Alcoholics Anonymous is meant to be a safe zone for recovering addicts, where both major and minor victories are celebrated, where a person can be held to a higher standard of accountability by a group of peers who aspire to reach the common goal of sobriety.
But small or even trace amounts of alcohol in something like kombucha can fall into a grey area for some members in the group. For one acquaintance of mine—who, for obvious reasons, will remain anonymous—this is a huge problem. She regularly imbibes in bottles of the fermented beverage, and recently found herself being tsk-tsked by bringing it to her AA group.
My AA friend attended her first meeting earlier this year after fearing she was losing her sense of self-control after moving to New York from a much smaller and less-bar-centric city. She quickly adjusted her lifestyle by giving up many of the people, places, and things that threatened to derail her on her path to recovery. Each completed step was a victory, each AA coin a talisman attesting to her hard work. And day by day, she trudged toward a happy, sober life.
Kombucha may or may not contain wondrous healing powers, as many of its most devoted drinkers claim, but it definitely contains booze.
When it came to kombucha, however, she wasn't willing to give it up. She had been drinking kombucha and home-brewed stuff since 2006, and associated it with a multitude of positive advances in her health. For her, the theoretical health benefits were worth making an exception when it came to alcohol consumption at AA.
Kombucha may or may not contain wondrous healing powers, as many of its most devoted drinkers claim, but it definitely contains booze. The percentages are typically very low; for the commercial kind, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) says that it can be sold as non-alcoholic if it contains less than .5 percent booze.
Not all kombucha is created equal, though. At its most basic, kombucha is a sweetened tea that contains a slippery, living mat of stuff known as a "mother" or SCOBY—a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast—that produces various compounds including alcohol and acetic acid, the primary flavor of vinegar. Mmm.
Kombucha containing less than .5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), considered non-alcoholic by the TTB, only goes through a "primary fermentation" process of five to 30 days, depending on desired taste. (The sugar level decreases over time and the kombucha becomes more vinegary.) "Secondary fermentation" happens when the liquid is bottled and allowed time to develop its flavor and fizz; ABV levels can reach above .5 percent, up to 2.5 percent. In order to reach ABV levels in excess of 3 percent, the beverage must have grains added and go through a third fermentation, producing what brewers call "kombucha ale" or "probiotic beer."
In 2010, two events shook the worlds of kombucha drinkers: Whole Foods pulled the juice from its shelves, and Lindsay Lohan failed an alcohol test.
Eric Childs, the owner of Kombucha Brooklyn, gave me some insight into his experience as a kombucha producer and how the landscape has changed. "In 2009, it was hot and heavy," he explained as he poured me a cup of tea in his Bed-Stuy laboratory. "People were enjoying this naturally effervescent beverage." Hippies and yogis started the trend, and it quickly caught on with celebrities and socialites in Hollywood.
That was before the TTB got involved. In 2010, two events shook the worlds of kombucha drinkers: Whole Foods pulled the juice from its shelves, and Lindsay Lohan failed an alcohol test, which tabloids blamed on kombucha consumption (an assertion which ultimately proved to be false). Under such sudden and unexpected scrutiny, it was discovered that some bottled kombucha contained over .5 percent alcohol.
The TTB gave producers of kombucha two options: license themselves as a "brewery/winery" or change the brewing process to bring the product to non-alcoholic levels. Childs took the latter route, which significantly increased production costs for Kombucha Brooklyn, but allowed him to release a product which was in line with the laws of the TTB while still satisfying the discerning taste buds of kombucha connoisseurs.
GT Dave, which produces Synergy kombucha, decided to make both alcoholic and non-alcoholic kombucha, differentiating between the two types with color-coded labels – black signifies purchase for 21-year-olds and above. Victor Rusu at Beyond Brewing chose to apply for a brewing permit, and go the alcoholic route, and explore "the artisan side of kombucha".
Childs also began selling of home-brewing kits, which placed control of the taste and alcohol-level in directly into the hands of the consumer. If keeping alcohol level low is important to a home brewer, venturing beyond the primary fermentation phase is probably not a good idea. Theoretically, one could remove as much yeast as possible from the drink in order to decrease the alcohol percentage. But very high alcohol levels are rare in kombucha homebrewing. "It's quite difficult, even under optimal conditions to reach 2.5 percent ABV," said Rusu. "Home brews are generally .5 to 1.5 percent ABV."
For some AA members— who range widely in history, experience, exposure, and reaction to alcohol—even that .5 percent can be unthinkable.
But for recovering alcoholics, 1.5 percent is not nothing. I asked both Childs and Rusu what they thought about former drinkers keeping kombucha in the mix. Childs recounted an attempt to get drunk on kombucha years back, which he said was unfortunately a failure. Beyond it being a hell of a lot of liquid to stomach—two bottles of fresh kombucha would equal about one Blue Moon beer—he cited metabolism as a factor.
Rusu was more straightforward. "[Recovering alcoholics] should avoid the alcohol-positive kombuchas but not fear fresh kombucha that is less than .5 percent ABV," he said. "The law is clear: If it contains more than .5 percent, it's legally a beer and must be labeled, sold, and treated as such."
For some AA members— who range widely in history, experience, exposure, and reaction to alcohol—even that .5 percent can be unthinkable. "People are very susceptible to the power of suggestion," a spokesperson for AA told me. "If it's suggested that there is alcohol in this beverage, and they drink it and they're OK, then they could drink something else and be OK, and that can be really dangerous." Understanding what it means to have the physical problem with addiction, and levels of addiction is key here. For an individual with high sensitivity to alcohol, kombucha "can be seen as a gateway."
But where does that leave my friend? She may be fine with kombucha, but that doesn't mean the rest of her AA group should be. Though she is proud of the progress she has made and doesn't feel the need to bathe herself in guilt over an occasional bottle of fermented tea, one would hope that part of the personal growth experienced at AA would lead to an enhanced empathy for others.
For individuals who have struggled with addiction to alcohol and seek to live an entirely sober life, however, the choice of whether drink kombucha seems very clear. And if it's not clear, the TTB is happy to tell you. There's still a difference between living a life that is 100 percent alcohol-free and one that almost is.