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On episode 4 of the Entrepreneurship@DU Podcast, we chat with Anna Zesbaugh, founder and CEO of Hooch Booch. Founded in the summer of 2020, this kombucha company brings a prohibition-era, speakeasy twist to the kombucha marketplace.
Kevin Douglas (00:07):
Today on the Entrepreneurship@DU podcast,
Anna Zesbaugh (00:11):
There was not a whole lot of hospitality happening during the pandemic, of course. So I started researching prohibition as it was deemed the Denver prohibition of 2020.
Kevin Douglas (00:20):
This DU alum brings a fresh twist to the hard kombucha marketplace.
Anna Zesbaugh (00:26):
We’ve got a lounge lizard that’s like a mezcal Paloma, like really funky, interesting flavors that I think turn people onto us.
Kevin Douglas (00:33):
We’re chatting with Anna Zesbaugh, founder and CEO of Hooch Boch. I’m Kevin Douglas and this is the Entrepreneurship@DU Podcast. Welcome to the Entrepreneurship@DU podcast. Today we have our very special guest, Anna Zesbaugh, the founder and CEO of Hooch, Boch Anna graduated from DU in 2018 with a major in hospitality and a minor in marketing. Hooch Boch was founded in July of 2020. It is your first startup and in your words, hooch. Boch is a better for you beverage brand that offers both alcoholic and non-alcoholic options. And what sets you apart is your classic cocktail theme and your inspiration from prohibition era speakeasies and whatnot. I get all that.
Anna Zesbaugh (01:30):
Yeah, you got It.
Kevin Douglas (01:31):
Amazing. Thank you for coming to the studio, Anna.
Anna Zesbaugh (01:34):
Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Kevin Douglas (01:37):
So we Entrepreneurship@DU, like to refer not just to ourselves as entrepreneurs, but innovators, creatives, problem solvers. What problem would you say you are solving with your business?
Anna Zesbaugh (01:54):
That’s a great question. I think the biggest problem that we’re trying to solve is the education behind why better for you. Beverages, obviously the market is super saturated, right? Consumer product goods, there’s countless options of beverages to try. You can go all the way from pop or soda to iced tea to whatever it is. So I guess in the NA realm, looking for better for you options that might have added benefits rather than just a water or something like that. And then I’ll say in the alcohol space education on why kombucha, why hard kombucha, and all of the differences behind why are hard kombucha versus other hard and the integrity behind the product that we have.
Kevin Douglas (02:40):
You said what sets you apart is your take with the speakeasies and classic cocktails. I want to hear a little more about what inspired that and what you think really makes that such a unique product in this market.
Anna Zesbaugh (02:55):
Definitely. So I went to school for hospitality management, like you mentioned. I was working in corporate events and I got furloughed from my job due to covid. There was not a whole lot of hospitality happening during the pandemic, of course, people were connecting and getting together in completely different ways. At the same time, the mayor of Denver shut down all the liquor stores, deemed them non-essential businesses. And so I started researching prohibition as it was deemed the Denver prohibition of 2020. Found out that classic cocktails really emerged during this time to mask bad flavors of hooch or alcohol. At the same time, my sister was living in San Diego and hard kombucha was all the rage out there, and she was constantly sending me different hard kombucha saying if they made their way to Denver, Anna, you’ve got to try them. So sparked something in my mind, hooch like prohibition, alcohol, bch like kombucha, and had me thinking, why does Denver rather Colorado at large not have really any local hard kombuchas?
(03:55): Found out that there’s quite a lot of barriers to entry, especially in the alcohol industry but that’s the inspiration. So hooch being classic cocktail prohibition, alcohol, buch, kombucha. I’ll say the reason it sets us apart is most of our competitors, I would say are more similar to a beer or seltzer. And I’m not talking about the product specifically, but the flavors, the A B V, they’re more just hard, regular kombucha, same flavors like ginger, lemon or fruity flavors. However, we have an old fashioned flavor that we soak on oak chips, orange and cherry. We’ve got a lounge lizard that’s like a mezcal paloma that we infuse smoke into and espresso martini, really funky, interesting flavors that I think turn people onto us and look for us on the shelf especially because our packaging looks quite a bit different as well.
Kevin Douglas (04:48):
Have you always personally been a big kombucha drinker?
Anna Zesbaugh (04:53):
Yes, I’ll say maybe since high school. So it’s been quite some time. I think I’ve always been interested in food and beverage and specifically kind of the health scene around that. Yeah.
