You may (or may not) be familiar with SCOBY, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Famous for its probiotic properties, a mother culture can last generations, and is the foundation of a powerful batch of kombucha.
Given the right conditions, environment, and some patience, SCOBY has the potential to grow and thrive into a powerful superfood that can aid in digestion and balancing your gut biome. But that same SCOBY in an unhealthy environment can quickly turn bad. As powerful as the good bacteria can be in building a healthy environment, enough time kept where it doesn’t belong and the unhealthy bacteria will overpopulate, and your culture can go dormant, or even die.
Humans show up on this planet with the same potential and capacity. In the right environment, with the right support and resources, we can be incredibly powerful to invoke positive changes in even an unbalanced and unhealthy situation. But kept long enough where we don’t belong, especially early enough in our development, and it’s pretty easy to see those negative influences start to infect and take over.
Tony Horner spent a few years flirting with the possibility of going “bad” after exposure to enough negative input took over his rich and promising future. But his pursuit of a healthy and sustainable existence turned into renewed energy, a new business, and an opportunity to help others create the balance they’d lost.
“My first charge was at the age of 12 for stealing cigarettes,” he said. “By the time high school was over, I had nothing. Barely graduating, I enrolled at the local community college thinking that I’d figure it out. It wasn’t long after enrollment that I began to get into more trouble, causing me to go on a whirlwind of self-destruction. The result was a 10-page rap sheet with years of probation, jails and rehab facilities.”
It may have been enough to send the promising young Omaha native into dormancy, but not enough to keep him there.
“I’ve always been a tinkerer,” Horner recalled, “from doing all of the diagnostics and most of the maintenance on my cars now, all the way back to when I was a kid.” The youngest of six children, Horner enjoyed reverse-engineering electronics around the house, and taking things apart to learn how they worked.
“Me and my brother figured out how to attach a motor to the wheels of a Lego car,” he said. “Once we figured that out, we could build out the car any way we wanted to instead of being confined to the original build and design of whatever remote control car we had on hand.”
That tinkering came in handy when the well-traveled mixologist decided to apply the knowledge he gained at some of finest establishments in Vegas, Redondo Beach, California, and Omaha to a new hobby: craft kombucha.
“I took a vinegar-making workshop at City Sprouts,” Horner said. “They gave us a culture and some apple cider, told us how to maintain it, to agitate the culture and keep it semi-warm. They said to taste it after a week or a week and a half, but I didn’t feel like it was there. I waited two and a half weeks, then when I bottled it, it carbonated. I tasted it and it was just so much better than commercial vinegar you can get at the store. So I started making tonics with it.”
As his process refined and vinegar brewing turned into batches of booch, Horner realized he was on the verge of something more than a healthy habit.
Being intimately aware of what a criminal history can do to your prospects for employment, Horner wanted to greet those coming out of a dark time with an opportunity to start fresh. As his success grew with his business, Fermented Felon, he decided to apply the capital and momentum he’d created toward something bigger. “I wanted to start a business that focused on helping felons start businesses,” he said.
“Since beginning production in 2020, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor several entrepreneurs through the Rise Business Academy. I’ve supported individuals that are awaiting release, helping them get better employment, fair housing, and reunite with their families.“
I might be a bit of a sucker for a human-interest story, and Horner’s determination and integrity were enough of a draw that I would drink a kale smoothie if it meant supporting his cause. And you know how I feel about kale. But I’ve been a fan of kombucha since I was just a sprout myself, and on the prowl for a brand that didn’t hide the hard-to-perfect flavor profile behind a ton of added sugars. Sugars that negate the purpose of drinking the fermented tea in the first place.
Horner’s unique blends are bright and flavorful, without even a hint of Red 40. Delicately carbonated, the drink focuses on the fruit, and not creating a loud sensory experience to distract you from the good you’re doing your body. You’ll find Lavender, Peach, Tart Cherry Cola, Blueberry, Pear, Ginger-Turmeric, Root Beer, and new Raspberry flavors at dozens of establishments around Omaha, Lincoln and Council Bluffs. Check your nearest Hy-Vee HealthMarket cooler, or visit www.fermentedfelon.com for a current list of locations.
It’s enough to have created a successful business, a delicious drink, a fun catchphrase, a body-balancing bottle of booch. It was enough to have just pulled himself off of the wrong path. But Horner continues nurturing that enough-ness, feeding what’s good, and watching our community thrive for his efforts.
Follow and support Horner’s work on Instagram @FermentedFelon and @KombuchaWithACause