Young Stowe, co-founder, Unified Ferments
On building a brand from scratch, the non-alcoholic beverage space, and Dry January.
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Unified Ferments is a Brooklyn-based company that brews non-alcoholic, fermented teas. Using teas imported from China, Taiwan, and India, their beverages are more akin to natural wine than Kombucha, and are complex and dynamic. Their bottles are increasingly showing up on restaurant menus, and through national distribution, it is easier to find them in your local bottle shop. I spoke to co-founder Young Stowe about building a brand from scratch, the non-alcoholic beverage space, and Dry January.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me about your background?
Young Stowe: I grew up in the south and I met my business partner, Graham, in boarding school. I graduated from college and moved to New York because that’s always what I thought I would do. I started working in the food and beverage industry, and my first job in New York was at Bedford Cheese Shop. I worked there for a little over a year and that was a very eyeopening experience. Just how wide and interesting and vibrant the high quality food scene was in New York.
I then ran the food program at a little bar called Covenhoven in Crown Heights for a while. I worked there for a few years and then I moved to Marfa, Texas and worked at the most remote brewery in America called Bug Brewing Company (which has now since closed). I moved back to New York and worked at the now defunct Folksbier for a while.
Brianna Plaza: How did Unified Ferments get started?
Young Stowe: This company really came out of a project that I was asked to get involved in. We were going to open a super tiny wine bar in the Lower East Side in 2019. I brought Graham on because I was like, "We should have a really cool, very thoughtful in-house fermentation program for the start." At the time, he was working at Tea Dealers, which imports incredibly beautiful, high-quality stuff.
He was like, "Why is nobody using these really beautiful teas and using fermentation techniques on them?” We thought it could be a cool addition to the wine bar. So we started playing around and fermenting these teas he had access to. Fermentation, done correctly, allows us to unpack the beautiful, complex flavors and make them more readily available. It certainly doesn't work on every tea, so a huge part of our working processes is figuring out what the right match is.
Eventually we thought, "Okay, let's not do a wine bar. Let's maybe think about doing a bottling operation." And so we did. We brought in one of the owners of Tea Dealers to be an initial investor, and he did a lot of the sourcing for us as well. He helped us get our hands on tea directly from China, Taiwan, and India.
We launched in January of 2020 which of course was an interesting time to launch a restaurant-focused, esoteric beverage company. That year was basically a wash, but it was useful because we had a lot of time on our hands. We had this company, we had some funding, and we had time to iterate and play around and figure out what actually works in terms of a full scale manufacturing operation. It was like an R&D year basically, that I think otherwise, we probably wouldn't have had. There's very few silver linings when it comes to COVID, but that's one of them.
Until early 2023, we were self-distributing in New York. Then we started pasteurizing, which was a huge change for us. It was the best thing that ever happened to our company and allowed us to start working with distributors to ship outside of New York. So that's what 2023 was about: figuring out pasteurization, figuring out actual distribution, working with distributors. That's where we are now.
Brianna Plaza: With no background in this, how did you learn to make these beverages?
Young Stowe: Screw it up. Just make mistakes and figure it out. We've had very good advisors. I had absolutely no idea what running a business was like when we started this. If I had a question about a contract thing, I had somebody I could call. We have a lot of connections in the food and beverage space, so there was always somebody we could ping, but it's just constant iteration, making mistakes and just learning from mistakes. I mean, we've made a million mistakes and have learned a million lessons, but that is the best way to learn something because it sticks.
Brianna Plaza: How do you categorize your business? I’m curious what it is and maybe what you want it to be.
Young Stowe: If I'm being completely honest, we’re still working that out. I mean the non-alcoholic (N/A) industry has matured around us, which has been very helpful. We have an emerging industry to sell into that's embraced us, which is great. But we’ve never really landed on what we are. We call them ferments or fermented tea.
Personally, I have a distaste for the word kombucha, just because it comes with so much baggage and people just obviously think GTs or Health Aid. And it's fine, there's nothing wrong with those products, but we're very much something different. And there's a lot of woo-woo around kombucha. For instance, we pasteurize. We're not a probiotic delivery service that those companies are in a lot of ways. We're very focused on tasting really lovely and being complex.
We also tend to get lumped in with wine proxies, which is fine. I mean, our stuff comes in wine bottles and it looks like wine. Our flavors are akin to the flavors that we're experiencing with really beautiful, natural wines. So that doesn't bother me.
I could go on a whole tear about how I think the N/A industry as a whole has made various mistakes around how it has decided to label itself. Being a weird reverse mirror of the booze industry is logical and, from a business perspective, makes sense, but is also kind of sad. I feel like there was a moment a couple of years ago where things could have been a little bit more interesting within the space.
Brianna Plaza: What took you on the route of fermented teas instead of trying to be a 1:1 replacement?
Young Stowe: I mean, we had no concept of an N/A industry when we started this company. Honestly, it was not in the back of our heads at all. And I mean, it's weird to think how quickly that industry has grown, but in 2019, it was pretty nascent. So the thinking was not we're going to create a product that we can sell into this emerging industry. We just had an idea that we thought was really cool.
I guess it was pretty organic in that regard. And now we've just found our place. My business partner and I drink — the goal was not to make N/A product. I think we probably got lucky in the fact that our stuff naturally sits below 0.5% ABV, and obviously that's shaped the way that we think about making things. But yeah, we had no concept of being like, "We're going to make a product to sell into the N/A industry."
Brianna Plaza: Dry January is obviously a big time for businesses like yours. How do you stay relevant and top of mind the rest of the year?
Young Stowe: I mean, we try not to think about Dry January at all. If you go onto our website right now, we're completely sold out. We don't do any push around this time. We pay no attention to it. Our main goal is to create a delicious, approachable, and complex beverage that can, I think, be a utility to restaurants who increasingly need something that they can put on their N/A lists that is on par with the wines that they're pouring. That's our goal and It’s evergreen.
We sell through distributors, so we get a big spike in sales from them before January and they go through a lot of products this month. But it's pretty steady throughout the rest of the year. I think a big reason for that is that we've put a major emphasis on working with restaurants. Once you find yourself working with restaurants that really care about what they're doing, we tend to stay there and things sell pretty well throughout the year.
We have had restaurants use us in cocktails, I think there's maybe a handful of places that are doing that now. For the most part, it's by the glass, which is definitely how we would prefer to be sold. I think oftentimes somebody comes to a restaurant and they see a bottle of non-alcoholic, fermented tea listed for $60 a bottle and that's a big investment. Whereas at $10 glass pour or around that range, it's very doable. And so that's really where we love to see ourselves.
Brianna Plaza: What are your two favorite teas that you make, and then how do you pair them?
Young Stowe: I am a big fan of the two oolongs, so Qi Dan and Wen Shan Bao Zhong. Qi Dan's a high oxidization, roasted, Chinese oolong. And Bao Zhong is on the opposite side of the oolong spectrum. It has very low oxidization, it’s very light and powdery. They're just extremely beautiful teas that, I think, adhere to our process very well and just have really sung. Qi Dan, you can pair it like you would pair a red wine. It goes remarkably well with steak. It's remarkably malleable. And Bao Zhong is just perfect with oysters and soft cheeses. They both pair incredibly well with food.
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