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Kombucha - GT's Kombucha

Tavaner Bushman/MEDILL

GT's Kombucha is back on the shelves with a new formula that contains less alcohol.

Kombucha tea producer reworks formula to reduce alcohol content

by Tavaner K. Bushman
Oct 20, 2010

After months of waiting, fans of GT’s Kombucha, a fermented tea drink that has become all the rage with health food nuts, can finally breath a sigh of relief. GT’s is back.

“About four months ago the concern was raised within Whole Foods about what happens to raw kombucha when it has been mishandled. It’s not just our kombucha, it’s every raw kombucha out there,” said GT Dave, owner and founder of GT’s Kombucha, in Los Angeles.

The concern was that the trace amount of alcohol in the tea could slightly increase to just over 0.5 percent when the product was not properly refrigerated once it left the manufacturing facility. This led Whole Foods to remove all kombucha from its shelves until the issue was resolved, according to a spokesperson for Whole Foods Market.

When the alcohol content in a beverage exceeds 0.5 percent alcohol, the beverage is classified by federal law as an alcoholic beverage, said a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration. Regulated by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an alcoholic beverage must be produced in certified facilities, have a warning statement on its label, can only be sold to people over 21, and is taxed differently. 

Although the potential change in percent alcohol content seems insignificant, and consumers were not tasting or feeling a difference, from a labeling compliance situation it creates a problem, Dave said.
Beer usually has an alcohol content from 4-6 percent, wine around 12.5-14 percent, and vodka around 40 percent.  

“Every manufacturer that makes kombucha tests their product to ensure it’s compliant,” said Dave. “That wasn’t the issue. The issue was that once it left the manufacturing facility and is in the hands of the distributor, retailer, or even a consumer, if it gets mishandled [the alcohol content] could potentially go above 0.5 percent. It was this very gray area.”

The yeast used to ferment kombucha causes sugar to convert into carbon dioxide and alcohol becomes a natural byproduct. When kombucha is not refrigerated properly, the fermentation process reactivates causing more alcohol to be produced.

After four months of testing and research, GT’s Kombucha is back with an “enlightened” version of its original formula. It is still raw and loaded with all the good stuff, but has a lighter personality than the original version, a smoother taste, and a shorter shelf life, Dave said.

The alteration to Dave’s original formula, which he still believes is the best one out there, involved a change in the drink’s probiotic structure.

Probiotics are live microorganisms found in the gut, stomach and intestines, also known as friendly bacteria, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Certain probiotics in kombucha produce alcohol as a byproduct during fermentation, Dave said. To control the drink’s alcohol content, Dave reduced the number of probiotics that produce alcohol and increased the probiotics that do not. At the end of the day, each bottle has the same amount of probiotics as before but with a different ratio, he said.

To remain compliant with federal law, Vanessa Tortolano of NessAlla Kombucha in Madison, Wisc. reduced the sugar content of her formula and now uses a starter, or culture, that is more than 20 days old. A kombucha starter is a mass of bacteria and yeast. The starter is added to tea with sugar to produce kombucha. The older starter contains less yeast than a younger starter, and therefore produces a tea with less alcohol.  

Tortolano and her business partner, Alla Shapiro, are planning to bring back their original kombucha formula. They are in the process of getting NessAlla Kombucha certified as a brewery so they can produce and sell their original formula and comply with federal regulations.

Dave has similar plans to bring back his original formula. But the only way he can ensure that the drink is compliant at all times is to bring it back as a product sold only to individuals over 21.

Commerically sold kombucha is safe to consume, said dietician Andrea Giancoli, who is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

GT’s kombucha is not pasteurized because it would kill the probiotics, Giancoli said. Unpasteurized kombucha is fine for someone with a strong immune system, she said. But because probiotics are bacteria and there is a possibility of contamination during the fermentation process (primarily for kombucha brewed at home), kombucha could be harmful for someone with a weak immune system, Giancoli added. 

Most probiotics are similar to the friendly bacteria found in a person’s gut and essential to immune system development and vitality, and the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients according to the center’s website. 

Giancoli recommends yogurt over kombucha as a source for probiotics because it has more nutrients.        

But, in terms of kombucha, if you like it, then enjoy it, Giancoli said.