Friday, August 6, 2010


Kombucha Ban

Staff Reporter
07/28/2010 ShareThis

Kombucha is a type of tea that's been around for centuries, but has recently become quite popular. It's usually found in health food stores. People who drink it say it has many benefits. But now it's been pulled from stores in Seattle and across the country because of its fluctuating alcohol content. KUOW's Meghan Walker has the story.


Chris Joyner is in his fermentation room in Seattle's Central District. It's a tiny room in the back of his kitchen, which is filled with empty kombucha bottles.

Joyner: "Its 78 in here. Do you smell vinegar?"

Walker: "Yup."

Joyner: "Yeah it's a strong smell of vinegar. So we've got two shelves and a number of 10 gallons containers here. And, a few fruit flies, which we keep out by covering the containers with cloths and rubber bands."
Joyner is the founder of local kombucha brand called Communitea; that's tea with a T–E–A.

Joyner: "So it starts with making tea and we've got a big steam kettle here it's a 40 gallon steam kettle. And we make a tea concentrate. So we heat say 30 gallons of water in this. We use green tea because it has more antioxidants and polyphenols."

Kombucha is a fermented tea made from yeast and bacteria. Joyner has been making it for 17 years. Regular drinkers claim it aids digestion, sleep and weight loss. But Joyner, along with all other kombucha bottlers in the country, have halted sales on their bubbly teas. That's because the alcohol content is fluctuating unpredictably. It's going above 0.5 percent on some batches, which is the legal limit for non–alcoholic beverages.

Joyner: "Since we didn't understand why it had changed so quickly, we felt that it was better for us to stop selling because, we need to be able to trust labels. Pregnant women, people recovering from alcohol problems need to be able to look at a label and if it says less than 0.5 percent, they need to know that it actually is. And although ours sometimes is, it obviously isn't, all the time. So we stopped selling."

The tea began vanishing from grocery stores last month after the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, suggested testing on commercial kombucha brands. As a result, nearly every bottler has suspended sales until further notice. Joyner's trying to find a way to manage the alcohol levels on his own tea.

Joyner: "It's kind of a dance. The sugar levels go down as the yeast eats the sugar, so the alcohol levels rise. And then the bacteria eat the alcohol, and that makes the alcohol go down and the acids rise. So there are several things happening. I'm testing every day now, I've gotten testing equipment so that I can test all those things everyday and find out how this works. Perhaps there's some simple way by changing the temperature or changing the amount of sugar or changing the time, and have it be predictable and stable."
Nailing down the alcohol percentage in each batch will be a time–consuming process. Cecile Andrews of Seattle is a regular kombucha drinker. She's disappointed that she can't buy the tea in stores or from Joyner.

Andrews: "I mean I have never felt any effects of alcohol from it, I have never! And it's so crazy. I mean it's great that Chris is being as responsible as he can, why not just put a label on it: may contain some alcohol."
And the amount of alcohol, Andrews says, doesn't merit federal regulation.

Andrews: "Their time can be spent better elsewhere than focusing on this little thing that not that many people drink, and that those of us who do, do it for health reasons, we're not doing it to get drunk. And it's like, you know, why not get our priorities straight?"

There are pasteurized versions of kombucha in stores; that process eliminates the alcohol. But Joyner is among those who believe the raw kombucha has a healthier kick.

Joyner: "Kombucha helps your body detoxify. It would be a way to remove heavy metals that come in from things like fillings. That was how we started. We were at a homeopaths office and he suggested having amalgam fillings removed because that has mercury which is a toxin. And kombucha then is a way to help that process after you've stopped adding it to your system by taking the fillings out, then the kombucha will help your liver be more effective at detoxifying your body."

Joyner used to sell his kombucha in bulk to the Fremont PCC store. The store invested in a kombucha keg last month, which now stands dry. Leon Bloom is PCC's deli manager.

Bloom: "It's hard to say you know, it seems like maybe this is one of those situations where the letter of the law and the reality don't completely match up. I don't know that a probiotic beverage with a trace amount of alcohol should necessary be regulated the same as an alcoholic beverage."
But, that's what might happen. In order to sell the raw kombucha with fluctuating alcohol levels, bottlers will have to get an alcohol license. Chris Joyner is now considering doing just that.

Joyner: "I'm sure we'll be able to sell it, it's just a question of whether people who've always looked at kombucha as being in a different category, how they would feel about it if all of a sudden it was being sold as an alcoholic beverage, but we'll just have to see."
But some kombucha lovers can't wait. Joyner also sells yeast and bacteria masses, called kombucha mothers. You use them to make the tea at home.

Walker: "Is it fairly easy to get your own culture and make it yourself?"

Joyner: "Well, like a lot of things, it's not hard to do, but it's hard to do well."

Leon Bloom from PCC thinks some customers won't wait for the tea to return. He wouldn't be surprised to see a rise in bathtub kombucha in Seattle.

For KUOW News, I'm Meghan Walker.
© Copyright 2010, KUOW

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