Kombucha — as purveyors of the health elixir claim — has a multitude of health benefits: It can aid your digestion, colonize your gut with healthy bacteria and boost your immunity. And lately, it can get you drunk.
All kombucha has a little bit of alcohol in it. But lately, brewers are upping the ante, making kombucha with more than 5 percent alcohol in it — more than the average beer. And many of them claim that the drink’s health benefits remain intact. Get tipsy! For your health! Livin’ the dream, right?
That’s not entirely how it works, some experts say, but it’s certainly part of the drink’s appeal — and why it’s such a quickly growing category.
“It’s definitely a healthy beverage,” said Tarek Kanaan, who co-founded Unity Vibration, an early producer of high-alcohol kombucha, with his wife, Rachel. “When I drink a gluten-containing beer, I feel a lot heavier and a bit more affected,” Rachel Kanaan said.
Kombucha is a fermented tea that dates back to ancient times, with its roots in Asian culture. It is made by brewing tea and sugar, and leaving it to ferment with a SCOBY, an acronym that stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The fermentation also produces alcohol. The end result is a drink that’s tart and sour, lightly carbonated and chock full of probiotics. With our culture’s increased focus on gut health, kombucha has soared in popularity in the past 10 years, commanding entire refrigerated sections of your local grocery store.
In 2010, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau cracked down on kombucha producers after tests of various brands revealed that the drinks contained anywhere from 0.5 percent alcohol by volume to 2.5 percent. Some stores were carding purchasers of kombucha, and Whole Foods pulled drinks from its shelves. Under federal law, kombucha with an ABV of 0.5 percent or more must be regulated as an alcoholic beverage. Commercial kombucha makers changed their formulas and implemented additional testing to comply with the regulations.
That’s when the Kanaans decided to go a different route and begin brewing their kombucha as an alcoholic beverage (they also make a nonalcoholic version).
“It’s old-style brewing, like Belgians or lambics,” Rachel Kanaan said. “In the second ferment, it’s open-air fermented, too. It’s allowed to brew, and then we bottle and we do bottle conditioning, which is much better than other companies that are force-[carbonating].” Their kombucha beer comes in several flavors: raspberry, ginger, bourbon peach and a KPA, or kombucha pale ale. Like other boozy kombuchas, it has emerged as a popular choice — and an alternative to cider — for those who avoid gluten.
Other kombucha brewers charted a similar course. You’ll see brands such as Boochcraft, Kombrewcha and Wild Tonic selling brews with from 3.2 to 8 percent ABV. That puts them at the level of a beer (typically a 4.5 percent ABV) and below a wine (typically 11.6 percent).
Big beer companies are getting in on the game, too. This year, Full Sail Brewing Company launched Kyla, a line of hard kombucha — combining two trends, one of them is infused with cold brew coffee. In June, Molson Coors acquired the California company Clearly Kombucha, which makes typical, low-alcohol kombucha. (The company has “no immediate plans to introduce a hard kombucha,” a spokesman said.)
And Boston Beer, which owns Samuel Adams, told The Washington Post it has plans to introduce a new brand, Tura Hard Kombucha, in early 2019. The name comes from the word “natural,” and the brand will start with the flavors blueberry-ginger and hibiscus-wild berry. Distribution will begin in six states, including California and New York, before expanding.
“Drinkers can expect a fruit forward aroma, mild sweetness, delicate touch of bubbles and a clean finish,” a company spokeswoman said via email. “Tura is also low in calories and sugar, 4 percent ABV, and gluten-free, which drinkers have told us is important to them.”
The drink will also contain shelf-stable probiotics, meaning it does not have to be refrigerated, unlike other drinks. “We experimented with a number of probiotics and selected one that remains viable in varying conditions such as wide-ranging temperatures,” the spokeswoman said. “When the probiotics are added to Tura, they’re in a dormant state and then activate when they are consumed.”
But there are questions about whether probiotics can survive in boozier kombucha at all.
“Probiotics don’t like alcohol, period,” said Holly Lyman, founder of Wild Tonic, which brews a 5.6 and a 7.6 percent ABV kombucha. “We don’t pretend to have any probiotics in our high-alcohol [kombucha] because alcohol killed them. And we’ve done a lot of testing on products out on the market, and there’s not a lot of viable probiotics in even lower-alcohol versions, even though companies claim that there are.”
Tarek Kanaan said that an independent lab’s testing of their kombucha, which ranges from 7 to 8 percent ABV, has “confirmed significant amounts of bacteria and yeast, gluconic acid and acetic acid that were comparable with what you would find in an average kombucha tea purchased at a store.”
Nutritionists aren’t sure how much the probiotics in kombucha really help us to begin with. There have not been enough studies to say for sure, said Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Your gut microbiome is different than mine. To think it’s simple, or that one drink can help you, or one strain can help you, that’s probably a huge oversimplification,” Hultin said. “There’s so much to learn.”
But kombucha has health benefits other than probiotics, Lyman contends. “In the higher-alcohol versions, the beneficial acids” — acetic, lactic, glucuronic, butyric — “are still there.”
Boozy kombucha producers have to be careful about making health claims, though. Because the FDA strictly regulates that language in alcohol, “You’re not going to see health claims with an alcoholic kombucha like a regular kombucha,” Hultin said. Instead, it will be something vague: “Now you can enjoy the party and the day after,” says the Boochcraft label, seemingly implying that the drink may not give you a hangover.
Because, when it comes down to it, boozy kombucha is still booze. “Alcohol is not healthy for you, innately,” said Hultin, who recommends that consumers of hard kombucha treat it like a beer or a wine, and stay within the recommended daily limit.
That might be tough, because they’re also pretty delicious. With flavors such as Wild Tonic’s tropical turmeric, Unity Vibrations’ ginger and Boochcraft’s apple-lime-jasmine, the drinks are pleasingly sweet and sour, and effervescent in a celebratory way. You could toast with it, like champagne.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer to use the [kombucha] beer and the tea in cocktails,” Rachel Kanaan said. Many bars on the West Coast serve hard kombucha on tap, and as the trend grows, we’ll be seeing it more and more alongside cider and other alternatives to beer. And cicerones, or beer experts, are beginning to take it seriously, too: This year at the Great International Beer, Cider, Mead & Sake Competition, a new category was created for hard kombucha (Wild Tonic swept it).
“Look at coconut water, look at cold-pressed juices: All of these categories started out as little slivers,” Tarek Kanaan said. Soon, “the beer coolers are going to be dominated with kombucha beer.”
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