Jay Ressler saw potential where others did not. Having spent time homebrewing beer during college, Ressler was familiar with making his own alcoholic beverages. Yet, by the time he was working a 9-5 job, his interest in making beer had waned.
Ressler found an untapped market after seeing the wave of health-consciousness many people adopted in the 2010s. He combined that health-consciousness of residents in Southern California with the craft beverage scene of his hometown of San Diego to create Jaybird Kombucha.
Nowadays, many people are opting for lighter, healthier drinks than in the past. Ressler’s alternative to those alcoholic beverages is a hard kombucha that offers drinkers a guilt-free buzz. The savvy entrepreneur sat down with Totalprestige Magazine to talk all about Jaybird Kombucha.
Jay, can you start off by telling us how Jaybird Kombucha got its start?
Growing up, I was always fascinated by cooking and experimenting with new foods and flavors. In college I brewed beer with my roommate for a couple of years, and became familiar with the process of homebrewing. Being from San Diego, I always thought it would be cool to start a brewery but by the time I was homebrewing beer, the timing to jump into the craft beer industry didn’t seem right.
By that time, most of the big name breweries/distributors had already bought up whatever craft beers they wanted to add to their portfolio – like Ballast Point, Saint Archer, to name a couple. Once I graduated college, I was less interested in brewing beer as I was not drinking it as much. I transitioned to brewing kombucha then made a quick transition to brewing hard kombucha. At that point, there were only one or two hard kombucha brands on the market. I saw the potential in the category, but was unimpressed by the taste of the products, so I made it my mission to make a product that was as good as the idea of hard kombucha itself.
By this time, I was working a 9-5 at an aerospace/defense company, and felt like it was the right time to take the leap and start my own thing. I quit my 9-5 in June of 2019 and shortly after brought on a long-time friend of mine, Luke, who had a different set of strengths and skills as my business partner. All of my money had already been invested in Jaybird at the time, and Luke had just finished his masters program and did not have any money either.
We started pitching at the local library to anyone who would sit down and listen to what we had to pitch. We really had to scratch and claw for every dollar we raised. It was extremely difficult, and the challenge of fundraising with nothing to show to investors except for samples of the product and a pitch deck was something we tremendously underestimated at first.
By February 2020 we had raised just enough capital to start seriously looking for our first brewery/tasting room location. We started negotiating a lease for a turnkey brewery, and were set to move in March 2020. Just before the negotiations wrapped up, COVID struck, and we spent the next 11 months trying to figure out our next move, while preserving the capital we had raised, not knowing what the future of breweries and tasting rooms was going to look like. By February 2021, we were finally presented with a great opportunity to purchase a brewery located in the heart of the San Diego craft beer scene in Miramar. Right down the street from us are a few world renowned breweries including Ballast Point, Mikkeler, Saint Archer, and Alesmith to name a few. We ended up moving into the brewery in May 2021, and spent the next four and half months transforming the space to make it our own. We had our grand opening on September 11, the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and donated 20% of our profits from the day to Veterans Village of San Diego as a tribute to the opening on 9/11.
It seems like Kombucha has become more popular in the last few years, but many people may still not be aware of what it exactly is. Can you explain to readers what Kombucha is and what it tastes like?
Traditional kombucha is a fermented tea – typically with green and/or black tea. The fermenting agent is called a “SCOBY” which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Kombucha originated in China, and has been around for thousands of years, and hard kombucha really just became a thing within the past five or so years. Hard kombucha uses traditional kombucha as a base, then undergoes a secondary fermentation process which raises the ABV (alcohol percentage).
Kombucha typically has a slightly vinegary taste, and to many people, is an acquired taste, however our mission at Jaybird is to provide the best tasting, most drinkable hard kombucha even “non-kombucha drinkers” will enjoy.
Kombucha isn’t naturally alcoholic, but Jaybird has developed an alcoholic version of the drink, correct? What led to the decision to enter the alcoholic beverage industry?
Traditional kombucha actually does have trace levels of alcohol in the range of 0.5% ABV (alcohol by volume). Seeing the wave of health-consciousness in the mid-20-teens, combined with the craft beverage scene in San Diego, I immediately saw the potential for how popular this type of drink would be. So many people were opting for healthier alternatives to beer or wine. People wanted something lighter, something that wasn’t as filling as the typical west coast IPAs, a “better-for-you” alcohol to be able to get the guilt-free buzz.
How long did it take you and co-founder Luke Syka to go from idea to full-fledged company?
The idea really cemented in my mind in January 2018. Luke came on board August 2019, and opened our doors to the tasting room just two years later in September 2021.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact the company?
