Tea Party’s Over

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.”

Brew Crew

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.”

Biotic Woman

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.”

13 Comments

  1. > 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.

    Oh, wow!

    This has got to be the Pulitzer Prize winning story in the “contentless” category.

    We need a federal program for “scandal starvation”.

    Oh, wait!  We’ve got the “global warming sex poodle.”

  2. I could be wrong, of course…but it sounds to me like this product existed for no other reason than to separate fools from their money.  When such a product is found to exist, if there is any reasonable law we can use to take it off the market, we should do so.  Sounds like the government got this one right.

    I’m all in favor of freedom as a general rule, but selling snake oil to naive dolts doesn’t strike me as among our most cherished of liberties.

    • It’s a beverage.  Most people don’t expect it to cure cancer.  If you’re going to holler about snake oil, we could be talking about vitamins or beverages that are actually worthless, like soda.

      • Much of the article is about the health benefits people associate with drinking it, and I don’t think its on the shelf for $1.29 per bottle, if you know what I mean ie., it has a boosted price commensurate with its perceived (yet non-existent) healthful properties.

        Soda is worthless…but its supposed to be worthless.  I don’t object to people knowingly buying garbage, but rather I just tend to advise them against it, if asked.  Vitamin supplements are less useful than many people believe, but they are not totally without value, either.  I used to take mega-doses of many vitamins in the 1980s, and they certainly made my hair & nails grow faster.  That may have been of dubious benefit, but it shows they do, you know, something.

        • One paragraph of the article is about purported health benefits.  This is an article about the alcoholic content of fizzy tea, and whether or not we should be blaming (or crediting) Lindsay Lohan for its removal from stores.

          Kombucha reaches a limited market and is probably pretty difficult to mass produce considering it is unpasteurized and fermented.  Most unpasteurized beers fetch a premium for this reason.

          More than anything, I read this bit of news as another battle being waged against the freedom to purchase unpasteurized food.  I am afraid of a world that is so afraid of bacteria that our immune systems are unable to adapt for lack of experience.  Antibiotic resistance is a real danger and I am hopeful that there is a probiotic movement to keep things like kombucha on the shelves.

          For me, it is more about the long-term effects of being exposed to bacteria.  Of course it is hard to find evidence to prove that kombucha is healthful.  You can hardly prove anything is.  You can say it has this or that vitamin in it, but you’d be leaving out the thousands of micronutrients that we know absolutely nothing about. You can’t quantify your healthfulness and credit it to one thing you’ve consumed.  “Well I would’ve contracted swine flu, but I’ve been taking these probiotics and I’m pretty sure that’s why I haven’t”.

          I think as a population we are becoming less healthy and more prone to disease and our war against bacteria is one of the causes. 

          Whatever.  I don’t even drink kombucha.

        • I actually counted four paragraphs which related to the alleged healthful benefits of the product (although one of those paragraphs also mentioned a study that says the product could be harmful). but those four paragraphs may have seem disproportionate to me, as I automatically skipped all the Lohan-related content.

          Anyhoo, I actually agree with a lot of your points, but personally, I get my bacteria consumption the old fashioned way ie., I eschew the purchase of anti-bacterial products, and I eat a lot of expired or otherwise old food that most people would just throw away.

        • wow…. you’re so much smarter than all the rest of us…you know how I can tell? You’re making comments as if you’re some kind of subject matter expert, yet the sum of your entire knowledge of Kombucha is the content of one article

    • I take it you’ve never tried the product but are quick to judge everyone who drinks it.  I find it funny that people who post or comment on web articles say things that are inflammatory about things they have never experienced.  How quickly your post went from a comment about the article to a tirade on your personal views.  It’s too bad that the web has turned into a place where it’s acceptable to be nasty and rude simply because you feel safe being faceless and nameless.

      Here’s a tip – get off the web and start socializing with people that you can see and touch.  It might just change your negative perspective on life.  Good luck!

      • You are yourself casting anonymous judgement on someone you have not met.  Someone who is probably using his real name and email address.

        I thought Kevin’s initial comment was a little rude, but the ensuing discussion was pleasant and despite some difference in opinion we see eye to eye on some things.  I think it is easy to say that the internet is impersonal but if you actually have a conversation with someone (rather than giving them “tips” on how to “socialize”) you find that it’s not all bad.

        Maybe it will change your negative perspective of strangers on the internet.

      • I don’t recall saying anything “nasty and rude.”  If my opinion that consumers of this product are probably gullible sheep being fleeced offends you to such an extent, you might try refuting my views, rather than saying I’m a bad person for holding them.  Just a thought.

      • Thank you , I believe people like ol “Kevin”? are working for someone with an agenda , you find them all over the net , they try to persuade people to think like them and make these grandiose common sense statements that demonize something positive and energetically helpful such as this amazing product , you should be ashamed of yourself for selling out to such darkness , now many people are without there natural medicine , very sad indeed .

    • I and millions of others believe you are TOTALLY wrong , this product has been around for at least 2 thousand years , and the list of amazing healing testimonials would fill many books , there was no reason to pull this product other then greed !

  3. Interesting that the only brand left on the shelves is Honest Tea, owned by the Coca Cola corporation. Furthermore, the price of a bottle of Honest Tea Kombucha at my local health food store has jumped from the already-high $3.99 to the outrageous $4.79.