Healthy living and clean eating are more of a lifestyle than a fleeting trend. For those who like to imbibe, things get tricky. A few beers or a couple glasses of wine can throw you—and your body—off course. Enter the spiked seltzers, low-carb beers and low-calorie wines. Not necessarily the same taste, but less filling for those counting calories and watching waistlines.
What about a boozy, but healthy, option for consumers? That's how Luna Bay Booch, a hard kombucha, joined the mix.
Traditional kombucha tea drinks—accounting for $703.2 million in sales from July 2019 to July 2020, per SPINS—are popular for their gut-friendly properties and as a healthier alternative to fizzy, sugary drinks.
Sales of hard kombucha grew from $1.7 million in 2017 to more than $12 million in 2019, according to Kombucha Brewers International. A small slice of the pie, but a growing one.
For our On Brand series, we spoke with Bridget Connelly, co-founder and CEO of Luna Bay Booch, about breaking into the male-dominated craft brewing industry, unique flavors and building virtual relationships when in-person tastings have a different vibe.
Connelly launched Luna Bay Booch in 2019, prior to the pandemic. Her background is steeped in brand building. She worked for Lululemon in the U.S. and Australia, and her return to the States spurred her curiosity to find an alcohol beverage that better aligned with her lifestyle.
"I started building the Luna Bay brand when I was living in California and seeing the hard kombucha market take off," she says. "And then I brought that back to Chicago, where I'm from. It was from curiosity of the alcohol space and wanting to find something that resonated more with my lifestyle. Health and wellness has always been really important to me. I like to find products that I feel good about and believe in what's in them, and I found that was missing in alcohol."
Launching just prior to the pandemic had some advantages. When traditional tastings couldn't happen, scaling the company occurred faster.
"I raised a little bit of money, and then we launched at the end of 2019," Connelly tells Muse. "So I started working in the alcohol industry, in a new category and building a brand. Definitely not what I knew how to do. And then it was just a very difficult and crazy time, but also a gift in a lot of ways because we were able to scale the company quickly. People were buying virtually, and we were building relationships virtually. We didn't need a ton of capital to do samplings or hire people to go out because nobody could go out."
Luna Bay Booch is an all-female crew that broke into a male-dominated industry. Connelly's childhood family friend, Claire Ridge, is a member of the original founding team and helped create the recipe. Johanna Denne joined next as head of production and quality assurance, followed by Julie Pappas as head of marketing and sales.
"We've been able to be super vulnerable with one another in the struggles we face during the season, both personally and professionally, and be able to bond and support each other and have this unwavering resilience of we're just going to keep going forward because we believe in it," says Connelly. "I think we've done a really great job. We've been able to scale to 11 states in two years. We're the first hard kombucha in Target in Illinois, first in Kroger in Illinois, first in Albertsons in Illinois, and we're seeing that success now roll out to other states, too."
The craft brewing industry has not been favorable to women brewers. From claims of racism, sexism, harassment and toxic work environments, the industry has some maturing to do. Research findings from the Brewers Association last year uncovered that 93.5 percent of brewer owners were white. Almost 59 percent of breweries had no female ownership, and just 2.9 percent were fully woman-owned.
"Raising money as a woman was certainly a challenge," recalls Connelly. "Being in the alcohol industry, where it was historically a very male-dominated space, and to be taken seriously ... I remember those early days going to distributor meetings and being the only woman by a long shot. And meeting after meeting of just, 'What are you doing? You don't know anything about this space,' and I think that was really difficult. But what I think is really exciting is that there's a change happening.
"The distributors that we have now are really amazing and they really champion women, they champion innovation. I also think the other barrier for us was building a category. I mean, it's one thing to be a woman and then also being in the space, but then also having a brand and category no one's really heard of."
Calories in Luna Bay Booch are comparable to that of a light beer or wine—110 to 130 calories—depending on the ABV (alcohol by volume), between 4.6 and 6 percent.
"Creating a product that was very low in sugar was really important to me," Connelly says. "And then vegan and non-GMO. The final aspect was gluten-free because that is part of my daily life." Connelly has a gluten intolerance.
The brand sources ingredients based on where the product is launching. For example, huckleberries for one flavor were sourced from Montana, while Grapefruit Jalapeño had ingredients sourced from Texas. In honor of Women's History Month in March, Luna Bay Booch created a Raspberry Rose flavor and is donating a portion of profits to the Global Fund for Women. The company also donates to local nonprofits like I Grow Chicago, Brave Space Alliance and 1% for the Planet.
"With building a CPG brand and alcohol brand, there will be waste," notes Connelly. "There will be things we will encounter as we build and scale. But how can we still participate and do our part? We did a great beach cleanup in California recently. In a remote world, how do we feel connected to each other, because some of our team members have never met? To do a beach cleanup on the same day from coast to coast or to do something else that we're all doing is really important. Even as far as our cans, we're finally able to change cans to perforated sleeves because you can't actually recycle shrink-wrapped cans. With the new perforated sleeves, you'll be able to peel off the sleeve and then throw that away and then recycle the can."
Prices for Luna Bay Booch vary by flavors, which include Palo Santo Blueberry, Ginger Lemon, Hibiscus Lavender and Prickly Pear Punch. Luna Bay Light: Lychee Lime retails for $12.99 for a four-pack, while seasonal flavors run from $14.99 to $15.99.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and LinkedIn are the main hubs used to advertise. Competitors include brands such as Boochcraft, Flying Embers, Jiant, JuneShine, Kombrewcha and Kyla.
Connelly describes the importance of building virtual relationships as a beverage brand.
"When I started to seek advice four years ago, people would say, 'Sips to lips. You got to get sips to lips. You got to get people to try it,' " she says. "I do think that it is helpful, but I also think people aren't sampling things the same way. For us, virtual relationships are so important. So we really work on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram. We have a great TikTok channel. Those are all so important to us. That's the way we get our message out the most, and relationship building in the towns that we're in, with our buyers, our distributors."