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Spotlight on: Whalebird Kombucha: Mike Durighello, CEO and founder


The first time Mike Durighello tried kombucha, he didn’t like it. His friend had handed him the fermented tea-based probiotic drink after a day of surfing along the Central Coast. Durighello was unimpressed.

“It tasted bad,” he told the Sun. But there was a reason. “I wasn’t familiar with the world of fermentation and what fermented foods tasted like.”

Durighello soon learned to love the drink and began to take it with him to the library while he studied in college at UC Santa Cruz. “It would curb my appetite, give me laser focus, and all of the sudden I would look up and three hours had gone by,” he said. “It definitely felt good.” 

From that point on, Durighello estimates he drank two bottles of kombucha a day, “which is a really expensive habit. Especially at the time I was buying it,” he added. “There weren’t a lot of brands around.” 

And then he got to thinking, why not make his own? 

The first batch of kombucha Durighello brewed was with some friends. The initial results were disappointing. 

“It wasn’t great,” he admitted. “It wasn’t that it was bad; we just knew we had a long road ahead of us. We didn’t know what we were doing. We had a recipe. We had a general idea, but there’s a million different ways you can make kombucha. There’s not one ‘holy grail’ way to make it.”

And that’s a philosophy San Luis Obispo’s Whalebird Kombucha, of which Durighello is CEO and founder, appears to take to heart. Currently, the brewer offers a variety of flavors, including “Jasmine Bliss” (described as “fruit forward” and “floral” with “hibiscus and rose hips” that “bring balance to currants and raisins”), “Dry-Hopped Pamplemousse” (a French style grapefruit “with hints of cascade and citra hops”), and a purple colored, CBD-infused iteration dubbed “Purple Rain.” 

One of Whalebird Kombucha’s newest offerings is called “Purple Rain” and is infused with CBD. People who have tried the flavor say it tastes as good as the Prince record of the same title sounds.

Durighello said the company brews between 6,000 and 7,000 gallons of kombucha a month. The process is fairly straightforward: Workers brew a tea and then create a concentrate with tea and sugar. They then add the liquid to fermenters and cut it with water. 

“So you have a giant vat of sweet tea, and then we add our kombucha culture to it,” Durighello explained. “That initiates the fermentation process when you inoculate the sweet tea with your yeast and bacteria strains and then it ferments. From there, we transfer it to our post-fermentation tanks, which is where we do all of our carbonating, chilling, and flavoring. Then it goes into kegs and it’s ready to be served.” 

Whalebird is currently only available to be purchased off location from where it’s brewed (except for those enrolled in the company’s Growler Club, which can get growlers filled on Mondays and Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in San Luis Obispo). Durighello said the brewery’s main customers are largely restaurants, coffee shops, cafes, and grocery stores.

The company recently made a deal with Lassens Natural Food and Vitamins, and the health chain currently has Whalebird stocked at its Santa Maria location (1790 S. Broadway). Whalebird also has a booth at San Luis Obispo’s farmers’ market each Thursday. 

Durighello said there are plans to launch a new website in late September of this year that will have additional details on where to find and buy Whalebird kombucha in stores from the Central Coast down to Los Angeles. 

According to Durighello, the rising popularity of kombucha is making the industry evolve in a way similar to the craft beer industry a decade ago. And one of the key features of that growth and change is individuality and catering to different drinkers’ preferences. 

“I think that’s something we are going to see a lot more of in the next five years–you’re going to see these kombucha products coming out that are going to be more craft branded,” he said. “They’re going to be talking about flavor profiles, and yeast strains, and what types of probiotic or what types of bacteria are being used to create different styles of acidity … which in the end is creating that balance of sweet to dry to tart. 

“It’s why I think so many people are falling in love with kombucha beside the probiotic content. It’s got a really nice balance to it.” 

Staff Writer Spencer Cole wrote this week’s Biz Spotlight. Information should be sent to the Sun via fax, mail, or email at spotlight@santamariasun.com.


Whalebird Kombucha




Environmental Statement 


Whalebird is deeply committed to implementing sustainable alternatives in our work environment. As an up-and-coming business we believe it is our responsibility to help set a new standard for what is considered acceptable business practices. In short, this means always considering the bigger picture, not just how the numbers come in at the end of the month. We will spend more, and make less in order to do so. We figure that additional spending is ultimately being invested in something we can’t live without. Our planet. Our playground. 


We strive to incorporate sustainability into every possible aspect of the business, both internally and externally. Our goals consist of reducing the amount of materials we consume, consuming only thoughtfully selected materials and disposing of them in an environmentally conscious manner. We have and will continue to conduct extensive research in order to educate ourselves and the local community about adoptable green alternatives. We hope the incentives we offer through our growler club will encourage other local companies to get on board with the GreenBiz program.

Incentives for other businesses to get certified


We are very proud to be one of the first GreenBiz certified companies in SLO County. We hope to be joined by many of the other great business in our community and intend to encourage with discounts at our business. We are very proud to offer free growler club memberships to all employees of GreenBiz certified companies. Take a card on the display board and get a hold of Cory Jones to find out how to get the process started. It’s probably easier than you think!


Table of Contents


I. Utility Efficiency by Water and Power Reduction

EyeDro Implementation for Energy Efficiency

Reverse Osmosis Recovery

Led lights exclusively

Water Conservation in Production and Bathroom sinks. 

