Kombucha war brewing between food regulators and fermenty beverage makers

The SF Weekly notes the trend of increasing FDA regulatory scrutiny around the fermented beverage known as kombucha, because some commercial preparations can contain trace amounts of naturally occurring alcohol (say, .4 or .5 percent, compared to 5% in a light beer). Reader Michael Robbins, who sends in this link, adds, "Sadly, all my Kansas stores have pulled my daily drink from the shelves because of the new regulations. Have to go back to home brewing this treat."


  1. UNFI (United Natural Foods, the distributer behind Whole Foods and most American natural foods cooperatives) stopped stocking all kombucha drinks without notice about a month ago. They told retailers to pull them from the shelves and destroy them, pending information. Unfortunately for my employer, a locally owned co-op grocery, the near monopoly UNFI has on organic/natural food distribution means we can’t carry packaged kombucha. Period. Regardless of the fact that we don’t agree with UNFI’s assessment of its safety/legality. The best we can do is offer customers advice at the register of who in the community they might be able to ask to barter a starter mushroom (also called a mother) from.

  2. Light beers in my state (Oklahoma) cannot exceed 3.2%, slimming the margin of difference between kombucha and regulated alcoholic beverages.

    On the other hand, I have never tried kombucha, but after a trip to Dnepropetrovsk I acquired a taste for kvass, which as I understand it can also contain very small amounts of alcohol. Kvass can be bought unrestricted in a specialty supermarket in my hometown, and Wikipedia says that it can contain up to 1.0%. It seems unreasonable to demonize kombucha while similar beverages go unexamined.

  3. Oh, this bothered the heck out of me. I drove 7 hours to visit my parents. While there, I planned to grab some kombucha from the local grocery store, Brighter Day (5 points to everyone who knows the place). I went to the counter, to ask about it, as there was none on the shelf. I was informed, much to the dismay of my slacker tendencies, that the only way to get your hands on the stuff right now is to make it yourself by getting your hands on the proper SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). Despite the setback, the concept of making it yourself should appeal to most of BB’s readers.

  4. Wow! Here in Ontario, Canada, any drink with less than .5% is allowed to be sold as freely as any bottled beverage, with the apparent logic that overripe fruit is more intoxicating.

    As for beer, 4% is considered ‘light’ but all beer (and presumably drinks between .6% and 4% — are legally regulated, not that I’ve ever seen any)

    Most booze sold here is beer or coolers, between 5% and 8%.

    I personally buy fresh-pressed cider and let it ferment before drinking it.

    1. Back when in Canada I recall drinking O’Keefe’s Extra High Test. Must’ve been over 6%. Felt like 20 the day.

  5. Always be careful when home-brewing kombucha. Sloppy facilities can lead to contaminated tea. Be clean, diligent, and healthy.

  6. lite/small beer is usually in the 3-4% range, 4-6% more towards the average/regular end of things and >6% is usually considered ‘strong’. I’d also like to point out that ‘light’ is usually used to refer to beers with a paler color, and color has no bearing on alcohol content. Lite, on the other hand, usually refers to low calorie and low alcohol beers of the American sort.

  7. For what it’s worth, Craigslist is a good place to check for SCOBYs. Here in SF they’re even in the free section.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with #6. Paul Stamets has some good insight, which, in a nutshell, is:
    “I do not see the advantage of taking Kombucha by people in good health.”
    (I suggest reading from the third paragraph before “The Recipe”.)
    Remember, in regards to contamination: “When in doubt, throw it out!” You can’t just “cut out” molds, they don’t work that way. :)

  9. Awwww… is that why it all disappeared! Now my tummy will be upset forever and ever more. ::sob:: DX

  10. The write-up is a little misleading. They’re not pulling it because it could have .4 or .5% alcohol — which is perfectly legal for a drink to be sold as non-alcoholic in the U.S. — but because it may have over .5%.

