By the time this article hits the streets, there likely won’t be a place in the valley to buy a bottle of kombucha tea. Nob Hill on Santa Teresa Boulevard had a few last Friday; Cosentino’s Market on Bascom Avenue had a couple more. Even over the hill in Santa Cruz, grocers expected to run out by the end of the weekend.
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.
“Right now, our primary concern is to ensure that consumers are not misled about the nature of alcohol beverage products that might be marketed as nonalcohol beverages,” reads the statement released by the TTB.
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.
“We’ve been referring people to other stores that carry it, but I don’t know how many more do anymore,” says Campbell Whole Foods grocer Jack Davis. “We’re anxiously waiting to get it back, because I know our customers want it.”
Kombucha is, quite literally, fermented tea, 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 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.
The biggest name in kombucha, by far, is Millennium, which makes GT’s and Synergy brand teas. Metro tracked down Mr. GT Dave, who was in damage-control mode, looking to comfort worried tea heads that they’ll have their precious bacteria-laden beverages back ASAP.
“We want to reassure people that we do third-party testing to make sure of the alcohol content of our kombucha,” says Dave. “This isn’t a recall, it’s more of a precautionary step. We’ll hopefully have it back in a matter of weeks.”
A Google search for the words “Lindsay Lohan kombucha” brings up a glut of articles and blog posts from news sites like HuffingtonPost, TMZ and New York Daily News with titles like “Did Kombucha Tea Set Off Lindsay Lohan’s SCRAM?” and “Lindsay Lohan boozing it up with Kombucha tea?!”
The articles point to a June 6 incident when the actress’s legally ordered alcohol monitoring anklet or “SCRAM” device, which monitors alcohol consumption through the sweat, went off during an after party for the MTV Movie Awards, automatically issuing an warrant for her arrest. Lohan, who is on probation for a 2007 DUI conviction and barred from booze, vehemently denied drinking alcohol but could quite regularly be found clutching a bottle of kombucha.
Though she never blamed the tea specifically for the ankle device’s reading and was later cleared by a judge, the timing of the alcohol violation with the FDA’s interest in kombucha’s alcohol content was too much to slip by the scandal-starved blogosphere.
Lohan’s manager Jason Weinberg did not return calls seeking comment, but Santa Cruz New Leaf manager Amber Willis was happy to weigh in.
“It’s a pretty crazy story,” she says, fighting off giggles. “I’m really not sure if it’s true, but you can see where it would come from.”
Whether the Parent Trap actress-turned-cocaine-connoisseur-and-spray-tan-saleswoman played any part in the government’s decision to investigate kombucha, the FDA wouldn’t say. And while kombucha maker GT Dave says he hopes to have products back on shelves in “a matter of weeks,” other more dire prognoses are offered by consumers.
“The companies need to hurry up and get this thing sorted out,” says Jeremy Blevin, a shopper at Staff of Life in Santa Cruz who has come to pick through the remains of the kombucha stash. “Because if the government actually makes a recall, who knows when we’ll see it again.”