269: Kombucha Questions Answered: Alcohol, Candida, Pregnancy, and More With Kombucha Kamp

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Katie: Hello and welcome to the Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and I’m here today with a friend of mine who has been here before and I know you’re going to love to hear from her again. Hannah Crum, AKA The Kombucha Mamma, pioneered Kombucha Kamp, which is an education workshop. It started in 2004 out of her Los Angeles kitchen. Now, with her husband Alex, they’ve created kombuchakamp.com, spelled with a K, the top educational site with a mission to change the world one gut at a time by providing quality information, quality cultures, and quality customer support around all things fermented. She’s also a popular speaker about kombucha, fermentation and bacteriosapiens. And through Kombucha Kamp’s videos, blog posts, and online support communities and their award-winning Amazon bestseller The Big Book of Kombucha, they serve as mentors and leading experts in the world of kombucha to millions all over the world.

So, Hannah, welcome and thanks for being here.

Hannah: Thanks for having me, Katie, great to be back.

Katie: Oh, it’s always great to chat. And I today want to go kind of deep on several different topics and tackle the most common questions I get. Because I have a big blog post about kombucha, I have made it myself for years, I got my kombucha SCOBYs from you guys, and I get several questions over and over and I figured there’s no one, literally no one, in the world more qualified to answer these questions than you.

So to start off with a controversial one, walk us through what’s the deal with kombucha and alcohol. Because I know there was the drama with Lindsay Lohan, there’s the, “Can you buy them in the store with an ID or without?,” and the actual real issue of how much alcohol is in kombucha. So take us through the whole story.

Hannah: Absolutely. So kombucha is a fermented food. There are other fermented foods we think of, like sauerkraut, and beet kvass, and yogurt, and we don’t necessarily associate those fermented foods with alcohol content. And then, of course, we think of beer and wine and all those other fun, recreational, higher alcohol content beverages. Well, all fermented foods create trace amounts of alcohol as a preservative.

So one of yeast’s unique characteristics and competitive strategies is to create alcohol, which is naturally antimicrobial. Right? Think about when you get a wound and you might grab the rubbing alcohol and rub that on your wound, it stings a little bit. But that alcohol is killing potential pathogenic organisms, and that’s how we, you know, sort of clean a wound if we’re using rubbing alcohol. So alcohol has this naturally antimicrobial aspect to it.

So what this means is that all fermented foods create trace amounts of alcohol as a means of preventing molds and other pathogens from colonizing their delicious substrate. So substrate in the case of sauerkraut would be cabbage, or milk in the case of yogurt. In kombucha our substrate is sweet tea. So we’re taking tea and sugar, we’re adding our SCOBY, that’s our bacterial cellulose patty, also called a mother or a baby, and that stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” And so the yeast and bacteria are working together to create this delicious beverage, and the alcohol is a key component to that because it’s a defense mechanism and it’s a strategy for preventing mold from growing.

Now why doesn’t kombucha end up like beer or wine with a much higher alcohol content? You know, typically we’re seeing 4% and higher in beer, typically 4% to 8% if you’re going for craft beer. In wine we see upwards of over 10% alcohol by volume. And that’s because kombucha is an acetic acid ferment, like vinegar. So you may have noticed sometimes when you drink kombucha, there’s a little bit of that tangy flavor to it. What’s happening is the ethanol created by the fermentation process is then converted into those healthy organic acids. And those acids help with digestion, they help with metabolism, they help with supporting a healthy liver.

And so as much as Lindsay Lohan, and there was also a football player a couple years ago, want to blame their kombucha consumption for triggering their alcohol bracelets, the reality is that when people drink kombucha and they take breathalyzer tests there is no alcohol remaining in their system because it’s metabolized quickly by the B vitamins and acids present in the brew.

Katie: That makes sense. And I love that you mentioned the B vitamins and the acids that are present in kombucha and in fermented products in general. I’d love it if we could talk a little bit more about those. Because I know, like, as we find out more about the gut and we understand just how many… Like, there’s this huge variety of gut bacteria and we obviously need all these different kinds. And most people understand that pretty well, but a lot of people think of just fermented foods equal probiotics, but there’s a lot more going on there. So can you walk us through what are some of the other amazing things happening in fermented foods like kombucha or any fermented foods?

