Farm to Brewery: Blue Indian Kombucha Serves Tea with a Local Tang

By LB Blackwell

It would be difficult to find a couple who embody the spirit of partnership that animates much of Chattanooga’s local food movement more than Zach and Karen Atchley. Their small but growing business, Blue Indian Kombucha, occupies a unique nexus between many of the scenic city’s surrounding farms and a diverse collection of its retailers. The focal point of these varied connections is Blue Indian’s kombucha tea, an increasingly popular beverage in the United States and Europe in recent years. According to Blue Indian’s website, kombucha is sweetened tea fermented by a culture commonly known as a SCOBY, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. The bacteria and yeast work together, the site explains, to convert sugar from the tea into alcohol and then into various acids, which supply the tea’s well-known tartness. Karen and Zach highlight that signature tang in their kombucha. “We want our kombucha to have a bite,” Zach explains. If you've tried it, you know they've succeeded.

                But there's more to Blue Indian Kombucha's tea than tartness. “Every flavor is crafted around a fruit that’s available locally,” Zach says. Blue Indian’s trademark is to create fruit and herb combinations, such as blackberry sage, which they refer to as their “flagship flavor.” Initially, Karen and Zach grew many of the brew’s ingredients themselves, particularly the herbs. As business picked up, Karen began selling kombucha at the Main Street Farmers Market. Partnerships were established directly through networking there, and before long they were buying ingredients from local farms. Such relationships are fundamental to Blue Indian's business model. In a post last May on Blue Indian's Facebook page, Zach wrote, “as a local food artisan we purposefully invest in our local farmers.” And Karen exudes passion when discussing this aspect of their business. “I love buying from the farmers,” she says.

                There's reason to be enthusiastic. For one thing, sourcing locally provides Karen and Zach information on how and the identity of who is growing the ingredients. Providing this knowledge to their customers offers opportunities for cross promotion among producers. They also have the satisfaction of knowing they are directly contributing to area farms, all the more significant in the age of agribusiness. In addition to being a customer that farmers can rely on, Blue Indian often purchases otherwise unmarketable product, either due to surplus or cosmetic imperfections that make food, particularly fruit, unappealing to some shoppers. Working closely with those they respect and admire renders pure delight. “Every farmer is a genius,” Zach says. “I'm so honored to stand among these people [at the market] every week,” Karen agrees, “they inspire me.” Stephanie Dickert of CoLyCo Farm, grows sage for Blue Indian Kombucha and returns the affection. “We love Karen and Zach (and their kombucha),” she writes. “We have been blessed to be able to work with [them] and in their growth we have experienced growth. Farming is such a reciprocal profession.”

                 As Blue Indian's business continues to expand, Zach and Karen are contemplating relocation in the near future. Right now they are able to pour about ten gallons weekly from each of their three 110-gallon barrels, but they envision a significant increase of scale. They also plan to invest in a deep freezer, which will allow them to acquire larger quantities of local fruit at peak season and freeze it for use throughout the year., They dream of their own retail storefront too, though they aren't sure when that might eventually happen. “Our plan was to just grow organically,” Zach says, “now we’re at a place where we’ve got the foundation laid, and we can build on it.”

                                Currently, kombucha initiates and aficionados can find Blue Indian’s brew at several Chattanooga retailers: Heaven & Ale, Root Kitchen and Wine Bar, Nutrition World, and Southern Sqweeze (Downtown and North Chattanooga locations). The first three provide growler refills. Also, Karen has a booth at the Main Street Farmers Market, which is open Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. (Winter hours: 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., November through March).  Stop by the booth to have a cup, fill a growler, chat about kombucha, or all three. Karen will happily point out the farmers growing the food that keeps the brew flowing.