By Mike Pomranz
Updated June 02, 2015
© Gunter Nezhoda / Alamy

Sales of kombucha, the fermented tea that has its own section in Whole Foods now, are set to hit half a billion dollars this year. You’d think with that much money on the table, everything would be on the up and up. And yet debates continue to rage—even within the industry—over whether kombucha makers are telling the truth about the alcohol by volume of their products.

What makes kombucha unique among teas is its fermentation process, which uses bacteria and yeast. One result of that fermentation is the addition of alcohol to the beverage. This might not seem like a big deal, except that many kombuchas walk the line of whether they are legally considered an alcoholic beverage—a distinction that occurs once a drink passes the 0.5 percent ABV threshold. A lot is at stake when it comes to ABV, because once you’re making an alcoholic beverage, your products are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

KeVita, a large player in the kombucha industry, has been openly criticizing brands that don’t follow the rules. FoodNavigator-USA quoted their CEO, Bill Moses, as saying many companies “don’t know or don’t want to know” what the alcohol content of their products is.

One cause of the higher ABV is fermentation in the bottle. Some kombucha bottles still contain live yeast, and the tea will continue to ferment, raising its ABV while it sits on store shelves. So what you see printed on the side of the bottle might not be accurate.

For its part, KeVita has launched its own “Verified Non-Alcoholic” logo based on independent testing and is encouraging other brands to do the same. They believe an initiative like this is important to build trust from customers and retailers about the emerging product, especially after a 2010 incident in which tens of thousands of kombucha bottles had to be pulled from shelves for containing too much alcohol.

But for now, it still seems like many marketing the tea from the Far East are treating the industry like the Wild West.