Is Alcohol the Secret Sauce to Kombucha's Long-Running Popularity?

Although it’s been sipped for centuries across Asia and Europe, and jars of the stuff have been a mainstay in hippie food kitchens for decades, kombucha arguably hit its tipping point six years ago.

Commercial kombucha has been around since the late 1990s, but in June 2010 a massive recall really thrust it into the spotlight. Following a warning from federal regulators at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau that certain brands had exceeded the 0.5 percent alcohol-by-volume threshold for nonalcoholic drinks, Whole Foods Inc. and other major retailers across the country pulled all kombucha products from their shelves.

The kombucha kontroversy could have killed the industry, brewers feared. Devotees swear it’s good for the body, but its association with alcohol should have squashed the drink’s wonder-elixir reputation or at least relegated it to some dusty corner at the liquor store. This is, after all, yeast-and-bacteria juice with a taste most people have mixed feelings about. “Like a healthy soda—that you threw up,” BuzzFeed taste testers chimed.

For the uninitiated, kombucha is a sweetened black or green tea that’s fermented with a "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” or SCOBY. This blobfish-like patty is the starter culture for all brews and brewers have affectionately dubbed it the “mother.”

As with beer or wine, alcohol is a natural byproduct of the SCOBY eating up the sugars in the tea. The brew cycle roughly takes two weeks and the resulting beverage is tangy and carbonated with small bits of the mother usually floating around. Fruit juice, spices and even chia seeds can be added to the drink to enhance flavor and texture.

Two versions of the drink are commercially sold: Pasteurized and unpasteurized. There are proponents of both types, but pasteurization halts the fermentation process and makes it legal, nonalcoholic product whereas unpasteurized versions have the desired live probiotics but it becomes more boozy the longer it sits out.

In most cases, the alcoholic content in unpasteurized store brands is negligible but in 2010, federal regulators found that some brands’ bottles kept fermenting as they sat on market shelves, clocking up to 3 percent alcohol—more than some light beers.

As if one alcohol warning wasn’t enough, kombucha’s contents made another set of headlines in roughly the same period. That summer, reports arose of none other than Lindsay Lohan setting off her alcohol-monitoring bracelet because she was drinking too much kombucha. For the record, Lohan clarified on Twitter that, "#kombucha was not the reason that my scram went off." But a year later, she went ahead and blamed the tea anyway for a failed alcohol test.

My theory is this: Similar to how a blacklist can often boost a banned book’s sales, kombucha’s scandals just made people want to drink it even more. Devoted followers guzzled kombucha well before the 2010 recall but the government’s Prohibition-like scare only invigorated the fanbase and sent them to stockpile products or brew their own. Also, there’s nothing like a celebrity poster girl to goose consumer fascination of a mysterious and funny-sounding tea.

Despite its medically unsubstantiated aura of health, from aiding digestion and detoxification to providing energy and curing cancer, kombucha’s marketing as a health drink boomed alongside an increase in consumer health consciousness as well as larger discretionary incomes, according to a Euromonitor analysis. Even at $5 a pop, folks continue to guzzle kombucha as a low-sugar soda replacement or cocktail mixer, and yes, as a refreshing beverage.

As established brands took a few months off in 2010 to reformulate their recipes to meet alcohol laws, smaller brewers raced into the market with a rainbow of flavors to meet increasing demand. Some artisanal brands even embraced the edgy new designation and make full-hog alcoholic kombucha that’s sold to the over-21 crowd. A healthy alcohol? Sign me up!

Quartz charted kombucha’s massive market growth since 2005 and the image clearly shows that the June 2010 governmental warning and nationwide recall didn’t even register. That year, sales broke all previous records even though top-selling GT Kombucha did not reappear at Whole Foods until October. The ancient tea is now a $600-million-a-year beverage category and is poised for even more growth, even as the Feds threatened another crackdown in 2015. Here’s what the Colorado School of Public Health said about the drink’s incredible potential:

According to the SPINS Market Research Group, kombucha consumption experienced a 29% growth from February 2013- February 2014, with yearly sales at $122.7 million. Kombucha sales reached an all-time high from 2011-2012 with a nearly 40% growth in sales …. Kombucha is the fastest-growing product in the functional beverage market and expected to grow from a half-billion dollar industry to a 1.8 billion dollar industry by 2020.