Computer sleep settings


II. Greener Operations and Distribution

Reusable Kegs

Refillable Growlers

Cans VS Glass

Plastic Wrap Solution


III. Environmentally Preferable Purchasing

Using ‘Smile.Amazon.com’

Unbleached, chlorine free bathroom products 

Remanufactured copier toner cartridges

Recycled paper


IV. Toxins and Waste Reduction

Alternative Transportation

Rechargeable Batteries

Non-chemical Cleaning Products

Eliminating Chemical and Aerosolized Air Fresheners

Reducing Consumption of Paper Towels

Protecting Storm Drains

Reusable dishware

Two sided printing 

Styrofoam Free 


V. Proper Waste Disposal

Sufficient Recycling and Compost Containers

Composted Raw Ingredients

Universal waste program

Recycling Electronics



I. Utility Efficiency by Water and Power Reduction


EyeDro Implementation for Energy Efficiency

Monitoring power usage can be a difficult thing due to the lack of visibility available. Usually you just receive a bill and eat the cost without much idea where it’s coming from. This is something that troubled us and we wanted to improve in this department. 


We found a product called Eyedro Electricity Monitoring Systems. These units monitor individual pieces of equipment and are easy for the DIYer to install. Using the easy to navigate interface we now had full transparency of how equipment was operating and functioning together.  Below is a graph of some equipment power usage:



Highlights of improvement we made from visible data:

  1. We noticed our heating and cooling equipment were competing. Since they are separate systems, we could see that sometimes our cooling and heating equipment were overlapping and competing with each other. We were able to tune them so they no longer did, saving tons of energy. 

  2. Evaluate how much money we were spending on heat in different parts of the building and make educated decisions about insulating those areas better on an individual basis.

  3. Discover that our 10 ton glycol chiller was cycling on frequently and for short durations. This enabled us to invest in more glycol so we could fill the reservoir completely. This will reduce the power used and extend the life of our machine by running longer and less frequently.

  4. Evaluate the return on investment for waste heat recovery systems from our glycol chiller. This unit puts out a lot of wasted heat when operating that we could re-purpose for several operations in our facility that require heat. Using the Eyedro devices, we can see how much waste heat is available and how much heat we’re using in different areas of our operations. This allows us to make intelligent and tuned decisions about re-purposing the heat. It also allows us to calculate an accurate return on investment for the equipment needed to recover and dispense the waste heat where it’s needed.

  5. Compare efficiency of our cold storages. We have two areas that maintain 36F for cold storage of our kegs. We can tell that our refrigerated box container is using about 2x as much power per keg as our other walk in cold room. This will certainly help with future decisions when we need to expand our cold storage again.

  6. Calculate cost of marketing materials we make on our laser etcher. By monitoring the power consumption of the laser, we can accurately tell how much each sign or tap handle is costing us from an energy cost standpoint. Without this information we could never determine a price per unit and consider that cost in larger financial planning.


We were blown away by how many other improvements we made when our eyes were opened to how we were utilizing our energy in the brewery. We encourage you to do the same. Here’s what the device looks like:


Each unit costs about $150 on Smile.Amazon.com and gives you visibility to 2 pieces of equipment. If this is out of the budget, you can also borrow similar device from PG&E.


Reverse Osmosis Recovery

We invested in a state of the art RO system so we can bring you the best booch possible. It is already amongst the most efficient available producing 2 gallons of pure H2O for every .75 gallons of leachate. This leachate is concentrated with all of the salts, minerals, and other contaminates removed from the water, and is not useable in many grey water applications. The good news is toilets don’t mind it! We have installed a 250 gallon holding tank at elevation so gravity does the work to feed our toilets with 100% waste water. We estimate this saves 4,000 – 6,000 gallons per month.


LED lights exclusively

The Whalebird facility has become completely LED powered and we have shaved approximately 70% off of our power requirements for lighting our building.


Water Conservation in Production and Bathroom Sinks 

Some small changes can go a long way. We’ve replaced the sink aerators in our brewing area with low flow nozzles that reduce flow to 1 gallon per minute. Bathrooms have been choked down to .25 gallons per minute. We still have high flow water available for production where it’s needed, but the reduced flow rates in the sinks have not been a burden at all and we are saving a lot of water. Spiraling aerators fan the water out and go a long way with a small amount of water. We’d highly suggest!



Computer Sleep Settings

It’s really amazon how much power is consumed by electronics sitting idle. One of the main changes we’ve made to combat this is set all of our computers and monitors to go to sleep after 5 minutes of inactivity.


II. Greener Operations and Distribution


Reusable Kegs

We’ve invested a fair amount of capital in a large stainless steel keg fleet. Stainless kegs preserve the quality of the Kombucha better than plastic kegs and can be reused for years. Many breweries have switched to plastic, one time use kegs for cost savings and simplified operations. We deal with it.





Refillable Growlers


Our Growler Club Program was an initiative created years ago to reward reuse of our signature glass growlers. We now have several hundred members refilling each week from our tap room and other retailers that carry our Kombucha on draft. 





Cans VS Glass


There’s no use beating around the bush when talking about single use beverage vessels. They contribute to our waste problem and their production and distribution produces more greenhouse gases than draft distribution does. Especially if your drinking at the brewery that produces it. That’s why we are so stoked to have over 300 growler club members coming into our brewery to fill up each week. 


But convenience is key, and we had to decide which type of packaging we’d prefer to use when reaching our booch lovers outside of our town. We chose cans for their ability to block harmful sunlight from degrading product, and for their reduced environmental impact. Here’s a passage from vinepair.com that sums it up:


“You probably know this already, but cans are a lot lighter than bottles. That means they have a smaller carbon footprint than glass (20% more greenhouse gasses than a can), but also that they take less cardboard to hold and transport. Furthermore, cans are made with much more recycled content than glass bottles (at 20%). According to The Aluminum Association, cans are typically made with 70 percent recycled content, and people recycle their cans 20 percent more often than they recycle glass.”


