There’s a different kind of brewery at 500 Seneca St. in Larkinville.
It’s located down a path past an iron gate, with a handmade bar painted with traditional Norwegian Rosemåling flower art. Behind it stands a bearded fellow and a series of taps. Ask politely and he’ll pour you a drink, freshly brewed in the back of the space.
The bartender’s name is Andy Bannister. Call him the Big Norwegian, a moniker his brother gave him as a youth. His game isn’t brewing beer, but Kombucha tea, and his business just got a boost thanks to startup investment groups Ignite Buffalo, Ureeka and 43 North.
Big Norwegian Kombucha opened last May at 500 Seneca Street, a massive mixed-use facility in Larkenville that’s home to other businesses including The Lunch Box, Tommyrotter Distillery and Animal Outfitters.
It’s a two-person operation, with Canisius graduate Bannister running the brewing and finances and his wife, Marissa, an Alfred University grad who serves as Big Norwegian’s artistic director.
On Sept. 18, Big Norwegian participated in a business pitch contest, along with a handful of other Buffalo-based small businesses. Moriarty Meats won the grand prize of $10,000 and Big Norwegian was granted $5,000 from Ureeka and Ignite Buffalo.
A surprise grant of $2,500 from 43 North capped off the night and puts the cherry on top of a golden opportunity for the fledgling business.
Kombucha is a fizzy, fermented tea with roots in Asia. The exact origins are not known; however, The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets notes that the drink may have originated in Manchuria and became popular in the United States in the 1990s.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the drink contains natural probiotics, as well as B-vitamins, minerals and organic acids such as gluconic acid, which makes the drink sweet. Kombucha naturally contains a very small amount of alcohol from the fermenting process, usually about 0.5 percent, but it’s not enough to warrant government regulation.
Kombucha also contains polyphenols, strong antioxidants that help reduce inflammation in the body. Bannister says that kombucha naturally alkalizes the body which helps to “ward off” acid-related illnesses such as gout and inflammation. He said the drink can even help with anxiety.
“We start with sweet tea and that’s what we ferment,” Bannister said. “You make a strong brew of tea with a good amount of sugar in there to feed the yeast.” The yeast converts the sugar to alcohol, which is converted by bacteria to acids.
A 2015 report from the PR Newswire projects the global kombucha market to gross more than $1.8 billion in sales in 2020, a compound annual growth rate of more than 25 percent. It’s a booming market that’s moved past health food stores to supermarkets and even convenience stores.
Before he got into the kombucha business, Bannister worked as an HVAC mechanic and, later, an insurance claims adjuster. “I had to leave that job, it was just rotting my soul,” he said. “I decided to see if I could be my own boss.”
He looked into brewing beer, a booming industry in Buffalo, but got into brewing kombucha tea after learning how to make it from his wife, who herself learned from a friend. Bannister brewed the stuff at home and gave it away to friends, who gave him the idea to go commercial.
“They all said, ‘hey, maybe you could make this a business,’ and I was like maybe it’s worth a shot,” he said.
Bannister and a partner started a small kombucha business, brewing from a community center kitchen and selling from a tent. He sold his share in the company after a disagreement in direction and founded Big Norwegian, which opened the bar and taproom in May.
“The goal of this company is to go bigger, to have a bit more distribution. Like most businesses, especially beverages, you need to make a lot of it to create a margin that is going to work for you,” Bannister said. “We’re slowly growing into that margin.”
Currently, he has 200 gallons of base kombucha that’s always fermenting. He has small 30-gallon tanks for the flavored kombucha Big Norwegian sells — pink guava and lime, blueberry lemongrass, pomegranate citrus and hibiscus ginger.
The tanks are variable-capacity wine fermenters, converted into open-top kombucha fermenters (kombucha requires continual oxygen flow for fermentation). The grant from 43 North and Ureeka will allow Big Norwegian to purchase two more large tanks and up to four small tanks. That should double the company’s kombucha output, Bannister said.
Perhaps most importantly, the money will allow Big Norwegian to partner with Revolution Mobile Canning and can the kombucha for sale in stores.
“Right now we only sell in kegs, which makes it very difficult for a lot of places who don’t have a tap system, or if they do it makes it very highly competitive,” he said. The advantage to a keg is that the beverage is fresher and keeps the product from being potentially excessively handled.
Big Norwegian chose cans over bottles because it fits the company’s “adventurous” brand. “Hiking, camping, going to the beach — you can’t bring glass bottles with you,” Bannister said. “We like the ‘grab and go’ concept of cans.”
The canned kombucha won’t come around for a while, but the taproom is open Thursday-Saturday from 12-6 p.m. offering pints, growlers and “flights of five.” You can also find Big Norwegian at farmer’s markets around the area and on tap at Undergrounds Coffee Co.