Kombucha is a sweetened fermented tea made with a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) in which the yeast converts some of the sugar to alcohol and the bacteria converts some of the alcohol into organic acids, although every company utilizes different ingredients and methods.
Kombucha brands have explored many techniques to ensure alcohol levels remain under 0.5% throughout the shelf-life, from distilling off some alcohol after production, to heat pasteurization or microfiltration to ensure there is no chance of continued fermentation in the bottle, to diluting the product, brewing it in shallow tanks, or eschewing a traditional fermentation process with a SCOBY altogether.
However, multiple brands have been sued for allegedly under-reporting alcohol content, and analytical labs say many products are still not compliant. Meanwhile, purists argue that some of the techniques used to address this issue could compromise the ‘authenticity’ and integrity of kombucha (click HERE).
KBI: Kombucha with less than 1.25% alcohol is not intoxicating
Trade association Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) has encouraged innovative new approaches to help brands remain compliant and urged members to share best practice at its recent Kombuchakon conference (with some pushback, as some members asked why they should share proprietary info with direct competitors).
However, it is also lobbying for a legislative change (via The Kombucha Act) that would raise the abv threshold to 1.25%.
According to KBI president Hannah Crum - who argues that the 0.5% threshold was “not based on any scientific study or process” - raising the threshold to 1.25% would make it a lot easier to make authentic raw or ‘live’ kombucha using traditional methods, with alcohol levels that are still low and would “not get people intoxicated.”
She added: "Everyone is entitled to their opinion but not everyone can spend a million or more dollars on a [spinning cone] machine. We do have strong bipartisan support [for The Kombucha Act]. Changing the law would also protect people from all of these lawsuits. Consumers want authentic products, traditional foods in a living form."
‘We oppose the proposed legislation’
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after kombucha market leader GT Dave awarded the KBI with a $1m endowment to support legislative efforts to raise the abv threshold and urged brands to support KBI’s proposed kombucha standard of identity, Aqua ViTea communications director Cort Boulanger said his firm did not support the KBI on the threshold issue.
“We didn't participate in Kombuchakon this year but certainly have strong opinions on the state of the industry,” said Boulanger. “We oppose the proposed legislation that would raise the ABV limit for ‘authentic’ non-alcoholic (!) kombucha, but don't believe this is strictly a free-market issue.
“There is a role for government in regulating the sale of non-alcoholic kombucha to ensure that it is safe for all, including kids, pregnant women, and those in alcohol recovery. The industry has repeatedly shown that it doesn't take this solemn responsibility seriously: even a national recall [in 2010] and multiple multi-million class-action settlements [in the years since] have not deterred some kombucha makers from selling kombucha that exceeds the legal ABV limit.”
(His comments came as a settlement was proposed in a class action lawsuit (Bayol, et al. v. Health-Ade 3:18-cv-01462), alleging that Health-Ade mislabeled the alcohol and sugar content of its products. Health Ade has not admitted any liability but agreed to settle to avoid the cost and hassle of protracted litigation. The settlement - which has yet to be approved by the court - would provide up to $3,997,500 to pay claims of customers who bought its kombucha at retail between March 6, 2014 and May 24, 2019.)
We test other brands in our in-house lab and found that many are above 0.5%. In some cases, they are above 1.25%
He added: “We know this is the case because we test other brands in our in-house lab and found that many are above 0.5%. In some cases, they are above 1.25%, which shows that this legislation [The Kombucha Act] won't solve the alcohol challenge. The goalposts will keep moving and no one will enforce the rules.
“Also, after years of trial and error in finding a truly scalable solution for alcohol management, our founder Jeff Weaber purchased a spinning cone column [see box below] … The home brewing philosophy, while important to kombucha's history and culture, is not the only way to deliver authentic kombucha.”
Spinning cone tech does not damage the product
Weaber explained: “Anything that damaged the microbes was off the table for us, but we took liquid we had run through the cone and found it could propagate new batches, which gave us the confidence to move forward. We test before and after and find that we make superior product using the cone.
“It’s capital intensive to purchase spinning cone technology, but we built our production around it. We are also very transparent about the fact we're using it with our 'verified alcohol extracted' label."
He added: “We left the KBI because we don’t support their stance on alcohol. It’s just a business decision to protect brands that are making alcoholic kombucha (ie. over 0.5%) but are not marketing it as such. There are people that don't care about alcohol in kombucha, and that's great, that's why we have a hard kombucha market, but you have to be transparent about it.
"We bought a gas chromatography machine and worked with scientists and microbiologists to verify two separate testing methods using that equipment. We were also involved with an AOAC (Association of Organic Analytical Chemists) round robin trial where they sent blind samples to us and we reported back.
"So we have inhouse lab equipment and test everything we can get our hands on, and there are plenty of people that are above 1.25%, never mind 0.5%."
A spinning cone column is a device (also used by Brew Dr Kombucha) enabling firms to distill off alcohol under vacuum conditions without applying excessive heat.
Inside, the atmospheric pressure is reduced to the point where ethanol (ie the alcohol in the kombucha) atomizes at around 90 degrees fahrenheit. Clean steam is fed into the bottom of the tank, attaches to the ethanol and carries it out of the top and into a secondary chilled column where it turns from gas back into a liquid state and sent to Aqua ViTea’s partner Appalachian Gap Distillery to make vodka.
The kombucha passes out the bottom of the column, and goes to a chilled holding tank, all the while maintaining its live and active bacteria and organic acids because it is never heated beyond 100 degrees fahrenheit, claims Aqua ViTea founder Jeff Weaber (heat pasteurization typically involves temperatures exceeding 160 degrees fahrenheit). The final product is between 0.06% abv and 0.3% abv, said Weaber, who has a brewing license and a distilling license.
Aqua ViTea has recently dipped its toes into the hemp-derived CBD market with a new 'Chaga Chai' kombucha product featuring 25mg of CBD (isolate), says founder Jeff Weaber.
"Vermont [where Aqua ViTea is based] is a CBD friendly state, but the picture is more complicated in other states, so we are keeping apprised of what's happening [on the regulatory front]. None of the conventional retailers have picked it up yet, but it's in independent retailers we partner with."
- Read more about the new standard of identity HERE.
- Get GT Dave's perspective on the standard HERE.
- Find out what Camellia Grove and Rowdy Mermaid think about the standard HERE.
- Discover how Bare Bucha’s novel approach to brewing kombucha in stackable rectangular trays could help speed up the fermentation process and keep alcohol levels consistently below 0.5% abv, solving a major technical challenge for the industry: WATCH the VIDEO.
- How big is the US retail market for kombucha? Learn more from SPINS HERE.