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dreaming of a debt-free kombucha business…

By Gary Leigh, GO! Kombucha Founder

IT ALL BEGAN soon after the sale of my London home in March 2003 when I handed a £30,000 12-month loan to two friends, who wanted to turn a hobby crafting a weird tea on their Thames houseboat into a UK drink brand. When their ambition – and my cash – burned out within a year, I waded in to sweep up the embers of my life-savings.

The business was signed over to me lock stock and barrel, but I was still working out how on earth to kick start it with scant funds – balanced with unpaid work for the voluntary charitable sector – when, in 2005, my “friends” sold their houseboat for approximately half a million pounds and promptly purchased, and relocated to…a vast chateau in France!

By 2007 – with probiotics still off the media radar, funds drying up and resorting to sleeping on cases of Kombucha in a dank Shoreditch warehouse – I turned to 0% credit cards to keep the tea flowing (folks, do not try this at home!) A year on, a further £20,000 spent and the card rates about to shoot up to 20%, I crawled in thinly-veiled desperation to the bank manager…

An angel in disguise? He looked at my business plan and agreed, albeit hesitantly, to convert my now considerable debt into a ten-year business loan commencing fall 2008, with interest fixed at 5% above base rate – a lifeline compared to what would otherwise have been (near certain financial disaster), and just about manageable within the business’s tight cash flow…

finally, free of all debts and covenants!

A decade on. The UK base rate is still mercifully below 1% and…the final monthly loan installment is about to be paid off! GO! Kombucha as an entity will then be, finally, entirely free of all debt and covenants, self-owned, self-determined, and operating fully within its own resources; an event I won’t be able to feel, process or put into words until that impossible day arrives in November.

Today, most new brands circumvent GO! Kombucha’s haphazard trajectory by setting up companies with several or multiple shareholders jointly responsible for shoring up the business, or with corporate cash. I was forced to take the road least travelled and grew GO! organically by reinvesting every single penny while sofa-surfing close to 40 (so not a good look!)

But it was a route that enabled GO! to remain true to its core principles; brewing 100% authentic, premium Kombucha tea over 15 years with mentoring from the late, great Kombucha guru Alick Bartholemew, thereby honouring the Ancient Chinese legacy to this day; free from shareholder demands to cut corners and adulterate the brewing process to bolster profits.

That GO! Kombucha can stand tall today – a major accident on 19 May 2016 that closed production that summer notwithstanding – is what I consider to be a personal miracle, and great gift. I visualised and dreamt today’s reality into being most days this past decade; in that context each bottle poured and every glass drunk today, I believe, to be heaven sent.

Would I have had it any other way? Absolutely not!

FOOTNOTE: The day after the bank agreed the loan the 2008 global financial crisis hit and new loans to small businesses were promptly withdrawn. Synchronicity is a constant, reassuring companion on my journey, but that brush with disaster was a lightning bolt too close to call!

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why winning Great☆☆Taste means so much 1

Lindo-Wing-at-St-Marys-hospital-awaiting-Royal-Baby-Photo-C-Getty-Images

Back from the Brink: A Life Lesson in Never Giving Up

by Gary Leigh  Part 1

For several months in 2016 GO! Kombucha ceased production and, to all intents and purposes, was no more after 12 years of pioneering and paving the way for Kombucha tea in the UK.

After several turbulent months in early 2016 when harsh weather conditions hampered our production, at around 5pm on 19th May I suffered a life-changing accident that resulted in five months of hospitalization. With both legs broken below the knees, ankles smashed and two lower vertebrae fractured, 13 years of organically building GO! Kombucha from four cultures donated by the late, great UK Kombucha guru Alick Bartholemew and his wife Mari – and a zero interest credit card (not something I would recommend any sane person to ever consider!) – suddenly appeared over in one fell swoop.

The overriding consideration had to be my repair – replete with multiple pins in my feet and lower legs held in place by external steel rods and fixators which rendered me resembling a hybrid human-Meccano set – and umpteen months of recuperation and rehabilitation.

With the benefit of hindsight – and how I have chosen to interpret my experience – the Universe had resorted to extreme means to force me to slow down and smell the roses. I had been ignoring the warning signs for some time and was spinning many plates while tearing across the country – from my home in Manchester city centre to our ‘Kombuchery’ on the south coast – in an effort to keep them all spinning. Inevitably, and ultimately, they came crashing down, and me with them. A hard, painful and pin-filled lesson learned!

apply a positive spin to anything and everything

I woke up dazed from my induced sedation on 20th May 2016 in Manchester Royal Infirmary. I was somehow still alive if not kicking, my lower legs encased in cladding to segue them together pending several operations ahead, my upper body clamped in a near-suffocating brace to hold my back in position. But in that dreadful moment of realization I intuitively knew that if I was to make it through the tumultuously painful and rocky road ahead – myriad operations, endless medications and painkillers and excrutiatingly painful physio a given – and keep my sanity intact, I would have to apply a positive outlook/spin to anything and everything that entered my thoughts, and not dwell for one moment on my predicament; rather, to view it as a temporary setback and challenge to be overcome.