Hannah: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, to your point, probiotics, when we think of the word “pro,” “for,” “bio,” “life,” that’s exactly what probiotics are doing, they are supporting life. They are elements or nutrients or organisms that help the body thrive. Now we don’t have a standardized definition of “probiotic” in the United States, but there’s an old list from a while ago of organisms that are on this short list of what’s considered probiotic.

Now the problem with that is, as you mention, oftentimes there are organisms that we find in fermented foods which have traditionally been what human beings have consumed as probiotics before anyone knew you could try to stuff them into a pill or anything like that since the dawn of time. And by consuming these organisms in a living form, these nutrients in a living form, hey, guess what, human beings are. We’re in a living form. And so when we consume those things that also match, are bioidentical to what our human body needs, there is an uptake system that allows us to intake those nutrients far quickly and far more efficiently than if we’re consuming them in a synthetic form.

And to your point about the human microbiome and all of the research that’s, you know, gone on in the last, almost, a decade, it’s surprising to me that we haven’t taken the opportunity to update that list. Because I think the key factor that we’re learning out of all of this research is, first of all, we don’t know the half of what we’re looking at. You know, it’s the more you know, the less you know. And the other thing that we’re really seeing is that the key component is diversity. And what this speaks to is the fact that as long as we’ve, you know, for many years, since the 1800s, you know, since germ theory became a common theory, we’ve been waging germ warfare. And on a certain level that was due to a lack of understanding of the role of bacteria in the human body.

And so what we understood was, “Oh, well, here’s a germ, it causes a disease or an illness or an ailment, let’s kill germs and therefore eliminate this disease or ailment.” Unfortunately what we’ve seen is the rise of superbugs as a result of trying to kill them off. And this is because bacteria are incredibly responsive. And we are bacteriosapiens, right? So not only do they live inside of our body in our microbiome, they live on the surface of our body, they live on the surface of everything. Like, literally, I’m so sorry, germaphobes, but there is bacteria everywhere. And our human body would not be able to function if we didn’t have those organisms helping us to uptake nutrition.

Interestingly enough, this is very similar to how the roots of plants work. You know, they’re in the ground and it’s the bacteria in the soil that allows the nutrients to be absorbed by the plants. And so our gut is essentially our soil, and we need to be putting really healthy nutrients into that soil so that our plant can flourish. And diversity is key.

And the reason I bring this up is because people will talk about candida and candida overgrowth, right? So it’s not that our body doesn’t contain candida, in fact it does naturally. It’s when that candida is allowed to over-proliferate into an out-of-balance situation that we have a problem.

And so the reason I bring this up is to remind people that sometimes we may have or we might find in different populations things that we would normally consider pathogens. However, they’re present in a quantity in a balanced environment such that they’re actually producing a positive net result for the host, versus if that organism were out of balance and therefore creating a negative effect.

All of this is to say that we need to be eating fermented foods on a regular basis. And the great news is that they come in so many different varieties and flavors that you don’t have to feel like, “Oh, well, kombucha is too sour, I don’t like that. Oh, sauerkraut smells like stinky socks.” We have yogurt, we have water kefir, we have coconut water kefir. You know, there’s all these. Miso, tempeh, there’s all these different types of fermented foods that have this positive effect on our body and getting a wide variety of them is what’s going to support our organism best, because honestly we don’t know exactly what it is we need to put in our system.

Katie: Yeah, exactly. And I think you brought up such an important point, like you said, that crosses across the board in our life, which is that aspect of diversity. And I think that’s one of the downsides of…I mean there are many, but one of the downsides of the “standard American diet” is that it’s not varied, it’s not diverse. It’s the same foods over and over, without exposure to other foods, other bacteria.

And that’s something that’s shifted for me even in the last couple of years, is realizing just how much our bodies need diversity in movement, diversity in food, diversity in everything so we don’t adapt to something. So I actually now try not to do anything every single day, not any movement every single day, not any supplement every single day, and to really focus on eating a varied diet and throwing in as many, you know, different herbs and plant species and different things that we can to serve our gut bacteria and also our micronutrient levels and all that. And I think another wonderful way to do that, and I bet you would agree, is, you know, to garden, to expose yourself to bacteria in the soil, to have pets that bring in bacteria. But, like you said, not to be afraid of those germs.

And I love that you brought up candida because this is another question I get quite a bit on the blog on that post about how to make kombucha. And I think there’s a lot of confusion, like you touched on, when it comes to kombucha and people who have candida, especially candida overgrowth, and if they should or should not drink kombucha. So from your research, what’s your take on kombucha and fermented products and candida?

Hannah: Absolutely. And I think the confusion comes from, again, people hear the word “yeast” and they don’t understand. Or, you know, we just haven’t worked with yeast on a regular basis to understand that there is different types of yeast and how they reproduce are different and their functions are different. And so just like, you know, germ warfare where we think, “Oh, all bacteria are bad,” people will think, “Oh, all yeast are bad, especially candida and candida overgrowth. And so if you consume anything with yeast, that’s going to be a problem.”

The reality is in the natural world like controls like. So what that means is good bacteria hold bad bacteria in check and good yeast hold bad yeast in check. And the thing about kombucha and candida, there’s a couple of factors going on. First of all, if you’re buying it from the store, commercial producers obviously understand that the American palate is on the sweeter side. And so rather than just hit the market with a bunch of Sour Power, which I really love, people have chosen to have lighter profiles for kombucha, sweeter profiles for kombucha. And sometimes if you’re drinking a commercial kombucha, it could be that it does have more sugar than if you were making a home brew at home, and therefore it could potentially be activating the candida.

So the first thing is to consider what kombucha are you consuming. If you’re making a home brew and you’re a candida sufferer, the nice thing is you have the opportunity to allow that ferment to go a little bit longer, more of the sugars are converted into the healthy acids, and it might have a tangier flavor on your tongue. Well, when you go to consume that type of kombucha, it starts to clear out the bad guys. And so sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. And, you know, a healing crisis is something that only an individual can ascertain from themself if that’s what’s happening in their body. I mean think about it, nobody else lives in your body. And you can describe symptoms until you’re blue in the face and you’ll still have a doctor say, “Okay, it’s all in your head,” or something like that. Unfortunately we’ve seen that far too often.

And so really you need to be the steward of your own temple, you need to be paying attention to your own body. And our motto “trust your gut” is all about teaching you how to close those feedback loops by paying attention to what you’re consuming and how it makes you feel.

So candida is a great example of this, right? The organisms in your body crave sugar and they demand you consume sugar. And you think, “Oh, I want sugar,” so you have some sugar. And in the moment maybe it feels good, it tastes good, whatever. But soon thereafter you have a rash, you have an infection, you’re itchy, you have all these awful symptoms, you feel bloated, you feel gassy. Okay, that’s your body communicating to you saying, “Hey, I know those organisms demanded sugar, but you know what? It’s not having a positive effect.”

And so closing that feedback loop is starting to pay attention not just to how things are on your taste buds, but how they actually manifest in your physical body, and then connecting those two. And, you know, we have this amazing DNA wisdom and this amazing ability to know what nutrients our bodies need instinctually. The problem is, as I’m sure you know and as you already brought up, “standard American diet,” we’re exposed to so much advertising, so much… You know, they subsidize corn, wheat, and soy, and this is why we end up with every variation of corn, wheat, and soy under the sun. And unfortunately we’re seeing, you know, even folks who are choosing more vegetables, or more of a vegetarian or vegan type of lifestyle, unfortunately those processed foods end up being far worse for you then if you were to just eat a well-rounded diet of, you know, more diverse inputs.

And so it’s really fascinating to see how all of this impacts our body, but back to our point about candida. Making your own kombucha at home, you might go through a die-off period, typically it’s about 10 days to two weeks. But, again, only you know if it’s a die-off versus, “This is creating an issue and I need to not consume kombucha in this moment, switch to a milk kefir, switch to a coconut water kefir instead, and then reintroduce kombucha when your biome is more balanced.

Katie: Got it, yeah, that makes perfect sense. And I think, like you said, anything, it’s about the amount, it’s about understanding your body, there’s a lot of factors that go in. And on that note, another area that comes up a lot in the questions, and I think it also has an aspect of, like, knowing your body and in this case, I would say also, like, talking to a practitioner, but is the issue of can women consume kombucha while pregnant or nursing. And I know part of that is a complicated answer because alcohol is typically considered taboo when pregnant, and we’ve already mentioned there are trace amounts of alcohol, but I also know that there are ways that it can very much be fine. So can you speak to the kombucha while pregnant and nursing question?

