Kombucha is alcoholic. Sort of. A little bit. It depends.
The detoxifying fermented tea sold at Whole Foods stores across the country is court-ordered to be less than 0.5% alcohol by volume for regular sales, which means that Bryan Bertsch, proprietor of Deane's Kombucha, must meet this limit or work under a brewing license. Kombucha can come in boozier than that, but selling above-bar booch requires yet another license, so Bertsch keeps everything licit in his Uptown brew lab.
"There's a lot of people making kombucha, but there's only about a half dozen that are alcoholic," he says, "and that's only 1% or 2%, so that's a traditional kombucha, but they're getting their license, and they're selling it that way."
When you look at a bottle of kombucha, usually the second or third adjective describing the elixir is "non-alcoholic." That's because kombucha inhabits a nebulous gray area between health drink and low-weight booze. Sipping the probiotic brew got Lindsay Lohan bagged for consumption during a 2010 house arrest, leading to a national scare that sandbagged Deane's, among others. More recently, in May, '90s heartthrob-cum-New Age spiritualist Andrew Keegan was raided by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for selling higher-gravity kombucha without the proper permission, again tarnishing the growing trend's mass appeal. But the average American has less political intentions.
If kombucha is fermented, and like all fermented things, alcoholic, can it at least be abused for some loose entertainment? Isn't there anyone making a weighty booch that can be used for health-conscious partying? The short answer is yes.
GT Dave, makers of the popular Synergy line, has a 21+ imprint (appropriately bottled with a black label), but drinking a wheelbarrow of the stuff in a half hour wouldn't so much as budge the equilibrium. Only three fermentories make "old school" kombucha under an alcohol license, one of them being Astoria, NY's Beyond Brewing, whose strongest pure kombucha is only 2.5% by volume. Michigan's Unity Vibrations sells a line of "kombucha beer" that is 7% or 8% ABV by design, but according to their website, they don't vend in Minnesota. Though Deane's is on tap in brewhouses like Eastlake Craft Brewery, no one is making boozy booch commercially in the Twin Cities. Short of finding a bootlegger with a bathtub, it'll take some creativity.
"I think eventually, it'll go there," Bertsch says of high-proof kombucha making, "The biggest challenge is who's doing it? Who's making kombucha, and who knows enough to take that knowledge and make it an alcoholic? And then on top of that, there's just a lot of logistics that are involved."
Such logistics include the arbitrary rule of the FDA and Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), who delineate rigidly between beer, wine, and alcohol but have Byzantine regulations for booch. The further you expand your sales territory, the more Kafkaesque the regulations get.
"With the TTB, if you're using honey, they're gonna put you on the beer side," Bertsch continues, "but if it's fruit, they're gonna put you on the wine side. I'd have to be beer, because that's my only chance to be in a grocery store here, but what are they gonna do when you show them a 12% with fruit?"
Beyond that, there's the obstacle of marketing. In the Venn Diagram of health fanatics and recreational drunkards like myself, there isn't much crossover. The market is full of people actively trying to poison themselves for kicks, but where's the demand for a gut-regulating hooch? Bertsch, who previously sold 1.5%+ kombucha under a beer license, has seen the divide.
"I learned quickly that you're not selling people on the health benefits," he says, "People who are at the liquor store, they're there for a reason, and it's not for their gut. So the pitch turned into 'hey, this is a great low-alcohol alternative, and it's a great mixer.'"
This is a sentiment that Prohibition Kombucha honcho Nate Uri echoes. His company, despite the speakeasy branding, doesn't dabble in the high-gravity stuff, but they're still believers in the maxim that a happy life is a healthy life. And there's much happiness to be derived from drinking.
"We encourage people to use our kombucha as a mixer or as a base for a cocktail," Uri says, predicting that Twin Cities specialty bars will soon make kombucha a regular touchstone. "A kombucha radler is freaking delicious. It gives all that brightness and tartness to a wheat beer or a beer that's hoppy. It's a way to enjoy the alcohol without the negative effects."
