Kombucha's PR Problem

The makings of Deane's Ginger Honey kombucha: Organic green tea, cane sugar, ginger root, and Ames Farm raw honey

The makings of Deane's Ginger Honey kombucha: Organic green tea, cane sugar, ginger root, and Ames Farm raw honey

Bryan Deane Bertsch's brewery, as it has recently been classified by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), is in the basement of a commercial kitchen on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul. The space is roughly the size of a bedroom and contains 11 oak barrels resting on a counter. Aside from a small storage closet and walk-in cooler, the whole operation consists of little else. The shiny fermentation tanks and bottling line conveyors of commercial beer-makers are conspicuously absent.

When I visited his facility, Bertsch was dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals and wore his red hair pulled back in a ponytail. (By day he's the office manager of a technology company, but he's also a Taoist meditation instructor.) I climbed up a stepladder next to a barrel and peeled back a cloth and paper towel covering its top to get a better look at Bertsch's brew. Peering inside, I was confronted with a mysterious brown substance that could have been anything: the swampy landscape of a far-off planet, a thick glob of dinosaur mucus, Jabba the Hutt's tongue? The slimy, gelatinous cap floated on top of the barrel's liquid contents. It glistened with moisture and was flecked with white foam. Also, it was pulsing. It seemed to live and breathe on its own.

Bertsch flipped the barrel's spigot and poured me a sample of his Deane's brand kombucha. I sniffed its slightly sweet, vinegary scent and raised the glass to my lips.

Kombucha, like coffee, appears to have originated before recorded history. And just as it is hard to imagine the first person to have picked a coffea shrub's fruit, roasted and ground its seeds, and then steeped them in water, it is difficult to conceive of someone deciding to plop a gooey-looking bacteria-yeast pancake into a vat of tea.

Kombucha has its origins in Eurasia and is thought to be a variant of Russian kvass, a traditional beverage made from fermenting stale rye bread in water. The kombucha's agent is a "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast," otherwise known by its acronym, SCOBY. Kombucha makers often refer to the jellyfish-like glob as a "mother," but scientifically it's classified as a biofilm—essentially an aggregate of microorganisms, or the sort of thing that causes most people to say "yuck!"

To brew kombucha, a culture must first be acquired from a previous batch in which the "mother" SCOBY has propagated to produce a "baby." The culture is placed in sweetened tea and left to ferment before the liquid is drawn off. With a continuous brewing method, some of the brewing kombucha is retained in the vessel with the SCOBY to inoculate the next batch. (The origins of the very first kombucha culture are unknown, though one legend credits a Chinese shop assistant who unwittingly combined the contents of two nearly empty honey and wine vessels.)

Bryan Deane Bertsch of Deane's Kombucha

Bryan Deane Bertsch of Deane's Kombucha

Some kombuchas are blended with juice and then, using a method similar to that of making Belgian lambic beer, undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle, which gives them a slight effervescence. A few formulas are pasteurized, but many, like Deane's, are raw (kombucha is very acidic so it has a low pH). Regardless of its recipe, kombucha tends to have a mild but refreshing, sweet-tart tang and a way of appealing to the health food crowd.

Fermented foods have lately become somewhat trendy with co-op shoppers, particularly live-culture items such as sauerkraut and the dairy beverage kefir. But while scientific studies have demonstrated that the bacteria in yogurt can help maintain intestinal-tract health and bolster the immune system, kombucha's effects have not yet been verified by a major American medical study. "Health benefits attributed to kombucha tea include stimulating the immune system, preventing cancer, and improving digestion and liver function," the Mayo Clinic's website explains. "However, there's no scientific evidence to support these health claims."

Still, abundant anecdotal assertions about the tonic's healing powers have made health food consumers the beverage's primary market. But that started to change last year, when the federal government recognized that kombucha contained alcohol and essentially subjected the whole industry to a breathalyzer.

When Bertsch started selling his kombucha, concerns about the product's alcohol content weren't even on his radar. He started drinking kombucha a few years ago, and when it became a regular habit, he decided to order a SCOBY online (it arrived via mail, in a Ziploc bag) and hone his own formula. After dozens of batches, he arrived at a recipe that brewed sugar and green tea in oak barrels for seven days at a temperature between 75 and 85 degrees. (He says the barrels impart a toasty, earthy flavor to the brew.) Bertsch prefers a naturally carbonated kombucha, so he bottles the liquid and lets it ferment again for two to four weeks. Even though all the SCOBYs in Bertsch's brewery came from the "same lineage," he says, no two batches will be exactly the same, particularly because ambient yeast from the bread-making operations in the kitchen upstairs can subtly influence the fermentation process.

