“It’s worth dealing with it all,” Selvy said.
But on the positive side of the ledger, Eagle County has an airport with year-round air service.
The High Country team recently flew in an “advisory board” of people, most of whom either work for, or are retired from, bigger companies, for some insight on growing the business. All of them flew into, then out of, the county airport.
Then there are the potential investors who live here.
“A lot of people who live here are entrepreneurs,” Rothbauer said. “They’re interested in anything that’s innovative. And they’re well-connected, so if they aren’t interested (in investing), the probably know someone else who is.”
All that adds up to a long-term commitment on High Country’s part. The company just added four new flavors and is close to distribution deals that will enable it to roughly triple its production to 25,000 to 30,000 cases per month – and double its workforce to 35 or more – by the end of this year.
Any questions about whether this is the right place can be answered by a quick peek outside, Rothbauer said.
“We have beautiful scenery here,” he said. “And we have the perfect weather for kombucha.”