If you haven’t yet heard about Walker Brothers High Gravity Kombucha, rest assured that it won’t be long. This Nashville-based brand is causing quite the stir of excitement. Sure, we’ve all been getting to try different, wonderful kinds of hard kombucha lately. But Walker Brothers undeniably brings a fresh approach into the fold, and stands on its own as a unique purveyor.
Founders and brothers Luke and Sam take all of the wellness benefits of kombucha--like its gut-settling goodness--and filter that through their own love of craft beer, appreciation for fresh flavor, and penchant for balance. The result is a kombucha that both kombucha lovers and former kombucha skeptics alike will flip for, and add to their regular rotation. That’s why we wanted to catch up with this brand now, on their way to becoming a household name, and hear about the story behind their collection of hard kombuchas in flavors like Ginger, Watermelon Lime, and Citra Hops. Here’s our conversation with Luke.
Can you talk a little bit about your backgrounds in food and beer--and when it comes to beer, not just career but how maybe that passion or interest started and evolved?
Prior to Walker Brothers I worked as the Tennessee sales representative for GT’s Kombucha. Before that I was juggling several part-time gigs cooking at a few plant-based restaurants and working as a brand ambassador for an organic vegan protein bar company.
When I was 18, I spent several months living in Charlottesville, Virginia with my cousins and three other 24 to 25-year-old friends of his. They introduced me to the world of craft beer. I kept diving deeper as I got older and made a practice of going to local craft beer taprooms and exploring the beer scene any time I traveled to a new city. I kind of just woke up to the reality that I had gradually become a total beer nerd. Geekiness aside, the main fuel for the passion is the craft beer community. At this point I have had so many amazing relationships and opportunities that can be traced back to nothing more than the bond of loving craft beer!
When did you first try and sort of realize the potential of or what you loved about kombucha?
I first tried kombucha when I was a teenager--maybe 15? My good friend told me his mom had bought this crazy mushroom tea that makes you feel super sleepy, haha. I had no idea what he was talking about but thought it would be fun to give it a try. It wasn’t until college that I actually started drinking kombucha regularly. I had really bad acid reflux back then and I read somewhere that raw apple cider vinegar is an effective home remedy. So I started drinking apple cider vinegar tonics and was amazed by how much it helped my symptoms. Then I realized that kombucha shares a lot of the beneficial properties of apple cider vinegar and is a significantly more enjoyable drinking experience. That’s the main reason I got hooked--it hit a niche that I’m not sure I had experienced before: tasty, complex, and functional.
What was the lightbulb moment for you, when you thought about applying certain aspects of craft beer to a hard kombucha?
I started noticing how often I craved kombucha after drinking beer--it seemed my body was communicating it’s natural inclination pretty clearly. Around the same time I began to recognize that a lot of sour beers were easier on my gut than clean beer styles. So I began to wonder if I could make a kombucha with higher alcohol content that would be kind of like a kombucha-sour-beer hybrid--I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too!
Beyond my personal preference, there was a bit of science behind the idea, too. Our bodies have an ideal internal pH range which leans slightly toward alkalinity. Drinking alcohol has an acidifying effect and drinking kombucha has an alkalizing effect--so the concept behind our High Gravity Kombucha was to create an alcoholic beverage that would be less acidifying on the system.
That kind of craft beer approach is just one of the things that makes Walker Brothers’ kombucha unique--so what is similar to beer in terms of the brand and finished product? What might craft beer fans be surprised by or what might make them realize they like kombucha when it comes to Walker Brothers?
We utilize a lot of traditional beer brewing methods to make our High Gravity Kombucha. Our production blends classic kombucha brewing with technique from mixed-culture sour beer fermentation, traditional Belgian lambic brewing. While most alcoholic kombucha on the market is fermented with wine yeast, we opted to use a farmhouse beer yeast to remain true to our vision--to bridge the gap between kombucha and craft beer culture! We actually work with a local yeast lab that propagates our culture on Sorghum to ensure it is gluten-free.
You began with a SCOBY from your aunt--what was the process like from that very early beginning point to what Walker Brothers is today?
