It’s safe to say Stephen Lee knows tea.
Lee is the founder and CEO of Kombucha Wonder Drink. In 1972 he co-founded The Stash Tea Company. After Stash Tea was sold in 1993, Stephen, with a few of his friends, created the highly successful Tazo Tea which was acquired by Starbucks in 1999.
It’s also safe to say Stephen is passionate about tea.
For the past 18 years, Lee’s life has revolved around the effervescent and delightfully refreshing drink that we know and love as Kombucha Wonder Drink. Looking back on the series of events that led him to start the venture, Lee can’t help but chuckle as he recalls the random act of kindness from a Russian mother that set it all into motion.
In 1999, on one of his many trips to Russia, Lee dined at the St. Petersburg home of a business associate. Following their meal, the host’s mother offered him some of what she called “mushroom tea.” From his first sip, he was impressed. Not only was this drink delicious, but the fermentation had given it a light carbonation. He had to know more about this drink and his host gladly shared her knowledge. She also sent Lee home with a “scoby”— the symbiotic culture of one or more species of bacteria and yeasts that form a zoogleal. Russians call these the “mother.” It is customary for a living scoby to be split and shared with a friend. This process allows the cultures to survive across generations. Lee was amazed to learn that the woman’s original culture originated in 1939 from a great aunt in Siberia.
With his scoby safely packed, Lee made his way back to the United States. Soon after returning to Oregon, he used the scoby to brew his first batch of kombucha. He began with the original recipe he was given in Russia, and soon began experimenting with other flavors. It didn’t take long for for him to realize how much he enjoyed the process and how many people were interested in what he was doing. With a small group of investors and his typical ambition, Lee began working with Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center in Portland to develop the original Kombucha Wonder Drink. They started with three flavors: Essence of Lemon, Asian Ginger Pear, and Traditional.
Fast-forward to 2016 and collaboration with the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) marketing and development program and Miss Oregon. After perfecting the recipes for these three brews, Lee took part in a trade mission with the ODA and Miss Oregon (Ali Wallace was Miss Oregon 2015).
Together, they promoted Oregon agriculture products and Kombucha Wonder Drink, venturing as far as Osaka and Tokyo. Admittedly, this trip was an unusual business-building experience. But given the depth of his experience Tazo Tea, Lee knew what it would take to successfully position a tea-based company in the marketplace.
Long before the February 2016 trade mission to Japan, Lee continued to grow his company. In 2001 Kombucha Wonder Drink could be found in only 30 stores on the West Coast. Yet it only took two short years for him to secure national distribution. Now, with headquarters in Portland, Oregon, Kombucha Wonder Drink is enjoyed internationally. It can be found in New Zealand, Korea, Japan, China, two South American countries, and one country in Africa.
In November 2016, Kombucha Wonder Drink was acquired by the Harris Freeman tea conglomerate. Following the acquisition, Lee was made the CEO of Pure Steeps, a subsidiary of Harris Freeman. The Pure Steeps portfolio consists of Kombucha Wonder Drink and a California-based cold brew company.
“The opportunity to get involved with Harris Freeman and help create Pure Steeps was a real opportunity for me,” said Lee. “The acquisition was really a simple one. Harris Freeman bought our company and our whole small team joined their team. Now we’re in the process of building Pure Steeps.” (© 2017 amex.com)
Lee and his team continue to innovate and are working to develop a new flavor for the Wonder Drink line. Having begun their company in Portland, they sought to create something unique to Oregon. The soon-to-be released Mint Apple uses ingredients sourced exclusively from Oregon. When asked about this unique flavor combination Lee says, “It’s a known fact that some of the best mint in the world grows right here. People from all over the world use Oregon mint oil in their products.”
Reflecting on the business and how it has grown over the years, Lee reasons that business is really a human-to-human interaction. “At the end of the day we were just out to build the flavors we wanted to drink, and from there it became about sharing them with everyone else.” That’s why his team still brings Kombucha Wonder Drink to local grocery stores. And that’s why people continue to discover and fall in love with the unique beverage.