    According to the recent Times article:

    One brand, the top-selling Synergy line, might even continue to ‘cook,’ or ferment,
    in the bottle. That can bring the alcohol content from a legal 0.5 percent to as much as 3 percent, which is as high as some beers, the trade publication Beverage Business Insights wrote in a recent newsletter.

    I think it’s a little silly, but if bottles really actually might have 3% alcohol in them, I could see people not being happy that their 3-year-old or alcoholic friend might be drinking it unknowingly.

    As for me, if the kombucha brewing in my cupboard gets to 3%, more power to it! I just wish I could work out how to get it properly bubbly…

    1. I just wish I could work out how to get it properly bubbly…

      Once it’s about the right taste, I filter it and bottle it in something airtight (e.g. “flip-top” beer bottles) and leave it on the counter for a few more days before refrigerating.

    2. That doesn’t make sense to me – I followed the link as far as the Times article, but didn’t look for the one in Beverage Business Insights…

      One brand, the top-selling Synergy line, might even continue to ‘cook,’ or ferment, in the bottle. That can bring the alcohol content from a legal 0.5 percent to as much as 3 percent, which is as high as some beers, the trade publication Beverage Business Insights wrote in a recent newsletter.

      That sounds very wrong – unless the bottles have a valve to let off excess pressure, they’d be exploding all over the place.

      Sugar fermentation gives about 50% alcohol and 50% CO2 by mass. I make beer at home, and use around 1.5 teaspoons of sugar (about 6 grams) in each 1 litre bottle to get a nice level of carbonation. In the bottle that turns into about 3 grams each of CO2 and alcohol – so, enough CO2 to carbonate a beer contributes about 3/1000, or .3% extra alcohol.

      I’ve accidentally overdone the carbonating sugar by much less that what’s described in the article, and I ended up with those bottles it takes 5 minutes to open, because you have to carefully bleed off the pressure – if you just pop one open, half the bottle sprays all over the kitchen. One of the bottles blew up in the basement from the pressure.

      The article is describing a situation where there’d be up to 8 times a beer’s worth of carbonation – at that rate, I’d expect stories of grocery workers and kombucha drinking hipsters regularly injured by shards of glass from exploding bottles, and those who survive uninjured would look mighty foolish with their hair and clothes soaked in fizzy vinegary tea.

  11. My parents are going out of town for the weekend. Let’s go to the health food store and get a case of kombucha. Um, right.

  12. The problem is not the < 0.5% trace. There are a couple of brands still on the shelf here in Portland, if you look, including one brewed up the street from my house, because they can reliably prove that there product contains 0.5% or less of ETOH, which is I believe the national legal limit for a non-alcoholic beverage. The other brands will reappear once they tighten up their manufacturing process & test reliably at below the legal limit. The problem is that Kombucha can easily reach 1%-1.5% ETOH content during secondary(anaerobic) fermentation, which is what produces most of the carbonation. The upside of this for me is that I'm now learning to brew my own, instead of paying $3-$4/bottle for it. All it takes is a starter culture, a couple cups of sugar, & about 4 tea bags.

  13. In my part of the world ‘light beer’ means low-alcoholic content and are usually between the 2.8-3.8% mark. Anything 4-6% would be considered a standard beer and anything above 6% is getting into the strong category.

    For the record I’m from Australia. New Zealand is much the same.

  14. A year or two ago I was infected with Lyme’s disease, transmitted by a deer tick.

    By the time I got around to doing something about it, mega-doses of antibiotic were necessary, which destroyed enough of my intestinal flora that I was suffering gastric distress for hours after every meal.

    Ignoring various people who told me I had food allergies and Crohn’s disease and celiac disease, I went to a health food store and bought every damn thing on the shelves that contained active cultures. Kombucha, yoghurt, ayurvedic probiotic pills, you name it – spent at least $40 on live food. Ate and drank it all, starting slow with lactobacilli and moving up to the more exotic bacteria over the course of a few days.

