Frederick County's 'Kombucha Lady' prepares for expansion

Jul. 14—Every Tuesday and Wednesday, you can find Liz Dodson in the basement of a church off a quiet road. Her bedazzled sedan will be one of the only cars in the lot, and inside, her head will be bent over jars of colorful liquids.

The self-proclaimed "Kombucha Lady" has been selling fermented tea under that label for five years, and now she's eyeing expansion, foregoing the church kitchen for a new facility that's all her own.

"It's a dream come true, and it's only because the public and the community has supported it," Dodson said.

Earlier this year, Dodson became one of 14 recipients of Frederick County's first round of agricultural innovation grants. Altogether, $306,000 was awarded to local farming operations, with each receiving at least $5,000.

"We want to leave a legacy for future generations of a vibrant agricultural community," County Executive Jan Gardner said in May. "Farmers produce food and fiber for our community. By helping agricultural operations to remain profitable, we are ensuring a bright future for one of Frederick County's oldest industries."

Dodson plans to break ground on the new brewing facility, located on the farm where she lives with her husband, in the next few weeks. It's a lush patch of land in Rocky Ridge, tucked at the end of a gravel lane and home to sheep, dogs and scattered fruit and herb plots.

The plans for the building are almost finished, Dodson said, and she hopes to see it completed by September.

Once the upgraded operation is up and running, she'll be able to double her production capacity and stop her weekly trips to the church kitchen. She's looking forward to having more control over her space; she'll be able to adjust the thermostat when she wants, she said excitedly, and outfit the building with better equipment.

Since the grant funding came through, Dodson has already made two hires: a delivery driver and a social media specialist.

Kombucha is a fermented and bubbly tea that's often flavored with fruits, herbs and spices. It's often dubbed a sort of miracle drink for a slew of ailments, though experts emphasize such claims are often exaggerated and the supporting research is thin.

Still, the bacteria formed during fermentation "may offer benefits similar to probiotic supplements, including promoting a healthy immune system and preventing constipation," according to the Mayo Clinic.

Dodson stumbled upon the beverage when she was researching natural gut-health boosters for her father, who was battling Crohn's disease at the time. She recalls buying her first bottle back in the 1990s at Frederick's Common Market. Immediately, Dodson was enthralled.

"The tartness, the sweetness, the bubbling — I fell in love with it," she said.

Though her dad never quite got on board, Dodson said she hasn't looked back since that first sip. She bought a mail-order scoby — the rubbery, jellyfish-like mass of bacteria and yeast cultures used to ferment the tea — and started brewing it in her home for family and friends.

Now, it's her full-time job.

"I'm just an empty-nester with nothing to do anyways," she said with a laugh.

Kombucha Lady teas are sold as far south as Germantown and as far north as Biglerville, Pennsylvania. The production process takes at least 10 days from the time Dodson brews the tea to the time it's bottled and ready for sale.

Most of the beverages head in bottles or kegs to local restaurants and grocery stores, but during the coronavirus pandemic, Dodson took to direct-to-customer deliveries in her "booch-mobile."

Decking out her car with sticker decals was one of the best business decisions Dodson made, she said. She grinned as she described how often she'll be flying down the highway and notice fellow motorists snapping photos of her.

As she prepares to expand her business, Dodson reflected on what's changed: The demand, the hours, the costs.

But there are some things that haven't.

"I've not lost that love of doing it," she said.

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek