At first, we were frightened. My god, they're taking our kombucha! But though distribution of our liquid love has drastically slowed, there's one good thing about the 'bucha alcohol labeling debacle: it's been great for local businesses. That's because while bigger companies are halting production, the small scale of the Bay Area's local kombucha operations are allowing them to dodge the labeling problems of national chains.
In mid-June the hammer dropped. Trashy media found a way to link the sudden dearth of kombucha on shelves to Lindsey Lohan's hot mess, but the official verdict was that the alcohol content in the live-fermentation tea drinks had tested at levels above the .5% legal limit for non-alcoholic beverages, causing a nationwide forehead slapping Eureka moment who all those who use the stuff as holistic hangover cure. Bay Area distributor UNFI stopped delivering the stuff. Whole Foods and Rainbow Grocery nearly emptied their shelves of our liquid love. GT's, the country's largest kombucha producer, halted production of its lines, its current voicemail stating “We are working quickly to identify the possible causes and which lot codes and or regions are being potentially affected. We are trying our best to have product back on the shelves of stores as soon as possible.”
But a few kombuchas remained serene in their squat little bottles. SoMa's House Kombucha, which has been selling its wares in farmers markets since the fall of 2009 and bottling for stores since early this year, was one of them. “Rather than it sitting on a shelf for six months in a warehouse somewhere, we get our product to our customers pretty fast,” says founder Rana Chang. “We're not distributing to Michigan.” The problem of heightened alcohol levels has been shown to be caused by the continued fermentation that takes place after kombucha has been bottled, usually after it has left company facilities. In other words, the longer your bottle of 'bucha sits and waits to be shipped to you or yet another warehouse, the more boozy it will be.
So small outfits, which distribute to their local retail sources a few times a week, have a leg up on the competition. For once! “It's about time,” says Chris Campagna of Bay Area-based Rejuvenation Company, who says his company ran “a gamut of tests” on its kombucha, but did not pull their bottles from shelves because no labeling disreprencies were found. “It's becoming apparent the benefit of small local companies. We have to fight for the small amount of shelf space we get, but now we're seeing an increase in volume, better presence in accounts, and new accounts on the horizon.”
Chang also noted a considerable uptick in business and said that House is now looking for expanded facilities and to hire new staff to keep up with demand. “It's been an extraordinary opportunity to get into some stores where [before the voluntary recalls] shelves were so crowded with other products we couldn't get in,” she told SFBG. A full list of stores selling both Rejunevation and House are available on their websites (including health food standards Rainbow, Other Avenues, and Berkeley Bowl), so dry your eyes, hop on your trike, and head out for some pro-biotic lovin'.