Plastic Wrap Solution

When shipping kegs, it is standard to use plastic stretch wrap (and a lot of it) to hold kegs securely during transportation. This plastic wrap is rarely recycled. We didn’t like this, so we found a better way. 


We found that if we staggered the amount of kegs in each row, the kegs would interlock together and hold their square shape securely with just a couple straps for support. No more plastic needed, and the straps are reusable. Plus we fit 3 more kegs on each pallet!





III. Environmentally Preferable Purchasing


Using ‘Smile.Amazon.com’

Shop on Amazon much? Next time, add ‘smile’ to the beginning:

This will redirect you to the same page you’ve always used, but now a portion of the money you spend will be donated to a charity of your choice. Remember you have to go to this URL every time for it to count, so make it a habit! 


Unbleached, chlorine free paper 

Our bathrooms are stocked with 100% recycled and unbleached paper products.


Here’s some in depth information about how to properly source good products:

“UNBLEACHED”- Recycled Papers that have NOT been re-bleached


“PROCESSED CHLORINE-FREE”- Recycled papers bleached with oxygen, ozone or hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine chemicals 


“TOTALLY CHLORINE-FREE”- Non-recycled papers bleached with oxygen, ozone or hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine chemicals


“ELEMENTAL CHLORINE-FREE”- Papers bleached with chlorine dioxide instead of chlorine gas. These chemicals still contain chlorine, so this process still produces dioxins!


Our need for white paper is learned behavior, bleached paper feels cleaner to us but only because we are conditioned to think so. Actual bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is harmful to our skin and to the environment in the way that it is processed. The price of these products relies completely on the needs of the market, through supply and demand. It is up to us to purchase responsible products and as we do, the price will come down through economies of scale. Sources:







Remanufactured copier toner cartridges

In an effort to purchase previously used and recycled goods, our printers are now equipped with remanufactured toner cartridges.  


Smarter Cartridge in Arroyo Grande is a perfect local option for repurposed printing and office goods.

(888) 777-9986 


Recycled paper


Our office printer in the warehouse is also decked out with some 100% recycled paper to go with those remanufactured cartridges.


Paper is often different than described in color, two sided printability, flimsiness and in actual recycled content, certain certifications have been criticized for financial connections to the paper industry. An example of this is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) which does not exactly meet the requirements for responsible forestry management. The U.S. Green Building Council voted against accepting the SFI certification. 


Qualities to Look For:


+ Suitable for ‘multipurpose’ use (preferred). 

+ Suitable for general ‘copy’ use. 

+ Suitable for fax and laser inkjet printer use. 

+ Made of recycled paper materials. 

+ Made of 100% recycled paper materials / fibers (preferred). 

+ Made of 100% post-consumer recycled materials / fibers (most preferred). 

+ Made of ‘tree-free’, recycled agro-industrial waste (for select ‘tree-free’ paper products). + 100% biodegradable. + 100% recyclable. 

+ Acid-free. + Elemental chlorine free (ECF) (preferred). 

+ Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified (preferred). 

+ Sustainable Forestry Initiative Certified (preferred). 

+ Made involving environmentally low impact, eco friendly practices, such as renewable energy facilities. 

+ White or bright white paper stock. 

+ 8.5 x 11 stock size.

 + Quality assurance tested to be jam-free for general printer use. 

+ Made in the USA (preferred). 

+ Brands that value sustainability and social responsibility. 

+ Well reviewed by customers (i.e., when reviews available via company or seller website). 



Qualities to Avoid:


– Animal products and animal byproducts. 

– Non sustainable paper materials / fibers.

– Non biodegradable paper materials. 

– Non recyclable paper materials. 

– Conventional, commercial copy paper made without recycled contents / fibers. 

– Color paper stock. 

– Lined paper stock. 

– Acid washed paper products. 

– Paper stock outside the 8.5 x 11 size. 

– Products with a high number of bad reviews. Understanding these terms 


Here are some definitions of terms used in the paper industry:

RECYCLED – this is an easy one: When paper is recycled and turned back into paper, we refer to that as recycled paper. This is in contrast to virgin paper that is made exclusively from trees and has no recycled content. The primary environmental benefit of using recycled instead of virgin paper is that it reduces the need to cut down trees in order to make more paper. 


POST CONSUMER WASTE – this refers to paper that has reached the end consumers (all of us who are using paper and then tossing it in our recycle bins) and then been turned back into paper. The difference between the recycled paper mentioned above and post-consumer waste paper is that the recycled paper may not have reached the end consumer; for example, it can include paper that was trimmed in the paper mills and then turned into paper again, so that it is recycled paper but contains no post- consumer waste. Paper that contains post-consumer waste will clearly state it on the labeling. 


RECYCLABLE – this is the sneakiest of the paper industry’s marketing ploys. Some brands use hit words like “recyclable paper, recyclable materials, the recycled symbol, and SFI certification” – but no recycled content. They label their paper as either being recyclable or made from recyclable materials in order to intentionally mislead consumers into thinking that they’re buying a product made from recycled content. Basically, they’re just telling you that paper is recyclable – that it can be recycled – but we already know that! 


