DULUTH – When Rachelle Rahn started Duluth Kombucha in 2016 as a social media-powered supplier of the tangy fermented tea, the beverage wasn't quite as ubiquitous as it is now.

"When I first started, it was, 'What is kombucha, and how do you pronounce it?' " she said.

With grocery store coolers full of the stuff these days and more breweries offering it up as a nonalcoholic option, it's popular enough that Rahn has opened the state's first kombucha taproom in Duluth.

Nestled in a small business district just off E. Superior Street, the taproom's retail location is just what Rahn had long dreamed of. When it finally opened up, there was one problem: the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. By the time she opened the doors Nov. 25, the state had implemented another indoor dining closure.

Undeterred, Rahn went ahead with opening as she sought retail sales to make up for her closed taproom.

"The whole business' revenue is wholesale, so in March I lost all of my income," she said about Minnesota's first round of restaurant and bar shutdowns. "So this has been a pivot, in a way, even though it had been the long-term goal."

While many of the state's kombucha producers focus on getting bottles on shelves or kegs into breweries, Rahn found her initial success doing growler deliveries — which she still does. She runs the business by herself and jokingly calls herself "owner/dishwasher," adding that every week has been different amid the recently relaxed state restrictions.

While the Twin Cities and other large metro areas have seen a wave of restaurant and bar closures since the pandemic first upended normal life nearly a year ago, Duluth has largely weathered the storm so far. There have been more openings than permanent closures, including a tiki bar in West Duluth, a cafe on Miller Hill, a new soul food restaurant in Lincoln Park and pop-ups in the Zeitgeist Arts Cafe.

Add Duluth Kombucha to the list of now-or-never entrepreneurs.

"I never planned to do this in a pandemic or economic recession," Rahn said, "but I couldn't pass up the opportunity when the space finally opened."

Rahn said she shifts between deliveries, wholesale and retail duties, though the time spent brewing and cleaning is a constant. She's now brewing about 1,500 gallons a month of kombucha, a probiotic-rich beverage made with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). Naturally carbonated compared with the more sparkling commercial varieties, Rahn plays with flavors often and recently had a tropical hop variety and raspberry ginger on tap.

Her kombucha can be found at local taprooms like Bent Paddle and Ursa Minor as well as Klockow Brewing and Rapids Brewing in Grand Rapids, with more to come as the state's bars and restaurants again adapt to a new normal and demand increased orders.

Though still open only three days a week for to-go orders, Rahn intends to make her retail space more of a destination than it can be now since it is too small to safely social-distance.

"We'd like to do N/A happy hours in here, have mocktails, have live music — do things a bar would do, but without alcohol," Rahn said. "Until then, it's kind of nice to ease my way into doing this."

She also has plans to put her kombucha in cans and get wider distribution.

And she's hoping for an even bigger taproom in the future.

"Here I can test the waters," she said. "This is really a starting point."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496