Hannah: Again, it goes back to trust your gut. Right? I’ve had friends who loved kombucha, got pregnant, couldn’t stand the smell of it. That’s your body saying, “Not for me right now.” I’ve had other friends who said they craved it all through their pregnancy, it helps with morning sickness because of the trace amounts of B vitamins, it helped with the constipation because it aids in digestion, alleviating stress, things like that. So there’s a lot of folks who experience positive outcomes as a result of consuming kombucha while pregnant.

And the trace amounts of alcohol, just to be clear, are not intoxicating. You know, we’re talking about anywhere from, you know, .2% up to 2% ABV. When they ended Prohibition back in the 1930s, they said that 4% alcohol by volume was considered non-intoxicating for an adult. And so we’re talking about levels that are half that or less than half that, often comparable to a piece of fruit.

And the reason I bring this up is because again, we hear a word and we freak out, “Ah, yeast! Ah, bacteria! Ah, alcohol!” When the reality is that humans have consumed alcohol medicinally, again, since the dawn of time because it was one of the few things that had the power to extract nutrients as a solvent and pass those on to the consumer. And, in fact, in other countries we’ll hear about, you know, the woman gives birth and they hand her a glass of beer so that she can start releasing her milk more easily. And so I think there’s also a cultural construct around alcohol that, again, we take to that sort of black and white type of thought process that isn’t entirely accurate.

And so same thing, a woman who’s nursing can enjoy kombucha, and children love kombucha, babies can drink kombucha. It’s remembering that this isn’t a magic potion, it’s a food. It’s a food with nutrients in living form. And, you know, there are foods that aren’t appropriate for babies to consume at certain ages, but, for example, kombucha has been used to help babies with colic. There are several different papers and studies and anecdotal information talking about in Russia colicky babies were given kombucha and it helped settle their stomach, something that we often don’t even understand what the root cause is. However, when we go to help aid their digestion with a little bit of kombucha, probably diluted with water, we find that it can have a positive outcome.

And so, again, “trust your gut” is about trusting you gut, but it’s also observing the behavior of your children when you give them kombucha and seeing how are they responding to this brew. Are they having a negative reaction or are they have a positive reaction? And now observe them when you give them soda or juice and see what types of reactions you’re getting there, as well.

Katie: I think that’s great advice, again, across the board, of learning to listen to your own body. Because that’s so true and it can apply to anything, not just kombucha. Like our kids or we can have a reaction to any food or anything in the environment. So I think that’s one of those skills that all of us would be well served to continue cultivating because, like I said, it applies in every aspect of life, as well.

To talk about the sugar aspect a little bit more, I’d love to hear from you if there are ways to make it very low sugar or to fully remove the sugar. I know that the sugar is largely fermented out during the process of brewing kombucha, but I also know there’s a lot of movements right now, like keto or low carb, where people are consciously trying to avoid sugar. So is that possible to do, is it possible to make a low sugar kombucha?

Hannah: Absolutely, it is possible. Now the flavor isn’t as rich, and that’s because the sugar is not for you, the sugar is nutrients for the organisms that are fermenting the tea and sugar and turning it into those healthy acids. Now here’s the other thing to consider. When we… Again, we say “sugar” and we think table sugar, which is sucrose. And sucrose is a disaccharide, that means it has both fructose and glucose bound up together in that molecule. In the fermentation process for kombucha those organisms, the yeast is creating an enzyme that splits that molecule in two. And so what you end up with in kombucha is fructose, glucose, and a little bit of sucrose remains, as well. However, those sugars have a lower glycemic impact than if you were consuming table sugar.

And definitely I understand the push to reduce sugar content, but I also say, “Well, in what source? What is the source of your sugar?” Are you getting sugar in your diet through high-fructose corn syrup? Are you getting it in your diet through a chemical made in a lab, like aspartame? Or are you getting it from a grass that’s been grown for 5,000 years? And, yes, there is a processing step to sugar, but it’s also what form are we receiving it in our bodies. It’s also that fermented form.

And then lastly, I would recommend if you’re making kombucha at home, no less than three-quarters of a cup sugar per gallon. Less than that and you tend to have a flat flavor, the fermentation doesn’t really happen as it should, you get poor SCOBY growth, and you also miss out on your fizz.

Katie: Got it, okay. That’s such a great explanation. And on that note, let’s talk home brew safety and the best way to make kombucha. Because I know there have also been concerns about if it’s done incorrectly there can be contamination or bacteria that’s not supposed to be there. So you have extensive experience with this, walk us through what people need to know if they are trying to make their own, and especially to fit a lower sugar profile or some very specific thing they’re trying to accomplish.

