Concerns are fermenting in the kombucha industry over federal scrutiny that may increase as the beverage grows more popular. The stuff’s been around for about 2,000 years. What’s attracting Uncle Sam’s eye now? The trace amount of alcohol created when the kombucha is brewed, reports the Denver Post. Federal law has strict rules governing any drink with more than .5 percent alcohol by volume.
Last summer, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau sent letters to several kombucha products with warnings that they had exceeded the limit. In some cases, they were just over by a few tenths of a percentage point. Fines could run to $11,000, reports the Post. And, offenders could face substantial taxes and regulations that come with brewing booze.
"We live in fear that we will get one of those letters," Jamba Dunn, head of Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha, told the paper. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is trying to help. In September he sent a letter to the head of the bureau, asking that the agency back off.
The Boulder Democrat argued that bottles of kombucha consistently test below the 0.5 percent mark when cold and that they usually exceed that limit when they are improperly stored at higher temperatures.
"Eight spoiled kombuchas are roughly the equivalent of one beer, but that doesn't mean we should regulate it like we do alcohol—it makes absolutely no sense," Polis wrote.
Kombucha’s chemistry is different from beer and wine, and needs a new testing method, argues Polis and industry advocates.
In June 2011, Whole Foods sounded the kombucha alarm after testing found elevated alcohol levels in some unpasteurized versions of the fermented tea beverage. Some manufacturers voluntarily recalled their lines after conducting their own testing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Treasury also stepped in to make sure that any kombucha sold in the United States strictly adheres to all federal alcohol labeling laws. Manufacturers reformulated their brews to prevent the alcohol level from exceeding .5 percent.