Rachel Swan of the East Bay Express traces kombucha's recent decline, after the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau posted an online warning that drinks with an alcohol content of .5 percent and higher are, technically, booze. (Some commercial kombuchas clock in at .6 or .7 percent.) Cue the voluntary product pulls from shelves at Whole Foods and other stores. Swan:
Admittedly ... a difference of .1 or .2 percent alcohol by volume isn't enough to get you drunk. For comparison, Coors Light contains about 4.3 percent, while many Belgian trappist ales exceed 9 percent. Kombucha now straddles a thin line between being a bona fide health food beverage and the weakest malt brew on the planet. That's put the producers in an awkward position. Meanwhile, the recalls threaten to drain their personal coffers.For her part, SFoodie's Tamara Palmer has been cultivating reaction by local kombucha makers. Late last month, House Kombucha's Rana Chang publicly reflected on the voluntary ban. "I do think more study should be done on the matter because all live products naturally ferment on the shelf," Rana told Palmer by e-mail. "Even a picked orange ferments in its own rind sitting in a crate. No one goes around testing every live product to see if it's under .5% ABV [alcohol by volume]. I believe properly made and stored locally produced kombucha can be easily kept under 1% alcohol. But splitting hairs over fractions of less than 1% is probably a lost cause when dealing with live food."
But is the only solutuion pasteurization, with the inevitable massacre of the very probiotics that make kombucha so panacea-ish? Apparently not, suggests David Cordtz, founder of Healdsburg-based Vibranz. "After Whole Foods and [distributor] United Natural Foods expressed concerns regarding different trace levels of alcohol content in all Kombucha sold in their network," Cordtz told Palmer, "Vibranz has been able to make a few small adjustments resulting in lower alcohol levels while still retaining 100% of the probiotics for its entire line of kombucha." On its website, United Natural Food sindicates that reformulated Vibranz and one or two other brands will be available next week.
Really? Why can't other kombucha makers do the same?