Kevin Douglas (05:06):
Can you just, because I am so ignorant on the space of kombucha, and when I think of it, I think of people describe it as smelling like to fungus or something. Yes. Can you dispel some of those myths for me and talk about the health benefits and B, the taste profiles that actually make it totally worth investing in hard kombucha and non-hard kombucha?
Anna Zesbaugh (05:30):
Yeah, so roll it back a little bit hard. Kombucha is a fermented tea. So there’s something that sits on top of a tea and a sugar mixture. It’s called the scoby, and that’s basically where the bacteria and the probiotics come from. So they have anywhere from six to 14 days, depending on the fermentation cycle. It’s sitting and kind of creating a head on top of the brew, and that’s where all of the benefits are coming from. You also get the acidic benefits as well, and that’s where you’re talking about those vinegar profiles. And some hard kombuchas and some regular kombuchas are more vinegar, more acidic than others. Our brewers are founding members of kombucha brewers International, so they’ve been brewing kombucha since 2002. So I feel so lucky and so grateful to have them as an extension of our team because they really know kombucha and how it’s meant to be brewed.
(06:28): When I first started brewing it, I bought a home brew kit and I started brewing in my house just like everyone did during covid with sourdough. And everyone was doing that. And then quickly found out when you’re starting to deal with alcohol, it’s probably best to leave that to the experts. So yeah, the benefits come from the probiotics that are coming from that Scooby. The Scooby is feeding on the sugar and that’s what creates it. And then there’s also trace amounts of alcohol in the non-alcoholic product. We add Champaign ye to ours. So that is why our product, I’ll say, tastes less vinegar because we add in that champagne and it’s also quite high in alcohol. It’s 8.5%. So you’re kind of diluting down, I guess some of that kombucha for perspective in one can of our kombucha. It’s about half hard tea and half regular non-alcoholic kombucha blended together to give you that hard kombucha at the end. Did I answer the full question?
Kevin Douglas (07:25):
Yeah, absolutely. Okay, cool. And my hesitations are dispelled. Yes. I definitely want to try some for myself,
Anna Zesbaugh (07:32):
And I’ll say some are still quite vinegar and it’s also consumer preferences. I think over time people have started to say, I like a more vinegar option, or I, the kombucha space was so small to begin with it, there was no governing body around saying what it is. And so now I think there’s a lot more education and more literature especially coming from kombucha brewers International on what kombucha is and what it should be. And then you kind of get into this conversation about shelf stability and pasteurization of the product, which is kind of a whole nother rabbit hole we could go down.
Kevin Douglas (08:10):
Yeah, I can’t remember when I first heard the word kombucha, but it was definitely not super long ago. So it’s very interesting and cool that you’re really front end of this industry that’s clearly growing and expanding.
Anna Zesbaugh (08:24):
Yeah, definitely. It is growing like crazy. I think they say the hard kombucha space or the kombucha space is meant to be the size of the seltzer market, or at least that’s what they’re projecting by like 2026. So wow. Don’t quote me on that. It’s a bunch of different articles. Of course, it’s just projections, but that would be ideal.
Kevin Douglas (08:41):
Yeah, I could definitely see that. I want to circle back to what you said about starting this business July, 2020, the prohibition of Denver. And not only what did you discover in your research about prohibition era that you think really contributed to Hooch, Boch and your branding and your model, but also what challenges arose just from being in the midst of a pandemic. Was this really helpful for you as something to focus on because your work was furloughed and obviously other challenges during the pandemic? I want to hear more about that experience too.
Anna Zesbaugh (09:18):
So I think the original inspiration, of course, like I said, I just started researching prohibition. Cause I thought it was interesting and it felt eerily similar to the time that we were in. People were connecting in different ways. Everyone was isolated to their homes, perhaps <laugh> sneaking out to meet with friends. It was reminiscent, I’ll say. I think what really inspired me about the 1920s was also this whole I guess, female empowerment with flappers as well. And I feel, especially as a woman in the alcohol space there’s a lot of rebellious spirit, spirit that comes along with it of a you tell me no, and I have to almost prove you right or wrong, which is interesting. And then along with that, I guess starting amidst a global pandemic is an interesting time to say the least. But I also don’t really know any different, it’s my first ever business venture.
(10:09): And to your point, I was at home furloughed from my job, not really doing a whole lot. And so it was kind of the perfect time to start something. I didn’t have to leave my corporate job to start something. It was kind of like, I guess the universe looking out and kind of pushing me towards it. So yeah, I guess starting during that time, there’s kind of two ways you can go with distribution. You can go the on-premise route, which is restaurants, bars, venues, and then you’ve got the off-premise world, which is liquor stores. And we gravitated more towards that when we initially started because well, most on-premise establishments were closed. And also I feel sort of lucky for the timing because many breweries were closed, and so they were perhaps doing more production in-house, canning, bottling, et cetera. And so without, a lot of them had extra production space.