To that end I immediately befriended the wonderful nurses and porters on my ward, relished and savoured mealtimes and visiting hours, and focused on simply being grateful – indeed overwhelmed with relief and gratitude – to be alive, even as doctor after doctor recoiled from the sight of my injuries the like of which, they grimaced, they’d rarely encountered before. But the prognosis was good; I had never smoked nor drunk alcohol, and my healthy lifestyle – including daily lashings of GO! Kombucha! – had held me in good stead, reducing my expected recovery time to half that of the average person; 9-12 months as opposed to up to 2 years.

And even though my passion in raising awareness of Kombucha tea in the UK over the previous 12 years – quite the best task anyone could be gifted with having fallen into their lap (another long story!), and which had fueled and driven my life with zest and joy for many years – now lay in tatters, even the prospect of a sedentary job stuffing envelopes, I reasoned, seemed a tiny price to pay to still be breathing.

keeping the dream alive

Yet behind the scenes, even as I was being transferred down to St. Marys Hospital in Paddington, London to be operated upon, further south in East Sussex some good souls were working tirelessly to keep the dream alive and GO! Kombucha’s ongoing starter culture – like myself while being cared for by our priceless NHS – fed, nourished and nurtured in anticipation of a return to full production.

By the end of July 2016 I had recovered enough to be transferred from St. Mary’s wonderful Valentine Ellis Ward to my family’s local hospital, Northwick Park in Harrow, where I was reconciled with my self-contained office, a.k.a. my iPhone. I was then informed, to my utter amazement and sheer jubilation, that the culture I had nurtured since 2003 – and which had effectively spawned a Kombucha revolution in the UK as well as given my life a renewed sense of meaning and purpose – was still thriving when, for the preceding three months while my recovery took precedence, I’d been cut off from the outside world and assumed all was lost.

But now out of physical action myself, the challenge was on to find a way to get our complex – and occasionally temperamental – live tea made and flowing abundantly again…

(Part 2)

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great taste 2017 ☆ ☆ number-crunching

GO Kombucha Great Taste 2 Stars

To put GO! Kombucha’s ☆ ☆ win into perspective, of 12,366 products entered into Great Taste 2017 – acknowledged as the benchmark of food and drink industry awards – only 35% were accredited 1, 2 or 3 stars.  

GO! Kombucha Red Pu-erh Fermented Raw Tea was one of 1176 products to win a 2-star Great Taste award while just 165 products achieved the highest 3-star rating, placing GO! Kombucha in the top 8 per cent of all fine food and drink products entered from around the world (3,171 products were awarded a 1-star accolade)!

2 stars rates our earthy Red Pu-erh as “outstanding”; one of only 11 soft drinks entered to achieve 2 or 3 stars from the award organisers the Guild of Fine Food, their judges describing it as “an exceptionally refreshing and lively kombucha, really complex fermented taste, clean, aromatic and lively,” and, “excellently produced with skill.”

from Great Taste’s web site:-

“Judged by over 500 of the most demanding palates belonging to food critics, chefs, cooks, restaurateurs and producers as well as a whole host of food writers and journalists, Great Taste is widely acknowledged as the most respected food accreditation scheme for artisan and speciality food producers.

“As well as a badge of honour, the unmistakeable black and gold Great Taste label is a signpost to a wonderful tasting product, which has been discovered through hours and hours of blind-tasting by hundreds of judges.

“Recognised as a stamp of excellence among consumers and retailers alike, Great Taste values taste above all else. Whether it’s gin, biscuits, sausages or coffee, all products are removed from their wrapper, jar, box or bottle before being tasted. The judges then savour, confer and re-taste to decide which products are worthy of an award.

“The panel of judges included: chef, food writer and author Gill Meller, MasterChef judge and restaurant critic Charles Campion, author and chef Zoe Adjonyoh, baker Tom Herbert and food writer and baking columnist Martha Collison, as well as food buyers from Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges, and Harvey Nichols.

