Irish-born Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” And it’s hard to argue that New Mexico offers some of the most breathtaking views of the heavens around.
So it’s fitting that London-born Alison Schmitt drew inspiration from her roots in the British Isles and the skies above her in her new home to give Stargazer kombucha its name.
“I started thinking more about things that make New Mexico special and make it wonderful, and one of the things I came up with was our dark skies and the extraordinary skies that we have at night here,” she said. “And it’s a quote that I’ve really held with me, because I’m definitely a person who’s driven to find out what my niche is, what my purpose is in life. Those two things naturally blended together in my mind, and I thought, ‘That’s it.’ ”
Schmitt has found her niche in Stargazer, which comes in the form of a trio of delicate yet complex, lightly carbonated kombuchas whose flavor is derived straight from the tea that serves as its base, along with filtered water, organic raw cane sugar and the kombucha culture. There are no additives to make the drink taste of, say, ginger or lemon or countless other flavors preferred by other kombucha-makers.
“Once you start adding layers of flavorings, you mask the complexity of the tea itself,” she said. “There’s something so lovely about just leaving the tea alone.”
The most popular variety of Stargazer is Cota, also known as Navajo Tea or greenthread, made from a wild-grown herb grown in Northern New Mexico. It’s caffeine-free and pale, goldenrod yellow with a clean taste infused with a hint of floral sweetness.
The Tieguanyin variety uses a premium Chinese oolong tea, and the almost pearl-hued drink is a bit less sweet with notes of botanicals and green tea. And the Assam, as the name suggests, puts its base ingredient at the forefront, with a heartier, more pronounced black tea flavor and a caramel color.
Schmitt, 47, has been in the U.S. for a decade, having previously worked as a lighting technician in the film industry. She first arrived in San Francisco to attend school to become an art therapist. That’s where, in 2008, she had her first taste of kombucha — and received her very own culture from a college colleague, along with a letter-sized cheat sheet on homebrewing that she still has today, though her recipe and approach have evolved over the years.
Schmitt spent five years in the kombucha business working for three different companies, picking up the ins and outs of making and selling the drink while mastering the art of the brew at home. She began to wonder if it was time to branch out on her own.
“I think it’s a very common thing: You start to think, ‘I could be doing this for myself; why am I working for other people?’ ” she said. “Kombucha is absolutely having its moment right now,” she said. “I didn’t want to be 85 years old and look back and think, ‘I was there at that moment and I could have done it, but I didn’t.’ I’d acquired a lot of skills, and I really wanted to dive in and see if I could create a viable company at such an opportune time.”
After 31/2 years in Atlanta — where the kombucha market had already taken root — she and her husband, Mike Schmitt, turned their gaze back West to New Mexico, where there were just two established kombucha businesses.
“We had a desire to move back West, and we started to look around at places in the region where the market wasn’t saturated, and New Mexico very, very quickly bubbled to the surface as a place that would check those boxes for us,” she said. “New Mexico’s quite an anomaly in the kombucha sense because there are relatively so few commercial brewers here compared to other states.”
She and Mike, who co-owns Stargazer, arrived in Albuquerque in July 2017 and registered the business name in August. Back then, it had a different name — Kaleidoscope Kombucha — and a concept revolving around a range of “super-ambitious, strange flavor combinations.”
But as she began trying these flavor ideas at home, she realized the unusual flavors weren’t as good as the simple, pleasing notes of the tea that forms kombucha’s base.
“I always knew that plain tea kombucha tasted good because I’d had it before, and that there are only a small percentage of kombucha companies that focus on plain tea,” she said. “And I thought, I think I want to join those guys and offer people something a little different than what they’re used to getting at the store, and really focus on perfecting that. I went with the old adage that the simplest thing is often the best.”
After searching high and low across the region for a suitable commercial kitchen, she finally found it with Verde in Santa Fe, and the couple decided to move here. She still sells the kombucha by the cup or the growler at the Downtown Growers Market and the Rail Yards Market in Albuquerque, but she recently began offering it at the Friday Eldorado market as well. And one of the three varieties is always on tap at Terra Verde Organic, the shop fronting Verde on San Mateo Road.
“I feel very grateful to have essentially been able to start up this business in both cities: Albuquerque provided a lot of resources to help me get started, and the creative community down there is exciting and helped me crystallize what the brand should be,” she said. “However, I’ve felt really welcomed and supported by the business community here in Santa Fe. There are many high-quality, established small businesses here whose trajectory I’m hoping to emulate.”
Schmitt hopes to place Stargazer in bars and other establishments as a nonalcoholic drink option and to expand to offer grab-and-go drinks.
And she also hopes that her story — as a female, minority and immigrant business owner who started her company in her 40s — serves as an inspiration to others who might be looking up at our brilliant starry skies and daring to dream.
“You can start a business regardless of your background,” she said. “Hopefully this is a model for anybody who’s thinking of doing the same.”
Where to buy: In Santa Fe, you can find Stargazer kombucha on tap at Terra Verde Organic (851 W. San Mateo Road in Santa Fe) and for sale at the Eldorado Farmers Market (3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Fridays in La Tienda Shopping Center parking lot). It’s also sold on Saturdays at the Downtown Growers Market and Sundays at the Rail Yards Market, both in Albuquerque.
Cost: At the farmers markets, a 12-ounce cup is $4; a 32-ounce growler is $13 and $10 to refill; and a 64-ounce growler is $25 and $19.50 to refill.
More info: Visit stargazerkombucha.com or find them on Facebook.