“Tastiest and Most Health Conscious” -- How Dr Hops is Revolutionizing Hard Kombucha and Beverages in General

In 2019, Joshua Rood and Thomas Weaver launched Dr Hops Real Hard Kombucha, and a few things immediately stood out--even beyond their fun rabbit-mascot label art. The kombucha is higher in ABV than some other hard kombuchas (around 8%). It’s in super creative, appealing flavors that are both refreshingly unique for kombucha and also surprisingly familiar especially if you know you like beer or wine or cocktails but haven’t tried hard kombucha yet--there’s a Kombucha IPA, a Kombucha Rosé, a Ginger Lime, and a Strawberry Lemon. It uses natural ingredients and creates big flavors, it’s healthful but it’s fun. Dr Hops is such a special brand, one that feels exciting for seasoned hard kombucha imbibers and simultaneously feels like the right brand to bring newbies into the hard kombucha fold. We had lots of questions about how the brand achieves this and the specific ways it sets itself apart, so we caught up with Joshua Rood for the Dr Hops story, an inside look at how it’s made, their inspirations and vision for the brand, and the future.


What was your background before starting Dr Hops, and how did you come to work with beverages?

Joshua: I spent my twenties in Los Angeles as a bartender and liquor caterer and also a barista and espresso caterer, doing beverages all over Los Angeles County and Orange County. I grew up in Maine and a big part of my life was the garden: we grew vegetables, we grew our food all through the summer, and we spent time picking blueberries, raspberries, blackberries throughout the area. That’s where my relationship with food started--real, natural, raw, earthy food. And so then there was the catering in Los Angeles. Then I spent quite a few years doing yoga and raw foods and macrobiotic foods and healing foods; I managed a food service for a yoga retreat center, and then I helped open a raw vegan restaurant in LA. I was the kitchen manager there. Then when I moved to the Bay Area in 2006 or 2007, that’s when craft beer really started to hit its stride as a creative arena. Craft beer got really creative. Regular kombucha started to get really creative, and get much more local, there was more craft kombucha popping up. By 2015 or so, so much creativity was happening in both craft beer and kombucha that when I discovered I could make high-alcohol kombucha, it was this perfect combination of everything I just said.

Then I met Tommy [Weaver], he’s my co-founder and he’s the brewer. He had not the same journey I had, but a very complementary journey of his own. In college and in his twenties, he was really into mushroom cultivation related to brewing because brewers’ yeast is essentially a fungus. He had done extensive homebrewing of both beer and kombucha. Tommy’s skill in fermentation complemented my skills in food, freshness, and mixology. 

 

Why kombucha? And why this particular approach to kombucha, with a somewhat higher ABV and the use of hops to sort of fuse kombucha and beer?

Joshua: Craft beer was already too big probably. While that was very exciting, there was not much real opportunity there for myself as a creative. I’ve always been interested in creating something new, something that had never existed before. There was only one hard kombucha in world at time when we started…We were fascinated by all the things that could be done with hard kombucha. It was a wide open space, there was no manual on it. We could create our own practice, our own formula, our own intentions for what the product could be. That’s what we wanted to do. We thought we could do it better than anyone else and we thought it would be a lot of fun and we thought it would be commercially viable, so we went for it.

As for the higher alcohol content there are really two reasons. One, we know that a lot of people that buy alcohol make decisions based on alcohol content so we want to give them more of what they’re looking for. The other part of it is, for us, we wanted to make something that is balanced and complex and interesting to drink over time, and the higher alcohol content allowed us to do that better. You get more flavor out of the ingredients because some of the aromatics and flavor molecules are extracted by the alcohol. You can do more complex, interesting things at a higher alcohol content. 

With the hops, because we’re inspired by the craft brewing community and scene, hops--this is before IPAs conquered world, they were just starting to take over the world--were getting so interesting. There were so many new varieties, so many different smells and flavors and ways you could use hops. Hops added a special balance to our product that nobody else seemed interested in exploring. A hard kombucha with a hop element, we thought that made a better beverage, more balanced, more interesting, more effective in your body.


How is the process making Dr Hops hard kombucha different from other hard kombuchas?

Joshua: We use the kombucha culture--we’ve created a culture, we started it in 2015, and it’s developed and evolved continuously ever since. It’s always had organic yerba mate as part of it, that’s unique. We use black tea, green tea, and yerba mate in our kombucha mother culture. It’s a very strong, amazing culture, and it tastes better than any kombucha I’ve ever had. It’s very sour but not very vinegary. 

We do maintain a very authentic kombucha culture, and we also control its exposure to open air--it does get exposure to open air and the natural environment especially in the beginning, but it’s also in a stainless steel brewing tank so we can control how much exposure it gets which also helps it taste better. Using real organic hops in our brewing process is unique; using real fruit and ginger rather than purees or extracts or flavorings, that’s unique. For our kombucha rosé, we’re putting grapes into the fermentation process, not just adding juice or flavors or purees. 

The main thing that sets the real hard kombucha apart form everything else is it takes us two months to make each thing because the process is so gentle. For brewers’ speak, everything is cold lagered because we’re not filtering or using a centrifuge. Once everything is fermented, and the plant matter is integrated, we have to just cool it and let everything settle out. That takes a long time and makes it taste better. 

