Rob Parriott first heard rumors of a potential kombucha recall in early June. Up until then, the fizzy, fermented tea had been flying off the shelves at Whole Foods Berkeley, where Parriott serves as a dairy specialist. "Flying" would almost be an understatement. On average, the store sold at least thirty cases a week, each with twelve bottles of kombucha. The bottles went for $2.99 to $3.79 a pop, which meant the drink was generating well over $1,000 a week in revenue. And that didn't account for the copious amount of kombucha that Whole Foods kept on tap. Parriott heard about the kombucha flap on a Monday, when three vendors stopped in to warn that the drink was under investigation for its trace alcohol content — which, in some cases, exceeded the .5 percent permitted for "non-alcoholic" beverages. Tuesday was Parriott's day off, but he got a call from Whole Foods at around 5 p.m. Staffers were pulling all the kombucha off the shelves. Parriott was not surprised. "I told you so," he said.
Once touted by health-food addicts as an elixir, kombucha now has a stain on its reputation. Apparently, some bottles clocked in at .6 or .7 percent alcohol in recent laboratory tests. It's only a slight difference, said Los Angeles brewer G.T. Dave, whose company, Millennium, makes the ever-popular Synergy organic & raw kombucha drink. But it's enough to stir up concern. After receiving inquiries from several states — and one large distributor — the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) posted a guidance document on its web site. Headline: "Kombucha Products Containing At Least .5 Percent Alcohol By Volume Are Alcohol Beverages."
Which means that if manufacturers don't lower their alcohol content, health food addicts could get carded when buying kombucha.
It's not an official TTB recall, wrote agency spokesperson Art Resnick. But it has led to a spate of voluntary product suspensions. Millennium halted production a couple weeks ago, and Dave said he doesn't know when to resume. "We wanted to err on the side of caution," he explained. Berkeley Bowl dairy specialist Sunny Duong said his staff pulled Celestial, Lonjevi, and Vibranez kombucha drinks off the shelves after receiving letters from those companies. Sales haven't dropped precipitously at Berkeley Bowl, Duong said, since people can still purchase the local brands — including Lev's Original Kombucha on tap. But other stores took more extreme measures. The Pasta Shop in Rockridge just removed all of its kombucha by choice. Whole Foods did likewise, expunging all kombucha products from all of its stores. The Berkeley location was especially hard hit, according to Parriott. "We got credit for what we could from the manufacturer and then poured out the rest," he said. He added that Whole Foods' main suppliers don't stock the drink any more, so any store that has it is just buying stuff the distributors had on hand.
As a result, the Berkeley store is losing thousands of dollars of sales each week. Parriott said he fields customer calls on a daily basis. Signs at the Whole Foods bakery offer a preemptive apology: "Sorry, no kombucha on tap until further notice."
It's a headlong plunge for a drink that had already generated its own cult of adoration, and was right on the verge of becoming a craze. In a recent East Bay Express article, supporters championed kombucha for its "probiotics, polyphenols, amino acids, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, yeasts, detoxifiers, membrane-strengtheners, free-radical scavengers, immunity-boosters, anti-inflammatories, antibacterials, antibiotics, and anti-parasiticals." Dave credits the drink for curing his mother's breast cancer. Though scholarship on the product is disputable (and mostly anecdotal), many consumers are sure of its salutary properties. Not to mention it comes in a panoply of exotic flavors. At its height, Whole Foods Berkeley sold guava, ginger, ginger berry, raspberry, strawberry, mango, hibiscus pineapple, multi-grain, and elder flower. All looked like juice, and had a nice, pungent, carbonated, fruity zing.
Maybe it was the flavor that attracted so many people. Or the beery aftertaste.
Whatever the case, kombucha went from being a drink to being its own subculture. "I don't know if 'trend' is the right word," said Dave, who learned to brew kombucha from his parents, and then altered the recipe to improve its flavor and quality. "A trend is something that is short-lived," he continued. "With our product, the popularity has remained consistent and steady. People start to drink it because a family member, friend, or co-worker will personally share their experience."
That each-one, teach-one approach led consumers to become veritable acolytes. It also made the blow a lot harsher when local grocery stores stopped selling kombucha. One local brewer declined an interview for this article because she didn't want her name associated with the Google search term "kombucha."
Admittedly, though, 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.
Dave blames the fermentation process. He says the kombucha "remains active" while it sits on store shelves, so a bottle that ships out with a respectable .5 alcohol level could easily creep up to .6 by time of purchase. That's irritating, especially since it's just a few bad bottles that ruin things for everyone else. At present, Dave is contemplating a few solutions, including new labels that would make his product compliant with the law. He hopes to renew production in a few weeks. Resnick says it's a lot more complicated than just relabeling the product, since TTB still hasn't determined whether kombucha is an alcoholic beverage — and if so, whether it's a beer, wine, or distilled spirit. It's still unclear whether the drink falls under TTB's jurisdiction at all, he said.
Meanwhile, local grocers remain cautiously optimistic. Duong is pushing the local brands. Parriott is trying to placate customers with similar energy tonics such as Rejuvelac, KeVita, and Raw Chi Energy, all of which are wheat-based, rather than tea-based.
So far, they haven't quite closed the gap.