PROCESSED CHLORINE FREE/UNBLEACHED – this means that bleach was not used to make the paper white. The ubiquitous white copy paper that we find in every office has traditionally required bleach in order to give it its white appearance. However, using bleach is not good for the environment, and now there are papers that are processed without bleach. If the paper you purchase was processed chlorine-free, this will be stated on the package. To be ethical costs money but we see it as an investment in our environment! 




bestlyy-curatedbyquality.co cultivatingcapital.com 

Chemical Cleaning Products


IV. Toxins and Waste Reduction


Alternative Transportation

Whalebird Kombucha is an active member in the Back ‘N’ Forth club, which offers rideshare opportunities for small businesses like us! We also encourage our employees to bike to work when possible, and provide outdoor and indoor bike storage and locks.




Rechargeable Batteries

We’ve ditched one time use alkaline batteries and have a recharge station. We also have a battery disposal bin so employees can drop off spent batteries here, and we can make sure they’re properly disposed of.




Cleaning Products

Toxic products like Triclosan damage our environment when they are made and used. They also have the potential to be hazardous to employees. Because of this, we avoid using products like Triclosan and take the precaution of researching the products we use to see if they can be improved upon or need to be removed.

We make it very clear to our employees which substances must be handled with care and what the proper safety protocol and necessary equipment is for each product. Below is a list of our cleaning products and their degree of hazard:

Citric Acid – light risk to eyes, eye protection required. No environmental impact

Bentonite –  no risk, no environmental impact 

Trisodium Phosphate – Some environmental impact, used sparingly. Dangerous if inhaled or exposed – respirator, eye protection, and gloves required.

Star San – some potential environmental concern, used sparingly. No risk to employees.

PBW – No environmental impact, irritation to skin on impact, gloves required

Sodium Hydroxide – No environmental impact, irritation to skin on impact, gloves required

Phenolphthalein – No risk, no environmental impact


Eliminating Chemical and Aerosolized Air Fresheners

We’ve ditched the spray cans for some real hippy stuff. Burning Palo-Santo and Sage in restrooms is a natural alternative to aerosol sprays and smells sooooooo much better!



Reducing Consumption of Paper Towels

In an effort to consume paper towels as little as possible, we integrated a color coded rag system. Light blue for clean/production use only and dark blue for the heavier messes. We only use paper towels for messes that would ruin our rags. The rags are stored and washed separately.




Protecting Storm Drains

Nothing goes down our storm drains except for water. We strive to make sure any cleaning solutions we use, non-toxic as they may be, make it to the wastewater facility so they can be handled properly. We’ve also clearly labeled the drains so our neighbors are aware too.



Reusable Dishware

Our cafeteria is equipped with re-usable dishware and utensils to reduce waste coming from our lunch breaks. You’ve got to love these rad sporks! 



Two Sided Printing

Every computer in the Whalebird facility has it print setting set to ‘Two sided printing’ to cut down on paper usage.


Styrofoam Free 

Styrofoam is forever and we don’t bother with it. It was a hard thing to commit to since Kombucha must remain cold in transit/shipping and Styrofoam has traditionally been the only consumable style of insulated packaging. We’ve passed up on some easy sales using a ‘direct to consumer’ type of distribution since the Styrofoam burden would be tremendous. 


We researched alternatives to Styrofoam and found an amazing solution brought to you by Ecovate (ecovativedesign.com). Their solution utilizes mycelium (fungi) to grow packaging in a matter of days that has comparable insulative properties to styrofoam!


V. Proper Waste Disposal


Sufficient Recycling and Compost Containers

Even with the best intentions, it is easy to toss something in the garbage that could recycled if it is more convenient. We combat these temptations by making all options equally convenient. And it’s been working great!



Composted Raw Ingredients

Almost all of the ingredients used in the brewery are composted! This includes SCOBY, spent tea, and the rest of the organic ingredients we use for individual flavors. Unfortunately, we are still looking for better disposal options for our organic Mango/Guava puree since it is too saturated to compost. Let us know if you have any ideas for us!

Universal Waste Bins

We are working with our local waste facilities to dispose of e-waste and hazardous waste in the most responsible ways we can. We also encourage employees to bring in their hazardous waste so we can get it to the right spot. We do this because we know it’s a pain for individuals to make special runs to the e-waste facilities for single items like paint containers or aerosol cans. Bringing it to work is a lot more convenient, and convenience is key to good waste disposal/recycling systems.



Recycling Electronics

When electronic devices go caput, they still have a lot to offer in the form of recyclability. We keep ours out of landfills collecting and delivering to proper recycling locations. We also encourage our employees to bring in their spent electronics so we can get them where they need to be. Our local recycling facility:


The Achievement House – San Luis Obispo: (805) 543-9383

Postprandial somnolence, or “the Itis”, is the state of low energy as a result of the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system in response to the presence of mass in the gastrointestinal tract. Put simply, it’s a food coma. The drowsiness you feel after a large meal isn’t in your head; it’s a physiological response. In less productivity driven cultures this phenomenon is addressed in a variety of ways e.g. the all-too-necessary post-meal siesta. Unfortunately, this practice isn’t as readily accepted in the American workplace, necessitating alternative means to overcome this hurdle.

Picture the scene: It’s midday and you’re sitting at your desk. Lunch is coming to an end and the various members of your office begin to make their way back to their stations. Their bellies full, lethargy begins to set in and the last half of the day looks bleak. You want to help your employees feel their best and achieve their full potential in the face of physical and mental deterioration, but what can you do? The dedicated researchers at Whalebird have a solution: a strong serving of the fermented, lightly effervescent, black or green tea commonly known as kombucha.

