These friends-turned-entrepreneurs hit the right note with their organic kombuchas
It took many cups of strong Chai and deep camaraderie for four Kolkata-based friends—Sonali Sonpal, Shilpa Soni, Jagruti Shah and Smita Agarwal—to brew a kombucha business in town. Once they left, there was no turning back.
In 2007, the four previously unknown women attended a women’s financial freedom workshop in Kolkata, where they quickly connected and remained lifelong friends, united by their responsibilities of running the home, children, family businesses, etc.
Fast forward 15 years, friends became entrepreneurs with Calbrew Kombucha, which infuses the fermented, slightly effervescent and sweetened black tea beverage commonly consumed for its purported health benefits.
Barely a year old, the brand is a favorite of several Kolkata cafes including Glenburn Café and Bunosilo Estate Coffee Roasters. Wellness expert Luke Coutinho featured Calbrew Kombucha on his health food website.
“The concept of Kombucha was relatively unknown to us until our friend Sonali told us about it. Her son, who was visiting from the United States, introduced it to his mother, who started making kombucha at home with different flavors,” says Jagruti in a conversation with His history.
While vacationing in Varanasi in 2020, Sonali broached the subject of starting a business together to make and sell kombuchas. Incidentally, all four women contributed in one way or another to their respective family businesses and, over time, had come to understand that it was important for them to carve out a place for themselves.
“In family businesses, what happens is that at the end of the day there is always a bit of male chauvinism. I understand that, because they have been working for ages, and they know the skills,” says Smita.
They started by experimenting with different flavors of kombucha, brewing it at Sonali, bottling it, and distributing it to friends and family.
Demand quickly picked up and the quartet was forced to seek rented premises to use as a manufacturing and bottling unit. They quickly named their business Calbrew Kombucha and registered the company in 2021.
The history of kombucha dates back to 220 BC. when it is believed to have originated in northeast China and quickly became popular for its healing properties.
The growing popularity of superfoods in India has made kombucha a health ‘fad’, replacing sodas and other soft drinks. The fact that one can infuse multiple flavors to make it more appealing to a wider audience also helped.
As Calbrew Kombucha is determined to be organic, makers are particular about picking the best variety of loose leaf tea to get the basics right. “We use organic tea leaves as Oolong, Nilgiriswhite, green and black tea to make our Kombucha,” says Smita.
The four co-founders are working on the recipes after a lot of in-house research. The flavors – ranging from orange mint to peach, vanilla, etc. – are constantly tried and tested with new blends, infusions and seasonal flavors like lavender, which comes from Kashmir.
The company is awaiting certification to be organic. “That’s why we don’t use the word organic on our bottles, although we only use organic products,” says Smita.
Calbrew’s products are available on its website for pan-India shipping, and the founders soon plan to make them available on e-commerce websites including Amazon and Flipkart.
“Sorting cold chain storage and delivery was not easy, but now we have figured it out. Since our products do not contain any preservatives, they have a relatively shorter shelf life and we wanted to ensure that the delivery did not impair its quality,” says Smita.
Category extension and more
Besides Kombucha, the company now makes other fermented drinks like kefir, originally both a water and a milk-based drink.
A fermented and naturally carbonated water-based beverage rich in probiotics, kefir grains contain a healthy mix of beneficial bacteria and yeast. Calbrew’s kefir flavors range from blueberry and lychee lime to kokum and mojito mint.
Its most recent product, Coffucha – a blend of coffee and kombucha – is a cold brew fizzy coffee fermented for seven to ten days using the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.
Moving up the superfood category, Calbrew also makes a seasonal product called “kanji– made from fermented seasonal vegetables like beets and carrots and processed into ready-to-drink juice. As of now, this product is only available for sale in Kolkata due to its short shelf life.
At present, the company is in a start-up phase and the four founders are clear that they will not seek external funding, instead focusing on slow, steady, organic growth.
“If we wanted to, it would be so easy for us to scale this up in a big way by pasteurizing and gasifying the products. But that’s not why we’re here. We want to educate people about the health benefits of kombucha first and keep the USP of the product intact – it’s meant to give you good health and great taste,” says Jagruti.
Other Indian kombucha brands include HappyBooch, Atmosphere Studio, and Borecha.
friendships and partnerships
Ask any entrepreneur, and they’ll tell you that building a business is hard, but running it is even harder.
Does it make things easier if you have your friends on board in this journey called entrepreneurship?
Smita says, “For nearly 20 years, the four of us had been so involved in helping our husbands run their businesses that we were unaware of new ways of working, financial issues, etc. When it was time for us to look for something worthy to do, we wanted something where we would fit in easily and where we would be the boss. It’s not like we’re in our twenties, where we have all the time in life to settle down, grow, learn, unlearn, manage, and then thrive,” Smita says candidly.
She adds, “At our age, we all knew that forming a partnership isn’t easy, but if we did, it might work better with each other because we had been friends for so long.