It’s not something she talks about, but it’s never far from her mind. It was 2016, she says when it all changed. “When you’re given a second chance, everything has to change, and you get a new perspective on it all.”
Until then, Gayle Galbraith thought she knew what she wanted: she had decided to invest in the town of Federalsburg, a place that had the potential for a significant upswing. “I got to know the town a little, and I thought the thing that typically turns towns around is craft brewing. And so initially my desire was to put a combination craft brewery with a little coffee shop kind of thing.” In 2013 she purchased a historic 100-year-old, 3-story former bank building, naming it The Federal Brewing Company.
But this would not be just any type of brewery, she though. With a background as a certified health coach, Galbraith was envisioning an ancient herbal kind of beer, more health-focused than the drink-to-get-drunk IPA variety. That was the plan. Until Galbraith had her first taste of kombucha. This slightly sour, lightly effervescent, fermented tea had been used as a health tonic in Asia and Eastern Europe due to its nutrient and probiotic qualities. It was first popularized on the West Coast and was beginning to gain popularity locally. Loving the taste and the benefits, she started brewing kombucha at home, just for the family.
At around this time, Galbraith had been consulting with Easton’s SCORE group (volunteers who provide free and expert business mentoring). During one meeting, she brought in some of her kombucha to thank them. Their response was unexpected: “The two gentlemen looked at each other and looked at me and said, ‘why are you not brewing this? This is what you should be doing’ It never really occurred to me that maybe there was a market for kombucha in our area.”
That was a turning point for Galbraith and her partner Stan Nowak who, encouraged by the response, agreed to change their focus to brewing kombucha instead. “It was a tough decision for me,” said Galbraith, “because I knew that it went against what people were expecting. I didn’t want to disappoint everyone, and yet, I didn’t want to put myself in a business that I did not enjoy.”
Once the decision was made, they began to study from brewmasters, attending various conventions, and testing and re-testing their product. Nowak, a Marine Corps veteran with a background in construction and engineering, also began to plan the conversion of the bank into a small brewery.
That was the plan. Until a day in October of 2016, when Gayle Galbraith died.
It started with a stroke that led to sudden cardiac arrest. It was then that she flat-lined, multiple times. Although the doctors were able to bring her back, Galbraith was left with cognitive and physical damage from the ordeal.
Putting into practice her experience in the health field, she began the long process or regaining her strength and mental ability, focusing on diet and physical therapy. Her business, though, was never far from her thoughts. “I spent the time I was recovering studying the industry and seeing what was going on,” says Galbraith. I learned what the trends were, saw what the possibilities were for us, and what the most efficient way of entering the market would be.” A year later, Galbraith felt better and her business was licensed by the State of Maryland.
But even as construction of the brewery slowly started, a rumor began to run rampant in the town: a strip club was opening at the old bank building. The concern was so deep that a pastor from a local church was sent to try to persuade Galbraith and Nowak to re-think their business idea. “I told them the only kind of poles that would be in there would be bean poles because I planned on bringing in hydroponic tower gardens into this brewery to oxygenate the room and to provide fresh herbs,” says Galbraith. “After that, I heard their prayers changed from prayers for my failure to prayers for my success!”
Whether it was the prayers or the planning, or a combination of both, Federal Brew Kombucha began appearing at the Easton farmers market, then in Kent Island, St. Michaels, and Annapolis. Says Galbraith: “At first, people were like ‘what the heck is this?’ But within, a few weeks, it went on fire, and everyone had heard about it and were happy that we had local kombucha because of the different health benefits that are available in an authentic local fermented beverage.” Like local honey is good for allergies, she told us, local probiotics are good for the immune system. Galbraith and Nowak were soon selling out of the four to six cases they were bringing to the markets. Retail establishments, such as Sprouts, Out of the Fire, Piazza Italian Market, and Vintage Book Store, began to carry their brand.
They now brew about nine barrels a month, with each barrel the equivalent of 10 cases. Galbraith feels that the authenticity of their product is what makes the product different from what can be bought at the store. A lot of brewers use pre-formatted tea powder, a strong starter culture, water, probiotics, and then call it kombucha, she said. “We start with sweet tea. We add a starter culture and just let it do what it does. And there are some times that we do a secondary fermentation where we will add fruits and sometimes vegetables.”
Galbraith feels that as more people understand what kombucha is and what it can do, their taste palates are adjusting to exploring less sweet varieties. Their best-selling kombuchas at this time include Green Garden Chamomile, made of chamomile, calendula, cornflowers, hibiscus, and a little cinnamon. “Another one that we can’t seem to brew fast enough is our Red Roses Kombucha,” says Galbraith, “which is not necessarily real red because we’re not using any artificial colors or anything in it. But it is made with an organic white tea, rose petals, and hibiscus.”
Listening to Galbraith talk about her business, it’s quite clear that if there are any residual effects from her health crisis, we can’t tell. Her enthusiasm, energy, and vision are strong. She has plans to open the brewery to the public once a week, sometime in the near future. She wants to have more kegerators (refrigerated kegs) available for retailers. She envisions that their success in Federalsburg will open the door for other entrepreneurs to take advantage of available opportunities. She’s looking forward to a 50-barrel brewhouse.
That the plan. At least for now.
“I often say that God did not bring me back from the dead to live a mediocre life,” says Galbraith. “So, look out. It’s going to be good.”