For many consumers, their first introduction to kombucha didn’t come on the most flattering of terms.
During the summer of 2010, the fizzy probiotic tea entered the national consciousness in rather infamous fashion: Whole Foods and other retailers pulled bottles off store shelves following concerns that products were continuing to ferment past the legal limit for non-alcoholic beverages, or 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. And though the industry has both recovered and expanded impressively in subsequent years, the specter of risking another recall or running afoul of government regulators continues to be a real threat for those working with this unique and complex living beverage.
As if things were not complicated enough, sugar, another one of kombucha’s key ingredients has emerged as the chief adversary of health conscious consumers everywhere in recent years. A November 2016 study funded by probiotic drink company KeVita, which was acquired by PepsiCo late last year, found that five out of eight brands tested contained higher levels of sugar than reported on labels. The material costs of those kinds of labeling mistakes were felt in full in February when co-defendants GT’s Kombucha and Whole Foods Market reached an $8 million settlement agreement with a group of consumers suing over allegations that both parties mislabeled the product’s antioxidant, alcohol and sugar content.
GT’s admitted no wrongdoing, but the ramifications are clear: As the industry continues to mature, the manner in which individual brands choose to approach the issue of alcohol and sugar content in kombucha will likely play a significant role in determining the health of the category going forward.
In order to appreciate why alcohol and sugar content have become such flashpoints for the kombucha industry, it’s important to understand the nature of their symbiotic relationship during the fermentation process.
Kombucha is made with three ingredients: sugar, tea and a culture of bacteria and yeast, referred to as a SCOBY, which is inoculated in the mixture. Over time, the culture consumes the sugar and converts it into ethanol and healthy organic acids. The amount of sugar used and how long it is allowed to ferment determines the chemical composition of the final product, with kombucha lying somewhere between vinegar — the result of too much fermentation — and sweet tea.
Yet while manufacturers agree that all kombuchas contain some amount of alcohol, the consensus on how much constitutes what an “authentic” kombucha should be is far from settled. Without a universally accepted definition of the drink, individual brands have staked out their own positions on either side of the fence, with the rise of 21-plus kombuchas, which still barely go above the 0.5 percent ACV legal limit, running parallel to brands such as Wonder Drink and KeVita which are pushing hard to deliver as close to a non-alcoholic experience as possible.
For his part, Kombucha Dog founder Michael Faye has taken a clear position on the topic. Speaking with BevNET, he was adamant that making a kombucha with more than 0.5 percent ACV wasn’t a choice, but rather the only way to make authentic kombucha as it has been defined over decades.
“I’m just going to flat out say that kombucha is an alcoholic beverage and there’s no ethical way to make kombucha that’s less than 0.5 percent alcohol,” he said. His determination is based on a traditional recipe that calls for one cup of sugar per gallon of tea, a formula he says has been used for thousands of years. “In order to make kombucha less than 0.5 percent alcohol, you either have to dilute it by more than 60 percent or you just have to lie on your label, like you are selling people a legally alcoholic beverage and telling them it’s a non alcoholic beverage.”
According to Faye, using the recipe is important because it establishes signposts that guide along the fermentation process. As the yeast and bacteria from the SCOBY consume the sugar, ethanol is produced along with healthy organic acids. With less than one cup of sugar, there’s not enough for them to eat and therefore produce the gut-friendly acids; using more than a cup, however, can result in overproduction of alcohol, moving the end product closer to vinegar. Faye stops fermenting at six grams of sugar and 1.4 percent alcohol, a point he said the liquid is both palatable and retains all the benefits of fermentation.
“People say kombucha is good for you, but first you have to define what kombucha is,” he said. “If you are drinking a fermented beverage and it has low sugar, low alcohol, high microbiomes and high in beneficial organic acids — yeah, that’s probably really good for you. If you are drinking a bottle of kombucha that says its 2 g of sugar on the label and there’s 400% more with very little beneficial acids and microbiota, you are just getting a sugary drink and none of the benefits of fermentation.”
One way to eliminate the challenge of managing alcohol content in kombucha? Stop trying.
A handful of brands are doing just that, embracing kombucha as a 21-plus beverage positioned as a low-alcohol, better-for-you alternative for social drinking occasions.
One of those is Brooklyn-based Kombrewcha, co-founded in 2015 by Ariel Glazer and Honest Tea founder Barry Nalebuff. Honest itself had been in the kombucha business through 2010, but discontinued production after it was one of several brands that exceeded the legal limits for alcohol when tested by Whole Foods. Available in Original, Berry Hibiscus, Lemongrass Lime, and Royal Ginger varieties, Kombrewcha contains between 1.5 and 2 percent alcohol by volume and is available at select location in New York and Connecticut on draft and in long-neck 12 oz glass bottles.
Kristina Marino, director of marketing at Kombrewcha, said that the company was founded on the idea that on-premise kombucha is an underserved market brimming with potential.
“I think typically kombucha is just perceived as a functional beverage due to its health benefits, but because it’s naturally fermented, why not view it as a recreational beverage also and really just create this new fourth category – an alternative to beer, wine, cider, and cocktails?” said Marino. “Ultimately, we want our consumers to use us for social drinking that they can feel good about.”