The effects of kombucha are a touchy subject. While the Mayo Clinic has been outspokenly skeptical about claims of kombucha's health boosting properties, anecdotal evidence suggests that the brew has a wide-ranging set of benefits ranging from digestive regulation to anti-cancer properties. Uri's personal experience as a boocha junkie is "in heavy, heavy, heavy contrast" to the Clinic's debasement. "Whether it's a placebo effect or not, people, in a rather alarming number, who drink kombucha regularly report an incredible amount of benefits," he says.
As an American drinker, this presents a problem. How am I supposed to get wrecked if the mixer I'm pouring is actively working against me? Supplementing liquor with kombucha can't possibly offer the best of both worlds, can it?
"I think having the traditional stuff that's 1.5% or 2%, the health benefits are there for sure," Bertsch says, "but if you're using different yeast to get it up to 8% or 9%, that's a good question. Are you still getting the probiotics? Or are the bacteria doing nothing? It would be a fun thing to think 'hey, I can get a little buzz, and it's for my health!'"
Kombucha does have a slight buzz of its own. Drinking one 16-ounce bottle of Deane's buckwheat honey seasonal provides the type of jitter usually experienced after drinking cold brew coffee on an empty stomach. This is the tea working and not the alcohol. It's a feeling the Chinese call cha zui -- "tea drunk."
"I've certainly noticed, when you drink two or three pints of [kombucha], you get pretty rocked in a really cool way," says Uri. He admits that the sensation is, like all effects of kombucha, anecdotal, but he can't help but feel there's a mystical intoxicant in the brew. "This is one of the reason kombucha merits more study," he continues, "You can feel that interesting, euphoric effect on kombucha that's been tested and has show at 0.2%, so something else is in there that's giving you this really lovely feeling. The standard metrics -- what's the alcohol level, what's the caffeine level -- are not accounting for this feeling. It's a bit of a mystery."
It feels pleasant enough on its own, but a shandy made with Deane's hibiscus grapefruit and Third Street Three Way Pale Ale (Ed note: Do this. Do this all the time.) proves much more helpful in coaxing this holistic tingle.
The mix is fortuitous, and the added boost of the beer (after four consecutive glasses) supplements the cha zui with good, old-fashioned looseness. Shy of being "revitalized" and "invigorated" -- both buzzwords in the kombucha marketing playpen -- there's certainly more alertness in this fizzy haze. It's one of the most respectable drunks I've ever experienced, so the proper American thing to do is push it further.
Prohibition Ginger Vesper tastes so much like gin that it's like you're practically sipping a martini straight out the bottle. Adding Irish whiskey, St. Germain, and aromatic bitters to a 4-ounce pour, gives it a more cocktail feel en route to that mythical high. "High" is the word both Uri and Bertsch use to describe the uplifting effects of booch 'n' booze. Bertsch calls it a "lift-me-up," and that sounds about right. It feels good.
In fact, it feels too good.
Kombucha has been touted by some to be a hangover cure-all, and Uri beams about the drink's restorative mornings after, saying "no matter what, it's a smart idea to drink kombucha while you're out drinking because it is, at the very least, it's healthy on the metrics that it has plenty of water, B vitamins, and antioxidants, magnesium."
But could it actually be worse to overindulge in vinegar-y tea than bourbon and pilsners? Bertsch is only willing to concede that kombucha will make my hangover "lenient." He's never had an adverse effect from drinking booch at will, but he warns first-time drinkers of a potential intestinal overhaul.
"You wouldn't wanna do that on your first night of drinking kombucha, because not only is it probiotic, but it does promote a detox," he says, "so you'll be on the toilet for a long time the next day. You'll be all good, but it's not going to be comfortable."
Again, there's nothing that proves this. There's not really anything that's sure when you're experimenting with boozin' up the so-called "functional food." But perhaps kombucha's appeal to the drinker lies in its intention rather than its result.
When you cease to drink for effect -- when you retire that very imperial propensity to classify things by whether or not they'll get you lit or cure you -- you can let the experience of drinking dictate your evening. The endgame becomes circumstantial.