Five years ago the threat of legal action against retailers of kombucha, a fermented tea, precipitated a crisis that led many firms, including Whole Foods Market, to pull all kombucha from their shelves because trace amounts of alcohol exceeded federal limits.
Manufacturers initiated expensive voluntary recalls. In most instances the tea left the manufacturer within legal limits but without refrigeration continued to ferment in the bottle, sometimes doubling the amount of alcohol over time.
The tangy taste of the kombucha is due to bacteria that generate malic acid and acetic acid, gluconic acid, lactic and succinic acid, all reputed to help detoxify the body. Brands like industry leader GT’s Synergy Kombucha contain S. boulardii and Lactobacillus, bacteria commonly found in yogurt. But S. boulardii is actually a yeast that remains in the brew to help prevent the growth of bad bacteria.
Within a year most of the major kombucha brands reappeared in grocery and natural food outlets following an industry-wide effort to limit fermentation that exceeded .5% alcohol by volume. Some Whole Foods began brewing the tea in-store where they had greater control. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau eased its enforcement and sales took off.
During the period 2013 to 2015 bottled kombucha earned a handful of manufacturers a five-fold increase to $600 million in annual sales. It also led to experimentation with flavors and brewing methods that encouraged secondary fermentation.
Once again this summer federal authorities began issuing warning letters. Unlike the previous crackdown when alcohol levels were marginally higher that .5% (typically less than 1%), this time authorities discovered tea with 2.5% to 3% and higher concentrations of alcohol. It is difficult to become intoxicated at .5% percent. At .6% it would require drinking five 16-ounce bottles to equal a 4.2% “light” beer but beverages with 2-5% alcohol can quickly intoxicate a child.
Alcohol bureau spokesman Tom Hogue told Fox News “What we’re concerned about here is that when a consumer picks up a product, they know the product is alcoholic.” He declined to specify how many brewers’ products failed alcohol tests, or how many producers have been fined.
Kombucha brewers say the agency needs a new alcohol test specific to fermented drinks. They say the commonly used test to determine alcohol by volume (often listed as ABV on alcoholic beverages) doesn’t account for naturally occurring sediment in kombucha, from bits of tea leaves to strands of yeast.
“We’re working on a more accurate test that will show people that kombucha is not an alcoholic beverage,” said Hannah Crum, head of the Los Angeles-based Kombucha Brewers International group, an industry advocate.
Sources: Mother Jones, Fox News