Hannah: I mean like any food that you’re making at home, cleanliness, you just want to have a nice, sanitary environment. And think about this, right? Kombucha and sauerkraut, all of these foods, have been with human beings for thousands of years and we lived in conditions that very much do not resemble the way in which we live today. They were, you know, what we would consider dirtier or messier, we lived closer to the earth. And, you know, some might say we had a stronger bacterial force field at that point in time and now we have a weaker one because we’re not in contact with those organisms as frequently.

So the most important thing is going to be sanitation in your kitchen. And it’s normal sanitation, we’re not talking about wearing a HAZMAT suit or, you know, getting out the bleach or anything like that. This is the really awesome thing about all fermented foods, and that is they create acids that prevent microbes and pathogens from growing. Now they’re also a food, just like any other. And so how does food tell you it’s not safe to consume? More often than not it grows mold.

So, again, when you’re working with kombucha, remember it’s a food. And so if you see mold, that’s an indicator that you should not be consuming that product or there’s something wrong in the environment, you don’t have the temperature dialed in or your inputs aren’t appropriate. You know, for example, people will try to ferment with stevia, which is not a fermentable sugar, and that can lead to mold right off the bat. You might try to brew in an environment that’s too cold. Kombucha likes a temperature range of 75 to 85, with 80 being the sweet spot. And if we are too cold, sometimes it can still work, but we’ll get not as good of a flavor. But oftentimes it will go to mold, especially if it’s too cold early on in the process.

And so just keeping in mind that what we’re consuming is food and it communicates with us the same way other foods do, it is a great reminder. And, in fact, the acid profile in kombucha, not only the low pH but the specific organic acids, kill pathogens on contact. So brewing kombucha at home is actually safer than preparing some other types of food that could be more susceptible to bacteria. For example, you know, raw chicken or raw milk or things like that, which can sometimes have organisms that are not desirable and that you can’t see. Spinach sometimes has E. coli, you don’t even know it does. I’m not trying to make people afraid of their food by any stretch of the imagination, but maybe rinse it in some kombucha before you use it and that will be better.

But, long story short, making kombucha at home is incredibly safe, it’s been done for thousands of years, and it already has those defense mechanisms built in. Of course, if you see mold, toss everything and start over.

Katie: And you touched on another good point that I want to just make sure we explicitly answer, which is that question of, you know, “Do you actually need sugar to brew kombucha?” And then every follow-up question, which is, “What about stevia, or maple syrup, or honey, or coconut sugar, etc., etc.?” So what can be used to brew kombucha and what do we need to stick to to make sure it is safe?

Hannah: You know, this is the great thing about the kombucha SCOBY, it’s flexible technology. So originally it was thought it was only black tea and sugar, and we have come to discover there are a variety of teas and herbs, you can even make caffeine-free kombucha using things like rooibos or herbs and flowers and things, hibiscus, ginger, things like that, and primary fermentation, instead of tea. Provided the herb or the plant you’re using has enough nutrients for the culture, you’ll end up with it reproducing over time.

In terms of sugar sources, they have to be fermentable. So, like, your stevia, your monk fruit, those are non-fermentable sugars. And so they’re not going to be…they’re not going to sustain the organisms because they don’t have the nutrients they need. Can you use maple sugar, coconut palm sugar? Absolutely. Just keep in mind that when your sugar has a higher mineral content, that that can actually overstimulate the yeast and cause it to sour more quickly. So if you are experimenting with these different sugar types, you’ll just want to taste more frequently so you’re harvesting it at a point when it has a flavor that’s still appealing to you before it gets too acid-heavy. And I’ve experimented with a wide variety of sugars.

Now if you want to use raw honey specifically, there is a culture unique to raw honey that’s a relative of kombucha and it’s called /j?n/, or /jo?on/, J-U-N. We say jun rhymes with fun, but you can call it /jo?on/. It’s /p??t?d?/, /p??täd?/, really. And that culture is uniquely evolved to harmonize with the organisms in the raw honey.