If you’re reading this you’re probably already comfortable with the concept, but you may not have a full understanding of the overwhelming benefits of this light, bubbly beverage. The moderate level of caffeine present in the base tea is transferred to the finished product, providing energy and heightened focus without the inevitable crash/cognitive impairments associated with libations containing higher levels of caffeine and sugar. Additionally, kombucha contains a variety of organic components that aren’t present in basic tea preparation as a result of the extensive fermentation process necessary to make the drink. B-vitamins, vitamin-C, glucuronic acid, glycerol, and lactic acid, useful organic molecules integral to metabolism and energy production in the body, neurotransmitter development, tissue repair, heart, eye, and skin support, as well as added antioxidant properties, all come to light in the kombucha making process.

Getting down to brass tacks, office kombucha bars are simple, straightforward, environmentally feasible and seeing huge growth within the food and drink industry. Additionally, the kombucha bar can be adjusted to fit any building size and any business needs. From a full-blown multi-tap delivery system, all the way down to a compact kegerator no bigger than your average water cooler, Whalebird can design a system to suit your needs. Best of all, once the heavy lifting is done, upkeep is nearly automatic. Apart from the occasional wipe down, there’s almost no work necessary on the part of the business owner/office manager. With automated keg deliveries shipped out weekly, and a team of Whalebird and Joyride draft techs able to troubleshoot any and all issues only a phone call away, a newly installed kombucha tap can provide an endless amount of the healthy, delicious beverage while blending seamlessly into the workplace and requiring minimal attention.

The more environmentally aware office manager will also be able to rest easy at night, as the stainless steel kegs used to transport this drink of kings, as well as the glass growlers used imbibe the bubbling goodness are 100% reusable. Paper and plastic waste can be heavily reduced with office kombucha bars, in some cases up to 85 pounds per person per year. Meaning, an office of 25 people would cut down on more than 2000 pounds of plastic waste per year by installing just a single kombucha tap. Not too shabby for some fermented tea.

So when the day seems to be drawing on and the collective energy in the office is lower than low, where can you turn? We hope you’ll turn to us, Whalebird Kombucha, for that midday pick-me-up, liquid siesta. Tasty, healthy, cost-effective, environmentally sustainable, and incredibly easy to set up, an in-office kombucha bar may be just the answer you need for increasing the overall health and productivity of your team Do it for you, do it for your people. WHALEBIRD


Screen Shot 2018 11 27 At 9.58.39 Pm

Draft-forward kombucha brand called WhaleBird that sports winged whale as icon and exhorts customers to “dive deeper, fly higher” has been expanding thru Calif from its base in San Luis Obispo, riding Joyride distributor into SF, LA and San Diego with its Dry Hopped Pamplemousse and other distinctive flavors.  Brand is operated by founder/ceo Mike Durighello, former tech sales exec who’s last of 3 original founders back in 2012, joined by partners Jake Pritzlaff, Lee Wilkerson and Dustin Oswald, all deeply into aquatic activities like spearfishing and surfing and committed to using stainless kegs and glass growlers as sustainable packs.

Group has followed familiar startup trajectory, starting in garage using brewing techniques they picked up on Youtube, graduating to shared kitchen and then their own 2,400-sq-ft space.  In early days, Durighello sometimes made deliveries of 65-lb kegs on his bicycle.  Tho it still self-distributes to accts like Lassen’s Market in SLO and Santa Barbara counties, WhaleBird recently recruited Joyride Distributors to take its brand into SF, LA and San Diego.  With Joyride embarking on plans to build big facility in Bakersfield, Mike also has designs on testing whether WhaleBird can fly in Central Valley towns like that and Fresno and Visalia.  But for foreseeable future, in synch with brand slogan, plan is to go “an inch wide and mile deep” within Golden State, hitting all key metros by 2020.

WhaleBird aims to offer kombuchas that are “approachable but with character,” as Mike put it, balancing sweet, sour and dry notes.  Using black or green tea base, core flavors include fruity and floral Jasmine Bliss, spicy Ginger Sarsaparilla and earthy Dry Hopped Pamplemousse, using Citra and Cascade hops and edible grapefruit essential oils.  Crew is happy to take suggestions from consumers, as with Mango Coconut Cayenne entry, and has also done CBD-infused entry called Purple Rain.

Tho they’ve grown staff to fill functions like  “SCOBY zoo keeper,” “cellar samurai” and “kombucha flow master,” Durighello and partners plan to take it a step at a time, pulling in modest capital rounds last year and this year via Slow Money program, which pools local lenders for low-interest loans.  Durighello cites as one role model the yerba mate pioneer Guayaki, with its build-it-slow approach, without recourse to institutional money, and its priority on creating living-wage jobs and environmental sustainability

published 100+x a year
Vol 15 No 175 | November 16, 2018
Publisher: Benj Steinman | Editor: Gerry Khermouch | Senior Editor: Jim Sullivan

With a growing trend in health conscious habits amongst West Coasters, there is no surprise that kombucha’s popularity has been, pun intended, mushrooming. But according to Mike Durighello—the CEO of Whalebird Kombucha—you don’t have to be a yogi, a hippie, or health conscious at all to enjoy a bottle of their kombucha. Kombucha, the ancient fizzy, fermented drink that originated in Asia, is a probiotic tea infused with yeast and beneficial bacteria to create fermentation.

The many health benefits of the drink include probiotics that improve gut health and immunity, antioxidants that decrease inflammation, and organic acids that fight against bacterial growth as well as promote detoxification. And if that weren’t enough, many kombucha aficionados, including Mike who drank an average 6 bottles a week while he was a student at UC Santa Cruz, claim that the drink gives them energy boosts, a curbed appetite as well as a strengthened ability to focus.