What first appeared to be a huge blow to our startup process actually ended up being the biggest blessing we could have asked for. We were literally days away from inking a deal on a lease before COVID struck. If we would have inked that lease, it is highly likely that we would have lost all of the capital we raised to lease obligations and never had the chance to get started up. Throughout 2020 we never really let off the brakes. We explored eight different deals from acquisitions to partnerships, none of which worked out for various reasons – which also ended up being a blessing because the brewery we have now, AKA The Nest, was not just the best deal we encountered, but was the best fit for us. Other than the eight deals we explored, we spent the rest of the time refining our branding and marketing strategies which are already paying off hugely for us.
What challenges did you face during the pandemic and was it difficult to overcome those issues?
We faced many of the same challenges that most other businesses in the industry were facing – not knowing how things were going to shake out, or when; if and when things were going to get better or worse, when business would be able to even be open; the effects of COVID on prices and the global supply chain; if anyone would want to invest in a startup brewery, and when. The list goes on but those were some of the major ones.
Can you tell us about the taproom and the in-house tasting at the Nest that is offered by Jaybird Kombucha?
The goal when designing the tasting room was to have it be a place that was unique. So many breweries have the same look and feel, and we wanted our tasting room to be a breath of fresh air to our customers. Our designer, Ali Keenan, is an up-and-coming architectural designer based in LA. She has a keen eye for the exact vibe we were shooting for, while also focusing on sustainability. Every piece of the tasting room has a unique story behind it. Once you visit, you will understand!
Jay, you worked for an aerospace/defense company and Luka is an ex-investment banker. How did the two of you decide to go into business together and leave your own careers?
We both received our degrees in environmental engineering – Luke from UCSD, and mine from Cal Poly – SLO. Luke and I grew up together – from playing little league, to spearfishing in middle school, to high school water polo, and also just have been friends since middle school. After Luke had finished his masters program at Columbia, he drove back to San Diego to start looking for jobs out here. The day after he returned to San Diego, we caught up over beers at a local brewery. I was telling him all about Jaybird, and that I had just quit my 9-5 and was just starting to fund raise. I hinted that I was also looking for a business partner since I knew I was not going to be able to fulfill my vision of Jaybird all on my own. From there we would go to libraries to refine the business plan and the pitch deck. We started pitching mid to late 2019, and Luke took a job as an investment banker in NYC in January 2020, while still working part-time for Jaybird. Luke has since moved back to San Diego, where he took a different job that is a little less demanding than investment banking and splits his time between that and Jaybird.
What does Jaybird Kombucha have in store for next year? How will the company continue to grow?
We have big plans for the next 12 months, and we are thrilled to be entering the hard kombucha space at this time. We are focused on delivering the best hard kombucha to our local community in San Diego in the short term. Of course, our tasting room is open, and we are just starting to move into on-premise distribution to some of our favorite local bars and restaurants. By the end of this year we plan to have cans which will be sold at off-premise locations like grocery stores, liquor stores, and of course our tasting room.
Will you look to market Jaybird outside of the United States? Is hard Kombucha something people will get into in other countries?
We will potentially look to distribute Jaybird internationally in the future, but for now we are focused on satisfying our beloved community here in San Diego and Southern California.
Jay, what is a day in your life like?
I try to get as much out of each day as I can. I usually wake up around 5 am and workout to get the day started right and get my mind in the right place. Depending on what is going on that day, I typically spend most of the day in the brewery. We have such a small team that I still have my hands in every facet of the business from operations, to legal, to administrative and beyond. Ideally, I like to spend most of my time executing the vision of Jaybird, but of course with such a small team I often spend most of my time handling day-to-day operations.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I love to fish. If I could fish every day for the rest of my life, I would be the happiest man alive.
What makes you smile?
I love being surrounded by my friends and family, when everyone is cracking jokes and making fun of each other. There is nothing like a good laugh with a bunch of friends and family.
What scares you?
Well, I am not a huge fan of heights, but on a more serious note I guess one thing that scares me on a deeper level is the thought of being alone as an old man. I am a social animal; I love to be around my loved ones…although I appreciate my alone time!
If you had the power to change just one thing in the world, what would it be?
I think one of the biggest problems in the world right now is how people interact when it comes to differing beliefs and values. It seems like people are so quick to judge and dismiss others when the other person doesn’t agree or share the same beliefs as them. If people who disagree with each other could just sit down and talk to each other and try to understand where the other person is coming from, the world would be a much better place.
For more on Jay Ressler and Jaybird Kombucha, please visit the company’s official website, https://www.jaybirdkombucha.com/.