What’s pulpier than orange juice, wonderfully tart, refreshingly sparkly, and the slightest bit salty? A fermented drink popular in Central Asia that goes by many names depending on the culture in which it is produced. Sophomore entrepreneur Anton Gill is working hard to craft the Kyrgyz version he grew up drinking, but with a few unique twists.   

“The best way I can describe it is it’s similar to a nonalcoholic beer-kombucha mix made with grains like wheat and barley and oats,” Gill explains.  Born in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Gill lived in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Vienna, Austria, before moving to Michigan. 

As an operations and supply chain management major in the Calvin University School of Business, Gill wanted to combine his business background, cultural heritage, and passion to do good into a product customers can enjoy. That’s why he decided to brew his own version of his beloved beverage, a product he calls Azeurna, a name that represents the three continents of Asia, Europe, and North America on which he grew up.

Introducing a new flavor on campus

Gill has been enjoying his traditional Kyrgyz drink his whole life and always wanted to learn to make it himself. It wasn’t until he joined the Calvin Startup Garage, however, that he seriously considered introducing this piece of his cultural heritage on a larger scale. “Without the Startup Garage, I probably would have just kept thinking about it,” Gill says. 

After meeting with Startup Garage director Jon VerLee, Gill felt encouraged to take the plunge.

Blending commitments

Gill’s vision for Azeurna is connected to his two passions: food security and environmental sustainability. He chose the School of Business because, “What Calvin places value on, they genuinely believe in and actually back up to make the world a better place. It’s a very supportive community for people who think like that.” 

Since coming to Calvin, Gill has continued to travel. He spent time in Kenya learning about small farms and sustainable agriculture as part of a business course called Leadership in Kenya. And this past fall, as part of the School of Business Global Business Certificate, he studied abroad in Budapest, Hungary, learning about food security and working at a food bank for Ukrainian refugees.

Gill believes a degree in operations and supply chain management will help him contribute to making sure the world’s abundance of food gets into the hands of those who most need it. “In the case of something like food security, I like the idea of being at the top managing it to make sure it actually goes where it needs to, because there is a lot of food corruption,” Gill explains.

Improving sustainability in the beverage industry

So how does crafting Azeurna tie into Gill’s passions?

Making Azeurna requires a lot of grains, but the used grains don’t have to end up in a landfill. Gill can purchase the grains, ferment them for his drink, and then return the fermented grains to his suppliers to use as food for their livestock. Gill says the used grains are a much healthier food source than many of the chemical-laden feed options now on the market. Some beer companies, like Guinness, already follow this model, but it’s not yet a widespread practice in the beverage industry.  

“Something widely viewed as food waste could be affordably used to improve the diets of livestock,” Gill says.

Mixing business with chemistry

Though Azeurna requires a similar fermentation process to beer and kombucha, it is different enough that Gill relied on trial and error to get his recipe right. “The process of starting fermentation is quite scientific, especially with ingredients that are not traditionally included in beer,” Gill says.

“It seems like every time I make a new batch, there’s just a little bit of progress, and then looking back at my notes, I can see how far I’ve come.” The traditional method contains animal products, so Gill discovered how to make Azeurna vegan to appeal to a broader customer base. “In my opinion, it improved the taste,” he says.

Gill is now at the point where he could start producing and selling Azeurna in small batches, but he still wants to figure out how to improve its shelf life without using chemical preservatives.

Reaching consumers

Now that Gill has a recipe for Azeurna that works, he's focusing on marketing strategies. Members of the School of Business are helping him design a logo and a drink label that will boost consumer engagement.

Gill believes he’ll be able to find a niche market at area farmers markets. Kombucha is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States, so there’s reason to hope Azeurna could catch on as well. Azeurna takes less time to ferment (a week as opposed to a month), and it’s inexpensive to make so Gill can sell it at a lower price. “Given the price, it makes sense that people would at least try my drink, and then maybe I could attract kombucha drinkers.”

With two more years of school on the horizon, Gill doesn’t see himself making a big push into farmers markets until after graduation. In the meantime, he’ll keep tinkering with his formula to get an authentic taste that also appeals to an American palette.