THE MAKERS SERIES: SHAILAJA SHARMA OF HAPPYBOOCH
WORDS BY THE CITY STORY TEAM
The people of Mumbai are increasingly focusing on living and eating healthy. Vegan cafés are popping up across the city, and farmers’ markets offer fresh produce for a hearty home-cooked meal.
When it comes to our drinks, we’re trying to ease off the sugary sodas without compromising on taste. One alternative is kombucha, the fermented tea with its origins in China two millennia ago. We spoke to HappyBooch’s Shailaja Sharma about the benefits of the drink, fads, and how she started the brand.
The City Story: Why kombucha?
Shailaja Sharma: There’s a strong connection I feel with the booch, unlike with any other food or beverage. It’s a big part of my life now, and I can spend hours brewing my kombucha – testing new teas, herbs, or fruits. And that’s what I do! I started brewing in late 2016 and, ever since, my desire has been to share this unique-tasting probiotic tea with as many people as possible. It started with family and friends, and in September 2017, I started HappyBooch to be able to share it with the rest of Mumbai. At the time, I was also on the quest to take control of my health and be selective in what I eat or drink and be mindful of what that food does to me. Kombucha fit in perfectly into my story. I believe kombucha – when brewed right – is an excellent alternative to unhealthy ice-laden and artificially carbonated beverages, and it gives a lot in return through its naturally present good bacteria, beneficial acids, and B vitamins. I’ve never been a fan of sugary shakes, colas, or energy drinks, and the naturally tarty and fizzy nature of kombucha struck a chord with me as it does for a huge population world over. It’s a significant category in North America, the Asia Pacific region, and also beginning to emerge in certain European countries. In India or Bombay, it is very new and there is a lot of curiosity around it. A couple of cafés across India already are introducing kombucha on their menu.
And so, it is immensely gratifying that through HappyBooch I’m able to create a small community of kombucha lovers in Mumbai/India. When I go to the farmers markets in Mumbai on Sundays to sell HappyBooch, I love the reactions that our kombucha generates – it makes people really happy to try something new. They laugh, we engage in good conversation about natural fermentation, and sometimes people even run away when they hear “live bacteria” or “fermentation” as it’s “not their thing”. I love the fact that HappyBooch is able to make a difference in the Indian beverage industry and help grow the nascent kombucha market here.
TCS: How did it morph from you making it the first time to a small business/retail? How can we get our hands on Happy Booch?
SS: It all started with one mother Scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast – the kombucha culture) that asked me to adopt it. And then came the baby scobies that demanded their own hotel (hotel is kombucha industry slang for a jar where you store all the scoby offspring). I was fascinated by these live cultures and how they work so hard to produce all the energy, the natural carbon dioxide, the amino acids, enzymes, and the beneficial acids. Certainly they have some hipster vibes even as they don’t look so pretty. Increasingly, I decided to spend more of my time with them. That followed with thrusting a glass of kombucha on everyone, then came out the brews with fruits and the exotic teas, and I had a full blown kombucha lab! That was most of 2017. When friends and aunts kept coming back for more, I sat down to speak to market experts in India and the US, and after a couple of months of research, I started selling officially. I was always known as the “chaiwali” for the floral or herbal concoctions I carried in bottles for friends. But now I have a more sophisticated name: BoochLady.
We’re largely run out of Instagram and Facebook, where people can order by messaging us @happybooch. They can also order their batch by calling us on +91 70215 52978. The best way to meet us and know more about our kombucha and flavours is to keep an eye out for our farmers market stalls. Presently, we are also working on our website.
TCS: Tell us why we should drink kombucha.
SS: Being a fermented beverage, kombucha helps in healing the gut with the help of its billions of good bacteria, which trickles down to other benefits such as a healthy digestive system, balanced weight, enhanced immunity, and better joint health. Plus, it’s delicious, naturally effervescent, vegan, low-calorie and low-sugar drink, making it perfect for enjoyment. It is a “living” beverage with its origins in China 2,000 years ago and has been called everything from “elixir of life” to “tea of immortality”. In the present day, however, I think it’s best described as an all-natural beverage for overall wellness and your go-to if you’re trying to go off alcohol, sodas, ice-teas, or things with sugar in it. Personally, the booch has helped me with an extra spring in my step to take on all the tiring commute in Mumbai. I feel people in Mumbai are always working hard and late and often the workplace is hours away from their homes. Most of us don’t focus on our meals and end up eating things we later feel guilty about. Kombucha is often seen as a hipster drink, but it’s known to help in cell regeneration and in making you crave less for junk foods.
At HappyBooch, we are not a factory; every step is manual right to our sticking of labels and writing down the “best by” date. We spend a lot of time checking on the health of our cultures and the quality of the brew so our kombucha is as pure and raw as it gets. We use organic tea leaves and real fruits and herbs and don’t force-carbonate or pasteurise to keep the benefits real. We make really small batches of handcrafted kombucha and the taste and efficacy is everything. It’s always important to find out if your kombucha is raw.
TCS: Do you think kombucha is a fad? Currently there’s a rise in matcha, kombucha, and soy-related food. You think it’s here to stay or will it slide like goji berries did a decade ago?
SS: The health foods industry has many cyclical fads at any point in time, and presently there is a surge in the number of “super foods”. There’s been a lot of interest in kefir, kombucha, and non-dairy products such as soy and almond milk in the past year. With the advent of social media, food trends are now more global, and fads in tea or coffee are really quick to find a spot in Indian cafes or homes. You’re right to point out that many of these food trends are cyclical in nature. All of these products are new to the Indian palette and not likely to become very mainstream in the store aisles, but that does not mean Indians are not consuming them. From growth point of view, these are difficult product categories to establish in the context of India and mass-appeal but there is enough potential for growth in the years to come. Given Veganism is on the rise and given the cultural mix of Mumbai’s population, there will always be a demand for good niche nature-derived brands. Specifically about kombucha, globally, it is a category too huge to be termed a fad. We’re stoked with the response in Mumbai and are sure there will always be a dedicated customer base for it, however small. It requires a lot of education and sampling, but increasingly people are warming up to the idea of bringing kombucha to their breakfast tables and they keep coming back, asking for the next flavour they can try. That is very encouraging.
TCS: Tell us a little about yourself and Mumbai. Have you always lived here? Is it a good city for a start-up/small business?
SS: I’ve always lived in Bombay and spent the past decade working for some of the largest newsrooms in the country, breaking news of the biggest mergers and acquisitions and chasing CEOs to ask them uncomfortable questions about their businesses. These jobs have given me the opportunity to spend every single day on the field, right on the ground where the action is. When you commute across Mumbai, you see the Bombay and the old-world charm of the city in all its glory, and then you see the haphazard or the crumbling infrastructure in other parts of it, the booming of the health-conscious café revolution that the creative and writer community calls its home during the day, and the sharp and shocking disparity across the street. Taking your product from one part of the city to another always is a draining task. Despite all of the city’s challenges, at the end of the day, work gets done and there is no dearth of opportunity for new businesses in this city. In fact, Mumbai offers more opportunities for small businesses across foods and fashion than ever before. Having said that, it is probably easier to start a venture but difficult to sustain it long-term as eight out of 10 new ideas fail to pan out as expected. Because Mumbai is such a beautiful mix of cultures, the people here are always up for trying new things.