Popular media recently toasted a novel probiotic beer concocted by scientists at the National University of Singapore. Yeah, beer is healthier now. But if imbibers are looking for a probiotic beverage with a bit of alcohol, they need look no further than kombucha, a fermented drink made by mixing tea and sugar with bacteria and yeast.
Few people know that they may be drinking an alcoholic beverage when they reach for this refreshing and healthful alternative. If kombucha products contain higher than 0.5% alcohol, the legal limit for non-alcoholic drinks, they are classified as alcoholic beverages and are subject to relevant federal and state regulations in some countries.
According to the USA’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB): “Under federal law, if the alcohol content of kombucha is 0.5% or more alcohol by volume, at any time during production, when bottled, or at any time after bottling, the kombucha is an alcohol beverage and is subject to TTB regulations.”
Fermentation may continue after the kombucha product leaves the manufacturer. According to guidelines, If TTB picks up a sample of kombucha in the marketplace and determines that the sample has an alcohol content of 0.5% or more alcohol by volume, TTB will expect the producer to either:
- Take corrective steps, such as adopting a manufacturing method to ensure that fermentation does not continue after bottling; or
- Qualify with TTB as a producer of alcoholic beverages.
The following general requirements apply to any kombucha that contains 0.5% or more alcohol by volume:
- It must be produced on a premises qualified by TTB under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986
- It must comply with the applicable labeling, formula, and tax requirements.
- The container must bear the health warning statement required by the Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act of 1988.
Obviously then, kombucha makers may want to ensure a lesser alcohol load to obviate the onerous paperwork and expense of complying with these regulations.
Yet, little oversight suggests that the ethanol content in kombucha on supermarket shelves may sometimes approach what may be present in beer.
In one recent analysis, researchers using a gas chromatography technique determined the ethanol content in 18 commercial kombucha samples. The range of ethanol in these products was 1.12–2.00% (v/v), far above the 0-5% on the products.
Home brewed kombucha
What if you make your own at home? USA law allows an adult to produce, without payment of tax, a limited amount of beer (proxy for equivalent ethanol in kombucha) for personal or family use and not for sale. The amount produced may not exceed 200 gallons per calendar year for households of two or more adults, or 100 gallons per calendar year if there is only one adult residing in the household. See Section 5053(e) of the IRC and 27 CFR 25.205 for more information about the personal exemption.
Home brews can be harmful. If not prepared well, harmful bacteria and molds can grow. In the past, contamination has been linked to liver problems, lactic acid buildup and allergies. Experts advise extra care with sanitation and equipment.
Health benefits of kombucha
Still, kombucha comes with many health benefits. These are a result of four main properties: detoxification, anti-oxidation, energizing potencies, and promotion of depressed immunity. Studies on the consumption of kombucha suggest that it is suitable for prevention against broad-spectrum metabolic and infective disorders. Now that’s a reason to celebrate.