The first thing you notice about Fine Health Kombucha co-founder Shawn Kelly is his incredible hair. The second thing you notice is how quickly he talks, more to the point how quickly (and passionately) he talks about kombucha—the trendy fermented tea beverage that’s been at the center of Kelly’s professional life for the past several years. Not that that was always the plan.
Yes, he’s a co-founder of New Jersey’s first-ever kombucha retail store with his brother and partner Ryan, but prior to that, Kelly was a sought-after New York City hair colorist. He didn’t even drink kombucha. He did, however, brew some healthy tonics here and there and began to envision starting a high-end, quality-driven health and wellness brand. Then a friend gave him a kombucha culture for some home-brewing and everything changed.
We caught up with Kelly to get a few more details on Fine Health Kombucha, the Shore-based kombucha and wellness brand that’s about to take up a lot more shelf space in the industry.
Table Hopping: Kombucha is a complex product. Do you have a food or drinks background?
Shawn Kelly: I come from a food background. I fell in love with food in New York. I was living in Astoria, actually doing high-end hair color in the city. I met a lot of different people and [was] exposed to different cultures. Then I started working in the food industry… Long and short of it, I went from mixing hair color to mixing food to mixing drinks.
TH: You started with successful home brewing, then opened the Fine Health Kombucha retail store in Bradley Beach in 2015. Why a retail store, as opposed to selling wholesale?
SK: I always had a vision for Fine Health as its own high-end wellness company, to span across different industries, even before the kombucha. Then a friend of mine got me a culture. It sat in my house for months before I started to brew. I wasn’t drinking kombucha at the time! Then, when I started brewing, I never stopped. Six months later, I was looking for a retail space.
TH: So Fine Health the brand is the larger goal, beyond the kombucha?
SK: I was always into fitness, feeling good, eating good. The kombucha is really paving the way. Not to mention it’s nice to sit back and say I’m doing something that’s actually really good for people!
TH: You opened the “Boochery” in Neptune City to accommodate growth. How much are you currently brewing?
SK: We were in the Bradley Beach location for three years, but we started doing all the brewing out of the Boochery. We opened that last August. We do about 4,500 16-ounce bottles a month, at the moment.
TH: There’s so much kombucha out there. What’s unique about Fine Health?
SK: There’s an abundance to the ingredients. Everything’s organic. The blends, the pungency. My three-tea blend base is green rooibos, yerba mate, and oolong. Green rooibos is like red rooibos’ more tart cousin, but also herbal, so my kombucha does have a lower caffeine content. That blend is the base of all my flavors; it’s a backdrop where the tea doesn’t overpower one thing.
TH: How do you put together your flavors?
SK: Different things work well. Vanilla works with a rooibos background. Black tea is going to hide berries. I know what works by now. I was never really a tea guy, either. But I really studied the profiles of [the teas]. Finished kombucha doesn’t taste anything like the tea. I’m pushing for culinary appeal in my product. I don’t really feel like that’s a goal in the industry so much.
TH: Especially as a non-kombucha drinker at first, how did you come up with flavor profiles unique to Fine Health?
SK: Reading about it, talking about flavor. Working with all fresh ingredients, whether it be herbs, rosemary, mint, orange, blackberry, blueberry, strawberry—all kinds of things. We have a good range—five core flavors. Our blueberry has cinnamon and vanilla; it’s a bit smoother and people love the color. Another one is three berries brewed straight up. I try to hit something with a root—ginger’s very good for the system when it’s fermented. It’s a nice, rounded blend.
TH: We’ve also seen the rise of kombucha cocktails. Does Fine Health work behind the bar?
SK: Yes. They had one at Mathews Food & Drink in Jersey City. Watermark and Reyla do cocktails in Asbury Park, and they do a mocktail with it at the Bonney Reed.
TH: You do seasonal flavors, but what else is coming up for Fine Health?
SK: There’s a lot on the table. A push into Manhattan’s coming up. And we’re working on getting direct-to-consumer. That means cold cases right to your house. That’s something you don’t really see in the [kombucha] industry. That’s why it takes so long to figure out the right distribution. We’re really trying to pitch ourselves as the only top-shelf kombucha brand on the market.
TH: How do you plan on getting there? What’s the timeline?
SK: What I’m looking for is “correct growth.” Taking the right avenues. As for the timeline on that, there was going to be a location in the city, an incubator for the product. Then we’re strategically going into restaurants. [There are] definitely some hotels we’re in talks with. We’re excited about new distribution, new markets. In New Jersey, it’s about going into major cities and direct-to-consumer. We’re probably about two months out from that, I would say—within 2019.
TH: I’d have to assume by now you’re a kombucha drinker?
SK: I drink a ton—of my own kombucha! No, I have room for other kombucha, honestly. There’s a lot of room.
Fine Health Kombucha brewery and retail space are located at 120 West Sylvania Avenue in Neptune City; 732-361-7309. But you can also find Fine Health, in retail or on tap, at these locations. While Fine Health is mostly available in eastern New Jersey, the direct-to-consumer shipping should open up distribution to more, if not all, of the state. ‘Booch fans, stay tuned.Click here to leave a comment