Brewing Kombucha with NessAlla
By Susan Gloss | Photo By Jim Klousia 4
Imagine that two beautiful women approach you and tell you they possess the recipe for an ancient elixir that can make you feel better, give you more energy, enhance your immune system, and maybe even leave you with less gray hair.
If it sounds like the stuff of fairy tales, think again. The women exist, and so does the elixir. It’s called kombucha—a tangy, effervescent drink made from fermented tea. And the Madison women who brew it in a sun-filled kitchen on Winnebago Street are Vanessa Tortolano and Alla Shapiro, the ladies behind NessAlla kombucha.
They have dubbed themselves the “Kombucha Queens of the Midwest,” and for good reason. In the four years that NessAlla has been in business, it has gone from selling individual bottles of kombucha at the Madison East Side Farmers Market to distributing it by the caseload in four states. They still sell at the market, though, where they love connecting with members of the community. You can spot Alla by her curly red hair, and Vanessa might be singing (she has a background in the performing arts).
“There’s a lot of flying and jumping happening,” says Vanessa of the company’s rapid growth. “But if it wasn’t for the community, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Kombucha has grown in popularity in recent years, both in Wisconsin and in the rest of the country; but the women of NessAlla insist it isn’t just a fad. “It’s been around for a long time in a lot of cultures,” says Alla. “Fermentation is a way to preserve food and get nutrients, especially in colder climates.”
Alla is originally from Russia, where her grandmother used to make kombucha, known there as “tea kvass.” When Alla and Vanessa were perfecting their own kombucha recipe, Alla’s grandmother would weigh in with her opinion.
Alla laughs as she imitates her grandmother. “She would say, ‘No, this is not it.’” Finally, the ladies were able to come up with a brew that satisfied even Alla’s Russian grandmother, and with that monumental task accomplished, they knew they had a recipe for success.