It’s hard to ignore the UpDog Kombucha kegerator when you walk out of a Y2 Yoga class, sweat-drenched and dehydrated. It’s also hard to ignore the UpDog label expanding across Charlotte, with other taps at ROOTS Café, NoDa Yoga and Healthy Home Market, and bottles at Kinetic Heights, Craft Growler Shop and NoDa Company Store. That’s just the beginning of the list.
The first batch of UpDog was brewed in a dorm kitchen at Wake Forest University by then-students Lauren Miller and Olivia Wolff in January 2016.
While they both love other kombucha brands like Buchi, Wolff said, “I started (brewing) just because I was spending so much money on buying kombucha at the store. I was like, OK, this habit has got to stop.”
They started home brewing soon after testing the UpDog brand out on Instagram to gauge interest. That semester, they took orders through direct messages on Instagram and got to the point where they were making 160 bottles a week and distributing them to fellow student customers.
“That’s really all we could handle,” Wolff said.
When Wolff, a health and exercise science major, graduated, she decided to pursue the kombucha business full-time while Miller, a year younger, finished up her degree in economics.
Now they are both full-time on the job, with Wolff, 23, living in Charlotte and Miller, 22, still living in Winston-Salem as they work to expand their brand reach. Their brewery operations are in Winston-Salem.
The company name, UpDog, is yoga-inspired, since both women are yoga practitioners. Miller is a fan of backbends, while Wolff loves twists.
“I like a nice dancing shiva,” Wolff said.
Their six signature kombucha flavors are yoga-inspired, too: Lotus (hibiscus), Sun Salute (ginger turmeric), Peacock (pineapple mint), Happy Baby (lavender), Wild Thing (apple ginger) and Sphinx (mojito).
Fun fact: During election season, the Sun Salute first came out with a different name, The Nasty Woman. “People went crazy for it,” Wolff said.
They dabble in seasonal flavors and local ingredients as well, with a previous batch of strawberry and newer batches of peach basil, blackberry basil, blackberry mint and blueberry ginger. A muscadine grape could be on the way, as well.
They don’t get too wild with their flavors and instead keep the ingredients list short and simple, Wolff said, to make the brews more accessible.
The business start-up aspect was more difficult. The hardest part of getting started, Wolff said, “was legitimizing our business and trying to convince other small business owners that we weren’t just running a lemonade stand.”
They’ve been persistent — walking into fitness studios, bottle shops and cafés cold and turning other people on to their product. Wolff has been countlessly asked if she’s a sales rep when she makes these calls.
Her reply: “No, I’m actually the founder of this company.”
She hasn’t been intimidated by the Charlotte market’s loyalty to Lenny Boy Brewing Co., either.
“There’s honestly enough room for two kombucha brands in the same city,” said Wolff, whose brand broke into the Charlotte market May 2016.
She added that she finds Lenny Boy brews more vinegary and UpDog brews more mild, and sees Lenny Boy as more focused on the craft brew industry, with UpDog more focused on the fitness and health industry.
“We’re here together doing the same thing,” she said. “This is not competition, this is just community.”
As for what’s next, Wolff and Miller want to see UpDog expand from Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro into the Raleigh-Durham market, the Boone market, and more states in the South. They have one account in Virginia and one account in South Carolina, so they may be on their way.
The far-off dream is to one day open a purely kombucha-focused taproom.
But for now, Wolff said, “As long as people are drinking kombucha instead of soda, that’s all I want.”
Photos: Katie Toussaint, UpDog Kombucha