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Have you ever seen a Whalebird? Mike and Jake, avid Kombucha brewers and the minds behind Whalebird Kombucha, hadn’t either until the summer of 2014 when their lives were changed forever. It was a foggy morning in on the Central Coast when the duo jumped into the ocean after their morning pint of Kombucha for an ordinary spearfishing excursion. While diving amidst a thick cluster of kelp, Mike saw what appeared to be a huge whale move quickly through the water, breach the surface, then disappear from view as if it sprouted wings and flew away, the only reasonable explanation. After that fateful day, they decided to dedicate their budding Kombucha brewery to the tale of the Whalebird and their mission became clear: Make the best Kombucha the world has ever seen and spread its fizzy goodness across the coast in the hope that one day the wonderful and mysterious Whalebird will be found.

Today, with the help of a small but passionate team, they handcraft an uncompromising, full-bodied Kombucha from the heart of San Luis Obispo.  Whalebird Kombucha combines the rich flavor of a full-bodied, traditionally fermented Kombucha with essential oils and infused botanicals to create a wonderfully balanced, small batch brew.

Thanks in part to native strains of bacteria and yeast, Whalebird Kombucha is sessionable and refreshing while maintaining the low sugar, strong probiotic culture, and beneficial organic acid that makes
Kombucha so good. Beyond the brew, sustainability is key. The Whalebird team hopes you enjoy the taps, kegs, and growlers that can all be reused hundreds of times without creating excess packaging waste and recycle the cans which are perfect for enjoying on life’s daily adventure. 

Here at Joyride, we work with partners who share JOY in their work. For this reason we are THRILLED to be adding Whalebird Kombucha to the #craftondraft family. Whalebird exudes JOY in what they do and how they do it. Check out this video for more of the Whalebird story.

Whalebird’s small batches, organic ingredients, and edible essential oils have enabled them to provide some of the best tasting Kombucha on the market! All Whalebird Kombucha flavors start with a base of organic Flowery Orange Pekoe Black Tea and our proprietary blend of wild yeast and probiotics. Like a sourdough starter, Whalebird’s Kombucha culture is a product of wild fermentation and it can only be created in the heart of the California Coast. Some of their flavors include Manguava, Dry Hopped Pamplemousse, Jasmine Bliss, Lavender Lemonade, Passion Green Tea and Ginger Sarsaparilla (Current Seasonal)

All Whalebird Kombucha flavors contain 5g of sugar and 30 calories per 8oz serving. Each flavor is fermented using our organic Flowery Orange Pekoe Black Tea and is slightly caffeinated with 15mg of caffeine, the equivalent to a quarter cup of black tea. All of Whalebird Kombucha ingredients are organic, vegan, and gluten free. Reverse osmosis water is used as a base to ensure there is no fluoride or chlorine in the brew.

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Molly Barker lifted what looked like a slippery tortilla out of a jar of pungent tan liquid. She smiled as the smell of vinegar filled the air and the slippery disk dripped like a jellyfish out of water. Barker placed it back in the jar and drained the liquid. She was making her own kombucha.

“It’s kind of like drinking beer for the first time,” agricultural systems management senior Barker said. “It just sort of grows on you. Now I’ve come to really enjoy the vinegary taste to it.”

What is kombucha?

Kombucha is a slightly vinegary fermented beverage made from brewed tea leaves. It has a low alcohol content (on average less than 0.5 percent) and bubbles lightly. Barker makes it using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), the jellyfish-like catalyst for making kombucha. She lovingly refers to “him” as “Scobes.”

“If you’re comfortable, he’s comfortable,” Barker said about finding the right temperature for brewing kombucha.

Graphic by Alison Stauf

Barker said the temperature is an important part of the brewing process, which involves making tea first, letting it cool and adding the SCOBY. Barker sometimes adds fruit to make different flavors of kombucha. Once all the ingredients are in, she keeps them in a jar out of the sun and lets the mixture ferment.

For those who don’t make their own kombucha, the drink can be found at many local vendors. Local brewery Whalebird Kombucha recently started selling its product at Whole Foods, Kreuzberg and even on campus at 19 Metro Express, located within the atrium of 19 Metro Station.

A look inside Whalebird

Founded in 2012, Whalebird Kombucha sits on the fringes of San Luis Obispo, nestled on the corner of Empleo Street, off of busy South Higuera Street. The scent of vinegar wafts from the distillery room as dark amber liquid ferments in 50-gallon vats. Ceiling-high steel vessels line the walls of a space just beyond a rustic front tasting room where an energetic college student serves samples to customers.

Graphic by Alison Stauf

Up a neon green ladder is a loft space above Whalebird’s tasting room. A punching bag, colorful cartoon-style art and hanging-hammock chairs reflect a playful company culture. Here, CFO Jake Pritzlaff, with a curling moustache like a silent movie villain, told the story of Whalebird.

“You look at Whalebird and instantly it makes you feel happy. It’s this funny little whale with a little sideways smile kind of smirking at you,” Pritzlaff said. “Kombucha is kind of quirky; it’s two different things making a fermentation, it’s bacteria and yeast.”

Pritzlaff related this marriage of bacteria and yeast to the company’s brand.

“A whale and a bird are another two things that you wouldn’t think go together,” he said.

Alison Stauf/Courtesy Photo

Kombucha’s growing popularity

The drink originated in Asia hundreds of years ago, but has recently become more popular. Kombucha sales increased by 29 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to CNBC.

