Tensions bubble between kombucha brewers and feds

Last week, Congressman Jared Polis wrote the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau telling the agency to back off from sending threatening letters to kombucha brewers until a standard method of measuring alcohol levels exists.

As it turns out, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, along with Kombucha Brewers International, is already working on such methods.

Currently the government tests kombucha with the same methodology used to determine the alcohol content of wine and beer. Many in the industry feel this produces inaccurate results.

“From what we understand, the testing method that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is using is from 1935. Obviously, kombucha as a product wasn’t around or was a product that they were even aware of at that time,” Hannah Crum of Kombucha Brewers International told The Colorado Independent.

Crum’s organization Kombucha Brewers International was formed in 2014 after Whole Foods pulled kombucha from the shelves in 2010 because of its alcohol levels. There was no official government recall. But Whole Foods’ move was a wake up call for the brewers. So they organized to work with the government, educate the public and create industry standards.

How kombucha is made and just how much alcohol is in it is a mystery to many, Ed Rothbauer of High Country Kombucha told The Colorado Independent.

The drink “does have trace amounts of alcohol. It just depends on the particular cycle of production,” said Rothbauer.

“Kombucha is a live fermented tea using what they call the Manchurian mushroom — also known as a SCOBY — which is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” Rothbauer said. “Our product uses a 14-day fermentation process – which can vary per brand.”

Bacteria and yeast create alcohol in kombucha, but the bacteria then eats most of the alcohol, converting it into acid. Kombucha contains sediment that — along with other ingredients like good bacteria and factors like weight of the ferment — can throw off any alcohol measurement.

Recently, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau cracked down on kombucha brewers, threatening fines and legal action if the product wasn’t labeled as an alcoholic beverage – despite the fact that the drink’s alcohol-by-volume level generally falls below the mandated .5 percent alcohol-level threshold that requires the alcoholic beverage label.

If kombucha is kept cold, it remains under .5 percent. But if the tea is stored in warmer temperatures, it can raise its alcohol percentage levels — but also makes kombucha undrinkable.

While Thomas Hogue of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau would not cite specific cases where the federal law was being enforced, “I can tell you that we have found product in the marketplace that exceeds the threshold that Congress established for when a product becomes an alcohol beverage,” he told The Independent.

As Polis pointed out in his letter to the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau, “Eight spoiled kombuchas are roughly the equivalent of one beer, but that doesn’t mean we should regulate it like we do alcohol – it makes absolutely no sense.”

What does make sense, say those in the industry, is for the government to update its testing methods.

“As the kombucha industry, we’re not looking for a fight,” said Crum. “And we’re not looking to challenge anyone. We just want a fair shake. We want our product held to a standard that is accurate, repeatable and consistent. Right now, there isn’t a method that all of the labs are using that delivers that kind of result.

“Since we’ve started in 2014, we’ve been pursuing this new testing process. We just happen to be at this particular step in the process at the moment. It’s not like the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau sent a letter, and all of a sudden we’re scrambling to figure things out. We’ve been in this process the whole way through,” said Crum.

The Bureau believes its alcohol testing methods are accurate, but it is open to working with the kombucha industry to find a kombucha-specific method.

“We’ve agreed to become part of that process,” Hogue said. “We think that’s a good idea. But our participation in that process really should not be misconstrued as somehow indicating that the testing we’re currently using doesn’t actually accurately and consistently quantify the amount of alcohol in the product,” Hogue said.

As for kombucha brewers: “Most industries self-regulate, and that’s what we’re doing,” said Crum. “We’re trying to self-regulate, and that is what establishing these standards is meant to do – so that government agencies don’t have to constantly be monitoring our products.”


Photo credit: Sterling College, Creative Commons, Flickr.