One early morning at Tajiguas Beach in Santa Barbara, California in 2014, overcast clouds obscured the sky over the restless sea and kombucha craftsmen Mike Durighello and Jake Pritzlaff were on another spearfishing expedition. Or so they thought. Durighello and Pritzlaff had been separated from one another in the water as usual, but what happened during their trip could not be foreseen.
“There was a giant school of sardines in front of me and, just out of the corner of my eye, a large dark shape broke through the sardines. It looked like it leaped out of the water, but it didn’t crash back down,” said Durighello.
Durighello yelled to Pritzlaff that he saw a fish as big as a whale break through the water and, since it did not land back in the water, it could have only had wings and flown away like a bird. This left Pritzlaff bewildered and unsure of Durighello’s mental state and the two still debate what the creature was to this day.
The unresolved encounter provided a tale for the two founders of Whalebird Kombucha (formerly known as Komplete Kombucha) and prompted them to guide their young, promising company in a new direction. Thus, Whalebird Kombucha’s legend was born and, with it, the name and brand familiar to San Luis Obispo residents.
Kombucha is a fermented, lightly bubbly, probiotic tea that seemingly originated in China in 221 B.C. Many first-time kombucha drinkers can often find the beverage overly bitter and vinegary, including Durighello himself, who was initially turned off kombucha after he first tried it. He had no interest in having it again until his friend offered him a more accessible flavor.
First-time Whalebird Kombucha drinkers should not have that same initial encounter as Durighello. From the beginning, they have been fermenting their kombucha with a balanced brew, targeting an even amount of sweetness, tartness and dryness. They even flavor their beverages with dry botanicals, edible essential oils and fruit purees, which is special to their brand.
“The combination of that balanced fermentation and the unique ingredients we use create the unique Whalebird Kombucha experience,” said Durighello. “So the first time you try it, you really love it.”
The company’s primary flavors are “Lavender Lemonade,” “Manguava,” “Dry Hopped Pamplemousse,” “Purple Rain” and a seasonal flavor. They have even recently expanded their offerings with their first high-caffeine kombucha, “Mate Charger,” which is a luscious mixture of edible grapefruit essential oil, yerba mate and ginger.
“It’s a cleaner form of caffeine. It’s got the yerba mate, which has a calming and energizing effect. It’s got significantly lower sugar [than energy drinks]. Our charger comes in at 14 grams of sugar per can. It’s a good, strong flavor, but it’s not overbearing,” said Durighello.
Whalebird’s dedication to creating optimally balanced kombucha translates to its alcoholic booch. The brewery recently introduced its new hard kombucha flavors with “Kokomo,” “Light My Fire” and “Electric Feel.” These alcoholic beverages contain flavors not on the hard kombucha market and are dangerous because they are so pleasing, clean and smooth to drink.
“The majority of the hard kombuchas on the market that I’ve tried have a very distinct yeasty characteristic to them, so it tastes like you’re drinking a kombucha beer. Over eight months, we figured out through our fermentation and brewing process how to eliminate those yeasty characteristics so that you’re just tasting the kombucha,” said Durighello.
The entire Whalebird crew has amassed an impressive product line that SLO can proudly proclaim as a local staple. However, Whalebird’s commitment to excellence does not stop at their kombucha. They are a certified California Green Business which means they help set the standards for acceptable practices for up-and-coming businesses.
Lee Wilkerson, the head engineer of Whalebird, spearheaded the effort to incorporate sustainability into every possible practice of the brewery. These efforts include flushing their toilets with repurposed brine wastewater from their water filtration system and implementing low-flow faucets in bathroom sinks.
By investing in stainless steel barrels and not single-use plastic kegs different companies use to simplify operations and save money, Whalebird is committed to producing the most excellent product possible while considering their environmental impact.
The brewery consists of five 600-square feet units and 200-square feet of office space. While its efforts may not result in a potential environmental impact that a large corporation could generate by committing to sustainability, Whalebird wants to be a leader that tomorrow’s businesses can follow.
“These things aren’t gonna necessarily change the world on their own. It’s legislation that needs to be passed. It’s [the] massive companies that are the huge polluters, the huge wasters. But this [what we are doing] is bringing awareness to that. It is a starting point,” said Durighello.
They are even making the absolute most of their limited space, as they recently implemented a new can filling line that has increased its output from three cans per minute to fifteen cans per minute. In addition to this innovation, they are also having to get creative in other areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before COVID, Whalebird was heavily involved with the community and would host events at the brewery. These events raised funds and awareness for various non-profit organizations such as Surfrider Foundation, ECOSLO and GRID Alternatives. However, the Whalebird crew cannot host exciting in-person events at the moment but are working to entice customers to get active, have fun and win free booch.
Soon, Whalebird Kombucha cans will include an eye-catching fact and a challenge based around that fact. Consumers that fulfill the challenge and share it on social media will have an opportunity to win free kombucha.
Furthermore, Whalebird is leading a new plan called the Beach Bucket Challenge. Details about the challenge are still being finalized, but anyone itching to go outside can pick up a bucket from a partner of Whalebird in Pismo to pick up trash at the beach. Once the bucket is filled, it can be turned in for free Whalebird.
Covid-19 has changed how Whalebird interacts with its neighbors in SLO, but it survives and thrives like a healthy and free whale (or bird). Whalebird Kombucha won’t sink to the bottom of the ocean but instead will fly high in the sky.
“Companies gotta get creative with COVID and the difficulty of not being able to host normal events or have people at their retail operations. It’s a curse, but a blessing too. It’s making a lot of companies get more creative about how they communicate with their consumers and their community,” said Durighello.
Whalebird can be purchased in SLO at Whole Foods, Lassens, California Fresh Market or off the tap at their brewery close to Higuera Street. The company is expanding this year and will be trying to move into conventional grocery stores such as Albertsons, Safeway and Vons. Go to Whalebird’s website to find a store near you. If there aren’t any that carry Whalebird, you can order from their online shop.
Can’t visit the brewery? Get a feel for the vibe here.