Q&A: Pilot Kombucha's Alex Ingalls Makes Specialty Blends for Brands

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Concocting a new recipe is a lot like doing improv. Nine times out of ten you’re working within a template of some kind, but the specific ingredients you throw in make all the difference.

That’s why we are so thrilled that Pilot Kombucha offered to make a special kombucha blend to celebrate our 20th annual Del Close Marathon -- a blowout improv comedy festival featuring 700 shows over three days, all in Manhattan. (The other reason we’re thrilled is that our office loves kombucha.) The exclusive flavor will be on tap at the 24-hour party space, where all 2,500+ of DCM20’s performers will be turning up.

We sat down with Alex Ingalls, founder and CEO of Pilot, to hear about what goes into making special recipes for brands.

Where do you start when you’re making special blends for a brand?

I usually start with the season and see what will be good at the farmers market that week. And then from there make it a clear picture of what the time frame will be at, seasonality and what's available. And then I start looking at branding, oddly -- and try to see if I can come up with a flavor that maybe matches some aspect of the brand or the company. Whether it’s the color palette or attitude, that sorta thing.

I'm doing a music festival in May and I'm basing their flavor off of their color palette, which just happens to play really nicely with the end of spring and beginning of summer; their colors reminded me of blackberries and camomile, so that's the flavor I’m doing for them.

Can you tell me about a past collaboration?

With Chalkpoint Kitchen, we were just spitballing at a meeting, and I was just ratling up flavors for their head chef and coffee was the one she liked the best. I don’t know why that one, but it came out great. Mixing coffee with Kombucha was my idea, and then she said that that’s the one she most wanted to do.

We did one with cold brew and one with hot brew, and we did one that was like the coffee that I make for myself in the morning -- some spices, orange peel, cocoa, and a little bit of sugar at the end to help with carbonation a little bit. That was the one they ended up going for. The chef has a nuanced palate -- she picked up on all the different flavors.

How much of your collaborations is you drawing from stuff you already know, and how much of it is completely random epiphanies?

It’s never completely random. Like my celery juniper: If you’ve never had celery soda, it’s delicious -- but I don’t really drink soda, so I wanted to find a way to get that flavor while not having to consume that much sugar.

All my flavors are some version of that: looking at other existing foods or from cookbooks.

There’s one called The Flavor Thesaurus that I really like. If I find an ingredient and I get really excited about it, then I go into The Flavor Thesaurus to see what might blend well with that and start from there.

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I’m guessing with each collaboration the amount of input from the other person kind of varies, is that correct?

So far, Chalkpoint has been the most involved; I did like three or four versions of the coffee Kombucha and sent them samples and they got to pick, whereas most people are like, “Oh my god make us a flavor!” and that’s the end of it.

How many batches, or drafts, do you normally go through when making new flavors?

It varies from flavor to flavor. For some, I’ll do one test batch and was happy with the first one that came out, exactly how I imagined it. My orange ginger was a lot trickier; I really wanted a really strong and spicy ginger flavor, so that was a lot of iterations. I didn’t want it to be very vinegary or tangy -- which is why we used orange instead of lemon.

The berry fruit mint was very fast, I did one test batch and it was amazing, I loved it; the lavender-peach and the blueberry-lemongrass have gone under several iterations; the pomegranate-rose, same; it just depends whether or not I’m able to nail it the first time, and once the product is out there in the world, it’s a little bit hard not to keep thinking, oh, what if I added that, would it have been that much better? But I can’t just change the recipe now that it’s out there in the world.

Do you more or less have to start from scratch every time, or is there a formula? How much room for experimentation is there, ultimately?

Kombucha can become very formulaic. It becomes easy to just sort of rely on going, “Okay, well I know that this ratio of ingredients works,” once you’ve been doing it for a long time -- you know that certain things are going to work. It’s really once you start bringing in new ingredients that you have to tinker around and play with it to find something that actually lands the way you thought it was going to land. And sometimes it means pairing it with something really strange that you wouldn’t have thought of -- and other times it means maybe you just leave it alone and let that one ingredient sit on it.

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What's your experience with improv?

I did improv in high school; we had a very forward-thinking improv teacher, and honestly I don't remember doing much else outside of that -- it was all meditation and improv. It was a blast.

And it's interesting to do something like that in high school, where people can be so insecure. I think comedy is so interesting like unless you’ve been up there doing it or trying to do it, you don’t know really how much vulnerability it takes. There's something about putting yourself out into the universe and falling on your face that's terrifying; I have a huge, huge admiration for comics.

Want to get involved with DCM? Email us at sayhello@ucbindustries.com and tell us about your brand.