What is an ‘authentic’ kombucha? KBI publishes long-awaited code of practice, proposes industry seal

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Gettyimages-GreenArtPhotography
Picture: Gettyimages-GreenArtPhotography

Related tags kombucha

After years of debate - and a wave of lawsuits - over what kombucha is and how it is made, trade association Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) has released a code of practice outlining quality standards it claims will help “protect the integrity of the kombucha category while allowing for continued evolution and innovation.”

It is also developing a seal (details will be released next year] “which will allow brewers to certify their kombucha as authentic​,” with third parties to conduct audits and offer licensing opportunities. 

The code of practice​ defines what kombucha is and how it is made, and encourages the use of on-pack terminology that the KBI argues will provide consumers with more clarity about ingredients or manufacturing processes, such as ‘added probiotics,’ ‘pasteurized,’ ‘sterile filtered​' [if the filter is less than .45 microns], ‘carbonated,’ or ‘dealcoholized' ​(although it allows flexibility in the exact wording used).

The code differentiates between the following (these are internal industry definitions, not​ descriptors on product labels) categories:

  • Traditional Kombucha Tea,’​ comprising fermented tea leaves, sugar and a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) and/or starter liquid, plus various optional ingredients;
  • Kombucha​,’ comprising fermented tea, coffee, yerba mate, herbs or other plant materials, SCOBY and/or starter liquid, water and a fermentable sugar, plus various optional ingredients;
  • Jun Kombucha, Hard Kombucha, Herbal Kombucha​ and other products; and
  • ‘Processed Kombucha​,’ defined as “Any type of kombucha to which a process has been applied to the product outside the traditional manufacturing process. Examples include pasteurization, dealcoholization, filtration, filter sterilization or any other process that changes the nature of traditional kombucha.”

The latter category would cover brands using techniques designed to ensure alcohol levels remain below the 0.5% abv threshold throughout the shelf-life, such as using heat pasteurization to kill off residual yeast; micro-filtration to remove yeast [which some consider to be equivalent of sterilization] and prevent secondary fermentation in the bottle; or spinning cone technology to remove alcohol.

According to KBI, kombucha can be produced using a kombucha base provided the base is produced in a manner outlined in the code, but must indicate on the front of the label that the product is 'made from kombucha base.'

What is kombucha tea?

According to the KBI's new code of practice​: "Kombucha tea is a slightly sweet/acidic fermented beverage made with an aqueous extract of tea leaves (fermented) utilizing a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY or pellicle). Kombucha typically has a pH range of 2.5 to 3.5. The fermentation produces a beverage with some natural carbonation, organic acids, nutrients in natural form and trace amounts of alcohol. Variations in the base solution and optional ingredients, as well as further possible fermentation processes provide a variety of related similar products with different flavor profiles. Sanctioned variations are listed in this standard."

KBI president: Code and seal will 'build trust and consumer understanding'

KBI president Hannah Crum said the code – which has been in development for five years – is “designed to not only unite the kombucha industry, but also to build consumer trust and understanding.

“For producers and consumers alike, the code provides a credible source of clarity and increases confidence that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle.”

She told FoodNavigator-USA: "It's impossible to come up with something that everyone is happy with. But what we've put out is really fair, it defines kombucha so that there are healthy boundaries, but the nice thing about a code of practice as opposed to a standard of identity, is that we can broaden or narrow the definition based on what we learn over time and update it on a regular basis to reflect innovations and additional research."

A gradual process

Asked why a company would or should pay any attention to the code of practice or choose to add potentially negative-sounding words/phrases to its labels such as' sterile filtered' if they are not required to do so by law, Crum predicted there would be growing pressure to pay attention as more brands started using a 'certified kombucha' industry seal, prompting consumers to wonder whether non-participating brands were the real thing.

A written definition of authentic kombucha, even if it's not a legal standard, is also something that would likely be cited in consumer class action lawsuits querying the ingredients or production methods behind products describing themselves as kombucha, she predicted.

"If they were taken to court, this is the first thing people ​[plaintiff's attorneys] would look for: Is there a definition of kombucha? Well now there is. I think most brands will want to be in compliance, they will want to be transparent."

GT Dave and scoby
GT Dave: 'I think a seal is a great idea..' (picture: GT's Living Foods)

GT Dave: 'I'm in favor of improved language that will help eliminate and avoid any more confusion'

GT Dave, founder of top-selling kombucha and functional beverage firm GT's Living Foods, told FoodNavigator-USA he supported the code and the proposed seal:

"Ever since I bottled my first batch of kombucha in 1995, I have worked hard to establish it as a legitimate category ​[GT’s recently awarded the KBI with a $1m endowment​​​  to support legislative efforts​​​ to raise the abv threshold and urged brands to support the KBI’s code of practice].

"In order to protect the category as well as support its continued growth, consumers need greater clarity around all the new versions of kombucha that are now available."

He added: "Similar to the juice category where there are many options that can be found and all at different price points (fresh, pasteurized, from concentrate etc), kombucha has experienced a similar 'splintering' but with a lot less education and clarity. Without this transparency, the industry will run the risk of consumer confusion, which is bad for the all brands.

"I'm in favor of improved language that will help eliminate and avoid anymore confusion. I think a seal is a great idea as it will serve as a visual cue for consumers and will help them better navigate the shelves."

