1. Business

Meet The Native American Entrepreneur Who Owns Her Own Kombucha Brand

In 2012, Melinda Williamson moved back to Kansas from Oklahoma, where she’d been working as a senior research specialist in ecology at Oklahoma State University. But it took another four years before she launched Morning Light Kombucha.

“I knew I wanted to own a business but didn’t know what I wanted to do,” says Williamson. “I started sharing with friends and family and they were wanting to purchase it. And that was how I decided to get into kombucha exclusively.”

If you haven’t heard of kombucha, it’s an occasionally alcoholic, lightly effervescent beverage made from fermenting green or black tea. The first company to bottle the product and put it on store shelves — GT’s Living Foods — has earned its founder almost a billion dollars. Over the past decade, the category has seen other entrants looking for their own success, and has even developed its own trade association.

But Morning Light isn’t just another kombucha brewer. Currently, Morning Light has the distinction of being the only Native American-owned kombucha producer in the country — Williamson is a member of the 5,000-strong Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, and actually works for the tribe.

What Is Morning Light Kombucha?

Morning Light Kombucha was founded by Native American entrepreneur Melinda Williamson in 2016. Within the 100-something varieties of kombucha that Williamson produces each year, 90 percent of the ingredients are sourced from around the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation reservation in Hoyt, Kansas, and many are foraged by Williamson herself.

“Every year, we harvest choke cherries, gooseberries, raspberries, wild blackberries, paw paws,” says Williamson. “We’ll actually be launching our gooseberry kombucha in the next week or so.”

In addition to being the only Native American-owned kombucha brewery in the country, Morning Light Kombucha differentiates itself with strong foundational values. Williamson believes in sustainability and frequently forages her own ingredients, and also works with farms to support local agriculture. And she believes strongly in keeping alive her traditions; a portion of every Morning Light Kombucha sale goes back to Native communities.

Where Can I Buy Morning Light Kombucha?

At present, Williamson only makes anywhere from fifteen to seventy-five gallons of kombucha per batch. Which means there’s enough product to support her local community, but not much more.

“It’s just me as the brewer, kegger, and forager,” says Williamson.

However, Williamson recently hired her sister as employee number one. And last year, as part of the Intertribal Agricultural Council’s American Indian Foods Program, she went to the National Restaurant Association’s trade show in Chicago, where she received tremendous interest from people interested in helping her grow the business.

Although Williamson doesn’t see a future in bottling her product (“On our reservation, we don’t do glass recycling, and I don’t want to produce a product where the bottles will go in the trash”), she sees tremendous potential in canning.

“Once we start canning, I’d like to see us work with other tribes who want our products,” says Williamson. “I’d like to work with them to identify and harvest something traditional from their tribe. Whether it’s chamomile or sage or roasted corn, I want to find something we’re able to bring back and use to create something for their community.”

To learn more about Morning Light Kombucha, visit their website here.

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