BubbleSnakes and Compost Tea

Humboldt entrepreneur cooks up your plants’ favorite brew


By Thomas Oliver

In an unassuming building not 50 feet from the highway and Murray Field Airport in Eureka, California, resides TeaLAB, the brainchild of Luke Andrew Besmer. The interior is utilitarian — this is a place where work is done. There are two desks, one in the main room and one in Besmer’s office, a couple of file cabinets, a collection of local art and that’s about it. Out back is a 200-plus pound pumpkin — a testament to the efficacy of TeaLAB’s product, compost tea.

Luke Besmer. / Amy Kumler.

Though Besmer was well-versed in horticulture with a degree in botany at Humboldt State University and through employment on a large-scale grow in Southern California, his career in compost tea truly began when he started working at the Beneficial Living Center, a garden and grow supply store in Arcata. There, Besmer saw an opportunity. “I realized people were throwing away their soil after almost every season,” he said. “I thought, it couldn’t be that hard to test it and amend it.” So, he started soil testing and TeaLAB was born.

If you don’t already know, compost tea is “a living soup,” as Besmer describes it.  To make it, “you put compost into water, shake the bacteria free, give them some food and let them multiply.” According to Besmer, compost tea is about getting as much bang for your buck as possible and, in terms of bacteria and nutrients, Besmer says it “is about turning millions into trillions.” 

Various plants often need specific nutrients to propagate. Cannabis, for instance, requires a great deal of nitrogen to grow. Soil devoid of nitrogen is not viable, so farmers can either introduce nitrogen-fixing plants (alfalfa, peanuts or beans) or amend the soil with nitrogen. This, however, can be an expensive and arduous process. You need to work a couple of inches of compost or fertilizer into the soil in order to amend it. If you have a large garden, that adds up quickly, as does the time required to properly mix in the amendment.

Compost tea, however, is a wildly efficient alternative to traditional fertilizers. One gallon of tea can be put into 10 gallons of water and cover roughly 400 square feet, according to Besmer. Only a handful or two of compost is needed to make about a gallon of compost tea and it can be brewed in 24 to 48 hours. Before you know it, you’ve amended your soil. Compost tea can also act as a natural insecticide when used as a foliar (on the leaves) spray, as it often includes biopesticides — bacteria, fungi or nematodes that kill or prevent pests.

Luke Besmer. / Amy Kumler.

Testing and remediating soil with compost tea was not Besmer’s only endeavor, however. Besner is into helping others do it themselves. In 2013, only a year after starting TeaLAB, Besmer created the “BubbleSnake”— the invention that would thrust his company into the forefront of the compost tea game. Compost tea requires constant aeration in the brewing process. The mixture needs oxygen and agitation at all times in order to propagate the bacteria. Without a permanent source of oxygen, anaerobic bacteria will take over and that’s bad for your plants. This means that any brewing kit requires an aerator. Before the BubbleSnake, most aerators on the market were easy to clog and hard to clean — picture a hollow metal crossbar with half a dozen tines through which air was expelled. With only a small opening on one end of the device — even the nimblest bottle brush would be useless in the de-gumming process. 

By simply bending a length of PVC piping into a lasso shape and boring holes into the “hoop,” Besmer created an aerator that can be cleaned in moments and does not clog easily. “Basically, as long as you remove the cap and push water through the snake before each use, maybe give it a little scrub, you’ll never have an issue,” says Besmer. Connect one end to an air compressor, cap the other, drop it in the barrel and you’re set to go. Besmer further simplified the process by adding a ring to the top of the BubbleSnake and fixing a lanyard and carabiner to the brew bag so that it can be easily attached to the snake and suspended in the solution throughout the brewing process. 

This “do it yourself” approach to business is fundamental to Besmer’s vision. He doesn’t just want to have the best aerator on the market, he wants to empower farmers to successfully make the compost tea on their own. Precise schematics for his BubbleSnake, as well as many detailed tea recipes, can all be found on his website, www.composttealab.com. All of Besmer’s products are sold in garden stores throughout Humboldt County, as well as on Amazon. 


Thomas Oliver is a writer, ultimate frisbee player and 10-year resident of Humboldt County.