(11:03): So that’s when I started reaching out to try to find our first initial brewery, which to my first point when I said there’s a lot of barriers to entry, Wal kombucha, hard kombucha and beer are in the same category. They’re quite a different fermentation process. And a lot of brewers are nervous about kombucha and how it could contaminate a beer product similar to a sour beer fermentation. There’s just a lot more that goes into it. So that was one of our, my initial hurdles when starting the business just finding a brewery partner. But then we did end up finding one.
Kevin Douglas (11:38):
You mentioned being a female founder and feeling like you really had to prove people wrong. And I want to hear more about that, especially in the alcohol space. Were there moments that you felt that uphill battle did you find being in Denver, which is a very entrepreneurial hub, did you find other female founders that gave you advice that really were helpful in the process?
Anna Zesbaugh (12:03):
Definitely. I think initially upon starting, it’s like you send email reach outs, and I felt like no one ever took me seriously. And there were actually a couple of handful of times when we’ve gotten connected to people, and I would loop my dad in on the email and he would send an answer and, and I would immediately get a response. And I don’t know if it’s because he’s a middle-aged white man, or if he was just a man or whatever it is. I feel like it definitely did make a difference. And the beer industry is primarily dominated by big beer. You know, think of Coors, you think Anheuser-Busch, sort of what we’re up against in terms of distribution. They have of course, huge checkbooks, big money to spend. And so it, it’s thinking about getting scrappy. And I’ll say being a female has also worked to my and our advantage as it comes to companies wanting to support female support minority businesses.
(12:55): So it’s a little bit of both, especially when we’re submitting to larger retailers. There’s always a button now if we’re submitting online or if I’m sending an inquiry or something where it asks, are you minority founded or are you female founded? So I think it’s shifting. It’s definitely not where it needs to be yet. And then as far as other women or just other entrepreneurs in this space, yes, absolutely. I think it’s <laugh> the best way to have support because truly no one else knows what you’re going through or what I was going through especially as a sole founder. I don’t have any part of a couple of groups naturally bolder Colorado Food Works, and then I’m part of a women’s circle that meets once a month all female founders. And that’s not just specifically here in Colorado, but that’s across the country. So specifically in that group, we talk about challenges with women, but then other founders groups are super helpful for finding resources or finding what random Shopify app plugins do you use what can vendors do you use, where do you source your ingredients, things like that, that it’s nice to have a group of five to 10 people in my back pocket that I could call in a heartbeat and they would do the same.
(14:15): Yeah, we just all help each other out.
Kevin Douglas (14:17):
I’m really impressed that you never started a business before this, and you said you were a sole founder and you took the initiative to make those connections and launched this thing from the ground up. I would love to hear what maybe sparked that decision to start a business, even though you hadn’t started one before. Did you have app ideas or as a kid, were you mowing lawns or anything like that? Or was this truly, you had this idea and you realized this is what I meant to do?
Anna Zesbaugh (14:51):
I think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I was always really crafty as a kid. I wanted to sell crafts. I was really into beating for a while, making jewelry, and I would sell it at craft fairs and stuff. I guess I haven’t really thought about that in some time. I’ve always known I wanted to own my own business, but I never knew what it looked like and nor would I ever thought I would start a business at 24 years old. Yeah, so originally when I had the idea, I called my dad who actually does some mentoring for entrepreneurs himself, and I was like, I’ve got this idea. And I think I had brought a couple of other ideas during Covid that were probably not that great of ideas, but again, I was at home. I had lots of time for my brain to think and I think it was really that stillness that helped me take this business off.
(15:34): But I called him and I was like, I’ve got this idea. I can’t stop thinking about it. And I’m not really a business plan person. I’m more of a mood board, like a visual person. And so I sent it over and I was like, here’s what I’m thinking. Hooch, Boch, prohibition, alcohol. And he’s somewhat in the beer space in Minnesota. And so where I’m originally from, and he was like, yeah, I guess that idea sounds kind of good. I have no idea what kombucha is. Of course he doesn’t but he’s like, you should talk to my brewer. So he’s got a brew pub with a couple of other co-founders as well. And I asked him about it, and I talked to the brewer, and the brewer was like, I think you’re really on to something. I don’t know much about hard kombucha, but I know it’s an industry that’s booming and I think you should go for it.
