Health from the ‘mother culture’ |

Health from the ‘mother culture’

Caramie Schnell
Vail, CO Colorado
Daily File Photo/Preston UtleyThis photo of High Country Kombucha owner Steve Dickman was taken five years ago and shows the original bottle.

VAIL, Colorado –They call it the mother culture.

Peeling back a white cloth covering a large plastic container, Steve Dickman reveals a trembling whitish/beige membrane.

“This is my baby,” Dickman says without even a hint of sarcasm, gesturing toward the pancake-looking Kombucha tea culture that’s about half way through its fermentation cycle.

As the company’s “brewmaster,” Dickman’s been tending to this same kombucha culture for so long, it is like his child. Like sourdough bread starter, you need a bit of the last batch to start the next batch, and Dickman and business partner Ed Rothbauer, the company’s president, have been using strains of the same culture they first used to make their High Country Kombucha tea more than five years ago.

Dickman and Rothbauer were roommates in 2004 when they starting making kombucha – a probiotic tea purported to cleanse the body, help the digestive process and raise energy levels, among other things. The cultures are added to a base of organic cane sugar and organic, fair-trade Sri Lankan Black Ceylon tea leaves and allowed to ferment for several weeks.

The “culture of bacteria and yeast feed off the sugars and, as a byproduct, create beneficial acids, polyphenols and polysaccharides,” according to the company’s Web site, The beverage is sometimes called the “tea of immortality,” and dates back to 221 B.C., from China during the Tsin Dynasty.

After sustaining a nearly-paralyzing back injury years earlier, Rothbauer made batches of the tea to help heal himself. When Dickman, who was working at Freshies in Edwards at the time, brought home a bottle of GT’s Kombucha (now the company’s main competitor), Rothbauer said the taste “kind of resembled” the kombucha he used to make and offered up the idea to make “real kombucha.”

“We found a man who claimed to have an authentic culture from the Himalayas,” Dickman said. The men purchased the culture, which they have since had tested at a labratory in Boulder – “we know it’s powerful, the real-deal stuff,” Dickman said – and began making tea in the kitchen of their home using every herb and type of tea leaves they could get their hands on.

When they first started, they could make three bottles of tea at a time, Rothbauer remembered.

“We were making the most amazing kombucha and bootlegging it in mason jars out of our apartment in Avon,” Dickman recalled. “When things got too crazy for the small kitchen in the apartment we decided to take the leap of faith and rent a comercial kitchen in Eagle.”

Since then the business has grown like gangbusters and gone through three facilities, the lastest of which is 10,000 square feet and located in Gypsum. Shane Dickman, Steve’s younger brother and the company’s vice president, joined the team in 2005 after he graduated from Western State College with a business degree.

“Now we’re making 14,000 cases a month and have 14 employees,” Rothbauer said.

According to Dickman, kombucha is the fastest growing beverage in the health food industry right now.

“The sales of kombucha are more than the dairy sales of the whole country,” he said. “Now that’s something to consider.”

First time kombucha drinkers are often surprised by the flavor, which isn’t sweet, but hints at a vinegary apple cider flavor.

“Sometimes people’s first reaction is they’re appalled by the taste,” Rothbauer said. “Then 15 to 20 minutes later, nine out of 10 people are back, saying ‘for some reason I’m craving that now. I feel good.’ It’s like the first time people try beer.”

These area stores carry High Country Kombucha, which is available in 10 flavors – Original, Goji Berry, Ginger, Wild Root, Aloe, Passion Flower, Lemon Myrtle, Chai Spice, Elderberry Hibiscus and Honeysuckle.

Columbine Market, Gypsum

Vitamin Cottage, Glenwood Springs

Nature’s Providers, Avon

Zack’s Deli, Eagle

Red Canyon Cafe, Eagle

Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli, Gypsum

Yeti’s Grind, Eagle

Avon Bakery, Avon

Vail Cascade Club, Vail

Village Market, Edwards

For more information, visit

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or

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