Seattle Met, in its November issue, printed an article about kombucha which devoted a paragraph to CommuniTea Kombucha. the article is posted online here.
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We recently sent in fifteen more forms on 36 pages in pursuit of permission to make and sell kombucha as a microbrewery. This latest submission was to the Washington State Liquor Control Board. We have now received the necessary inspection and the official briefing on the pertinent laws by the Enforcement Agent.
So, soon . . . very soon, we anticipate being able to begin fermenting and “in due time,” CommuniTea Kombucha will be back!
We are very excited about making available traditional, full-strength kombucha again.
We’re grateful for all the support from our ever-so-patient customers.
[This post was written 9/27/10, but not posted until today, 10/19/10]
In a recent post here (8/31), we shared our growing feeling that making traditional Kombucha would not be possible without producing more than 0.5% alcohol.
A few days later, GT’s Kombucha announced they would follow this route. (GT also said they’d be marketing a low-alcohol version.) This was encouraging news to us and to several other producers who have decided that to be true to our mission we would need to wrap our heads around a new idea of what kombucha is. And we’d need to help our customers wrap their heads around it, too. I, for one, had not been looking forward to answering questions like, “Well, if the big guys can do it, (make kombucha with alcohol below 0.5%) why can’t you?”
And now, the TTB has sorted things out and issued their findings in the form of a FAQ. They are available here for your perusal and edification. Here’s our super-simplified take on what they tell us about the shape of our new kombucha world.
•There are three pigeonholes–beer, wine, spirits–and kombucha is beer unless some of the alcohol comes from fermenting fruit. We will submit formulas and procedures and they will decide. Most likely we will become “qualified” by TTB as a brewery.
•We must submit our label to FDA for approval. It will include the alcohol warning language.
•We will pay federal tax as a beer.
•We will be subject to state regulations as well.
Today our application is in the mail: seventeen separate forms on 38 pages. And a check for the bond that insures our taxes will be paid. It’s a big step. Daunting. Exciting. Most importantly, we are a big step closer to selling kombucha again.
I keep putting off writing an interim report. “Why don’t I just wait a bit more,” I tell myself, “I will certainly know more in a little while.” And I also keep hoping I will achieve my goal: making great kombucha without making compromises. It looks to me now, however, as if the legal level to be called a non-alcohol beverage may be a little low for my brew. I will continue testing — the goal is very close and so it is very tempting — but I’m prepared to conclude it is out of my reach.
I find myself wondering, perhaps it is not only out of my reach, maybe it is unrealistic. In what Kombucha Bible is it written, I wonder, “that traditional kombucha was below 0.5% alcohol”? Presently, I could more easily accept a statement such as, “Traditional kombucha had a low alcohol content: perhaps between 0.5% and 1.0%. And traditionally it was consumed in small quantities and so the alcohol was not an issue.”
I have succeeded in knocking 2% off my ethanol score, but that still leaves me at about 0.7%. I’m betting that last little bit will be tough.
So. I am within a hair of sending in my application to become a brewery. So far, though, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has not quite decided which category they want us in (beer or wine) and is not yet accepting applications. And then there will be the labeling issue with FDA. And then getting a license from the state Liquor Control Board. Stay tuned.
I think most people may not be interested in the nitty-gritty of our efforts to work out a more basic understanding of how kombucha works, so I won’t post the raw data here. But if you are interested, you are welcome to follow the testing on a Google Doc. Just send an email for the link.
When we get results, we’ll post them here.
We are happy we could serve all the people who found us at Ballard last Sunday!
As much as we want to satisfy everyone’s wish to drink CommuniTea Kombucha, we want even more to establish a good business in the long-term, and to do it in a way that enhances people’s trust. Accordingly, we have decided we will wait to sell our kombucha at markets and retail stores, until we
- are able to make full-strength, robust, traditional, kombucha that is reliably lower than 0.5% alcohol, or
- have an appropriate license to sell a product with alcohol above that threshold.
Many people have expressed their frustration with the current situation. As much as we sometimes wish things were simpler, we live in a busy, complex society. Most of us do not raise own our food, and having face-to-face contact with those who do is becoming rare. Our need for trust has never been greater. Food labeling is a way for us to know what we are eating, and it is important that it be as accurate as possible. We don’t want to sell kombucha when we are not reasonably certain about its makeup; we owe that to everyone, and perhaps especially to pregnant women and those in recovery. If there is more than a tiny amount of alcohol in kombucha, we need to know what the levels are.
