True to his Palo Alto roots, Aaron Telch says that Jiant, the beverage company he co-founded, has "a garage story, except it happened to be in the kitchen." Telch, a Palo Alto High School grad, began developing Jiant's signature product — alcoholic, or "hard," kombucha — four years ago in the Santa Monica apartment he shared with his girlfriend.
As with many startups, the company spent a couple of years finding its footing amid trial and error — though a bit more unusual was Telch mailing samples of the evolving brew cross-country to convince a potential business partner.
Jiant, which launched in 2019, now offers four regular flavors of hard kombucha, as well as two rotating seasonal flavors. This summer it's launching a line of three hard teas.
Though the company came to the market the year before COVID-19 hit, the pandemic hasn't brought many speed bumps for Jiant because so much of its business is focused on selling in stores, rather than in restaurants, Telch said.
These days, Jiant is no longer brewed in a California kitchen, but produced at a craft brewery in Colorado. And in a roundabout way, a bit of Jiant's foundations can be traced to Telch's time at Palo Alto High School. Telch played on Paly's golf team and then played for Brown University, where he met Jiant's future co-founder Larry Haertel Jr., who was also on the golf team.
"We became great friends through college, and then in New York City after college we were roommates and had always wanted to start a business together. But it took a while to find the right idea and passion to go with," Telch said.
Telch, who grew up in Palo Alto, moved to Los Angeles in 2014 after graduating from the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania. In L.A., he aimed to get experience both in entrepreneurship and the commercial food and drink world, working with a consumer incubator focused on developing food and beverage products.
The steadily expanding popularity of non-alcoholic kombucha about six or seven years ago caught Telch's attention, as did the increasing consumer emphasis on health and wellness. And he noted that there wasn't much available for consumers who were focused on healthier alternatives in food and drink but still wanted to enjoy the occasional adult beverage.
Around 2017, Telch began home-brewing hard kombucha and mailing samples to Haertel in New York.
"I started to brew, and I had never brewed anything before in my life. But as soon as the samples were tasting OK, I started to send them across the country to Larry, who was still living in Brooklyn, and tried to convince him to move out to L.A.," Telch recalled.
Those samples eventually proved persuasive, as Haertel and his wife moved to Los Angeles to help found Jiant.
Kombucha, which is made by fermenting tea and sugar, usually contains a small amount of alcohol already, according to Telch, who said that Jiant brews its kombucha "in a very traditional setting, which is open air with a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) on top."
To make hard kombucha, the beverage goes through a second fermentation, in which Champagne yeast is added, and as it ferments, it raises the alcohol content. Jiant's kombucha comes in at about 5% alcohol, as does the company's hard tea. Jiant's hard tea goes through only one fermentation, without the SCOBY. But like kombucha, since the tea is fermented, it is slightly effervescent.
The name "Jiant" is in part a tongue-in-cheek reference to the company's small, independent status. With a beverage market dominated by big commercial Goliaths, Telch likened Jiant to a David, but with an idea that has the potential to become pretty big on its own.
The unique spelling with a "J" is a nod to Jun, the type of base the company uses in brewing its kombucha. Rather than fermenting black tea and sugar, a common base for kombucha, Jiant's hard kombuchas all use Jun, a mix of green tea and honey, as their base. While home-brewing and testing, Telch said, he noticed the difference the type of base can make.
"It was probably one of the most pivotal things that I discovered is using a Jun kombucha made for a really light, refreshing, crisp and clean hard kombucha," Telch said.
Jiant makes four regular flavors: The Original, with passion fruit and elderflower; Gingerly, a blend of ginger and lemongrass flavors; Hicamaya, with grapefruit and hibiscus; and Guavamente, a guava and mint flavor. In addition, Jiant has two rotating seasonal flavors: Taco Tuesday, with pineapple and jalapeño for warm weather sipping, and for winter, there's Cool Beans, which blends the flavors of coffee and blueberry.
Jiant is departing a bit from the green tea base used in its kombuchas as it branches out into hard teas, with flavors that instead use oolong, keemun (a variety of black tea) and pu'erh (fermented tea) as their bases. Jiant is selling the teas in a variety pack of three flavors: Mango Lime with oolong; Raspberry Mint with keemun and Blood Orange Grapefruit with pu'erh.
The hard seltzer trend of the past several years inspired Telch and Haertel to think about offering hard tea as an alternative. Telch's theory is that consumers may be drawn to hard seltzers as a tipple that's often lower in calories than other alcoholic drinks and gluten-free, but as he put it, "Everybody's drinking it, but nobody seems to really like it.
"One thing that we think we do really well and different than some of our competition is how we use botanicals to really add complexity and flavor into our products without adding sugar, so it felt very natural for us to continue to lean on tea and botanicals to create gluten-free beverages that are low in sugar," he said.
The teas, which have already launched on the East Coast and in Southern California, were highlighted recently in a New York Times article about summer beverages.
In general, Jiant has been more widely stocked in San Francisco stores, but on the Peninsula, shoppers now can find Jiant's hard kombucha at most Trader Joe's or Whole Foods markets. The company aims to start bringing its hard teas to Northern California stores in August.
More information is available at jiantkombucha.com.