My 21-year-old college student sister—someone who’d know a thing or two about people wanting easy access to booze—described a friend who bought “a whole case” of kombucha and drank it all in one sitting just to seek a buzz. Of course, the friend “felt nothing” from the trace amount of alcohol, but as my sister opined, “I think people buy it thinking they will get drunk off it and when they realize it’s not working they just continue buying it because they like the taste.”

In case you’re wondering, you’ll probably feel very sick before you get a buzz off ‘buch. A Mother Jones reporter calculated that she’d have to drink five 16-ounce bottles of her 0.6 percent alcohol home-brew before reaching the effects of one can of Coors Light. A VICE reporter actually attempted to get drunk on kombucha and consumed nearly a gallon of it before finding himself head first in the toilet and barely breaking a 0.01 blood alcohol level.

That said, even with the rare health scares, there’s nothing the average person should be concerned about. Marisa Moore, an Atlanta-based registered dietitian nutritionist, explains to AlterNet that the tiny amount of alcohol found in store brands wouldn’t do anything to affect a healthy person’s mental acuity, performance or mood. Recovering alcoholics, however, should avoid it and pregnant women and children should avoid unpasteurized versions.

As for kombucha’s myriad health claims, let’s say they’re anecdotal at best. A few lawsuits have even been filed against GT Kombucha’s hype for “being a good source of antioxidants.” However, Moore pointed out that fermented foods in general do make a healthy gut. The drink can also be a good source of probiotics for those who don’t eat dairy.

“I would say, bottom line, it’s not a magic potion,” Moore explains. “But because it’s a fermented beverage it has probiotics, and that can help with digestion in particular and help populate the gut with beneficial bacteria.” She adds that it’s always a good idea to diversify your food sources so you don’t put all the probiotic hopes in one drink. Try kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir or good old yogurt. It’s clear kombucha not only survived government scrutiny and a LiLo gossip cycle, it flourished. These days you’ll see kombucha in Walmart and even in the Deep South.

“I can’t keep up with the demand of it,” Jonathan Cox, the founder of One Love Kombucha in Charleston, told AlterNet. “I sell out in two hours at every market.”

Cox now fronts what he claims to be South Carolina's first commercial kombucha brewery. He sells flavors such as hibiscus ginger and loquat sage, sourcing the ingredients from local farmers.

The venture launched less than a year ago but not without some confusion from the state’s Department of Agriculture. It took Cox a year and half to even get the department’s OK to start his brewery “because it was new and they didn’t know what it was.” Of the six inspectors working there, only one had even heard of kombucha, he said.

“It’s not shocking since this is South Carolina at the end of the day,” he said. “Charleston is one of the more progressive cities in South Carolina, but still.”

To spread the kombucha knowledge, Cox hosts home-brewing workshops at his distillery in James Island and in local wellness centers, and encourages people to share their SCOBYs with others.

For Cox, who has been brewing for nine years, drinking kombucha “is not even about the taste, it was just really good for me.” After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, he turned to nutritional therapy and achieved a degree in the subject. Along with lifestyle and dietary changes and drinking kombucha, he’s seen a “huge improvement” in his autoimmune disease and has “calmed itself down a lot,” crediting his brew’s beneficial probiotics and digestive acids.

He admitted that celebs like Madonna and Lindsay Lohan can be attributed to kombucha’s rise in the U.S., adding “it’s kind of a stupid” how the trend started.

However, he sees a “huge future with kombucha, and fermented foods in general,” said Cox, who also sells kimchi at his store.

“As a society, we’re coming together to be more sustainable with what we do in our actions but also what we put in our bodies,” he said. “People are finally coming around that sweet and fast foods aren’t the way to go to live a long and healthy life.”


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