(16:16): And so both of that kind of in conjunction with each other I think helped me get some outside validation, because inside it was like, oh, I know this is a good idea. But it was almost like getting that external validation, especially from someone in the brewing space that knew at least somewhat of what the trend could be or somewhat of how the brewing process worked, gave me the confidence to be like, okay, it’s time to go. And I’ll say, I was already furloughed. I didn’t have to, like I said, leave a job. I didn’t have to quit and give something up. I was already in that place. There was really nowhere to go butt up.
Kevin Douglas (16:52):
Yeah, I mean, think it definitely speaks to, you’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit, the fact that Covid then puts you on this path of brainstorming other things just because your brain needed something to do. My embarrassing startup that never happened during Covid was a dating app for movie lovers, and you could put your profile movies that you liked and things. I say that and you don’t have to share if you’re willing. I would love to hear some of those ideas that didn’t see the light of day.
Anna Zesbaugh (17:23):
The only one that I can really remember that I did bring up to him already kind of exists here, and it’s a refillable kind of soap station where you can go get your refillables, but I think I had thought about something and more so delivering it to your house. And the more that I looked at it, the more it was like, oh yeah, this kind of already exists. And I think just wasn’t really meant to be. When the idea of Hooch Boch popped into my head, it was like I could not ignore it. It was all that was on my mind. It’s still all that’s on my mind. But yeah, other just smaller kind of things or I think I’ve always, so I teach yoga as well. I always thought it could be really cool to have in conjunction a yoga studio with a juice bar or coffee shop. But again, these are all ideas that kind of already existed out there, but I just thought I could do it better. Yeah,
Kevin Douglas (18:15):
Future possibilities. I mean, it’s all under the holistic health. Yes. Yeah. Umbrella. I walked past one of those soap refills. It was like laundry detergent, refills, yeah. Places. It’s such a good idea.
Anna Zesbaugh (18:25):
It is really a good idea. And I don’t think you could have too many of those. Same thing with yoga studio juice bars, especially in a place like Denver or Colorado. I mean yeah, absolutely. There are a time a dozen and people support them all the
Kevin Douglas (18:36):
Time. Definitely a market here in Denver. Absolutely. Or Portland or wherever. You got lots of upstairs. Yeah.
Anna Zesbaugh (18:42):
That’s why hard kombucha here is perfect. <laugh>.
Kevin Douglas (18:46):
Go back to when you were a DU student. If you could go back in time, five years to yourself at, let’s see, that’s 2018, you’d be a senior. Yeah. What advice would you give that senior year self of yours?
Anna Zesbaugh (19:06):
<laugh> That’s a really good question. I would say try everything. I think I dip my toes into a lot of different facets of the hospitality industry and kind of led me to what I liked and what I didn’t like and what I was passionate about. And I guess I’m still sort of in the hospitality industry, in the beverage space but I think it sounds cliche to say, but it’s like we want to know exactly what we’re going to be doing when we’re 50 years old, when we’re 18 or 21, let’s say. But that’s not necessarily the case. I think there’s a lot of external factors that are out of our control. And so I guess with that too I had this note that I had posted up on my mirror of my bathroom all throughout Covid. I did Anit an additional yoga training during 2020 as well.
(19:57): And it was something that I learned during the training. It was trust the process. And I think it’s something that has resonated with me day in and day out, because there’s countless hurdles, countless ups, countless downs as a found founder, as an entrepreneur, as a CEO that oftentimes are out of our control. And sometimes it’s hard to see. Getting furloughed from my job, having to file for unemployment felt like the worst possible day of my life. Two years out of college, I would never think at 24 years old, I would start at my own company at 25, be launching a brand, and now here sitting at 26, we just opened a tap room. We’re operating in two states. Thinking back five years ago, I would’ve never expected to be in this position, and it would’ve never happened without the Covid 19 pandemic, which is crazy to say.
Kevin Douglas (20:44):
Yeah. So I have a couple rapid fire questions.
Anna Zesbaugh (20:48):
Okay, I’m ready.
Kevin Douglas (20:49):
Which means only one or two sentences max. You really got to bubble it down. Okay. Boil it down. How do you define success?
Anna Zesbaugh (21:02):
I would say it’s an internal, not an external feeling. If you’re looking for external validation, that’s not what it is. It’s like when I go home or when I hear other people saying that they’ve heard about Hooch pooch and I have no idea who they are, I’m like, Ooh, how did that random person find out about it? That to me is success.
