At Union Kitchen, students can purchase brown glass bottles of kombucha, a fermented tea drink known for its beneficial bacteria and B vitamins. But there’s more to this bottle than the drink itself. The woman behind the brew, Melinda Williamson, is a 2006 Kansas State alumna and crafts Morning Light Kombucha locally on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Reservation just north of Topeka.
In October, the Kansas Department of Commerce recognized Morning Light Kombucha as the 2019 Minority Business of the Year in the Manufacturing Firm category. Williamson’s kombucha can be found on the K-State campus and across northeast Kansas, and the journey toward her “booch” business began around 10 years ago, after Williamson learned of her autoimmune disease diagnosis.
“I was looking at ways to heal with food,” Williamson said. “I started changing my diet, I started reading about fermented food … and making sure that you’re eating more whole foods, so that’s kind of how I learned about kombucha in the first place.”
Around this time, Williamson worked as a research assistant at Oklahoma State University (where she earned her master’s degree in rangeland ecology and management in 2010). There, she said she wasn’t happy, so she relocated back to northeast Kansas with the dream to start her own business.
“At the beginning, I wanted to do a green smoothie food truck,” Williamson said. “Green smoothies were another instrumental thing in my healing. I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to start this green smoothie truck and I’m going to have kombucha, I have to find kombucha companies to have kombucha on tap.'”
At that time, Williamson was already brewing her own fermented tea. She said she didn’t see it as a business interest at first; it was a hobby. But friends started asking to buy Williamson’s product after she shared some with siblings and friends.
And so, Morning Light Kombucha kicked off in March 2016. Williamson is the sole employee of the company, but she receives help from family. Her sister, daughter, nephew and boyfriend contribute to the business.
“I think it’s really good,” William said of having her daughter and nephew involved. “Teaching the kids values and hard work, and they’ve been able to see the progression of business from an idea.”
Making kombucha involves the art of patience. To start a batch, Williamson said she brews one of Morning Light’s two primary recipes: green tea or a green tea/black tea blend. Williamson places the sweetened tea into a fermenter and adds kombucha culture. The mixture ferments for four and six weeks in a warm room, while bacteria consumes most of the sugar and probiotics, B vitamins and antioxidants form.
“When it’s ready, we transfer it to a secondary fermenter that’s smaller, and then we flavor it,” Williamson said.
Those additional flavors — from ingredients like strawberries, cinnamon or lemon juice — are left to marry and ferment with the kombucha for another week, or until the kombucha reaches an ideal pH factor, Williamson said.
“Every batch is unique,” Williamson said. “We have a lot of fun experimenting with seasonal flavors and whatever we can get our hands on through the year.”
About 90 percent of Morning Light’s ingredients are locally sourced, Williamson said, which builds into her business’s focus on sustainability.
“That’s why we only do our refillable bottles,” she said. “Just trying to get people to think about how they’re consuming, bringing awareness to things that we could do every day to make a difference.”
Williamson’s business also gives back to Native American communities across the United States for various projects and causes. As an individual, Williamson is involved in her local community as an enrolled member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation; namely, she team-teaches Potawatomi language and culture to schoolchildren three times a week.
“We have about 200 students that come through weekly,” Williamson said. “We teach language and we teach culture, just making sure that the traditions that we have are passed on to our children and the next generation.”
Kombucha on campus
Morning Light Kombucha is available in 11 locations across northeast Kansas; in addition to Union Kitchen, the product is on tap at Pool House Kitchen & Bar in downtown Manhattan and Hoja, a new plant shop on Juliette Avenue. Having Morning Light on tap on K-State’s campus is important to Williamson.
“It’s so huge because that’s one of the biggest things I wanted: To have the support and to be able to offer it to students here, because this is where I went to school,” Williamson said.
It took years to get her product on campus, but she eventually got in contact with Jeff Clark, Union assistant director for retail/food service, who Williamson said advocated for Morning Light Kombucha and assisted in stocking the product at Union Kitchen.
In the future, Williamson still has her green smoothie business in mind, but she also said there are “endless possibilities” for Morning Light Kombucha at K-State.
“If I could have it across campus, or have the athletics department — having it for their athletes before or after games,” Williamson said. “We have a lot of athletes that use kombucha as a pre-workout and post-workout to help with inflammation.”
Health benefits from kombucha go beyond inflammation relief, Williamson said.
“It’s helpful for boosting the immune system,” she said. “It’s hydrating, so people use it — I know this is crazy, but a lot of people will use it for hangovers.”
She also noted its impact on energy and gut health.
Williamson said she will continue hosting sampling events in the Union on a monthly basis, sharing with others the drink that altered her life, business-wise and health-wise.