If you would like to purchase a culture to make your kombucha at home or if you have other questions, please contact me.
- How might we nudge the kombucha culture — here I mean the social, not bacterial culture! — closer to the home-brew model, where folks vigorously share information and insights and techniques and equipment ideas. This seems to fit kombucha’s history well, and to be consistent with the values of sharing and cooperation that many of us hold dear. I want to help improve the art as well as to make a living.
- In pursuit of goal #1 (making full-strength, robust, traditional, kombucha with ethanol levels reliably lower than 0.5%), and following Ed Kasper’s urging, we are aiming at making a custom SCOBY. Ed recommends focussing on two yeasts: Brettanomyces and Torulaspora delbrueckii. I bought two strains of Brett yesterday from Cellar Home Brew, Brett. Lambicus and Brett. Bruxellensis. James at the store gave me an idea as to how I might isolate the bacteria from our present SCOBY so we could introduce it to the new yeast. He said yeast dies at a lower temperature than bacteria, so if we slowly heat starter to 105°, we can kill the yeast and preserve the bacteria. Sounds interesting.
- It was “traditional kombucha” that earned the reputation as a healthful beverage. Are there ways we could validate the health benefits short of traditional — and expensive — double-blind, placebo-controlled tests? I’d like to invite folks to report on benefits they have experienced that they attribute to drinking kombucha.
- Michael Roussin wrote, based on his extensive investigation of samples from all over this country, that kombucha consists of gluconic acid, acetic acid, and fructose. It is reported elsewhere that some kombucha contains l-lactic acid. How does the presence or lack of l-lactic acid affect the health benefits? How do we know?
- How do we know what ethanol levels ”traditional” kombucha had?
- What is “traditional kombucha”?
We will be refilling bottles and selling new ones tomorrow at the Farmers Market in Ballard. We will have cultures to sell if you want to begin making your own kombucha at home.
KUOW aired a good piece about the current kombucha situation Thursday. You can read a transcript and/or hear it here.
This morning, KUOW ran a good story by Meghan Walker on kombucha and what is happening with it lately. She interviewed me (Chris); the PCC deli manager, Leon; and customer Cecile Andrews, who is active locally raising awareness of the importance of community and simplicity.
We continue to pursue the surprisingly elusive secrets of making kombucha which is beneficial and delicious (and legal). What seemed last week like a clear fall-back position (a quick process for getting a license that would allow us to sell kombucha within the legal guidelines) has become much murkier. Now the TTB is not undecided as to whether kombucha would more properly be called a wine … or a beer … or ….
In the meantime, if you want to talk about future availabilty, please email me.
We are very sorry to report that we are suspending sales of our kombucha at the Fremont PCC deli and at our Farmers Market stands. We will be present one more week at University District, Ballard and Columbia City to talk with folks, but we won’t be selling. We received results from a test of our ethanol levels Tuesday which showed our levels to be too high. We were disappointed when they were confirmed by a second test Thursday.
The other side of the coin, however, is an opportunity we find very exciting to explore new ideas that may let us make and sell kombucha with legal ethanol levels. We will be looking for new brewing practices, and even new strains of bacteria or yeast. We are securing more testing equipment so we can monitor critical points in our process. We currently monitor temperature, pH and sugar. We will begin monitoring total acid levels and alcohol itself. To this end, our very generous friends, Wade and Judy Bennett from Rockridge Orchards, are lending us a pricey instrument called an ebulliometer.
On a parallel track, in the event that we are not successful in bringing alcohol levels down satisfactorily, we have begun pursuing a license that would let us sell kombucha legally. After much research and conversation we have determined that the best fit presently is a wine license. There are drawbacks — LOTS of paperwork in the application; a bond based on volume; alcohol taxes; severe limits on sampling — and one big advantage: we can get back to making traditional, raw, probiotic, full strength, unadulterated kombucha.
I had a conversation this morning that was encouraging on a number of levels with an official at the ATF TTB (these initials are very important to us just now: Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Tax and Trade Bureau). They are very aware that many kombucha companies are experiencing unexpected difficulties due to the new scrutiny which kombucha is receiving and they intend to expedite applications for winery permits from kombucha makers.
Thanks for all your support!