July 6, 2010

Kombucha: the Beginning of the End. ~ Rod Warlick

Is this the End of Raw, Unpasteurized Kombucha?

This article comes via Rod Warlick. Check his site here.

On June 16th, 2010, the largest natural and organic product distributor in North America, UNF Inc., stopped delivering raw, unpasteurized kombucha.  You’ve probably heard of kombucha—you know, the vinegary, fizzy tea your hippy-trending friends are drinking.

Based on solid evidence from one of their retail customers, the alcohol content of raw kombucha from a variety of bottlers was elevated enough to push it into the “alcoholic” beverage category.   This would explain drinker’s woozy, euphoric feeling and the placement of raw kombucha in rehab center soda machines coast to coast.

How high is high?  The test results were not disclosed. “Since we’re a public company, that information is unavailable.” In a brief phone interview this morning with Mark Shamber, a spokesman for UNF Inc. ,  revealed the motivation to single-handedly halt kombucha transport.  “We don’t have a license to handle alcoholic products.”

He goes on to say,

Any product containing over 0.5% alcohol by volume falls into another world of distribution, regulation and licensing. Continuing to do so would expose us to unlimited liability.  Most of the bottlers could confirm the level of alcohol was 0.5% or below immediately after bottling. Since the beverage is alive and continues to undergo biochemical change it is difficult to predict the final alcohol level, just prior to drinking.

Are there any plans within UNF Inc. to do any regular testing to ensure compliance? “Not that I know of, ” revealed Mr. Shamber.  UNF Inc. updates can be found here.

Thank you, Mr. Shamber.

Any additional, long-term testing to insure ongoing compliance, whether performed independently or within each bottler’s property would only add cost to the already pricey, traditional soft drink alternative.


Some of the more glamorous and sexy speculation bouncing around twitter explaining the disappearance includes:

> An enterprising pasteurized kombucha competitor spiked some bottles of raw product, marched into a testing lab and forwarded the results to ANF Inc.  Possible, yet highly unlikely.

> The SCRAM-scream heard ’round the world. The Lohan/SCRAM or LoSCRAM  PR juggernaut blamed her compulsive consumption and subsequent equipment malfunction on her post-rehab drink of choice and brings down an entire functional beverage category all by her pretty little self.  This is not true.

> Whole Foods pulls raw kombucha, teeming with probiotics and legal exposure, similar to their internal decision this past March to remove raw milk. Again, not true.

Goodbye sexy, hello federal government

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, TTB, under the Treasury Dept., is the friendlier administrative, revenue collecting arm of  the much older  Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau under the Dept of Justice.  While the TTB office supply cabinet has paper, pens and Post-Its, ATF’s is loaded with guns, handcuffs, bullhorns and more guns.

The taxing of alcohol was the first excise tax imposed by the new Federal government in the late 18th century to help finance the Revolutionary War debt.  The tax met so much resistance in western Pennsylvania; President Washington organized a federal militia and personally led the troops. The Whisky Rebellion, the first organized resistance to the first internal excise tax was ultimately squashed in the winter of 1794.  This established the Feds ability to levy taxes and enforce collection by whatever means – you don’t want to mess with these guys.
On June 23rd, 2010, the TTB released a sobering memo.  Several states and one large distributor were mentioned as having made contact with the bureau and had expressed concern over elevated alcohol levels and although it couldn’t be confirmed, I suspect the distributor is ANF Inc. Who else could it be?
Look out. We’re Treasury. We’re big, bad and we’re gonna be all over you.  We want our taxes and we want ’em now.

It’s clear what’s next for the raw kombucha bottlers—get past this by insuring their beverages stay below 0.5% ABV from the moment it leaves the bottling plant to the moment it reaches the drinker’s lips.  Now Treasury is watching and will no doubt be doing random testing.  Short of pasteurizing, guaranteeing ABV of  0.5% or less is going to be a challenge.

As each bottler huddles back to the drawing board and reformulates, the pasteurized players are stealing precious market share.

Jeff Salisbury, of the TTB Advertising, Labeling and Formulation Division and contact for the memo was out of the office for the long Fourth of July weekend and could not be reached for comment.

Rod Warlick is a kombucha homebrewer who enjoys writing, staying fit and learning new stuff about the world.

Read 7 Comments and Reply

Read 7 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant Journal  |  Contribution: 1,509,480