Strange tasting tea grows a mountain high in popularity

4:39 PM, Sep 14, 2010   |    comments
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"It's almost like an apple cider. It has a bit of a kick to it; kind of a vinegary, tart kick," Steven Dickman, the chief operating officer of High Country Kombucha said.

"I don't like to call it vinegary as much as I like to call it tangy. When I've switched to that word when I'm explaining it to people they understand it a little better," his brother and the company's vice president Shane Dickman added. "It's got a little bit of a bite, that vinegary flavor. It's got a little effervescence; get your taste buds going."

"It's something that's an acquired taste," Ed Rothbauer, the company's president, admitted.

"It's funny, because most customers will taste it the first time and are appalled by the taste and then they'll be back in 15 minutes and want another taste," Rothbauer added.

Regardless of first impressions, High Country Kombucha and similar products are big sellers at health food stores like Vitamin Cottage and Whole Foods. In fact, the company's product was off the shelf for a month recently as the company moved to a larger plant in Eagle in an attempt to keep up with demand. With the promise of distribution to King Sooper's parent company, Kroger, the company is already planning another expansion, with the goal of being able to produce 350,000 cases of kombucha a month.

"It's a good problem to have. It's definitely a problem, but it's a good problem," Rothbauer said.

The complexity of making the tea has added to the company's supply issues. Kombucha is created by growing a symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria.

"This isn't something that you can just mix sugar and water and put it in a bottle. A lot of time our buyers call and say, 'can't you just make more?' They don't understand the process of fermentation. It's a lot like a beer or wine," Shane Dickman said.

While the product of that interaction is often referred to as a mushroom, it's not. In fact, there is no fungus created by the fermenting process at all.

While the tea has recently become very popular, especially among health food shoppers, it's been around for a long, long time. Some believe it was first used in China during the Qin Dynasty, which existed in about 200 BCE. The first mention of kombucha in recorded history was in 19th century Russia.

"We didn't invent this. We've got our own spin on it," said Shane Dickman, the vice president of High Country Kombucha.

Over the years, a lot of individuals and companies have touted possible medicinal uses for kombucha. Some have claimed it can increase energy, sharpen eyesight, improve skin elasticity, repair joints, and even help people recover from cancer.

"It's nothing magical; it's not an elixir of any type. We don't really endorse any of the folklore, but one thing I will say is try it and see how you feel yourself," Rothbauer said. "It's just really a good food for your body. The pro biotics are so agreeable with our system. You just feel great."

Rothbauer learned about kombucha while recovering from a broken back at Craig Hospital. He says his recovery may not have been caused by the tea, but he believes it may have added it.

"I started getting movement. I started advancing in movement. Right now I'm walking with a cane and very satisfied with the return I've had," he said.

Regardless of any medicinal value, the company believes the tea could help to better the health of our nation.

"We're actually trying to move people into what we call the kombucha generation," Steven Dickman said.

They say overweight Americans are yearning for more options with little to no sugar or caffeine.

"People are kind of over that. They're over the sugar and they're over the obese children. They want things that work better with their lives," Rothbauer said.

The company hopes kombucha will one day take the place of Coke and Pepsi.

"I see it as the soda pop of the 21st century, people turning to the healthy side of the force," Rothbauer said.

High Country Kombucha was one of 50 Colorado Companies to Watch chosen by the state's Office of Economic Development and International Trade. For more information about Coolerado, go to

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