New canning facility could add 25 jobs at Aqua ViTea

“This (Aqua ViTea proposal) has the potential to increase beverage start-ups and support the large-scale growth of the beverage industry, a key economic driver and job-creating sector for the Addison County.”
— Fred Kinney, economic development expert

MIDDLEBURY — Beverage maker Aqua ViTea is looking to dramatically increase its canning capabilities, allowing it to step up a gear in its kombucha production while giving it the ability to become a major incubator for small beverage companies in start-up.

Woodchuck Cider, a neighbor of the Middlebury Industrial Park, is emerging as the other major player in this beverage incubator venture, noted Aqua ViTea founder/CEO Jeff Weaber. In short, Aqua ViTea is set to acquire a 100 cans per minute processing line from Woodchuck, which is itself upgrading to a 600 cans per minute infrastructure at its Exchange Street plant.

When/if all the financial and logistical dominoes fall into place, a fledgling beverage operation could start small on Aqua ViTea’s existing 40 cans per minute processor, then sign up for its 100 cans per minute operation before maximize to Woodchuck’s 600 cans per minute processing line.

A key part of the business canning design is a $1.5 million capital investment program grant, which Aqua ViTea is seeking through the Commerce and Community Development Agency. from Vermont.

“The grant is essential,” Weaber said. “For us to continue to invest in the infrastructure of this building when we don’t own it becomes really difficult. So this grant helps alleviate that problem.

Aqua ViTea has come a long way since Weaber brewed his first batch of kombucha in 2003. He and his wife Katina moved to Salisbury in 2005, where Jeff ramped up production and opened a stand at Middlebury Farmers Market in 2007 The distribution in bottles followed. in 2008, followed by the move of Aqua ViTea to Bristol Industrial Park. In 2015, continued growth in sales and production led to the company moving to Middlebury.

At this point, Aqua ViTea employs 31 people who produce approximately 750,000 case-equivalents of kombucha each year. The company grew 30% last year and demand for its kombucha continues to grow, Weaber said.

Aqua ViTea moved into canning in early 2019, starting with its alcoholic kombucha. Before long, the company also began canning its non-alcoholic kombucha. It sold 394,260 cans of kombucha in 2020, with sales approaching 1.25 million cans in 2021.

“It was very well received,” Weaber said of the new containers. “So a lot of our growth plan right now is going to cans as we grow West.”

Aqua ViTea will also continue to produce 16-ounce kombucha bottles, although 12-ounce cans seem to be the future.

JEFF WEABER HOLDS cans of his company’s Aqua ViTea kombucha, which is made in Middlebury. Aqua ViTea hopes to use a $1.5 million grant to ramp up production of its popular drinks and become a major incubator for small start-up beverage companies.
Independent Photo/Steve James

FIRST IN CANS

Weaber proudly notes that Aqua ViTea was among the first companies to put kombucha in a can. He signed a deal with a New Hampshire company to secure a mobile canning line, a common practice among new craft breweries.

“They show up at your facility with a truck and unload this little four-head filler and they hook up to your tank and do the packing for you,” Weaber said of the service.

“It’s more expensive than doing it yourself, but you don’t have to maintain the equipment,” he said.

Eventually Aqua ViTea contracted for a small canning line at their Pond Lane plant. The company’s partner in New Hampshire still provides workers to do the packing.

“It’s good for us to have that flexibility, but it erodes the margin a bit,” Weaber said.

He felt that Aqua ViTea is now ready to support its own packaging. So the company signed an option to buy Woodchuck’s 100 cans per minute line. It will take several million dollars to acquire and install this infrastructure. But the reward, Weaber noted, would be more jobs and a helping hand for entrepreneurs who could further bolster Middlebury’s reputation as a beverage hub.

Aqua ViTea officials expect sales of around 40 million cans of kombucha over the next five years if its partnership with Woodchuck comes to fruition. Winning the $1.5 million CIP grant is expected to allow Aqua ViTea to hire more than 25 new employees within five years, according to company projections.

Aqua ViTea is currently helping half a dozen young beverage companies with packaging. Local customers include WhistlePig, which recently launched a canned ready-to-drink cocktail.

“We talk to new people every day,” Weaber said. “The majority of them are new businesses or startups. Their volumes therefore increase; some of them might not make it. Many of them are from Vermont and some are local to Addison County.

Absent the $1.5 million CIP grant, Aqua ViTea would have to “fully reassess (the project),” Weaber said. “We still have the little canning line, and we have that to fall back on.”

The company has the option with its New Hampshire mobile canning contractor to add another in-house packaging line, but that wouldn’t be ideal, according to Weaber.

“It’s not helping to create jobs in Vermont; we would basically help create jobs in New Hampshire,” he lamented.

FILL THE GAP

“But for this grant, we wouldn’t be able to do that, and Vermont would lose that ‘common ground,'” Weaber added. “Not a lot of people have that waistline already; the 100 is considered a pretty wide line, and (Woodchuck) goes to 600. It creates this huge gap between the canning guy moving at 30 cans per minute and someone at 600 cans per minute.

So Weaber has his fingers crossed that Aqua ViTea’s app makes the cut in what is a very competitive capital investment program. The state received 124 applications for a total of $91 million, and there is only $10.5 million to award, noted Fred Kinney, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC).

“This is a very exciting project for Addison County and Vermont,” Kenney said of Aqua ViTea’s proposal. “It has the potential to increase beverage start-ups and support the large-scale growth of the beverage industry, a key economic driver and job-creating sector for Addison County.”

He noted that the ACEDC was very supportive of the launch of the CIP grants, made possible by a portion of the American Recue Plan Act federal resources received by Vermont. ACEDC is supporting seven requests for Addison County CIP money, including a proposal from Danforth Pewter.

“ACEDC will lobby for additional funding for the program this year,” Kenney pledged.

John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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