    Cured me in a week, at less cost than a single doctor’s visit.

  15. in response to Paul Stamets saying not to drink it if you’re healthy:
    the drink has been around for thousands of years in several cultures and that would not have happened if it didn’t have a valid utility and actually do some good, so yes, continue brewing it and keeping it alive and drinking it when your digestion is upset. But Korean culture (and I assume others probably) advises against drinking it unless you are sick and need it, so there is something to Stamets’s claim (although when I read what he had to say it seemed like he didn’t really believe in drinking it at all).

    1. This is a classic argument from antiquity – someone’s been doing it forever, so it must be good. Rather than dissect the problems with this, I’ll just point out that trepanning was another ancient medical remedy practiced for thousands of years before a useful, coherent theory of medicine was put together, and now we don’t drill holes in our heads to let out the demons in there.

      And to head off the “medical science hates everything it didn’t invent itself” arguments, don’t forget another ancient remedy, willow bark, was analyzed by the same useful, coherent theory of medicine, and now we have Asprin.

      1. Trepanning is a valid treatment that is used by western medicine to relieve pressure on the brain. My friend Andy was trepanned at a hospital after collapsing into a plate of spaghetti, and it saved his life and his eyesight. The late Mike Heath was trepanned three times before the demons in his head, excuse me, we call them brain tumors these days, finally managed to kill him. Surgeons now call trepanning either craniectomy or crainiotomy, but both procedures are still drilling a hole in your head.

        I’m not going to extensively argue the aspirin thing again. I doubt very much that it would be permitted if it were developed under current US FDA regulations. It has too many side effects and causes too many problems, such as Reyes syndrome, angioedema, and cerebral micro-haemorrhages. Willow bark tea, by contrast, has never hurt anyone as far as I know. Aspirin has quite literally killed children.

        Kombucha worked for me, as noted in my earlier post, therefore I have strong cause to believe in its effectiveness. I’ve drunk it many times without harm, therefore I have strong cause to believe in its safety. To believe it’s a problem would be to disregard the evidence of my own senses.

        1. My trepanning comment was in direct response to the argument from antiquity presented by the anonymous commenter. I know quite well that craniotomy is used in modern medicine, but it’s used in the manner you described, as opposed to curing people of their headaches or anything else it was used for in antiquity. Leeches are used in modern medical practice as well, but not to put our vital humors back in to balance.

          It’s my opinion that you are completely dead wrong about aspirin. Given the thousands of doses of that drug used on a daily basis with no side effects of any kind, it would take some fairly extreme cherry picking of data to convince a modern FDA panel to deny its entry on to the market. The side effects you mention do exist, but aren’t common for low-dose, infrequent use in adults. And the Reye’s syndrome claim isn’t even established medical fact, the study that claimed the link was 1) small, and 2) disputed. The fact that aspirin isn’t used as often as it was in the past has much less to do with aspirin’s likelihood of causing side effects as it has to do with better drugs being available with fewer side effects. Yes, aspirin has literally killed children. So have a lot of things, like anti-vaccination hysteria and rejection of modern medicine.

          I’m totally willing to believe that you saw good results with using kombucha, and wouldn’t doubt for a moment that you, or anyone brewing their own kombucha in a safe, clean environment would experience any adverse health effects with the drink. It’d be nice to see some studies showing what its effectiveness is, and in what realms; the American Cancer Society (http://is.gd/dFK5a) points this out in their fact sheet on the subject. But remember, just because it worked for you in your circumstance doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone. That’s why double-blind, large-scale studies are so important – they give us a better picture of the actual usefulness of the stuff, and block out any potential biases from the investigators or the subjects.

  16. I appreciate your careful phrasing; it’s nice to encounter someone capable of disagreement without being disagreeable.

    I’m leery of the argument from authority, just as you are distrustful of the argument from antiquity. But I agree with you about double-blind, large scale studies; they are worth the expense!

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