By Gregory Daurer | Jan 30, 2023
Schepps says she wants her line of kombuchas to look "completely crazy compared to everything else on the shelf."
Instead of giving off stereotypical "hippie-kind-of-namaste" vibes typically associated with kombucha, Schepps has gone for "aggressive" branding that wouldn't look out of place on a sports energy drink. That branding comes complete with the image of a hand choking the juice out the main flavor ingredient within the drink -- like a lime or strawberry.
After all, her brand name arose as a pun on the violent Mortal Kombat line of video games. "Fight death," goes the slogan at the top of Mortal Kombucha's website.
Here's the origin story: As an advertising creative director, Schepps took note how the kombucha she was drinking listed "100 percent purified love" as one of ingredients. The New Jersey native practically blew a gasket. "I was just like, 'Are you kidding me?!'" she recalls.
Schepps jokingly hit on the Mortal Kombucha theme and designed a website with explosive imagery (a pun on the real-life occurrences of bottles of fermented kombucha beverages exploding). And then Schepps offered the nonexistent products for sale. "People started purchasing it off my Squarespace site, which had an e-commerce component to it," she says, before acknowledging, "and then I had to figure out how to make kombucha."
That Schepps did, generating kombucha's all-important SCOBY starter and turning out runs of the tart fermented tea. Initially, she prepared it out of a commercial kitchen. But when Schepps started landing accounts like Whole Foods, she sought the professional help of Rocky Mountain Cultures, a co-packer in Gypsum, Colorado, that specializes in kombucha.
Schepps calls Rocky Mountain Cultures a "partner with us, on growing this" business. And as a result of ceding control over the production to her co-packer, Schepps says "the product got better, more consistent. Everything got better. Basically, they had the ability to buy better ingredients at better prices that, you know, scale. They have more tuned equipment -- so our carbonation levels became just dialed."
Schepp's company also sells a prebiotic line of sparkling waters. And a "crushable" version of hard kombucha, topping off at 5.2 percent alcohol by volume, that's only available within Colorado. She says the now-defunct Bonfire Brewing lent technical advice on its preparation to Rocky Mountain Cultures.
The company's growth curve is steep. "We've probably sold almost a million bottles [in 2022]," says Schepps of her company's output. That doubled the 2021 total, when growth hit 4X from the year before.
Presently, Mortal Kombucha can be found in around 40 states. It's available at King Soopers stores in the Rocky Mountain region, as well as Whole Foods and Natural Grocers. Additional outlets include Central Market in Texas, Jimbo's stores in Southern California, and Harmons Grocery in Utah.
Schepps wants to "destigmatize" kombucha for newbies in Middle America (and all corners beyond) who might decide to try a Mortal Kombucha rather than reaching for a Red Bull or Monster Energy drink or some other caffeinated "effervescent bubbly drink."
A tactic she employs: "Let's give people flavors that they understand like watermelon, mint, or apple, pear, margarita" rather than zany ingredients like "turmeric-ashwagandha-Lion's Mane-peppercorn," she jokes. "We make a better-for-you beverage that we don't treat like a better-for-you beverage at all. And we just kind of make it with fun branding and bright colors and easy-to-understand flavors."
For instance, in terms of coloring, Schepps wanted her Margarita + Lime kombucha to radiate a startlingly-blue hue akin to a Gatorade; to achieve that end, the company uses blue spirulina, not food dyes which are present in some Gatorade products. (The drink's name, Marg Simpson, was chosen in homage to a popular blue-haired cartoon character on TV.) Another kombucha that's tinted black uses activated charcoal to achieve its dark hue.
Mortal Kombucha's base ingredients are far from unhealthy. They include USDA Organic ingredients, and they're non-GMO. Schepps says, "We make it really, really well -- have all the organic natural food checkboxes -- but we talk about it like soda or an unhealthy drink."
Since she lives with a long-term medical condition herself, Schepps tries to keep her drinks' sugar levels low. After all, when all is said and done, Schepps, who sits on the board of directors of Naturally Boulder, does have people's mortal health in mind. "I'm a type one diabetic, so that's super important to me to be able to drink my own beverage," she notes.
Challenges: The "learning curve" that's come along with being "a first-time Consumer Packaged Goods founder," says Schepps.
Opportunities: Now that Mortal Kombucha has done well in natural foods stores, it's taking on the "conventional channel," consisting of larger national chains and big box stores, says Schepps.
Needs: As Mortal Kombucha develops into a bigger brand, Schepps says it's "making sure that we have those right team members in place so that we don't make expensive mistakes."