Last December, entrepreneur Chris Hallweaver
(disclosure: we're Twitter pals) applied for a license for his company, the Maine Kombucha Company
, to bottle and sell a line of kombucha drinks called "The Booch".
Kombucha is a fermented tea that proponents claim brings health benefits. The acidic drink can be made at home and has, over the last few years, exploded into a $300 million a year industry. The drink was known to contain small amounts of alcohol from the fermentation process, but it was assumed to be under the legal limit of .5 percent.
When Hallweaver submitted his application to sell "The Booch" earlier this year, state officials turned to a professor at the University of Maine's food science department for help. Samples from both local and national brands of kombucha were tested and some were found to have alcohol contents far exceeding the legal limits. Hallweaver told the Portland Daily Sun
, "A lot of them were centered around 1 percent [alcohol], but the nationally sold brands were very high, and had the two highest alcohol contents".
Beer typically has an alcohol content of 4-6 percent, meaning that some brands of kombucha were approaching the level of a weak beer. The test results caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration which released a statement saying it had received complaints about the alcohol content in kombucha drinks. Retailers and manufacturers quickly pulled their products from the shelves and started working on ways to cut the amount of alcohol created by their fermentation process. According to Hallweaver, Honest Tea plans to pasteurize its drinks, which will evaporate the alcohol but also will "kill many of the benefits" of the drink. Although a PR rep for Honest Tea says there are no plans to pasteurize Honest Kombucha at this time.
Hallweaver has no such plans for his kombucha. Today he posted on Twitter
: "Maine kombucha will be producing Authentic Unadulterated Full-Strength Booch." He's applying for a wine license that will allow him to sell his drink without worrying about the alcohol content.
I have to hand it to Hallweaver — it's a pretty savvy marketing move to temporarily shut down an entire industry right before jumping in. He has inadvertently positioned his drink as one of the "true" lines of kombucha. It will be harder to sell to the mainstream, but he's right in line to build some brand loyalty from the hardcore corps of kombucha lovers who will turn up their noses at the processed versions of the drink.