John (left) and Ryan (right) MacLellan. Photography by Aaron McKenzie Fraser
It was in 2016 that Ryan MacLellan first started brewing kombucha. “I was curious about fermented foods,” he says. “A friend of mine had a kombucha culture [SCOBY] and gave me some instructions.”
Ryan, who was pursuing a teaching degree at the time, brewed the kombucha in his mom’s Malignant Cove, N.S. home. A few weeks later, his brother John tried Ryan’s kombucha and was hooked.
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At the time, John was working at Ernst & Young and was looking for a new venture. “I was always tempted to do something entrepreneurial,” John explains. He teamed up with his brother to turn his home-brewed kombucha into a full-fledged business. By November 2016, John registered them to participate in the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, while Ryan got to work refining recipes and branding their products. “I would be designing labels in between classes and selling kombucha out of my car to friends and fellow students,” Ryan recalls.
Their kombucha, which they named Cove after their mother’s home community, was an instant hit at the market. “We brought 20 bottles on our first day and sold out before lunch,” John recalls. “The next week, we sold out in two hours.”
Shortly after their debut, Ryan and John got requests from restaurant owners to serve their kombucha on tap. That prompted the duo to move production to a certified kitchen. Things escalated from there. By early 2017, Sobeys had reached out about stocking their kombucha as part of a local merchandising program.
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“We always had the desire to go bigger than restaurants,” John recalls. “It was an opportunity to take a real run at it and do it full time.” After signing on to supply 125 Sobeys stores in Atlantic Canada with four flavours of their kombucha, Ryan quit teachers’ college. “It was a huge risk,” he recalls. “But I went with my gut and felt really good about the decision.”
Supplying Sobeys meant John and Ryan needed an even larger production facility. So, they partnered with a producer two hours away, in Middleton, N.S., and scaled their recipes. That process wasn’t without its challenges.
“We went from 20-litre batches to 10,000-litre batches,” Ryan explains. “We used tea powder extract at first, but quickly learned it produced really bad kombucha.” Instead, they found a company to build a 10,000-litre kettle.
“We dunk these massive tea bags in so, essentially, it’s the same as we did in the kitchen, just a bigger version,” says Ryan.
By August 2018, after launching at Sobeys, John took a leap and quit his job at Ernst & Young. Shortly after that, Cove was invited by Costco to stock their kombucha in six Atlantic Canada stores. “To see our products as part of a big display was a pivotal moment to realize: ‘We can do this’,” John says.
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The brothers soon settled into a rhythm. John took care of sales, accounting, operations and logistics, while Ryan handled product development, marketing, packaging and branding. “It’s easy working with my brother because we have complementary skills,” Ryan explains. “We don’t cross over a lot, but we can always ask opinions and collaborate on our vision.”
Sustainability has always been part of the company’s vision. Back in their farmers market days, the brothers donated a portion of proceeds to environmental organizations including the David Suzuki Foundation. As their operation grew, Cove partnered with 1% For The Planet, an environmental philanthropic organization. Their switch from bottles to cans, in 2020, was also a sustainability-motivated decision suggested by a major grocery chain that wanted to stock them. “Loblaws came to us saying cans are more environmentally friendly because they’re lighter to ship,” John explains. “That got us spinning our wheels.”
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Striking that Loblaws deal saw Cove move further west to Ontario in early 2021. The following year, the MacLellans expanded into sodas. “We were hearing from people that wanted zero sugar but still something that’s gut healthy,” says John. So, Ryan developed a line of probiotic sodas, which contribute to a healthy gut flora, just like their kombucha line. The sodas launched in October 2022.
These days, you can find Cove’s six kombucha flavours and three gut-healthy sodas at 1,500 points of distribution across the country – at both major retailers and independent grocery stores. By the end of 2023, they’ll launch three more soda flavours. U.S. retailers have also been calling, hinting at an international expansion, which excites the brothers. “We started the company not knowing where things were going to take us,” Ryan says. “It’s been an amazing six years.”
This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s August 2023 issue.