Kombucha's most fervent fans have long credited the fermented tea with making their joints more limber, their energy stronger and their eyesight sharper. Now Whole Foods is wondering if the beverage is also making them drunk.
The Austin-based chain last week pulled all kombuchas from its shelves, citing concerns about slightly elevated alcohol levels. According to an Associated Press report, dozens of kombucha manufacturers agreed to voluntarily withdraw their products while the company reviews the situation.
"Every single kombucha maker is working hard to solve the problem," says Kimberly Lanski, co-owner of Austin's Buddha's Brew, which was sold by the bottle at six Dallas-area Whole Foods and offered on tap at the Park Lane location.
"We should be back on the shelves really soon," she says.
As Lanski explains it, the fermentation process used to make kombucha from bacteria and yeast occasionally continues after bottling, creating a minuscule level of alcohol in some batches: "You'd have to drink eight or nine glasses an hour to feel anything," she says. The problem facing Whole Foods is federal law requires any beverage containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol to be labeled accordingly.
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Kombucha producers have no interest in cracking the alcoholic market, since hard beverages are subject to increased taxes and regulations. Many commercial kombucha makers got their start as wellness-minded hobbyists, and a homey D.I.Y.-feel still clings to the industry. Appropriately for a drink whose name you nearly can't spell without "kumbaya," its makers are now working cooperatively to find a reliable method of ensuring alcohol doesn't ever develop in their drinks.
"You have to be kind of like a chemist," Lanski says of the yeast and bacteria experiments she and fellow producers are pursuing.
Kombucha's popularity has soared over the last year, with $295 million spent on kombucha in 2009. Big boys in the beverage industry, including Tazo, Red Bull and Honest Tea, have all rolled out their own kombucha brands.
"It balances your body out," says Lanski, who turned her farmer's market enterprise into a serious commercial venture in 2008. "It has tons of probiotics, it has beneficial acids. It's just a health tonic."