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In the summer of 2010, kombucha was taken off shelves across the country as it was learned that it contained more than the allowed level of alcohol.

Brewers everywhere scrambled to find ways to address this challenge. Many methods were tried; we tried, too (see our blog). In the end, we realized the important question was not “how can we make a beverage that will fit current regulations?” but what does kombucha want to be in the world?” We had started making kombucha in 1993 because it meant something, just as it has meant something to people for 2,000 years.

We listened to our hearts and we went back to our old recipe. We spent the necessary resources, got the licenses, and are once again making

kombucha without compromise.

Try it … your body will feel the difference.

We are still coming to the Saturday market at U District, but you’ll have to find us in a new location.

We are a load-off, in the north facing row along 50th between Mt Townsend Creamery and Bluebird Grain Farm.

Looking forward to seeing you!

Below is a fuller version of a letter I just sent to the editor at PCC. (For folks outside Seattle,  PCC is the country’s biggest grocery co-op; nine stores).For space reasons, the letters to the editor are limited to 250 words. (That’s challenging. ;-) )

I read with great interest your piece on kombucha in the March, 2011 PCC Taste, and then followed to the referenced “Online Extra.” I am particularly interested because I have been making kombucha since 1993 and my company, CommuniTea Kombucha, makes kombucha here in the CD. Last Summer, for a few exciting weeks, our kombucha was available on tap in the PCC Fremont deli.

The kombucha world was rocked last summer when kombucha was pulled off store shelves all over the country after it was learned that it contained too much alcohol. I’m concerned that there is more to this story that PCC shoppers will want to know.

As many of PCC’s customers know, to make kombucha, one begins with steeped tea and sugar and adds a naturally occurring symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. In this age-old process, the yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol. This alcohol becomes the food for the bacteria, and it is these bacteria which produce much of what is good for us about kombucha. The production of alcohol in kombucha is, therefore, critical. Our sense is that when alcohol is reduced to  an extremely low level, we risk compromising the activity of the bacteria.

To address alcohol concerns, new regulations now apply to the production of kombucha. To see a very clear  FAQ,  do a web search on “TTB kombucha”. It says that for kombucha to be a non-alcohol beverage, it is not enough for it to be below 0.5% when it is sold. The alcohol level must always be below 0.5%. It may not exceed that level at any time during manufacture, it must of course be below 0.5% when it is sold, and it must be below afterwards, regardless of whether it is stored according to manufacturer’s instruction. If the level ever does or ever could exceed 0.5%, it’s an alcohol beverage. As such, it must be made in a facility that is “qualified with the TTB,” that is, a brewery or a winery.

My concern is that most of the current kombucha either

  1. is not compliant with the law because its alcohol level actually does rise above 0.5% during brewing and is subsequently reduced, or
  2. is not really worthy of the name because the components which are made by the bacteria will have been compromised by inadequate levels of alcohol during manufacture.

An additional concern is that some kombucha is pasteurized which of course affects the probiotic content.

It is of course, possible to make and sell kombucha which is as good as it was before June of 2010. The bar to doing so has been raised, however. We respect the wisdom inherent in the traditional recipe and procedures. CommuniTea Kombucha’s commitment to making high-quality, healthful kombucha was the basis of our decision to secure appropriate alcohol licenses.

PCC, for many of us, is a standard bearer. When PCC makes a statement, we count on it to be based on wide research and knowledge. It is in this spirit that I write; I want PCC to be able to provide the community with information which is more complete.

These last few days, I have been wandering through the thicket of laws regulating alcohol. Although the journey isn’t over yet, it has become clear that since we are now producing kombucha that is categorized as beer, we are not allowed to fill bottles at the Farmers Markets. We can fill bottles freely at our kitchen (brewery). In days to come, we may discover other options for refilling that will make sense for us.

We loved refilling bottles at markets! It is an inexpensive way to provide kombucha: it saves resources as well as money. And it was just plain fun to be reusing the bottles so many times! While this development saddens us, we feel more committed than ever to providing healthful, delicious kombucha in ways that increase our connections to each other and to our environment.