Bertsch noticed the beverage's popularity on the West Coast—many of the area's Whole Foods stores had started offering kombucha on tap—and decided to try to sell his at retail, as a locally made alternative to GT's, the leading commercial brand. "Looking at prices on the shelf," he recalls, "I thought, 'I could make it for less.'" (Ironically, as it turns out, Bertsch's product became one of the priciest after he factored in all of his costs.) He approached the Linden Hills Co-op with his product, and the store immediately signed on. "I thought, 'This is going to be easy,'" Bertsch recalls.

At that point, Bertsch got licensed and found a commercial kitchen space and set up shop. But when he approached other co-ops about carrying Deane's, they weren't as eager. Their shelves were already filled with other kombucha brands, including the locally brewed Unpeeled. Over time, though, Bertsch was able to expand Deane's market to include several other Twin Cities co-ops and restaurants, including Spoonriver and Common Roots.

But then last spring, after just a few months in business, Bertsch faced a much bigger challenge: Government regulators had raised concerns about kombucha's alcohol content and wanted products that exceeded .5 percent to be classified like beer or wine. Bertsch jokingly blames the troubled actress Lindsay Lohan, a kombucha proponent, for the increased scrutiny after she blamed the beverage for triggering her alcohol-monitoring bracelet. "She brought it up, and she brought it down," he says.

Retailers started pulling product off shelves, and kombucha makers who were over the limit were forced to reformulate or peddle their product as an alcoholic beverage. (Unpeeled kombucha, among other brands, remained available because it's brewed with a shorter fermentation process that keeps its alcohol levels below .5 percent.) The regulatory changes were significant enough to scare off Coca-Cola-owned Honest Tea, which decided to get out of the kombucha business almost as quickly as it had gotten into it.

Last September the government informed Bertsch that his samples contained between 2 and 2.5 percent alcohol. Overnight, his product would be perceived in a totally different light. Legally, drinking Deane's in a car in Minnesota could now incur an open container violation. Bertsch's own Department of Agriculture inspector declined a sample, fearing it might be considered drinking on the job. Bertsch called his distributor and had the product recalled. "It was a painful moment," he says.

Bertsch tried reformulating his kombucha to reduce the alcohol, by using less tea and sugar, skipping the secondary fermentation, and even diluting the finished product with plain green tea. But the result, he says, was flat and watered down. So he decided that instead of tinkering with what he considered a successful product, he'd rejigger the business around it.

So Bertsch got licensed as a brewer (the TTB declined to create a new category for kombucha and instead classified him as a beer maker) and looked for new retail outlets. In Minnesota, grocery stores can sell 3.2 beer, but typically only larger operations do so because of the hassle and expense of getting licensed, training staff, and paying alcohol taxes. This spring, when Bertsch relaunched his product, he focused on finding placement in liquor stores, though Deane's Kombucha is also offered on tap at one restaurant, the new, health-focused Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park.

The transition hasn't been easy. "The liquor stores ask, "Is there any way you can get more alcohol in here?" Bertsch says. When I picked up a bottle of Deane's at South Lyndale Liquors in Minneapolis, I had to search for it in a back cooler. At the register, my underage clerk admitted that she'd accidentally sampled the beverage, not knowing it was alcoholic. I can see why. Though Deane's Ginger Matcha Cherry flavor looks a little like pink champagne, it really doesn't taste alcoholic except for a mild, yeasty, beer-like aftertaste. "Distributors, stores, and customers are so confused," Bertsch says.

Deane's sales have struggled as a result of the switch. Many health-food consumers are likely finding it simpler to buy one of the nonalcoholic kombuchas at the co-op rather than make a trip to the liquor store. Most alcohol buyers, stopping in to buy a six-pack or a fifth, don't even know kombucha exists. "I was selling 60 to 70 bottles a day at the Wedge," Bertsch says. "If a liquor store sells a case in two weeks it's good." He's now started bringing his product into Wisconsin, where it can be sold in co-ops, alongside the beer.

Still, Bertsch has been heartened by the sampling he's done in the alcohol-buying community. "When people in the beer or wine world try it, they're more in touch with the complexities," he says. And while kombucha has been around for centuries, word of its removal from store shelves was its most significant national news splash in recent memory. Perhaps the beverage's forced rebranding will be its entree into the mainstream consumer market.