Earlier this year, there was a Kombucha Recall in many stores. This was not a quality issue, but it was due to the alcohol content of kombucha. For a beverage to be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage, the alcohol content must be under .5%. Because kombucha can reach alcohol levels of around 2-something % due to the fermentation process, many brands of kombucha were taken off of store shelves in June because they did not meet the < .5% alcohol content requirement of a non-alcoholic beverage. I read about one company's reaction to the recall on Kombucha Kamp. Because CEO David Koretz, founder of Vibranz Kombucha, had a background in wine-making and expertise in fermented foods, after the recall they were able to reformulate and get their kombucha back on the shelves in only two weeks!
Although not all of the kombucha companies were able to respond to the recall as quickly, it is good to see that numerous brands of kombucha are back on store shelves again. However, some may notice that the kombucha does not taste quite the same as before. How did the companies get the alcohol content to below .5%? Below are some possibilities of how to reduce the alcohol content of kombucha. Please note that I don't actually know what each company is specifically doing to reduce the alcohol content of their kombucha- they may be doing one, several, or none of the options that I list below.
Before I list the various methods, a reminder about the fermentation process: Kombucha is fermented with a SCOBY, also known as a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts. The yeasts convert the sugars to alcohol and CO2, and the bacteria convert most (but not all) of the alcohol to organic acids, such as acetic acid, and water.
To reduce the alcoholic content of kombucha:
- Pasteurization- this process kills the live cultures in kombucha, so the yeasts can no longer produce alcohol. However, through this method, you are losing the benefits of having live cultures in your beverage. Fortunately, it seems that the brands that produced raw kombucha before the recall have decided to continue to stay raw and unpasteurized.
- Earlier expiration dates- refrigeration slows down the fermentation process significantly, but not completely. If the yeasts are still living while the kombucha is in the fridge, they can continue to produce alcohol. Earlier expiration dates help to ensure that the alcohol content won't reach .5%.
- Altering fermentation methods- this includes numerous methods. For example, as you can see from this chart, the alcohol content varies according to the amount of time the kombucha ferments. By altering the amount of time that you brew your kombucha, you can affect the alcohol content of your brew. However, numerous other factors affect kombucha, its alcoholic content, and its rate of fermentation, including temperature, amount of starter used, which strains of bacteria and yeasts are in your brew, etc.
- Favoring the bacteria in your SCOBY- this can also be done using various methods. For example, the sediment that is present at the bottom of your fermentation vessel contains yeasts/dead yeasts cells. By filtering these yeast cells out, you are favoring the bacteria, and not the yeasts, which produce the alcohol.
- Diluting the kombucha with water- not ideal, and I'm not sure if any companies actually do it, but it's another possibility.
- Removal of alcohol (such as in the production of non-alcoholic wines)
- Know your yeasts! Select specific yeast strains and exclude the yeasts that contribute to higher alcohol content
Although most companies have tried to get their kombucha to below .5% alcohol so that they can continue to sell it as a non-alcoholic beverage, two companies are taking a different approach to kombucha, by combining kombucha and beer: Lambrucha and Goose Island's Fleur.
It's really too bad that kombucha had to be taken off of store shelves not because of a quality issue, but because of its alcohol content, which is typically still pretty low at <3%. It's great to see numerous brands of kombucha back on store shelves, but again, the great thing about home-brewing is that you can brew your kombucha to exactly how you enjoy it! If you are interested in beginning to brew kombucha, here are several kombucha brewing recipes to get you started.