Whalebird CEO Mike Durighello began Whalebird’s predecessor, Komplete Kombucha, in 2012 with two other founders — Alex Narodny and Molly Hemler — who have since left the company. When Narodny left the company in 2012, Pritzlaff joined as the company’s analyst. Durighello and Pritzlaff became more serious about their kombucha brewery in 2015 after making $10,000 from a Kickstarter campaign.

Video by Monica Roos

“At that point in time, kombucha, was very niche. It was drank by people who were in the yoga scene, the health and wellness kind of industry, and it had a vibe of something that maybe hippies drank,” Pritzlaff said.

Pritzlaff and Durighello wanted to make kombucha more mainstream.

“We wanted to take it and make it something for people who were into craft beer, who were into soda, energy drinks, iced tea — that kind of thing,” Pritzlaff said. “We felt like we’d do some good in the world if they were picking up a kombucha instead.”

In 2015, Pritzlaff and Durighello rebranded from Komplete Kombucha to Whalebird.

With 30 vendors on the Central Coast alone, Whalebird is slowly dominating the local market for on-tap kombucha. Its distinguishing feature is that the product is never bottled, meaning it’s only available from a tap, like a keg of beer.

Alison Stauf/Courtesy Photo

Spark Yoga in San Luis Obispo is one of Whalebird’s vendors. Owner Steph Young has been selling Whalebird for two-and-a-half years.

“Kombucha, the concept, when you talk about it,  sounds frightening and disgusting,” Young said. “But I’m a believer in it, I feel like it does help with your overall GI (gastrointestinal) health and it tastes good which is awesome.”

The good, the bad and the probiotics

Barker said there isn’t a lot of science that supports the benefits or negative effects of kombucha, so she doesn’t buy into the probiotic craze behind it.

“There’s cases of people who have died from home-brew because it grows some toxic mold and they didn’t realize it,” Barker said. “But there are some other people that say it’s cured AIDS. If it makes you feel good, you should drink it.”

Pritzlaff, however, thinks the bacteria in kombucha can be helpful in digestion and gut health.

“There’s a lot of research coming out on the nature of probiotics in general; so eating kimchi, sauerkraut, probiotic yogurt and drinking kombucha — they’re all part of a healthy balance of gut bacteria,” Pritzlaff said. “The more beneficial bacteria you’re putting in your gut, the better your digestion, which heavily influences your overall health and wellness.”

But nutrition professor Lisa Nicholson said it’s not that simple. Nicholson said the word “probiotic” doesn’t always imply a positive effect on the body.

“The word biotics reminds us of something that is alive,” Nicholson said. “These are the bacteria that live alongside us. ‘Probiotic’ is the term that has come into use that just means these live microorganisms.”

Nicholson said each person has a different balance of bacteria in their body and the intake of different probiotics can either help that balance or throw it off.

“If we have them in the right amount, we get a health benefit,” Nicholson said. “When you have ‘bacterial overgrowth’ where you get too much of one type of food substrate, then they kind of get out of balance and out of wack in your system.”

Barker said she only drinks a maximum of one glass a day because if she drinks too much, it could make her stomach hurt. But agricultural communication junior Alissa Loftus said she has a different experience.

“I like to drink it whenever my stomach feels off or especially whenever I have to take antibiotics,” Loftus said. “All the good bacteria in there is basically the equivalent of taking a probiotic pill.”

When it comes to kombucha, it’s good to have a brand name that stands out from the crowd. Perfect case in point is San Luis Obispo-based WhaleBird. That flying whale is hard to miss! But that’s not the only thing memorably about this booch. These are imaginative, nuanced flavors that are completely different from any flavors we’ve tried before.


All photos property of Kombucha Hunter. Please request permission for use.

All photos property of Kombucha Hunter. Please request permission for use.

Lavender Lemonade, far left, has that nice tartness of lemon with the smooth finish of lavender. The citrus note lingers, making it light and crisp, and perfect for those impending long summer days and nights. Ginger Sarsparilla, middle, is super unique. The rootsyness of sarsparilla with the mild kick of ginger at the end really satisfies. There’s a depth and pleasant sweetness to it, with a soft vanilla note. Jasmine Bliss, right, has a strong floral flavor and almost tastes like liquid candy—but a candy that’s good for you! There’s a strong cherry note, and the ingredients include rose hips, hibiscus, black currants and raisins.

We chatted with co-founder Jake Pritzlaff about the story behind the name, and more!

Kombucha Hunter: Why did you decide to change the name to WhaleBird?
Jake Pritzlaff:
 It was a change we had been gearing up for since the end of 2014 and a lot of thought was put into it. We realized early on that our original brand entirely blended in with some of the other most popular kombucha brands and didn’t give us any distinctiveness. For a long time Kombucha has been marketed pointedly and directly to the ‘enlightened’ or ‘new age’ subculture. Brands often use images reminiscent of sacred geometry or eastern religious iconography as core branding elements. By no means is our intention to shun this subculture (all our partners are involved in yoga and love the subculture), BUT we feel that we will have done some good in the world if we can bring people into the Kombucha fold who otherwise would gravitate towards soda, energy drinks, or craft beer and cider. 

We chose a flying whale as our logo because we wanted something easily recognizable and unique. Myself, Mike, and our third partner Lee all have a special love for the ocean and the seemingly contradicting elements of a whale with bird wings seemed to perfectly encapsulate a feeling we wanted to cultivate. Just like the flying whale, Kombucha is made from elements that seem quirky, or strange, but blend beautifully into something special and unique. 

