On a mountain hillside on the outskirts of Lyons, Jamba Dunn tends a set of tiered home gardens.
“I’m obsessed with herbs,” Jamba says. “Always have been.”
Jamba may have an herbal obsession, but he might be more obsessed with obsession itself, which explains why the Boulder kombucha company he founded in 2013, Rowdy Mermaid, has exploded onto the national scene with 44-state national distribution and a just-closed Series A $7 million funding round. It brews its elixirs from its east Boulder facility near Arapahoe Ave. and 55th Street.
Rowdy Mermaid focuses on making low-sugar, low-acid kombucha with a focus on maximizing the effects of natural botanicals — such as lion’s root mushroom, turmeric, ginger, rose petal, soursop — that define each of its eight flavors.
Obsession has been a long obsession for Jamba. A chance encounter with a book on ancient Egypt in a Santa Cruz bookstore and a discovery of contradictory theories of decanal star clocks compelled Jamba to a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of California, Berkeley. At a high level, he studied whether ancient Egyptians evaluated the stars more as astrologers or astronomers.
“When I get into something I really get into it,” he tells BLDRfly. “I don’t half-ass it.”
Jamba’s kombucha started with homebrewing beer. He was obsessed with yeast and the other variables that brewers tweak to make good beer. In the process of refining, he brewed so much beer that he held weekend free-beer giveaways. “I had to get the equipment back to brew more,” he says.
His daughter inspired a brewing shift to kombucha. He wanted something she could drink and would like. So, when she was 3 years old about a decade ago, he began homebrewing kombucha.
Rowdy Mermaid flavors. Source: Rowdy Mermaid.
Jamba became focused on improving the recipes — tweaking PH, adjusting ingredients and brewing temperatures — which meant brewing up to 400 gallons at a time. “I was obsessing over the details,” Jamba says. Because he and his daughter would only share batches small teacups at a time, much of the kombucha went to waste.
Needing an outlet for his kombucha obsession, Jamba decided he might as well pursue selling it and Rowdy Mermaid flicked its tail for the first time. Jamba came up with the name for the company in a hot spring when his daughter was flapping around like a “rowdy mermaid.”
In 2012, he paid CEOs of other kombucha companies to describe their approach. It became clear, they weren’t looking at kombucha as a science project. Jamba saw his opportunity.
After years of refining processes that ensure consistency at scale, Jamba first released Rowdy Mermaid into the wider wild in 2014, when it sold its first bottles.
Rowdy Mermaid Timeline
- 2012. Established as a kombucha homebrewer, Jamba does deep research on the kombucha market with the idea of starting a company.
- 2013. Hired industry professional and Rowdy Mermaid became an official business.
- 2014. Opened Boulder kombucha taproom. Sold first bottle.
- 2017. Moves into a 12,000-square-foot production facility in Boulder. Raised $350,000. Moves taproom to Rayback Collective.
- 2019. Moved to 29,000-square-foot facility in east Boulder, changed packaging. Moved from glass to cans and a sharpened focus on intensifying organic to regenerative.
- 2020. Closes $7.5 million Series A funding round. Announces national distribution through Sprouts Farmers Market grocery stores.
Boulder, of course, is a hotbed of innovation, in multiple industries. Consumer-packaged goods is a prominent one. Its strong local network has helped catalyze Rowdy Mermaid’s fast success, Jamba says.
“We have a lot of vibrant leaders to bounce ideas off of,” he says. For example, the founder of White Wave Foods, Steve Demos, lives here as do several Whole Foods board members.
“Consumer-packaged goods in Boulder is like living in London in the 1960s,” Jamba says. Jamba’s wife had worked at a restaurant with Justin’s founder Justin Gold, who now serves on Rowdy Mermaid’s board.
In early March, Jamba recalls sitting outside Trident coffee shop in downtown Boulder and running into one after another of big players in his world: a big investor in his company, a major investor in another product in Rowdy Mermaid’s category and founders of other prominent consumer-packaged goods products.
“It’s very easy to run into people and sit down and have coffee and business,” he says.
Jamba recently picked the brains of the owners of Louisville-based Hope Foods about distribution and hosted Koel Thomae, co-founder of Fort Collins-based Nousa Yoghurt, at Rowdy’s Boulder headquarters for insight into her company’s journey.
Header Image: Jamba Dunn at his home garden in Lyons. Credit: Jamba Dunn.