Admittedly, kombucha is still a bit of a mystery to me, the main reason being that I do not drink alcohol. Once I read that it was a fermented beverage, I just thought, “Nope.” However, watching some of my coworkers swear by it and seeing all sorts of recipes for SCOBY (the weird culture of bacteria and yeast that looks a bit like an oceanic creature), I decided to at least do a bit of research on it and know what on Earth I am talking about.
The mystery of kombucha….
For those of you who have lived blissfully unawares, kombucha, dubbed the most liberal product in America as of 2009, is an ancient Chinese tea-based drink (usually green or black tea) that is brewed with a yeast disc, yielding low levels of alcohol. Now, it is toted as being a huge part of PepsiCo’s portfolio, despite the fact that it had an alcohol regulation scandal only a few years ago. Health nuts love it, because it states that it contains vitamins, amino acids, and other buzz words healthy people (and the government) associate with health benefits. This also implies a non-alcoholic base, so kids and adults can enjoy the drink. It almost developed a cult following, with people expounding upon its properties to do everything from fix what ails ya to even curing AIDS and cancer (helpful note, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center states that kombucha has not been shown to treat cancer nor AIDS in humans).
Kombucha is prepared mostly by placing the SCOBY in sweetened tea and left to ferment at room temperature for 1-3 weeks, then bottled for 1-2 weeks to contain the CO2 that is given off and increase the natural carbonation of the drink. From there, the drink is stored in the fridge, at which point it is ready to be sold. The scandal happened because people did not think of the second fermentation cycle that the drink goes through:
“However, the production and distribution of kombucha halted abruptly for two months in 2010 following a Whole Foods inspection by Maine Department of Agriculture Consumer Protection Inspector Randy Trahan. During a routine bottle audit at the Whole Foods in Portland, Trahan noticed leaking kombucha bottles. Trahan explained, “Some of the Kombucha bottles on the shelf were leaking. Being a public health official, I know that alcohol is a by-product of the fermentation process. I could immediately see that there might be a public safety issue…Kids could get hold of this and get a buzz.””
After Trahan submitted the bottles for testing, they found alcohol levels ranging from a bit over 0.5% to even going as high as over 2.5%, well above the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s regulations. The drink was pulled from shelves as a result for a bit while the industry gathered itself again to try a second time in the kombucha boom.
The government stepped in and stated that it would regulate any kombucha products that contain 0.5% or more ABV, even after the product was bottled and continued to ferment. Trade association Kombucha Brewers International was also founded as a way to educate both consumers and retailers about kombucha, as well as promote industry ethics and labeling standards, working with the government to do so.
With new regulations in place, producers went two ways – some decided to comply with the ABV standards through manufacturing changes and de-alcoholizers, while others used their original formulas and labeled their brands as beers instead. Purists believe the de-alcoholized products stripped away the health benefits of the beverage that made it so popular in the first place. However, sales continue to climb, estimated to be about $1.8 billion by 2020.
So, while I might try some of the de-alcoholized kombucha, there’s something to be said about its fascinating history, and the current hype surrounding the beverage!
Sit back, enjoy a cuppa, and let me know your thoughts.