KH: How did you get into brewing kombucha?
 Myself and my partner Mike Durighello met through a mutual friend while both of us were working in tech companies. Mike had already begun to make Kombucha on the side by the time I met him. When Mike’s original partner, Alex, left to pursue a career in real estate, I jumped in and together we got our first warehouse and started really ramping up production. Soon after, our third partner Lee, who is an engineer, joined the team and we’ve been growing strong since. 

KH: Any plans to start bottling?
 We’ve seriously considered bottling on multiple occasions and every time we do we arrive at the same place: right now we’re able to sell every drop of Kombucha we can possibly make though kegs with no end in sight to the demand. We’re servicing a really cool part of the Kombucha market by offering it entirely on tap. While we’re not opposed to someday bottling, we’re holding off from pursuing that until we reach the limit of where we can grow with kegs, it may be next year and it may be never!    

KH: We loved Jasmin Bliss! Can you tell us a bit about it?
 It’s s a permanent flavor and in fact is one of our most popular! It’s got Jasmine green tea, Hibiscus, Rose Hips, black currants, and raisins. We use all organic ingredients for our kombucha, source our ingredients locally when possible (all the ingredients in Jasmine bliss except the jasmine green tea comes from a tea shop in San Luis Obispo), and don’t use any juices or concentrates to flavor the kombucha. We do a traditional fermentation with black tea, and when fermentation is finished we steep flavor ingredients in the finished kombucha for 24 hours, naturally infusing the flavors like a tea, so every drop is pure kombucha. In our opinion it gives a more full bodied flavor.  

Sam and I have been fans of this wholesome brew for quite some time now.  Whether we are logging computer hours at a local coffee shop while sipping on a pint, or whether we are grabbing a quick sushi fix at Wholefoods while sucking down a glass of the healthy beverage, we have been routinely enjoying kombucha for years now.  Actually, it’s a little embarrassing that us self-proclaimed DIYers have not attempted to ferment and play with the process of making our own kombucha.  Nope, not feeling a need to conquer that task when the guys over at Whalebird are doing such a bang-up job!

If you have not heard about Whalebird Kombucha before, then I guarantee that after reading this post you are going to be surprised.  I think you might start seeing it everywhere.  At least, they seem to be popping up in all of my fav coffee shops and restaurants up and down the Central Coast.  And the best part is I can bring my growler and get it tanked up at all the locations!

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Meet Jake & Mike, the creative brains behind this delicious brew.

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Why are we excited about Whalebird?  Whelp, their product is stellar, for sure.  But we are also stoked on a local business that is getting major traction because of their pursuit of quality, their creativity, and their cheeky marketing tactics!  No zen-like, new age graphics for this company.  Nope.  Their memorable logo is that of a flying whale.  I like it!  Kind of the embodiment of the entrepreneurial life, where even things of impossible mass can transform into flight.  After all, choosing to even start your own business and beat to your own drum is purely an act defying gravity at times, right?

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Jake and Mike are so inspired by their work, that they were more than ready to share their knowledge and educate us.  Their process was simple and true to the entire natural process of brewing kombucha.  These large barrels of black tea are kept at the perfect temperature while the cultures work their magic.  Kombucha, much like a yogurt or kimchi, is a naturally fermented food that is chock-full of beneficial organisms that make for full flavor and many health benefits.  I’m sure you are familiar with the term “probiotic”…well, count kombucha in your arsenal for digestive health along with yogurt or acidophilus pills.  This stuff is delicious and really supports your overall health, my friends!

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What we love about Whalebird‘s approach is their creativity with their flavoring.  Taking what is essentially fermented, sweetened tea, they have worked with other local businesses like The Secret Garden to come up with gorgeous flavor enhancements.  This huge bag of deliciousness is their base for their jasmine kombucha, filled with all sorts of lovely ingredients like jasmine flowers, raisins and more.  

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After 30 days in the barrels, Jake and Mike steep their kombucha to add layers of flavor.  Our personal fave is their Ginger Sarsaparilla!

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These giant tea bags brought out the kid in us….I guess it’s the caterers in us.  We love playing with huge oversized food production gear.  It just feels legit!

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Actually, if you are familiar with sour beers, the guys said that brewing kombucha is a close cousin.  Basically, sour beers start off the same way, but are eventually super heated to kill off the organisms.  Then of course, they reintroduce things to build up the alcohol levels.  With kombucha, the process is much more symbiotic which is why there may be trace amounts of alcohol in the brew, but not enough to write home about.

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Hahaha, Sam looks like she is holding a baby!  I TOLD you we love this stuff!

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I think we were most impressed by their fridge on this tour.  Haha we are such foodie nerds!  It was such a cool engineering feat.  I mean, they freaking DIYed an entire refrigerated room.  Ummm, and check out that Zest it Up green!  Yep, we are nerds!

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Just chillin’ in the fridge!

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Finally, back out to the tasting room, we were ready to sample all the delightfully effervescent concoctions!

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Though ginger is our fav, the color and flavor of the jasmine is mesmerizing!

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Aside from their uber cool growlers ornamenting the place, we were seriously impressed with all the original artwork throughout the space.  Jake’s girlfriend just happens to be an insatiably talented artist.  If you ever get a chance, you need to pop in for what feels like a mini gallery showing while sipping on some seriously good kombucha!

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These guys have every right to be proud of what they are creating…both from the business side and the manufacturing side.  Sam and I are fans for life!

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We all adored the one of a kind deer head done by wood burning.  Pretty legit!

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Cheers to new friends, awesome beverages, and life in the SLO lane!