Kevin Douglas (21:19):
Cool. And then what is the best or worst piece of advice you’ve ever gotten
Anna Zesbaugh (21:28):
To back down <laugh>. Like that’s
Kevin Douglas (21:32):
The worst, I assume that’s the worst
Anna Zesbaugh (21:34):
Advice. That’s the worst. There you go. Yes. To back down. Yeah. That was the worst. Best. My dad always says, it’s always going to take more time, and it’s always going to cost more than you think. And I didn’t believe him at the beginning. And it is 1000% true.
Kevin Douglas (21:53):
Yep. And finally, what’s on the horizon for you? You mentioned there’s a new non-aco. By the time this episode comes out, it’ll be out, right?
Anna Zesbaugh (22:03):
Yes. So lots on the horizon. We just opened Denver’s first hard kombucha tap room. We’re calling it a day to Evening lounge. So we’re open from 11 through the evenings. We’ve got some really great offerings during the day into the night, of course, with our products we’re launching a non-alcoholic line of what we are calling boneless cocktails basically a cocktail. I just don’t like the word cocktail. I think it sounds like a kitty cocktail, and not, to me just feels like so I don’t know, childish. It’s like we want people that are choosing not to drink or sober for whatever reason, to feel a part of what we’re doing. And it also has added electrolyte benefits. It’s called Corpse Reviver by Hooch Hooch. Oh, cool. A Corpse Reviver is a classic cocktail that was made from absence. So it’s a very botanical sort of morning after recovery drink or boneless cocktail for a night of imbibing out.
Kevin Douglas (23:05):
I love it. Maybe one day you’ll teach yoga at the tap room. Question lit?
Anna Zesbaugh (23:09):
Yes. We actually have a launch party for the Corpse Revival, and I’m going to teach a class, and then we’ll do a little hangout after. So very, I’ve done lots of yoga and Boch events. I’m trying to wean myself off of them a little bit and have other people teach, but I still teach four classes a week
Kevin Douglas (23:25):
Still. Cool. And then what’s your favorite yoga pose?
Anna Zesbaugh (23:28):
It’s not related, but Oh, I like crow pose. It’s an inversion. You’re balancing on your hands. I think it’s humbling, like a lot of things. Some days you get the balance, you stick the landing, and some days you fall flat on your face. Super reminiscent of, I feel like every single day an entrepreneur.
Kevin Douglas (23:47):
And where can folks find you online and the physical tap room too?
Anna Zesbaugh (23:50):
Yeah, so our physical tap room is in Rhino. It’s at 30th and Blake Street. It’s called Blind Tiger by Hooch Boch. There’s a story that goes along with that too. And then as far as our products, we’re in Whole Foods Total Wine across Colorado. We’re in Minnesota as well, where I’m originally from. And you can buy the Corpse Revival delivered directly to your door all throughout the country during cooch boch.com is where you can find us.
Kevin Douglas (24:18):
Awesome. And if you have time, could I hear the Blind Tiger story?
Anna Zesbaugh (24:21):
Yes. So during my research of prohibition, I found out that a lot of people would place stuffed tigers or stuffed pigs in windows of speakeasys to signify illegal drinking was happening. They were called blind because the cops didn’t know about them. So Blind Tiger is our version of a speakeasy, and we do in fact have a stuffed tiger sitting there. But yeah, line Tiger by Hooch, Boch, basically speakeasy by Hooch. Boch, yeah.
Kevin Douglas (24:52):
Awesome. And then I just thought of this, are you in talks with any speakeasies here in Denver to serve your drinks at their bars?
Anna Zesbaugh (25:00):
Yes, we have done a photo shoot at two already. Millers and Rossi and Williams and Graham and Williams and Graham, I know used to carry our product. I don’t know if they still do. It’s interesting because we land in kind of this weird category of like, yes, being a beer, but not being a spirit. But it also makes a really good mixer. So some places, yes, some places, no. But yeah, we’ve been in talks with quite a few.
Kevin Douglas (25:22):
Very cool. Yes. Well Anna, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. We really appreciate it, and we wish you the best of luck with Future of Hooch Boch.
Anna Zesbaugh (25:32):
Thank you so much.
Kevin Douglas (25:39):
The Entrepreneurship@DU podcast was recorded in Margery Reed Hall on the University of Denver campus. You can find us on Instagram @duentrepreneur, on Twitter, at du_entrepreneur, and on Facebook at Entrepreneurship@DU entrepreneurship. At DU is part of the Daniels College of Business, which has its own podcast. By the way. Check out Voices of Experience available wherever you get your podcasts.