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The Big South Bay Brewery That Could

Nova Kombucha's fascinating success story involves Brazilian beef, a bus ride through Mexico, and an inspired fermentation experiment
Courtesy of Nova Kombucha

“I said to myself, this was the biggest failure of my whole life,” recalls Tiago Carneiro, founder and owner of Nova Kombucha and Novo Brazil Brewing. In this week’s episode of Happy Half Hour, he’s talking about his business’ epic near-crash-and-burn during the pandemic. Which, if you do some quick back-of-the-napkin math, wasn’t all that long ago. 

We learn a lot in this episode. Tiago tells us he’s from a restaurant family in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which is the cattle- and therefore beef-producing region of the country. His dad started in bakeries (giving Tiago his first up-close look at fermentation, a big theme in his adult life) and moved on to restaurants, eventually founding a major Brazilian fast-food burger chain and craft soda brand.

Tiago went to college to study engineering, only to feel the pull back to his family roots and switch gears to food science. From there, he launched an award-winning brewery that would go on to become South America’s largest and winningest.

To know Tiago is to know that best is simply never enough, so he decided to try to bring his business to what he considers to be the best beer city in the world: San Diego. His wife initially wasn’t down, but she agreed to visit with a pit stop in Los Cabos. I won’t spoil the whole story here, but it involves a very long bus ride up the peninsula to Tijuana, after which the couple finally ended up in San Diego, where Novo Brazil Brewing was born in the Eastlake part of Chula Vista.

Enter the pandemic, near-ruin, and a fermentation-experiment-turned-sales miracle, and we have one of San Diego’s most successful beer and kombucha stories—which is saying something in a town known worldwide for its fermented drinks.

Tiago’s story is fascinating and inspiring, and it comes across best when he tells it himself. He brought infectious energy, a deep belief in God, and unmatched ambition to the podcast and SDM’s offices. That he also brought Novo’s picanha steak (in an actual cast-iron pan) and burger for us to sample didn’t hurt, either.

We also learned that, once upon a time, Troy graduated from Chico State with a poetry degree and a plan to learn Brazilian Portuguese so he could teach English in Brazil. He never made it down there, but he did make his way through language lessons. It is my new favorite fact about our dear host.

Speaking of hosts, I, Jackie Bryant, San Diego Magazine‘s managing editor, am joining Troy and David as a co-host. I’ll be handling the news portion of the podcast. This week, that means talking about Il Posto, a fresh Italian joint that will take the place of Eclipse Chocolate on Fern Street in South Park; the replacement of H Street’s Tacos El Gordo with a new taqueria; the arrival of Tahona Mercado in National City; and the new indoor-outdoor, multi-experience seating and dining area on the rooftop at downtown’s beloved Callie. I’ll also be writing these blog posts. Send me some tips, or feel free to just say hi.

Cheers to this next era of HHH. We will see you next week!

P.S. Just a quick reminder that we will be hosting our Taste of South Bay event at Novo Brazil Brewing’s Imperial Beach location, which has stunning views, the best brewery food, and a whole lot of bells and whistles from all kinds of South Bay businesses just for ticket holders. It’s on February 25, and you can buy tickets here.

By Jackie Bryant

Jackie is San Diego Magazine's managing editor. Prior to that, she was a long-time freelance journalist covering cannabis, food/restaurants, travel, labor, wine, spirits, arts & culture, design, and other topics.

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