July 12, 2010 — -- Kombucha. Unless you spend a lot of time in natural food stores or trade drink tips with celebrities, you've probably never heard of it. But now it's all over the Internet.
First came a warning from the U.S. government that some kombucha varieties may contain almost as much alcohol as beer even though they are marketed as non-alcoholic health drinks. Then came reports that troubled star Lindsay Lohan's alcohol-monitoring bracelet may have been set off because she was drinking too much kombucha.
Whole Foods, one of the country's biggest retailers of kombucha, recently pulled the drinks from its shelves, prompting suppliers to investigate how those surprising levels of alcohol make it into their drinks.
What's all the fuss about?
Kombucha, a fermented tea said to have originated in China a couple of centuries ago, has been ascribed with a range of health benefits, with fans swearing that it gives them more energy and better digestion, and that it can even ward off cancer. While these claims have not been scientifically proven, they have helped fuel a small but booming industry.
"Kombucha is one of the fastest growing beverages in the natural foods arena," said Jeffrey Klineman, editor of Beverage Spectrum, a trade magazine. "It's not energy drinks, and it's not vitamin water, but it's still got a nice following."
Buyers are typically health-food fanatics, who are attracted to the drink's live bacterial culturals and its cachet as an "insider" drink that's not widely available in mainstream stores.
Since it's fermented, kombucha usually contains trace amounts of alcohol, but recent laboratory tests conducted by retailers and government agencies have raised red flags, indicating that some bottles contain higher levels of alcohol.
Kombucha sales took off a few years ago, after a small Beverly Hills brewer named GT Dave managed to crack Whole Foods' national supply chain. With flavors like "Cosmic Cranberry" and "Mystic Mango," the company has garnered a loyal following.
Founder Dave told ABC News.com that Lindsay Lohan has been drinking kombucha for years for its health benefits, and that the recent negative publicity tying her alcohol problems to the drink has been unsubstantiated.
Lohan tried to dispel the connection on Twitter.
"FYI.. #kombucha was not the reason that my scram went off-i wouldn't of been allowed to drink it if that were the problem.. i love kombucha," she Tweeted.
There is no hard data on total kombucha sales, but estimates range from $50 million to $300 million annually.
Mainstream companies, ranging from Whole Foods to Coca-Cola, through its organic tea venture Honest Tea, have been cashing in on the trend. Other players include Celestial Seasonings and Yogi Tea, and countless smaller brewers in the health food niche.
Kombucha's Alcohol Problem
Seth Goldman, CEO of Honest Tea, told ABC News.com the company launched its first kombuchas in January to tap into the growing demand for "functional drinks," the term for beverages purported to have some kind of health benefit.
"It has been a very grassroots thing," he said of the drink's growing popularity.
Kombucha comes in many flavors, but its base is always the same, made by leaving a fungus of yeast and bacteria to ferment for several weeks in sugary tea. The resulting brew has some alcohol and tastes tart, vinegary and is slightly effervescent. It then often is made palatable by adding juice.
In order to maintain its probiotic benefits, kombucha is left unpasteurized, or raw, although some companies recently have started selling pasteurized varieties.
The problem with raw kombucha is that it may continue to ferment unless it is refrigerated. The U.S. Treasury, which oversees alcohol and tobacco taxation, recently warned consumers that kombucha bottles have been found that "significantly exceed" the allowed 0.5 percent.
Beverages with more than trace amounts of alcohol must carry warning labels, but their manufacturers also are subject to alcohol taxes.
The Treasury said it has sent samples from around the country to laboratories and is still awaiting results to determine the extent of the problem.
Art Resnick, a spokesman at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, told ABC News.com it's very rare that a drink comes under this kind of government scrutiny.
It's unclear how the recent wave of publicity will affect kombucha sales. Since the recalls, kombucha aficionados have banded together, exchanging home-brew recipes on chat boards and a kombucha Facebook page.
"The publicity hasn't hurt our relationship with consumers," said Kombucha pioneer Dave. "If anything, it has increased awareness of kombucha."