So, for example, when we give sugar to our jun and raw honey to our kombucha, they both go to mold right away because they’re not adapted to work with those different organisms. So… But people who love raw honey who are turning to that instead of sugar, definitely grab a jun culture, as that’s a really fun way to ferment your honey. And it has a lovely, like, floral flavor, it gets a little bubblier, you can do it at a slightly cooler temperature because the glucose and fructose are already free-flowing in the honey, versus in the sugar where they’re all bound up in the sucrose. And so it’s a great alternative to kombucha if you’re looking to try something else.

Katie: Yeah, there are so many options when it comes to fermenting things. And remembering, like you said, these are foods, not crazy supplements. And they are things that people have making for years and years and years and years. And so, and I know you guys have resources, like both educational and the supplies needed to make all of these different types of ferments, and of course there will be links to those in the show notes.

This episode is brought to you by Alitura Naturals skincare. You guys loved the founder, Andy, when he came on this podcast to talk about his own skin healing journey after a tragic accident that caused massive scarring on his face. From this experience he developed some of the most potent and effective natural skin care options from serums to masks and the results are visible in his perfectly clear skin that is free of scars! I love the mask and use it a couple times a week, and often use the gold serum at night to nourish my skin while I sleep. All of their products have super clean ingredients and they really work! Andy is absolutely dedicated to creating the highest quality products possible and it shows. Check them out at alituranaturals.com/wellnessmama and use the Discount code “wellness” to get 20% off.

This podcast is sponsored by Thrive Market, a company I’ve known and loved since the very beginning. Their goal is to make real food affordable to everyone and they now help their half a million members, including me, get the organic foods we love delivered to our door for less! Think of an online combination of Costco and whole foods with tons of organic, allergy friendly, paleo, vegan, Keto and other options. The annual membership earns you free gifts and guaranteed savings, and sponsors a free membership for a low-income family. You’ll get 25-50% off top brands and I also always order the new Thrive Market brand products that provide an even bigger discount on their 500+ high quality products. Check it out and save 25% on your first order by going to thrivemarket.com/wm

Katie: I want to switch gears a little bit, too, though because I mentioned that you also have this mission when it comes to kombucha and the education side. So I want to talk about a few aspects of that. First of all, what is the KBI? Explain what that is and all the stuff you do within the industry to advance the kombucha industry.

Hannah: Absolutely. So our mission is changing the world one gut at a time. And even though I speak Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, those were my majors in college, I’m not going to be able to communicate with all 1-point-however-many billion people there are on this planet. So we’ve always understood that if we create great educational resources while also partnering with the industry, that is how our mission is going to be executed in the world, through symbiosis, through collaboration, that’s what our culture is all about.

And so when I first started my blog in ’07, I really reached out to the commercial producers who were near me, GT’s and House Kombucha up in Northern California, and I really wanted to highlight these brands. I was so excited about kombucha, I just wanted everybody to know where they could get a local brand. And that love of the industry and the culture and the ferment itself has really grown into Kombucha Brewers International.

So in 2010, just to give a little history lesson here, Whole Foods removed all of the kombucha from shelves due to the trace amounts of alcohol potentially present. And that, of course, created a huge hole in the industry. And what Alex and I recognized was that there wasn’t a central place that could help educate people about what kombucha is, there wasn’t a central place for kombucha producers to come together and tackle issues together, and that’s where the seed for Kombucha Brewers International was planted.

And in 2014 we started with KombuchaKon, it’s our annual conference. We’ve now had six conferences to date, every year they’re bigger and bigger. This year we had over 400 attendees representing 17 countries around the world and over 100 kombucha brands. And, you know, I think it’s a testament. I can’t take credit for all of it, but, you know, I think a lot of people started home brewing with our supplies, our book The Big Book of Kombucha has helped them really fine-tune their process. The trade association gives them resources they need in order to have an opportunity to nutrify their communities to work in something that, I’m not going to lie, it’s a labor of love, emphasis on the labor. But if you’re someone who really wants to give back to your community…

And that’s the really neat thing about our industry, is almost every producer is someone who had a health challenge, kombucha helped them in some way, and that is what has inspired them to want to bring this product to their community. And, of courses, some brands grow larger, we’ve seen the Health-Ades, the Humms, the Brew Dr.’s, along with GT’s, become national brands. But then what’s really unique about our industry are all the small regional producers, which you really don’t see in food as much. Like you don’t really see regional start-ups as much, except in the fermented food space.