“In short, The Great Taste symbol is the consumer’s guarantee a product has been through a rigorous and independent judging process. It’s not about smart packaging or clever marketing – it’s all about taste.”

display of recognition

The experts have spoken and, in a notable display of recognition for the burgeoning UK kombucha tea sector, Great Taste 2017 also awarded 1-star apiece to Equinox Kombucha and Love Kombucha for their delicious Raspberry & Vanilla and Lime & Ginger flavours respectively.

Now, the agonising begins over which GO! Kombucha tea to enter into Great Taste’s 2018 awards. Hmm, GO! Kombucha Darjeeling Black, anyone?

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introducing GO! kombucha darjeeling black 250ml

GO! Kombucha Darjeeling Black Label Artwork

The search for a new GO! Kombucha flavour led us to Darjeeling, India, where the gracefully elegant Bengal tiger roams the Himalayan foothills . . .

MUCH THOUGHT and care goes into selecting the finest organic teas for GO! Kombucha. In 2013 when our 250ml line launched, rather than keep things simple with smaller versions of our existing 750ml range we introduced two new varieties, China White and Yunnan Gold; each contrasting with, and complementing, the existing flavours with their own characteristics while making for distinctly individual and unique beverages in their own right, despite being essentially the same underlying drink; tea infused with the Kombucha culture.

GO! Kombucha bucks the trend of flavouring with sugary fruit syrups and purées. Anyone who enjoys expertly brewed, full-bodied Kombucha tea ‘neat’ knows there’s no need to smother the perfect marriage of pure tea and the clean, crisp taste of raw, unadulterated Kombucha with a third layer of complexity which, if not done with adeptness and finesse, can overwhelm the palate and cancel out the delicate balance of taste notes, turning what is otherwise a mature and sophisticated drink experience into another fruit pop.

the tea estates of Darjeeling

It may seem counter-intuitive, then, that when we decided to add a new 250ml ‘grab-and-go’ tea variety – which you may agree the range has long cried out for! – the one taste profile we decided would complement and complete the existing line up of grassy Sencha, earthy Pu-erh, fragrant Pai-Mu-Tan (China White) and aromatic Superior Yunnan perfectly would be…fruit! A fruit note, that is, derived naturally from the taste and aromatics of the tea itself. And exhaustive research led us to one particular family of leaves…

Darjeeling is a region of West Bengal, 270 miles from Nepal on the Indian border. Dominated by the vast Himalayan vista, the mountain region’s foothills – linked by the famous 2ft wide, narrow-gauge “toy train” Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which snakes and winds for 48 miles through the hills at elevated levels of up to 7,218 feet en route to New Jalpaiguri – are dotted with lush tea estates, some of which date back to Colonial times, and which bask in the ideal climatic conditions for the very highest quality organic tea cultivation.

“the champagne of teas”

Darjeeling Black tea is known as “the champagne of teas” for good reason, its sumptuous flavour and unparalleled depth of taste owing to the unique geographical features of the Himalayan foothills which stand at an altitude of between 2000 and 6500 feet. A high altitude slows the tea leaves’ growth, thereby providing more time to develop their complex flavours before being plucked. And around 50 to 60 inches of rain falls in Darjeeling every year while the soil in the region is fertile and sloped; both perfect tea growing conditions.

Each Darjeeling tea estate, from which the different varieties of tea take their name, produce their own distinct variety: ‘first flushes’ harvested in mid-March following the spring rains and embodying a gentle light colour, aroma and mild astringency; and ‘second flushes’ harvested in June, darker in colour with an amber cup, full-bodied flavor and possessing the exquisite, highly-prized ‘muscatel’ black grape character owing to the genetic changes to the tea leaves caused by insects that infest the plants before the second flush harvest.

2017’s second flush crop “wiped out”

Some second flush teas have sold for as much as $1,850 (£1,427) per kilogram because of this uniqueness. Darjeeling produces about 8 million kilograms of tea per year, more than two-thirds of which is exported mainly to Europe, but last year’s entire crop was wiped out in June when Nepalese Gurkhas demanding cultural status and protection rights halted picking, disrupting supplies to European buyers and potentially pushing prices higher. (GO! Kombucha has sufficient stocks to ensure ongoing production)

Back at our Sussex vineyard we test-brewed Kombucha teas made from the finest of the Darjeeling crops we selected, and whittled and paired the best down to 4 splendid leaves; first flushes Ambootia and Risheehat – lighter in flavor combining peachy notes and a hint of spice – and second flushes Lingia and the exquisite Muscatel leaf plucked from the elevated gardens of the Gopaldhara Estate. We couldn’t choose just one leaf so…we’ve carefully blended all four for a truly unique, deliciously fruity GO! Kombucha tea taste sensation!