Camellia Grove chief development officer: "I do think it's important to indicate on the product label if kombucha contains added probiotics or has been pasteurized.." (picture: Camellia Grove)

Aqua ViTea founder: 'Despite our dealcoholization process, our kombucha is still raw and the cultures are as viable as any 'traditional kombucha'

Jeff Weaber, founder of Vermont-based kombucha-maker Aqua ViTea​ - which uses spinning cone technology to distill off alcohol under vacuum conditions without applying excessive heat (so the final product is between 0.06% abv and 0.3% abv) - said the code was a bit confusing.

aqua vitea

Specifically, it does not spell out very clearly that the definitions in the code are not labeling​ requirements (eg. that he wouldn't have to describe his product as 'processed kombucha'​ to be in compliance).

Similarly, it is not clear whether Aqua ViTea kombucha - which sits in the 'processed kombucha' category because it is dealcoholized - would qualify for a 'certified kombucha​' seal, he said, arguing that the KBI's time would be better spent on helping kombucha brands find ways to control alcohol and sugar content.

"Definitions and regulations are a good thing when they are used correctly and protect consumers. Unfortunately these definitions are being manipulated to protect producers that are paying KBI to lobby for changes in regulations over alcohol content ​[to increase the permitted alcohol content for regular kombucha from 0.5% abv to 1.25% abv]," he claimed.

"The true measure of what 'traditional kombucha' is should be determined by whether the packaged product is able to regenerate a new SCOBY."

As for the the code's proposed labeling requirement to inform consumers if products have been dealcoholized, he said, "As a brand owner, we choose to tell our consumers that we've extracted alcohol anyway, so we don't need to be told to do that. And despite our dealcoholization process, our kombucha is still raw and the cultures are as viable as any 'traditional kombucha.' I stand by that 100%."

He added: "If they are saying that dealcoholization means that a product is not traditional kombucha," ​then they are tacitly acknowledging that traditional kombucha is an alcoholic beverage, he said. "They are walking a fine line. It feels like this is built to protect companies that are getting sued ​[over alcohol levels in kombucha]."

Rowdy Mermaid: 'Disappointed'

In a post on medium​, Jamba Dunn, founder and CEO  at Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha, said he was disappointed by the code, adding: 'We are in need of an organizational body or leadership that will focus on food safety, truth in labeling, and encourage producers to follow FDA & TTB guidelines rather than solely focusing on distinctions that thinly veil support to a particular player."

'There are a lot of questions we would need to consider before adopting this'

Robert Deering, chief development officer at Portland, OR-based Camellia Grove Kombucha Co,​​​ told FoodNavigator-USA that, "I do think it's important to indicate on the product label if kombucha contains added probiotics or has been pasteurized, but I don't agree with other things, like filtration.

"Filtration is used to remove yeast, which greatly improves shelf life and essentially stops fermentation and production of alcohol as long as the product remains refrigerated. But filtration might be interpreted by the consumer as sterilized and devoid of bacteria, which it is not."

He added: "I also don't agree that so-called traditional kombucha should require Camellia sinensis (tea leaves), because it relegates herbal, caffeine-free kombucha to another category completely. We sold an herbal kombucha product in our product line 25 years ago, so my feeling is that it can be considered traditional, especially since we don't really know how kombucha was made in the past.  It's hard to believe herbal kombucha wasn't made until the late 20th century in America! So I would prefer that there not be so many categories - why have separate categories for herbal and for [Yerba] Mate? Coffee I understand."

Meanwhile, the inclusion of fruit juice and 'characterizing food ingredients' ​(permitted in the definitions of 'Traditonal Kombucha Tea' and 'Kombucha'] "seems to me to be a way to allow certain products already on the market be labeled as 'traditional,'"​ he claimed.

"From my experience and reading, the inclusion of fruit juice is a modern concept that has been widely adopted, especially in America.  And the vague concept of 'characterizing food ingredients' appears to be the same.  KBI is heavily funded in this effort by the largest kombucha company in the world, and it seems that these additions are designed to make their products be labeled as 'Traditional', complete with a seal of approval."

As for the seal, he said, "It's unclear whether we would want to include it because it is unclear what exactly would be required, and if there would be an additional cost," while "a lot of the hygiene specifications ​[outlined in the code of practice] are already required for licensure as a food production facility... There are a lot of questions we would need to consider before adopting this."

The kombucha category

According to data from SPINS​​​​, US retail sales of kombucha were up 3% in the 52 weeks ending January 26, 2020, vs growth of 25.4% in the year to Jan 27 2019, and growth of 60.1% in the year to Jan 28, 2018.

Opinions vary as to why growth has slowed down so significantly, with Health-Ade founder Daina Trout recently speculating​ that, brands have been “good at communicating to the kombucha consumer, the health enthusiasts, but expanding past that consumer has not been something many of the brands have done well.​​

“It’s a bit of a happy echo chamber,” ​​added Trout, who said US household penetration of kombucha remained low at around 15%. ​​

“Fifty percent of consumers between the ages of 20 and 40 still don’t even know what kombucha is. So we see that as an opportunity.”

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA in early March​, Jim Spalding, senior director brand marketing, strategy, comms, media, at PepsiCo (which owns the KeVita kombucha brand) said: "Retailers are starting to right size the kombucha category. Not in terms of the number of facings/overall space, but in terms of the number of brands and the flavor proliferation."​​

Read the KBI's code of practice in full HERE​.   

KombuchaKon virtual conference: Sept 17-18

2020-08-20 13_11_30-Virtual KombuchaKon 2020 PRESS Registration Form

Kombucha Brewers International's annual KombuchaKon conference is going virtual this year, running on September 17-18. For details, and to register, click here.

kombuchakon-bare bucha-bottles

KBI president Hannah Crum, who has always insisted that, “We’re not trying to keep anyone out of the market,” ​​said new technologies and brewing vessels are being developed to help companies remain in compliance with the law over alcohol and still produce what KBI considers to be an 'authentic' kombucha.

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.

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