Fermenting a future: Whitman student develops business, beverage
“I had one sip of the ginger kombucha and I had a transcendent moment where I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, I could do this,’” said senior Dave McGaughey. When McGaughey talks about kombucha, his passion for the stuff is palpable—unsurprising for someone who also collects 1990s kombucha books.
McGaughey first tried kombucha in 2009, this experience being the first of two fateful moments to help carve out his particular future. The second came later the same year when kombucha—a nutritious fermented tea drink—was being taken off the market in order for companies to better learn how to control the beverage’s trace amounts of alcohol.
“I was in the store buying up the last of it—everything I could get, because for as far as I knew it was never coming back,” said McGaughey. “I was with literally the last six in my hand and there was a woman there with the other last six.”
This woman took notice of Dave, and approached him.
“She invited me to her home, she gave me my first cultures, she showed me how to do it, and I never saw her again,” he said. “She kind of intervened in my life direction, and I named my company after her. Amaku is her name, so I named my company Amaku Cultures.”
McGaughey’s kombucha is subtly sweet and puckery, and has a gentle effervescence that comes from the fermentation process. Since 2009, he has been working on perfecting the recipe and figuring out how to produce on a larger scale. He currently has a brewing operation set up in his off-campus home, buys organic tea by the pound and produces kombucha flavors ranging from Hibiscus/Rose to Hawthorne/Dandelion. When he isn’t brewing—or what McGaughey refers to as “my meditation time”—he’s dealing with his full senior course load, hunting down seventy glass bottles a week to meet production needs and thinking about his future business plans.
“I’m very much doing it now to practice doing it later,” he said. “I’m going to change a lot about my production when I go on, because I need to make about 100 to 150 cases a week to make profit in the large scale. That’s a lot of kombucha. But this is what I want to do.”
For all of his inspiration, McGaughey still approaches things with the grounded realism of a businessman. Right now he’s thinking about funding, investors and grants and what he will need to become a small-batch producer of premium kombucha.
“I have not wavered since I met Amaku in the health food store in 2009,” said McGaughey. “I really believe in kombucha. There is a social justice bent to it. It’s a product of privilege—it’s expensive—but if it can be made accessible, it can be a great replacement for soda.”
Prospective customers can message McGaughey over his Facebook page, “Amaku Cultures | Whitman’s Kombucha Company,” to ask questions and place orders. They can also contact McGaughey at email@example.com.