By Gregory Daurer | Apr 25, 2016
Dunn knows that conflict can sometimes lead to breakthroughs.
Take how his company got its name. While soaking at Cottonwood Hot Springs in Buena Vista, he broke the news to his wife that he was quitting his job at Rosetta Stone in order to start a kombucha beverage business.
In the midst of that life-altering discussion, Dunn says his then-four-year-old daughter (who fancied herself a "mermaid" at play) went a bit out of control, leaping over someone's head into the water, so he scolded her to stop being a "rowdy mermaid." Splash! The name stuck.
With the outline of a mermaid's fins on its labels, Rowdy Mermaid's kombucha is now sold in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, and Utah, with Wyoming on the immediate horizon. The company now produces between 4,000 and 5,000 gallons of the fermented tea elixir per month. And while what's presently sold contains only trace amounts of alcohol, the company will soon be one of the few in the country to market adult, alcoholic varieties not suitable for "rowdy mermaids" under 21.
There's another reason why the brand's labels contain a mermaid's fin, instead of something, say, a bit more New Agey. "While the younger family members are here to fill up growlers, the older family members are a little bit freaked out by the whole thing," says Dunn. "And it's not necessarily the biology of it." (Here, Dunn's referring to the process of kombucha often being brewed from a reusable starter yeast strain, much like the starter for sourdough bread.)
He continues: "It's that kombucha has always been so strongly associated with a particular ideological stance." Thus, Rowdy Mermaid avoids images of yoga, quotes from the Buddha, flavors like "Energize" -- all of which, he feels, scream "liberal politics" to many.
Regardless, Dunn fervently believes in the health properties of his beverages. Take for instance his Living Ginger kombucha (labeled an "adaptogenic"). Its ingredients include Tasmanian pepperberry and chaga mushrooms -- which Dunn calls "two of the highest antioxidant foods on the planet. Kombucha itself is considered to be highly antioxidant, so the combination [is] a super powerhouse. And then you throw in all that ginger on top of it."
Other varieties include the caffeine-free Flower Grow (with green rooibos tea, rose petals, chrysanthemums, and chamomile) and Rowdy Belly (a "digestive" which incorporates turmeric, ginger, fennel, and coriander).
They're uniquely flavored, unexpectedly smooth brews. Dunn says, "In talking with a lot of people before starting this company, I came to several realizations, two of which were people didn't like kombucha because it was way way too sweet or it was way way too sour. Or it was way too sweet and sour. And so we worked diligently to try to brew to a particular pH, and brew to certain types of acids, and [make] additions to the kombucha that would make the flavor more rounded and give it a little more evenness."
A former teacher at local junior colleges and at Naropa University, Dunn knows that his brand could make an even bigger splash as kombucha becomes more mainstream in the near future. He says sales of kombucha are projected to reach $1.8 billion annually by 2020. "It's one of the fastest growing beverages in the world," says Dunn. "We're making a living probiotic beverage that people could really benefit from."
Challenges: Dealing with regulatory agencies, says Dunn. "A lot of agencies haven't interacted with kombucha companies. The rules were really written for different types of companies, and so we're always challenged by the standing regulations, the licenses, [the procedures of] the existing food and beverage industry that aren't tailored to kombucha. And we're going through that right now."
"As a small business, we deal with the City of Boulder, the county, the county health department, the state health department, the FDA, the TTB, the Department of Taxation," he adds. "Even though I know that all of these things in the end make our company stronger, they're the types of challenges that feel like a punch to the gut when you're just getting your feet wet."
Opportunities: Dunn says his company caters to teetotalers -- in addition to people who will want to quaff a unique, alcoholic beverage. "Some people just want to quit drinking, and kombucha's a really nice thing to drink if you're trying to do that, because it has a similar mouthfeel to some beers."
On the other hand, Dunn says he's "just hired a brewer, a well-known brewer in the [Colorado] area for making sour ales, and he's the person who's spearheading" the company's move into kombucha beer. He samples a hazy, aged kombucha made with wild yeast and a flavor similar to some tart, Belgian lambic beers. It's a familiar flavor, yet a brand-new beverage.
"Very few people are fermenting kombucha to these levels, and mixing kombucha with beer," says Dunn. ”[W]e think in several years you're going to be seeing a lot of breweries making their own kombucha and using it in place of kettle souring for sour ales."
Needs: "Money!" says Dunn. Rollicking waves of laughter follow -- as much a coping mechanism for business-related frustrations as it is out of mirth.
"We're not feeling that this is a county or a city or a state that is saying 'yes' to business," he contends. "That's been a humongous challenge, because our money gets spent in audits and not on employees. So even though we're year two and we should be much farther along right now, we're not because we don't have the capital on hand to make sure that we get steady cash flow."
A positive spin: "Because we've had so many challenges to extraordinary growth, we've been able to work out all of the kinks in our processing."