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Power kegs: Brewing up a healthy business

September 17, 2018

When life hands them lemons, some people make lemonade. Red River College grad Michelle Leclair makes lemon-ginger kombucha, along with pomegranate limeade and seasonal flavours like apple-spice.

The founder of Wolseley Kombucha, Leclair, 34, has a history as a do-it-yourself problem-solver. Her can-do attitude led her to RRC twice over the last 12 years, first to launch a career as a Medical Radiologic Technology grad in 2008 and again when the taxing physical requirements of her work as an X-ray technologist prompted a career switch.

An MRI technologist at Pan Am Clinic since she graduated from the MRI and Spectroscopy program in 2016, she started making kombucha — a fizzy, fermented probiotic tea-based drink — for personal use in 2015, in response to extensive food sensitivities.

“Pretty much everything that I ate would make me feel sick,” she says.

Traditional medicine didn’t provide answers so she took the bull by the horns, identifying trigger foods and adopting a diet that incorporates several fermented foods. Starting out with a recipe passed along from her partner Rob Strachan’s mother, Leclair took a trial-and-error approach to come up with her ideal brew in the summer of 2016.

Within days, friends were asking for a sample, and today, Wolseley Kombucha is sold on tap at Boon Burger and Circle Kitchen, in reusable bottles at Generation Green and in single-serving sizes at Yoga Public, her go-to yoga studio.

It’s also available for purchase at farmers’ and craft markets — customers can buy refillable bottles or bring their own to fill from a kegerator for $10 per litre.

About a year after she started brewing and selling kombucha out of the Wolseley home she and Strachan share, business had grown to the point where she moved production to Kitchen Sync, a commercial kitchen where she is also able to store her kombucha during the fermentation process, which varies from 14-30 days.

Leclair has found her lemon-ginger kombucha makes a great sangria, mixed with elderberries, citrus fruit and wine. And on its own, it provides a healthy boost in the morning and throughout the day.

“I’m trying to kick coffee. I actually love coffee but I find it just makes my heart go too much. Kombucha’s a tea-based product — our product is a blend of green and black tea — so there is a little bit of caffeine,” she says.

“It helps with your mental fog, it gives you a bit more energy, but then it also has the beneficial bacteria so it can help with your gut.”

Michelle Leclair, Wolseley KombuchaProviding a health benefit fits in well with Leclair’s overall career path. At one point, she planned to enter nursing, but when her grandfather was hospitalized, the closeup view of the demands imposed on nursing professionals was a reality check.

When she looked at other options in the medical field, Medical Radiologic Technology piqued her interest. After graduating from the program at RRC, she spent three years working in B.C., travelling to rural locations from a Victoria base to work as a locum, before returning to Winnipeg and taking an X-ray technologist job at Concordia Hospital. However, after several years, she found the work took too much of a physical toll.

“In X-ray you’re transferring the patient, you’re lifting and positioning them physically, and at the end of the day I was so exhausted I couldn’t really do my yoga practice, I couldn’t do any of the things I love to do, so it was, ‘OK I need to find something that’s not so hard on the body.’”

RRC’s MRI and Spectroscopy program was the answer. She loves the work, and it’s far easier to set machine parameters than position patients. It also leaves her with surplus energy to do other things, like make kombucha.

Since Kitchen Sync is not always available at hours that mesh with her shifts, she needs that extra stamina to moonlight when the space is open to her.

“Sometimes I work until 11 p.m. at Pan Am and I can only get the kitchen in the evening, so I have to go from 11:30 until 3:30 in the morning. I could never do that if I was in X-ray. So it allows me to be able to do more of the things that I love.”

Typically, she starts a new brew every week, putting on a fresh pot while she cleans kegs and fills bottles from a previous batch.

She’s now working to increase capacity, with two new 250-litre stainless-steel fermenters. And she plans to expand single-serve sales beyond Yoga Public, partly because it’s easier for retailers to sell product in a smaller bottle.

Her next major goal is to complete a business plan and secure a production space of her own, in a location that’s close to home.

Someday, she’d like to have a tap room with multiple flavour options, so customers can relax with a drink or fill their own bottles to take home.

While she’s not about to quit her day job, she might reduce her hours at some point to concentrate on her business. But she’s not putting all her eggs in one basket. Her product line may grow to include fermented sodas for kids without added sugar, and apple cider with alcohol for adults.

“If kombucha ever does go out of style, I have a few other ideas.”

Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)