And so we’re really excited to help stabilize the industry through our lobbying efforts. We have the Kombucha Act, which is in Congress and the Senate right now. It’s designed to eliminate taxes on kombucha if it goes up to 1.25% alcohol by volume. And as I mentioned earlier, these trace amounts of alcohol are not intoxicating. However, due to the way the laws are written in our country, if it ever goes above .5%, which it can sometimes do if it’s not kept in a cold supply chain because it’s a living food, right? If you were to test a banana, its nutrient profile would be X on one day and Y on another day. And so just like a piece of fruit, because it’s a living food, it can naturally change. And so this law is designed to eliminate any sort of tax liability that might be required as a result of the slight shiftings of the trace amounts of alcohol.

And we’re also working on standard of identity, which is to define kombucha and what it is. Not just as an end product, but also as a process. And, you know, part of the page we’re taking is looking at, say, orange juice. Right? It used to be orange juice, in our minds, you took an orange and you squeezed it, there’s the juice, that’s orange juice. Of course over time what we saw is there were juices from concentrate, there was orange drink. And it took lawsuits in order to force the orange juice industry to say, “Hey, this product is from concentrate, versus this is a fresh squeezed.” And as you and I know, when you’re in the grocery store choosing between a variety of options, you’re going to pay a different price for something that you believe is fresh squeezed versus something that’s from concentrate.

And so we really want to get transparent with consumers so they understand why is this kombucha $2.50 and this one is $5, so they can make that informed decision, “Do I want to go with a product that maybe is added probiotics with a flavor and a concentrate or do I want to go with a product that’s been through a traditional fermentation process that has these nutrients in living form?”

And so that’s just some of the big pieces of work that we’re doing right now with Kombucha Brewers International. I’m the President there, Alex is Chairman of the Board, and I spend probably about a third of my time helming the trade association and growing, we’ve just been growing like crazy.

So it’s exciting to see kombucha taking the stage. We really think of it as a similar trajectory that yogurt followed, where our generation grew up buying yogurt at the grocery store and having it as a regular basis, it was in our grocery carts, and now it’s a multibillion-dollar industry. While our parents’ generation, they had to make their own yogurt on their counter, right? All these crazy hippies and their countercultures that then end up mainstream. Well, that’s what’s happening with kombucha. Traditionally it’s been those, you know, crazy hippies or whomever, those people seeking natural health alternatives, and now we’re starting to see kombucha really picking up in the mainstream. And, in fact, it’s the fastest growing functional beverage segment for the last several years running, with velocities of 30% to 50% growth year after year, depending on the channel.

So that was a lot of nerdy speak, so to speak, about the kombucha industry, but we really are passionate about that mission. And, of course, having local options is a key way to introducing people to kombucha, because not everybody is going to start making it right off the bat.

Katie: Yeah, and it sounds like you’re doing this work on a large scale, helping educate about what those different terms mean. For people who are listening and are just, at this point, consumers and going to the grocery store, for instance, how can they know if they’re getting a good kombucha or not?

Hannah: Absolutely. So words you want to look for are “raw,” “unpasteurized.” You know, as much as we’re used to having clear beverages, floaty things in your kombucha is actually a good thing because that indicates those strands of culture means it’s alive. You’re looking for kombuchas that aren’t shelf-stable. If they’re not in the refrigerated section, it’s probably because they’re pasteurized. Although we do know some pasteurized kombuchas live in the refrigerated section because they want to be perceived like their raw counterparts.

And so really, doing your diligence, reading the labels. Some brands do add probiotics, and those are listed on the label whenever that’s added. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better or worse, it just means there’s additional probiotics in the beverage. And part of that is because, although we know kombucha is probiotic, those organisms haven’t been put on an official list. And so to prevent lawsuits, this country very much enjoys lawsuits, people will add probiotics to their kombucha, as well.

But farmers’ market, you know, going to your farmers’ market, finding your local producer, getting a fresh glass on tap, those are really great ways to find those types of kombuchas. If it’s a little tangy, that’s great, it means it has that Sour Power present. And you’ll know it’s real kombucha by the way it makes your body feel. I truly believe the only reason that GT was able to create an industry single-handedly, you know, I personally think kombucha tastes amazing, but not everybody does on first sip. However, your body can’t help but have a physiological reaction to those healthy acids. And when you look at the standard American diet and how depleted it is of nutrients in living form, it makes sense that when you consume something… And just this year at KombuchaKon we had a research, a very small pilot study done on humans showing that within a couple hours it really does change those inflammation markers, reducing inflammation, helping with digestion.

