When Alex Ingalls talks about Pilot Kombucha, she says “we,” but until a few months ago, she alone was the company. Founded in 2015 in Greenpoint, Pilot is at the local helm of redefining the scope and potential of fermented tea. Ingalls takes a nuanced approach to flavor and targets a different kind of kombucha drinker—one who, like herself, relishes in the pleasure of indulgent meals and nights out.
Ingalls considers existing kombucha drinkers low hanging fruit. “The people who are out drinking and partying and eating all these amazing foods, they’re the people who really need kombucha,” Ingalls said. “It becomes a question of how do I get that person to see my product and actually be curious enough to try it.” As she brought her product to market, Ingalls targeted the kinds of places she frequented: local cheese shops, butchers, artisanal lunch counters.
For flavor inspiration, Ingalls turns to cookbooks and pays attention to what she eats at restaurants around New York. She keeps a list on her phone of combinations she encounters through doing what she loves: engaging with and making food. Her test for a successful variety begins at home; if she brews a gallon and she can’t stop drinking it, she explores scaling it up to the production line.
Read more: How to make kombucha
Rather than depending on fruit juices to differentiate one variety from another, Ingalls starts each of the 10 kombucha flavors Pilot offers with a unique tea base. This allows her to layer flavors at different stages of the fermentation process, whether adding fruit juice during the fermentation process or “dry-hopping” herbs and spices at a later stage.
Read more: The art of secondary kombucha fermentation
Ingalls works with organic teas, but often infrastructure prevents her from getting the options she likes best. Like Pilot Kombucha, many of the tea farmers, even though they use organic practices, aren’t certified because the cost is prohibitive. And sufficient quantity is a struggle, too. “Often when I find a nice tea, it’s single origin from a small farm with a single family growing it,” Ingalls said. “You’re not really able to get that at any capacity where you can brew it and sell to people.” To compromise, she blends varieties.
She strives to strike the balance between unique, approachable and accessible combinations. Sometimes, that means taking a risk. For one of her first flavors, Ingalls adds grapefruit juice to a base mixture of fermented green tea and mint tea. Coming from a restaurant kitchen background, citrus and mint was a natural and desirable flavor combination. But it can take a little persuasion to convince people without that experience, who can sour at the thought of toothpaste and orange juice, to try it.
After about two years on the retail market, Ingalls is gearing up for the next steps to scale. This fall, she anticipates opening a taproom space in the ongoing Market Line development in the Lower East Side. She just landed a deal with UNFI, a major distributor of organic products, which will introduce Pilot Kombucha to Whole Foods locations in New York City and the Hudson Valley. But untethered growth isn’t what Ingalls envisions; she wants to keep the company regional to focus on maintaining quality and bringing more people into the kombucha fold.
Check out their website to find Pilot Kombucha near you.