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Photograph by Curtis Cartier

Kombucha Kerfuffle

Storeowners yank fermented tea from shelves as feds scrutinize the miracle tonic's alcohol content

By Curtis Cartier

PANIC grips the beverage aisle. A shopper at the New Leaf in downtown Santa Cruz reads a notice explaining the situation once, twice, then grimaces and picks up two of the few remaining bottles. "For good measure," he says. Another pair walks up and takes in the depressing scene: sad, largely empty refrigerator space where usually sits an unbroken mosaic of glistening pink, olive and amber bottles, ornately labeled and swimming with bacteria.

"I can't believe they're getting rid of the kombucha," says shopper Katya Hurwitz in a shaking voice, summing up the message on the laminated card posted on the beverage rack.

It started quietly, about two weeks ago. First, megastore Whole Foods announced it would join roughly a dozen suppliers in stopping sales of all unpasteurized kombucha tea products. The issue: concerns that the fizzy, fermented elixirs may contain more alcohol than the "trace amounts" listed on the label. Soon after, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, at the behest of the Food and Drug Administration, released a statement saying it had received complaints from Arizona, Maine, Minnesota and Vermont about the tea and that the alcohol-by-volume levels in some instances were found to "significantly exceed" the 0.5 percent allowed for products not registered as beers, wines or spirits. The FDA and TTB stopped short of issuing a recall but promised that more testing would be done and that if products were found to be over the limit, the agencies would "take appropriate steps to bring them into compliance."

The high alcohol content is believed by many kombucha brewers to stem from a long shelf life; fermentation can sometimes continue inside the container, producing more and more alcohol as the bottle sits, making aged kombucha boozy kombucha.

Since the dust-up began, New Leaf has said it would use up its remaining stock of unpasteurized kombucha, then follow Whole Foods' lead with a temporary prohibition. Local grocers Staff of Life and Shopper's Corner are taking a more defiant approach and still selling whatever they can get their hands on until an actual recall is ordered—although with United Natural Foods, the nation's largest distributor of kombucha, holding out, what they can get isn't a whole lot. In San Jose, Cosentino's Market on Bascom Avenue still carries the Honest T brand, and pasteurized kombucha is still available at all the stores—though pasteurization typically kills most of the coveted probiotic bacteria in the drink.

Meanwhile, a rumor of the most bizarre order inserts none other than actress Lindsay Lohan, an avid consumer of the product, into the mix and has some people calling her the "kombucha killer".

Managers at all the local grocers, however, have less interest in who killed the kombucha buzz than they do with getting it back on the shelves so customers can continue shoveling cash at them to buy it.

"All we know is there is some issue with the amount of alcohol in it," says Soquel Avenue Whole Foods Manager Leora Merwin. "We hope we can bring it back within a few weeks."

Brew Crew

For the few Santa Cruzans not hip to the kombucha jive, here's the 411. Kombucha is, quite literally, fermented tea. It traces its roots back to ancient China, Russia or Japan, depending on who's asked, and is made by plopping a thick, slimy mass of yeast and bacteria called a "mushroom" or a "mother" on top of a container of black or green tea, then covering it and waiting a week or so until it ferments into a slightly fizzy, vinegary-smelling brew. Home brewers can be found all over the Bay Area, where the yeasty mothers and smaller yeast colonies called "babies" are bought, sold and traded like meatloaf recipes.

What everyone is after are the billions of bacteria touted by companies and consumers as being capable of doing everything from strengthening the immune system and improving skin condition to detoxifying the body and even preventing cancer. These claims are largely unsubstantiated in scientific study, however, and one medical journal, Research in Complementary Medicine, even says that the product can cause "liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections."

That, however, hasn't stopped the kombucha industry from exploding into what totaled $295 million in U.S. sales last year, according to market researcher SPINS Inc.

In 2006, Adam Goodman opened Kombucha Botanica, Santa Cruz's very own kombucha brewery. Goodman declined to comment for this article, though Alan Peterson, the grocery buyer at Shopper's Corner, says that Goodman's product is more trustworthy than others because it's made locally and has less chance of sitting on a shelf or in a warehouse for extended periods of time, where it can continue to ferment and gain alcoholic potency. Regardless, Goodman did confirm that he has stopped filling orders for Kombucha Botanica for the time being.

"Kombucha really benefits from buying local," says Peterson. "We're going to bring back a couple of our pasteurized kombuchas for a while to fill in what we can't get. But we want to get all the brands back as soon as we can. I think our customers probably do too."

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