So when you’ve been taking a bunch of pills or not feeling that great and all of a sudden you can grab a product off the shelf and it has that immediate reaction, this is why kombucha has staying power, this is why kombucha isn’t a fad, it’s a really nutritious food because people feel the way it works in their body.

Katie: And another thing that I know is in the works with you, or that you have been involved in, what is the Kombucha Act? Explain what you guys are doing with that.

Hannah: Yeah, exactly. So the Kombucha Act is that piece of legislation I mentioned, it’s in the House and the Senate. And that bill is going to raise the… So it goes into the internal revenue code. Now it doesn’t change the definition of alcoholic beverage, but it states that for kombucha alone taxation would not start until the beverage is at a 1.25% ABV or higher.

And let me just break down the kombucha industry a little bit. So we have our under 21 kombuchas, these are our half-a-percent and lower kombuchas. We have our traditional kombuchas, so that will be like a GT’s Classic or a Wild Kombucha out of Iowa City. You know, these are brands that are fermenting a traditional kombucha, but it’s probably topping out at around 2% ABV. So, again, not intoxicating, but above that half-a-percent defined limit for a non-alcoholic beverage. And then we have hard kombuchas, so these have really picked up in popularity in recent years, things like Boochcraft, Unity Vibration, KYLA. These are kombuchas to which additional yeast, higher alcohol-loving yeast, have been added in order to create a high alcohol beverage.

And so some people might say, “Well, won’t it be confusing to the consumer?” And the short answer is “no.” Because those who are making hard kombuchas are doing so deliberately with the purpose to intoxicate, and those beverages are all subject to the excise taxes. You know, people who are making the low-alcohol, non-intoxicating kombuchas, this just gives the small buffer zone so that, like I said, if these natural changes occur due to transportation or supply chain issues, our producers won’t be penalized because the product has shifted slightly.

So it just sort of gives that relief to folks, gives them peace of mind. Because right now what people have had to do is really shift their process in order to try to create this under-half-a-percent type of product. And the reason for that is because the laws of nature and the laws of man often don’t harmonize. And that’s just where we’re at right now, we’re a little out of harmony with each other. But these trace amounts, again, they’re not intoxicating and they have this positive net effect on the body, and so we’re confident. And everyone we’ve talked to has said, “Oh, this is really common sense, this is just removing red tape.”

So we really are getting positive bipartisan support on the matter when we’re able to go in through our hill climbs and meetings in person and by phone with all the different stakeholders in the process. And so right now it’s finding the right piece of legislation for it to be associated with, of course it has to be tax-related since it’s a tax issue. And, as you know, things in Washington are a little up in the air, so to speak, and so that makes business as usual a little tougher to execute.

So we’ve been engaging this process for a couple years, but every time, you know, it just deepens our connections to government, which is so vital for an industry. I think it’s…as consumers we sometimes forget how important it is to have allies in government because they can help us through the red tape.

Katie: Yeah, and I can only imagine the scale of, you know, working through that in Washington. I was involved in an effort where I used to live just to license midwives because home birth was technically illegal. And that was a multi-multi-year process with a ton of grass-roots efforts. And finally we were able to pass that, but just I understand even on a state level how much can go into that. And so I’m sure on a national level it’s even more to coordinate, but I love that you are doing that and on the front lines working through that. Like you said, I think it does make a lot of sense and it helps consumers to have trust and to have options. And so I’m glad that you guys are doing that, I’ll have to stay in touch with the progress on that.

I also know, and people now know from this interview, just how busy you are and how many plates you have in the air, so I really appreciate you taking the time to be here today and to educate. And of course, like I mentioned, all of your resources and also all of the supplies for these products are on your website and there will be links to all of those specifics in the show notes so people can find them and keep learning. But, Hannah, thank you so much for being here, this is always so much fun.

Hannah: Oh, my pleasure, it was really great to be here today with you and to share more about kombucha and how far it’s come. And, yeah, trust your gut, it’s really all about listening to your body and that biofeedback. And like you said before, also getting information from practitioners. And it’s not just Google University, it’s listening to your body, it’s getting the right information into your mind so that you can harmonize those two and just feel good again.

Katie: Absolutely. And thanks to all of you for listening and sharing your time with us today, we’re so grateful that you did. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness Mama Podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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