MUNDELEIN – Conscious Mind Products owner Susan Fink has transformed her at-home hobby into a full-blown, labor intensive business.
Fink founded Karma Kombucha (kum-booch-uh), an organic, fair trade, fermented tea product in 2010, before moving her productions to her Mundelein brewing facility at 401 Washington Blvd. a year later. There, thousands of gallons of tea are brewed, sent through lab testing, hand-bottled, and packed into hundreds of cases.
Kombucha has a 2,000 year history and three main benefits – boosting the immune system with wild yeast, slowing down a blood sugar spike with organic acids, and aiding digestion with pro-biotics, Fink said.
Karma Kombucha drinks are delivered to national distributors as far as Ames, Iowa, or as close as Barrington.
"It's a very manual process," Fink said. "I manage all aspects of the business – deliveries, accounting, brewing, sanitation, [among other duties]."
Fink said it takes her 22 hours – or two days and 1,600 glass bottles – to pack a batch of tea for shipment.
Majoring in Food Science at the University of Wisconsin and going on to work a career in the commercial food industry, 50-year-old Fink had always had a strong interest in food and the culinary business.
Fink said her at-home kombucha brewing started out as a 1-gallon operation and spare-time hobby, until it became her ultimate passion.
"I realized folks 45 to 65 years old need to eat to live, not live to eat," Fink said.
The Karma Kombucha brewing facility was up and running in Mundelein in February 2011 after Fink worked to strip down the building's old warehouse and create an eco-friendly lab of sorts.
Stepping into the brewing facility, a "creative kitchen" is home to several school-recycled science lab tables and Fink's entire production space is equipped with an alternating lighting system, skylights, and more.
Fink said nearly everything she uses is recyclable, taking just one bag of trash out every five to six weeks.
This lack of trash relates to the time it takes for kombucha to ferment, Fink explained.
Fink and her Karma Kombucha "chief tranquility officer," or business assistant, Michelle Dziaba, spend their days scientifically testing the pH levels of each fermenting kombucha batch – a fermentation process that takes anywhere from 14 to 33 days.
"The kombucha rules," Fink said. "It knows when it's ready."
Karma Kombucha is made with two simple ingredients – organic tea and organic sugar, Dziaba said, explaining that the tea is sourced from Arbor Teas in Ann Arbor, Mich., and most of the drink's flavor is derived from the dried fruit and spices of the tea itself.
"Other kombucha companies will dilute their drinks with water or fruit juice," Dziaba said. "We don't do that."
Additionally, Karma Kombucha teas are not pasteurized. Each Karma Kombucha drink is made with filtered water and grown from pro-biotic cultures that have been preserved over many generations; many batches of fermented tea, Fink said.
The kombucha making process begins with heating a 200-gallon brew tank of purified water to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, Fink adds sugar and tea and steeps the mixture at 180 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes before chilling the kombucha to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The kombucha is finally transported to a fermentation tank where it sits for over two weeks, forming a large, floating microorganism.
Fink explained that the mushroom-shaped microorganism is made of cellulose and grows rapidly – up to two to three inches think and 50 pounds total.
"It's very heavy to remove," Fink said.
Fink has now brewed 35 batches of kombucha, or 56,000 bottles.
Once bottled, a kombucha drink may contain clear or brownish microorganisms, which the Karma Kombucha brew team said could always be strained out at home, but is harmless to drink and rich in pro-biotics and antioxidants.
Fink, who suggests drinking four to eight ounces of kombucha each day (no more than 16 ounces), said she will continue to follow her motto of "anything is possible." The brew master has already completed an iron man competition in her lifetime and her 96-year-old mother, Virginia, who lives on her own and has survived cancer, drinks kombucha daily.
Fink said kombucha is relatively low in caffeine, with about 45 to 50 milligrams per bottle.
Using organic-only sanitizing solutions and improving Karma Kombucha quality over time, Fink said she is very proud of her operations – having already landed distribution deals with major area grocers like Mariano's and Heinen's.
Kumbucha is believed to have originated in Northeast China and later spread to Russia sometime before 1910, and the greater world shortly thereafter. There is little health research proving kumbucha's benefits, but doctors have said that since kombucha is fermented like yogurt, it may in fact contain beneficial bacteria.
The Karma Kombucha website lists many recipes for kombucha drinks – anything from vinaigrette to cookies, cake and lemon sorbets.
If you go:
What: Karma Kombucha
Where: 401 Washington Blvd., Mundelein
When: Visits by appointment; Calls anytime
Information: For information, call 800-557-3127 or visit www.karmaboocha.com.