We will, of course, continue to swap full bottles when people bring us empties.

q


We’re looking for ways to facilitate communication among us CommuniTea Kombucha drinkers.

  • Selling at Farmers Markets has been and will continue to be a great way to do that.
  • Electronic media seem very useful . . . we’ll be learning how to do it!
  • This blog — communitea-kombucha.com/wordpress — seems well suited as the primary means of communicating. Its contents will be “echoed” on Facebook.
  • Some discussions may develop more naturally on Facebook.
  • The email list will be reserved for announcements we want to be sure everyone gets.

I just want to note quickly, and with a bit of amusement, that our entry into the world of beer has not gone unnoticed. We’re listed in the Washington Beer Blog: Everything Beer in the Evergreen State. Here’s the link

  • Communitea Kombucha – Seattle. It’s not beer; it’s Kombucha. Still, it is mildly alcoholic and they want to make it legally. http://communitea-kombucha.com/

As I was reading this evening an advertisement for a probiotic supplement, I was reminded of  the strong focus on the health aspects of kombucha we had when we first started making and using kombucha, in 1993. We did considerable research and worked hard to weigh the various things we read. I re-read for the first time in many years the original paper on kombucha (that Warren Stetzel and I wrote)  and am gratified and proud. It puts many things well and emphasizes the things I still emphasize. There are very few things I would change.

It confirms my strong sense that it is wise for us to move slowly and have high barriers to changing the basic kombucha recipe which has come down to us through the generations. Making and selling an alcohol beverage was never part of our vision, but in the present regulatory environment that seems to be what is necessary in order to make good kombucha.

Kombucha is a healthful and refreshing beverage made by fermenting tea. Until last summer, most of us assumed that ”fermented” meant that kombucha was something more like sauerkraut and miso than wine or beer. Then we all learned that kombucha did indeed contain more alcohol than was permitted by law for a non-alcohol beverage. And because kombucha contains live cultures the alcohol levels could change after bottling, depending on storage conditions and how long it was stored before being consumed.

Kombucha across the country was removed from shelves for several months as manufacturers grappled with the challenge of how to comply with the law. The dust has not entirely settled, but it is becoming clear that at least for now, almost all varieties of kombucha have been reformulated in some way so that they do not contain more than 0.5% alcohol, the legal limit for a non-alcohol beverage.

At CommuniTea Kombucha, we are concerned about taking any approach that may compromise the essential character of kombucha. We asked ourselves: if so many of the fundamental benefits come from the metabolic activity of the bacteria, could we really have good kombucha if we reduce to almost nothing the alcohol, which is their food source?

So, out of respect for the practice of 2,000 years, we have decided not to change our traditional recipe and procedure. The consequence is that we were required to get alcohol licenses from the federal and state governments. We have now accomplished that.

We are very happy with our decision and excited to be back at Farmers Markets. The five month delay was much preferable to reshaping our kombucha in order to meet some arbitrary regulatory standard.

Our delicious, raw, full-strength kombucha contains 2 to 2½% alcohol.

Yes! Our long hiatus is over. On December 21, 2010, we received the final go-ahead from the Liquor Board, the WSLCB. (Our last market was August 1 at Ballard.) And on January 8 and 9, we were delighted to return to Farmers Markets with kombucha again! Customers’ comments were very encouraging. Folks approve of the character of our traditionally made, full-strength kombucha. We are making inquiries now to co-ops, starting with Madison Market and PCC. Both have declined to try selling the kombucha on tap in their delis, due to our new status as an alcohol beverage. We are offering to sell our flip-top re-usable bottles at these stores. We’ll take things one step at a time and keep you posted on our progress.

A Seattle TV station recently ran a news story about CommuniTea Kombucha. Here is a link to the story. The story was aired November 27, 2010, by KCPQ TV, channel 13.

We’re grateful for the coverage and it comes at a good time, since the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter everyday! While I would have made some suggestions if I’d had the opportunity during editing, it’s a good piece.

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