It started with one-gallon home brews in glass jars, then five-gallon batches. After we started getting serious about it, we jumped up to 30-gallon ferments, and once we had an actual brewery space we began to brew in 60-gallon vessels. Now we’ve managed to scale our brews into 900 to 1200-gallon stainless steel fermenters. It takes a lot of time and patience to grow a culture organically without straining it or taking shortcuts that will compromise product quality.
How is Walker Brothers different from other hard kombuchas out there, and how does it fit into the overall beer, kombucha, tea, seltzer, and canned cocktail scene?
We challenge ourselves to create an alcoholic kombucha that tastes reminiscent of traditional kombucha. Right now the hard kombucha category is like the wild west--most products out there taste pretty distinct. Some are light and veer more toward the drinking experience of hard seltzer; others taste a bit more boozy almost like a sparkling mead or green wine. We think our High Gravity kombucha hits a sweet spot between traditional kombucha and sour beer.
How do you brainstorm and develop flavors? What is the process like in terms of inspiration and collaboration?
We try to follow a general constraint of using three or less flavoring additions. We also tend to keep our flavor additions less than 3% of our total batch volume--to this extent we’re trying to accent the flavor of our ferments, not cover them up! In order to pull this off, we’re glad to go out of our way to source as high quality of ingredients as we can. For example, in our High Gravity Ginger flavor we use organic Peruvian ginger root that is cold pressed and flash frozen the same day it is harvested.
There has been some speculation that as people can return to bars and their normal shopping habits, they may forget some of the newer and/or more novel drinks and brands they’ve tried over the last year and change. How does Walker Brothers stand out from the crowd of newer brands to reveal its real staying power, and how it can be a staple in the average person’s lifestyle?
I think there is a lot to be said for restaurants with small, uncomplicated menus--not only does this help the customer in their decision-making, it also usually improves the consistency of the experience. When supported by a cohesive aesthetic, the simplicity of these restaurants allows them to be viewed as hip and timeless at the same time. The story seems to ring true in most industries. In the world of mass produced beer, Modelo and PBR come to mind. We have prioritized simplicity in both our branding and our beverages and I think this will really help our staying power.
Another way we will continue to stay relevant is through collaborations. We supplement our core flavors with a limited release series, which has become a fun platform for partnering with our community. So far we have released collaboration brews with farms, restaurants, non-profits, and even a local blanket company. We look forward to continuing to think outside the box--we’re currently planning out future collaborations with a local coffee roaster as well as a few Nashville based bands.
Your motto is “A Family Culture”--how would you describe the overall vibe and culture at Walker Brothers? Why is family an important aspect? And how do you think that translates to the product?
As a fast-growth startup business, the last thing we want to do is burn out our team. This means we need to balance our hard work with play and rest…too much emphasis on productivity doesn’t leave space for quality relationships to form and ironically can create a more anxious, less productive work flow. While our ambitions are high, we know that our efforts won’t amount to much if we take ourselves too seriously and don’t spend enough time just hanging out with one another. We want to create an environment where, amidst the hard work, everyone on our team can feel known, valued, and supported. Our hope is that this philosophy will give added meaning and substance to the work we are doing. The same goes for our production--if we scale too quickly we will hurt our culture literally! We need to give our house culture of yeast and bacteria (SCOBY) time to grow steadily, which requires patience, planning, and trust to pause and just relax for a bit!
And on that note, regarding the whole sort of vibe and culture of Walker Brothers, how does being in Nashville inform and maybe shape your brand ethos?
Nashville is a city filled with beautifully creative and open-minded people. People come to Nashville to chase dreams (musicians, songwriters, producers, restaurateurs, etc.)! This entrepreneurial community supports one another and this support leads to our hometown being a vibrant and flourishing place where we are fully supported and appreciated. We can also feel the tangible excitement that our product, brand, and mission instill in the consumer, which is special to say the least. We like to think that Nashville is already living our mantra, “A Family Culture” in a lot of ways, and our hope is to make that reality realized and celebrated in our greater community.
What do you see the future holding for Walker Brothers?
A taproom! A place for people to connect has been our dream since the beginning! And maybe a few new innovative beverages--we have plenty of ideas!
Now that you know Walker Brothers is ~a whole vibe~ get into it! Luke and Sam curated an awesome playlist that captures their craft, their family spirit, and the atmosphere of being in America’s most musical city, Nashville. Check it out here.