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This article was published 21/6/2018 (831 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s been said the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, an adage that applies just as well to a woman, particularly a woman with stomach maladies.
In 2015, a year before she founded Wolseley Kombucha, Winnipeg’s first locally brewed kombucha business, Michelle Leclair was dealing with what she refers to as "gut issues." Having read that kombucha — a fermented beverage prepared with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast — might offer her some intestinal relief, her ears perked up one evening, when, at a social gathering, she overheard an acquaintance discussing his mother’s home-made kombucha.
(If you read Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson’s comprehensive and entertaining piece on kombucha in the April 28 edition of the Free Press, you already know kombucha has been around for centuries, and is purported to have numerous health benefits, such as reducing inflammation, preventing and healing stomach ulcers and alleviating certain symptoms of diabetes.)
"What was funny was the guy talking about his mom’s kombucha had asked me out a couple times before. But because we shared a lot of the same friends I said no, thinking it might be awkward if things didn’t work out. As soon as I heard him say his mother made kombucha, though, I was like, ‘OK, maybe I could date him for a month or two, if only to get my hands on that recipe," Leclair says with a laugh, proudly pointing out she and Rob Strachan, the fellow in question, will toast their third anniversary as a couple, next month.
With the help of Strachan’s mother, Leclair made her first batch of "booch" in August 2015. The end-result was underwhelming to say the least, she says, describing the finished product, which generally takes 14 to 20 days to ferment, as "essentially sweet tea that wasn’t particularly fizzy and didn’t taste particularly good."
Sure, Leclair, an MRI technician at Pan Am Clinic, could have packed up her SCOBY (which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast and is a gelatinous, alien-looking organism essential to kombucha’s brewing process) and called it quits. After all, she’d already found a retail brand she enjoyed, which she could purchase for a reasonable price at Costco. But because she was consuming a couple glasses of kombucha daily, she decided to give it another go, figuring it would be cheaper in the long run to make her own.
In June 2016, after spending the previous 10 months perfecting her technique, Leclair posted a selfie on Instagram, accompanied by the caption, "Loving my home brew kombucha...like drinking sunshine in a glass...so healthy and good for your gut." Within minutes, her account blew up with messages from friends and family, wondering how they could get their hands on a bottle of her kombucha, too.
For the first while, Leclair, who grew up in Southdale but "loves, loves, loves" Wolseley, was content running Wolseley Kombucha out of the Alloway Avenue home she shares with her beau. Once a week, usually on a Saturday afternoon, she sets aside three hours for pick-up, filling up customers’ bottles from a kegerator parked near her front door. (Give her a sec and she’ll happily show you pictures on her phone of neighbors, rolling away on their bicycles, two-litre vessels of just-poured kombucha precariously strapped to their rear rack, or resting in their handlebar basket.)
Around this time last year, orders were coming in so hot and heavy, Leclair began shopping around for commercial kitchen-space, telling herself, "OK, maybe this isn’t a hobby, any longer." Her investment is paying off: earlier this month, Circle Kitchen, a vegan-friendly restaurant that celebrated its grand opening at 709 Corydon on June 9, became the latest Winnipeg locale to feature her product, joining Boon Burger (79 Sherbrook St.) and Generation Green (433 Main St.)
Laura Hansen, owner of Circle Kitchen, had already been brewing kombucha for her personal use for a few years when she stumbled upon Wolseley Kombucha’s website (www.wolseleykombucha.com) 18 months ago. Intrigued, she began keeping tabs on whatever Leclair was up to, reading her online posts or visiting her booth at whatever farmer’s market or pop-up event she was appearing at.
"We carry both of Michelle’s flavours – lemon ginger and pomegranate limeade – on tap, at the cafe," Hansen says, describing her restaurant’s menu as a mix of lattes, fresh-pressed juices, smoothies, taco bowls, salads and locally-roasted coffee.
Hansen, who completed a plant-based culinary course offered by PLANTLAB Culinary Academy, an online vegan culinary school, says her studies inspired her to develop what she’s fairly certain will be Winnipeg’s first kombucha float, a confection she plans to roll out in a couple weeks’ time.
"I decided to turn a classic treat into a healthier one, with no refined sugars that leave your teeth feeling like they’re wearing sweaters," she says. "Our float will use Michelle’s kombucha together with our homemade ice cream, which is made out of cashews and coconut, sweetened with agave. We intend to have rotating flavours based on Michelle’s flavours, so we’re hoping she comes out with something new and fun, soon."
About that: Leclair rarely pays a visit to the produce aisle of her neighborhood grocery store without examining a peach, banana or grapefruit and pondering, hmm, maybe?
"I have a notebook I jot ideas down in all the time," she says. "I just got back from Vancouver, where I tried a white peony kombucha that was absolutely out of this world. Tons of people have asked about mango, so that’s one (flavour) I’m definitely working on. Black currant and elderflower is another, plus I’m thinking about one with no flavouring added, just a mix of fermented, organic green and black tea. I swear, some of the best kombucha I drank during my trip to B.C. was tea on its own, with nothing extra."
If that isn’t enough, due to demand, Leclair has also begun teaching interested parties the ins and outs of brewing kombucha at home. She hosted her first how-to seminar in April, and has another class scheduled on June 28, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at Collective Workshop, 419 Graham Ave.
"I know, eh, that’s something I seriously considered," Leclair replies, when asked if she was apprehensive about sharing her secrets, given it might cut into her bottom line. "Except I started warming up to the idea after my business coach told me that basically I’d be standing in front of a dozen people, promoting my product, most of whom would go to work the next day and tell 12 more people about Wolseley Kombucha...who’d turn around and tell 12 more. So all of a sudden, because of the classes, all these other people could potentially hear about me, which can’t be a bad thing."
Leclair smiles and says, "Don’t worry, they already know," when asked if it’s OK to mention she sometimes daydreams about closing the book on her medical career, in order to focus her attention on kombucha, full-time.
"What I picture in my head is an industrial-sort-of-space on Sherbrook (Street), with local art on the walls, where people can drop by to fill up their growlers. It will be a bit like a tap room, with tall tables, where customers can have a bite and order kombucha by the glass, with room in the back for production.
"It’s all up here," she says, tapping her index finger to her forehead. "I guess we’ll just have to wait and see."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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