 

What was the vision for Dr Hops and the thinking behind it, in terms of the lifestyle and what it offers people?

Joshua: The core thing that we want to make available to people is an exquisitely pleasurable beverage to drink, and a huge part of that for us is making it as healthy and enlivening as possible. Even the high alcohol content is part of that for me. In most beverages, you’re going to get some kind of sugar, and the less sugar you drink the better. The stronger the drink, the less sugar you’re going to end up needing to drink overall. Making something as tasty and health conscious as possible includes every single element--sugar content, vibrance of each ingredient like each fresh it is, how alive it is, how organic it is, how unheated it is--that matters. Fundamentally people who want alcohol are looking for some kind of special experience, to socialize or have fun or kick back or get a little crazy. We want them to be able to do that but in a much more health conscious way.


What is the brainstorming process for different flavors?

Joshua: Each of our varieties started partly from our own inspirations and desires. We love ginger, so we gotta’ have a ginger one. Ginger is such a perfect plant to have in kombucha, such a perfect plant to have in Dr Hops. It’s enlivening, invigorating, and tastes amazing--if you like ginger [laughs]. Each variety comes from what we want. From the moment we started developing the product in 2015, we started taking it to public events and having people taste it and give us feedback. So the first four years of development was with regular public feedback. So we know what people love. Like we thought rosé is over [laughs], but people liked it so much we thought, “Well, we have to do it!” It came from community feedback. 

We saw we could take each flavor and make it an ode to an alcoholic beverage style. So we wanted to have a beer style: we do this really hoppy one and it’s the most beer-like kombucha in the world. Our rosé one, it’s the most wine-like of any kombucha out there. Then Ginger Lime, it’s the most invigorating ginger kombucha, and our strawberry one is the most fruit-forward kombucha in the world. They all provide an access point for people who don’t know they like kombucha--”Oh, this is like this other thing I like; it’s like rosé, it’s like an IPA, it’s like a mimosa.”


How do you source ingredients and why does this matter to Dr Hops?

Joshua: There’s not much we use that’s grown locally, because fundamentally, hard kombucha, it’s sugar and tea, and we don’t have a lot of that grown in California. But from the beginning, some of the key advisors we have are in the tea business, so we source all our tea organically and fair trade. Black tea, green tea, yerba mate--all organic and fair trade. That’s important because tea can be an exploitative business. Because sugar, too, can be grown unscrupulously, it’s also important we source that organic and fair trade. Doing that, we end up with a good cultivation system. Because we’re fermenting the sugar, and all the alcohol that forms comes from that cane sugar, it’s the most significant part of our supply chain. 

The fruits and plants, we find the highest quality we can. The ginger comes from Peru because that’s where the best organic ginger comes from. The strawberries are from California because we grow amazing strawberries in California. The lemons and limes we use are from the West Coast, sometimes from Mexico and sometimes from California, where the best citrus comes from. The wine grapes are from the Pacific Northwest. It makes sourcing responsible--not super local all the time but responsible, and the best possible. 

 

You mention on your website that you never filter or centrifuge your hard kombucha--why is that, what does it bring to the kombucha?

Joshua: Mostly it allows all the most delicate and beautiful parts of the kombucha to remain intact, to remain in the liquid. Aromatics, all the bacteria, enzymes, all the most delicate parts remain…If you start filtering and centrifuging you lose a lot of those, you shake them out or oxidize them. So it allows a much higher fidelity beverage both in terms of taste and health consciousness, and that’s what we’re after.


Who would like Dr Hops, and how is it best enjoyed?

Joshua: Certainly Dr Hops is first and foremost for the consumer who wants the very best, tastiest alcohol experience they can get--the freshest and best tasting. For pairing it with food, it goes extremely well with any fresh, raw food, as basic as other fermented foods to something more complex like ceviche. It’s exceptionally good with any fruit. Some of our products stand up well with heavier food, too, like spicier foods or meats, especially Ginger Lime and the Kombucha IPA…even the Rosé, those are big flavors, and they hold up really well with most foods, especially compared to most other hard kombuchas. Because Dr Hops is such a full-bodied product without being too sweet, its very purpose is on its own as a recreational beverage when you’re wanting to have a really good time. 


What does the future hold for Dr Hops?

Joshua: The main thing is we want to take this beautiful gem we’ve created, this extremely fresh, high ABV, cold lagered kombucha, and expand on it. We want to make lighter products so you can drink three or four or six of them more easily. We want to make more stable products you don’t have to necessarily refrigerate but they’re still the most fresh and health conscious of their kind. We want to expand, we want to go in different directions from here but still hold on to our core concept which is “tastiest and most health conscious.” 

As far as our company, we would love to have a taproom where we could do a ton of experimentation and meet our fans because we love the people who love Dr Hops, those are our people. We don’t have any immediate plans for that, but would certainly love to do that, and want to someday. Long-term, we would also like to go beyond alcohol, whether it’s cannabis or other types of mushrooms or non-alcoholic products…we would like to provide people with alternative recreational experiences that are not just alcohol. We want to make celebratory beverages that are awesome when you’re out to have an amazing time, with people you love, celebrating a special occasion, doing something outdoors--but we want to go beyond alcohol.

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