Southeast woman brews 'Kombucha' to help wildland firefighters
Water alone may not serve to extinguish wildfires. It may take fermented tea, too.
Brentwood-Darlington resident Jillian Bohrer never expected her home-brewed Kombucha experiment to take off like wildfire – but it's appropriate that it did, because now that she's turned her hobby into a business, she's donating all of the profits to help wildland firefighters.
Bohrer knows the power of wildfires, because her husband – Luke Warthen – spends long summers fighting them. It was his absence that sparked her to try brewing Kombucha, a fermented tea drink that often includes ingredients like herbs and fruits. Her goal was to distract herself from worrying about her husband while he was deployed out of cell-phone range for weeks at a time.
Last summer she began brewing larger batches of Kombucha and delivering it to Central Oregon, where Warthen had taken a job fighting fires with the Redmond Hotshots. His fellow firefighters loved it.
Bohrer isn't sure when the business idea came to her, exactly; but at some point she decided to investigate what it would take to sell her Kombucha at farmers markets. "It was purely for fun – 'let's see if I can do it as an experiment'," she recalled. She immediately decided that if she made any money, she'd donate her profits to the Wildland Firefighters Foundation (WFF), which provides support to families of wildland firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty.
Her friends thought she was crazy. "Starting a Kombucha company in Portland is literally the worst idea, ever," Bohrer jokes. Indeed, there's stiff competition in the market, with multiple Oregon-based companies selling their product locally. But Portlanders often embrace locally-produced products; especially those that may have health benefits. Kombucha is thought to boost digestion and immunity, among other things.
Bohrer signed up for a booth at a Fourth of July celebration, and proved her friends wrong. "I was sold out in two and a half hours!" After that, business ramped up quickly. She now sells her Kombucha regularly at the Woodstock Farmers Market during the summer months. It's also available at Bread and Roses Market at 6360 S.E Foster Road, as well.
In addition, Bohrer offers an old-fashioned delivery service, featuring reusable glass bottles! She said she wants to be "the Kombucha milkman." There's no minimum order for home delivery. Returning the company's reusable bottles to her (or even the same sort of bottles from a competitor) through the delivery program, or at a farmers market, earns a $1 refund.
Some local breweries have her "booch" – as it is often called by those in the industry – on tap. One of those is Base Camp Brewing Company, at 930 S.E Oak Street. General Manager Ross Putnam is a former wildland firefighter. He said he's always looking for quality non-alcoholic drinks to have on tap for 'designated drivers', other than typical soda options. He believes Wildland Kombucha is "on a great mission, and a no-brainer for us. I think the product's great."
The organization that Bohrer chose to receive her profits, WFF, is highly respected within the firefighting community. It's also listed as a gold-level nonprofit by Guidestar, which rates nonprofits based on how they use their funds. "I like contributing to something greater than myself," she explained, adding that many of the firefighters who battle wildfires are seasonal workers without health insurance, or with gaps in their coverage. "That's where the Wildland Firefighters Foundation comes in.
"I've had firefighters reach out on Instagram and say, hey, I got hit by a falling tree and busted my knee, and while I was out of work the foundation paid for my physical therapy or they paid for my lost wages," Bohrer said.
She has made several donations to the foundation since starting her business, and plans to make a larger lump sum gift after tax season, when she's figured out the total amount the company has made, minus expenses. She said each bottle of Kombucha earns roughly $3 profit out of the $5 price.
As for her ingredients, Bohrer wild-forages many of them, including juniper berries from Central Oregon for her Orange Juniper Kombucha, and bright green new growth from spruce trees for her Vanilla Spruce Tips recipe. Both of those are summer seasonal flavors. Other ingredients include wild blackberries for Blackberry Sage Kombucha, rose petals for her Wildflower-flavored recipe, and homegrown lemongrass which gets combined with Oregon-grown CBD. All of her brews are started from a blend of black and green teas, and then fermented, "just like you'd ferment sauerkraut or kimchi."
Wildland Kombucha is prepared in a commercial kitchen Bohrer rents near her home – but she only uses the space overnight, not during the daytime. That's because she still works a fulltime job at a commercial real estate company. Late into the night, she handles almost all of the work by herself – except that her passion for the project has drawn her husband into the brewing process, too. When he's home from fighting fires they often work side by side. Warthen helps with bottling, delivering and even some sales. "He's doing the farmers market by himself, this shy man-of-the-woods, and he's digging it!"
Bohrer finds the long hours fulfilling. "The most rewarding thing is when I'm dog-tired on a Sunday night after working all day, all week, four farmer's markets, and fermenting 50 gallons, and bottling, and kegging – It's like, I just did that! It's this thing I started in my kitchen, and somebody bought it and they liked it. That's crazy!"
Someday she hopes someday to turn Wildland Kombucha into a nonprofit, when she has more time to focus on the technicalities of that process. For the time being, she's just pleased her little home experiment is working. "I like giving back, and helping the fire community. I think that will grow as we get bigger."
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