At first glance, the colourful bottles lined up on the table at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market look like fancy pop or juice. But look closer and you’ll see strings of slime
floating at the top. It looks like a science experiment.
It’s called “kombucha” and those fibres are supposed to be there; they’re pieces of the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that ferment the drink.
Ryan MacLellan has been selling his product, Cove Kombucha, for six months. “I had no idea what I was getting into, really,” he says, “I thought I was just going to sell some kombucha at the farmers’ market. And to be honest I’d be happy doing that for the rest of my life.”
Ryan began experimenting with fermented foods about five years ago. He brewed his first batch of kombucha from a do-it-yourself kit only a year ago. “I loved it from the get-go,” he says.
He began experimenting with the process, trying out flavours. His brother, John MacLellan, suggested they try to sell it at the market. They started slowly, just going on weekends, but within three weeks the demand was so strong that Ryan started to think about quitting school. “Even though I knew I wanted to quit school and I knew deep down that I was going to, I was still looking for support,” he says.
He was in his second year studying education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, but with a degree in physics already under his belt, didn’t feel the need to finish the program, instead focusing on his nascent business.
Ryan feels lucky to have a strong team; it’s really a family business. The name “Cove Kombucha” was his mother’s suggestion. The family lives in Malignant Cove, near Antigonish. His brother John helps with sales, distribution, and finances; cousin Paul MacCarron handles the markets on weekends.
“My family has been amazing helping me when I need it,” says MacLellan. “My brother has been the biggest support.”
The business is based in Halifax, sourcing local ingredients. Some 20 different locations, from Mahone Bay to Musquodoboit Harbour, carry Cove Kombucha. The brothers want to go much bigger.
“We want to make it something that all of Canada is proud of,” says John. “It’s a big dream of course to be across the nation…
If we stay focused and we stay passionate… we’ll be driven enough to keep that going.”
Ryan says that having John on the team has been great for their growth because he’s always searching for the next step. “We’re taking it day by day,” says Ryan. “We had no idea it would come to this, where we’re at right now.”
But working full-time at it has been hard. Ryan has been dealing with anxiety since he started university. “It’s a daily struggle for anyone that has mental-health issues,” he says.
“It’s not something that pops up once in a while. It’s every day you wake up and you deal with it.”
They collect tips at the market to donate to groups like Laing House. He believes that being open about mental health is the best way to end the stigma. “I take anti-depressants,” he says. “But I try to talk about it rather than keep it a secret because there shouldn’t be a stigma around something so prevalent in our society.”
Passion for the business keeps him going. When he was studying to be a teacher, his anxiety made talking to crowds hard, he wasn’t motivated to put in the effort. “When you’re not passionate it is totally harder to deal with it because your mind’s not in sync with the way you feel internally,” he says. “Having a project that you love and are passionate about like Cove… you find a way to make it work.”
WHAT IS KOMBUCHA?
Kombucha originated in Asia and has been around for 2,000 years. It’s a carbonated fermented beverage that some people believe improves digestive health and detoxification, although there is little scientific proof. Kombucha is made with black or green tea, fermented over a couple weeks with sugar and a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The end result is a carbonated beverage that tastes vinegary and can be flavoured with fruit, juice, and spices.