“We do have all those underlying benefits, but we find that in the occasions that our consumers really love our product, the thing that is really resonating most with them are the fact that is has alcohol, the emotional benefit of the fact that they get to participate with their friends when many other times they wouldn’t be able to,” added Kombrewcha CEO Garrett Bredenkamp.
Beyond social drinking, Bredenkamp explained that the brand has embraced its position as a 21-plus option because of a desire to be transparent with consumers about what they are drinking. In choosing to play under the same regulations and tax code as other alcoholic beverages, Kombrewcha is also free from the burdens of investing time and money into alcohol testing technologies or fighting for new legislation. On the other hand, it has also limited the brand to fewer distribution channels and point-of-purchase options.
By standing outside of mainstream kombuchas, the brand has also been able to compete in the smaller category of 21-plus kombuchas that are merchandised with beer and wine at retail. He noted that the brand has benefitted from working closely with alcohol distributors that have helped place it into key accounts, such as trendy vegan restaurant Butcher’s Daughter in New York and boutique cocktail bar Broken Shaker in Miami.
“With [those distributors], we’ve kind of built our distributor route to market with having alcohol so it gives us different flexibility and knowledge of how to market the product and make sure that it’s safely consumed,” he said.
Yet despite embracing its designation as a 21-plus drink, the team at Kombrewcha refused to use that as a rod with which to attack other brands.
“I think kombucha by definition is fermented tea, sugar and a SCOBY, so anything else made with those ingredients can be considered an authentic kombucha,” said Martino. “Obviously different brewers have different approaches to how they distill and dilute the liquid, but I think that we found that we’re an authentic kombucha. That is something that we communicate, but we don’t necessarily have strong opinions as to what other brands are doing.”
GOING FOR BROKE
At the other end of the spectrum, some brands have made significant investments aimed at eliminating as much alcohol as possible.
Portland-based Brew Dr. Kombucha has taken a high-tech approach towards processing its kombuchas, employing a machine called a spinning cone column that uses atmospheric pressure to remove alcohol from liquid without heat, thereby retaining its live and active probiotics. The finished product contains about 0.2 percent alcohol, well below the 0.5 threshold that requires labeling.
Thomas explained that, while standing behind the authenticity of Brew Dr. products, the idea is to be as transparent as possible with consumers about its alcohol content.
“That’s our core thing — responsibility and authenticity,” said Thomas. “We want to make sure we are producing kombucha that is open and honest, but also kombucha that is raw and alive and what kombucha consumers expect from traditionally made kombucha.”
“I would say that right now, in my opinion, people are either making funny kombucha that is compliant with alcohol laws or authentic kombucha that is verging on not being compliant,” adds Jeff Weaber, founder of AquaViTea. “I think where Matt [Thomas, CEO of Brew Dr.] and I do agree is we’re trying to set off on a path of making what we would classify as authentic kombucha using ancient fermentation techniques that is also alcohol compliant.”
Another manufacturer, Kombucha Wonder Drink, has taken an approach that some kombucha brewers might consider blasphemous by lightly pasteurizing their drinks through a proprietary method and then force carbonating, allowing the company to package their products in both bottles and shelf-stable cans. The end product contains no live probiotics, but also no alcohol.
Meanwhile, KeVita has taken an even bolder approach. The probiotic beverage company, which was acquired by PepsiCo last year, states on its website that KeVita Master Brew Kombucha is the “only certified Non-Alcoholic kombucha in the marketplace at this time.” In 2015, the company announced it would be funding and developing a Truth-In-Labeling Initiative to help advance a standardized process for kombucha manufacturers to test and report alcohol, sugar and calories in their products.
KeVita has also been active in supporting Gas Chromatography with Flame Ionization (GC-FID) as a method for testing alcohol. The process received a unanimous vote for approval to first action Official Method status at the annual meeting of the Association of Organic Analytical Chemists (AOAC) International last September, and the group is currently collecting additional data on the method which, assuming it is verified and accurate, would allow them to move it to final action status, at which point it would be approved as a fully vetted official method by the AOAC.
Hannah Crum, president of industry trade group Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), which has been involved with the AOAC approval process, said the issue of methodology is not completely settled yet. She explained that, out of five different testing methods that were proposed at the most recent AOAC meeting, two of them which use Gas chromatography mass spectrometry have submitted additional data in anticipation of being moved into first action status.
“For the new methods going through GC/MS, I’d expect we’d go through a year of collecting data on those methods, and then come out at the other end with potentially a couple other methods for measuring ethanol in kombucha,” Crum said. “This is great news because it means our members and different labs will have an opportunity to use a couple different types of methodologies.”
Crum said that many kombucha manufacturers are currently using the GC-FID method, noting that KBI has provided the specific steps of the method to its members so they can take it to participating labs or simply understand what the process involves.
“Not everyone is reporting back to us that they are doing this or that, but we do know people are using the method and presumably they are getting results,” said Crum, adding that she has not received any negative feedback on GC-FID from manufacturers thus far.
LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS & SODA TAXES
While individual kombucha manufacturers have staked out their own positions on acceptable alcohol levels in their respective brews, some are joining in a collective effort to change the rules altogether.
In February, bipartisan legislation was introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that would update federal alcohol taxes and regulations by increasing the applicable alcohol-by-volume (ABV) limit for kombucha from 0.5 percent to 1.25 percent.
The Keeping our Manufacturers from Being Unfairly Taxed while Championing Health (KOMBUCHA) Act is co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). In the House, the bill is being co-sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.).
In an e-mail to BevNET, Rep. Polis said the current regulatory statute has a harmful impact on the kombucha industry, noting that brewers in Colorado generate an estimated $20 million in annual sales and provide hundreds of job across the state.
“The kombucha industry has recognized there is a concern with the alcohol in their product, and as a result they have been working diligently to find a mutually acceptable compromise until we can pass the KOMBUCHA Act,” said Polis. “Many of the kombucha brewers in my district are working closely with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to develop alternative [alcohol] tests directly, which would help take some of the alcohol-by-volume unreliability out of the equation.”
However, the timetable for a vote on that legislation is uncertain, as it is just one element of tax reform that is up for deliberation in both houses of Congress. Hannah Crum, president of industry trade group Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), acknowledged that the process was out of the industry’s control, and said the group is focusing on continuing its educational outreach efforts until a vote can take place.
“It doesn’t matter how much support you have — if it isn’t at the right timing, you’re going to have trouble getting it through,” she said. “We are playing the long game because we know this is going to have a beneficial impact on our industry.”
Yet in the meantime, the industry is also experiencing the side effects of a different legislative action. Over the past year, several municipalities, such as Philadelphia and Berkeley, Calif. have implemented taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) aimed at curbing obesity rates and unhealthy lifestyles.
The highest tax passed so far has been in Boulder, Colo., where voters approved a two cents per ounce levy on distributors of sodas and other SSBs with at least 5 g of added sugar per 12 fluid ounces last November. That purview includes kombuchas while exempting diet drinks that use artificial sweeteners, which has frustrated local brands such as Rowdy Mermaid and Upstart.
Crum criticized the Boulder tax as being poorly written and out of line with its original intent of promoting healthier beverage choices.
“We are in a tricky time where people categorized all sugar as being the same,” he said. “The reality is that the sugar you are getting from a soda or whatever else is in the soda is going to have not as good of an impact as something you are getting from a traditionally fermented beverage.”
Compounding the issue is that, as with alcohol, there are some lingering uncertainties around the accuracy of reported sugar levels in kombucha as well.
As if the GTs and Whole Foods legal settlement in February wasn’t enough to cause consumers to wonder about sugar levels, the lack of clarity and consensus in that area has created an awkward situation in which individual companies are increasingly left to police each other.
During a public discussion at Natural Products Expo West, Jeff Church, the CEO of high pressure processed juice brand Suja, told an audience that his company had recently researched kombucha in light of claims that brands were understating their sugar amounts. The company sent 30 different bottles of various brands out for testing, and found that many of them came back with up to four times the amount of sugar than was listed on the labels.
This echoed a study conducted last fall, funded by KeVita and completed by NaturPro Scientific, which showed that five out of eight brands of a group of products that included KeVita, tested for sugar content contained higher levels than reported on labels. The study concluded that the majority of the products tested exceeded reported sugar content by more than 20 percent. Two brands had sugar levels that contained an average of 291 percent and 311 percent greater than the label amounts, while KeVita tested at an average of 4 percent below.
These disputes again raise the issue of defining authentic kombucha in a way that establishes clear guidelines on both sugar and alcohol content. Unsurprisingly, that idea has also sparked different responses from industry members.
Crum disagreed with the idea that authentic kombucha could be defined by alcohol content because “it’s a living ferment so that number’s going to change over time.”
“We want to be conscientious, because we’ve seen other industries and how they’ve attempted to define their products and, as a result, people take that definition very narrowly,” she said. “There’s a lot of internal discussions where we are trying to figure out do we define it by process? Do we define it by organisms? We just want to be very cautious in approaching it with too specific of a definition so people don’t end up gaming kombucha and putting things out there that have met a minimal standard but don’t live up to the essence and authenticity of what a kombucha ferment would be.”
Thomas disagreed. “I think for the most part it needs to be the responsibility of the industry to define what is authentic kombucha,” he said. “That’s not something that has been done yet. I think it’s something that Jeff and I together with KBI would like to be a part of working on, so that authenticity is honored in kombucha production.”
Faye also stressed the importance of KBI taking the lead on this issue in order for brands to be honest about what they are giving consumers. ““KBI should be interested in saying ‘this is kombucha, this is not,’” he said. “If everyone else had decided to make their kombucha the right way, we would have our own distribution system, we would have our own quality judgements, our own methods of manufacturing. We’d be so far ahead, and we’d be making people healthy.”
Yet most kombucha brands exist somewhere in the middle, an area in which they are vulnerable to pressures from both sides.