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This article was originally published Feb. 20, 2013.
There’s irony in Chris McCoy selling his kombucha “beer” as an alcoholic beverage, since as he sees it, kombucha might actually sober you up quicker than it will get you drunk.
McCoy recently opened a microbrewery called Kombucha Town on the sixth floor of the Herald Building in downtown Bellingham. The business, in development since September 2011, is the first local producer of kombucha—a fermented sweet tea containing cultures of yeast and bacteria—sold as an alcoholic drink.
Kombucha fans extol the beverage as a wonder tonic, although science has yet to document evidence of its supposed health benefits.
Proponents say kombucha acts as a detoxicant and can improve digestion, enabling the body to conserve energy that would otherwise be used to eliminate waste and toxins.
McCoy brews what he calls “raw” kombucha, which is not pasteurized or diluted like many of today’s commercially sold varieties, he said. By keeping kombucha in its raw state, his brew carries an alcohol-by-volume level of around 1.5 percent, about one-third the alcohol found in a can of light beer.
McCoy said this keeps the beneficial components of kombucha intact. It also requires him to be licensed by the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
Yet that fact McCoy considers somewhat quirky, since improved functioning of the liver, which is the body’s primary site for metabolizing alcohol, is one benefit of kombucha its drinkers claim.
“You’re not going to get more drunk from drinking kombucha,” McCoy said. “It’s kind of silly that it’s sold as an alcoholic beverage, because yes it has alcohol in it, but the way that it interacts with your body will actually eliminate alcohol much faster than it will intoxicate you.”
McCoy opens the Kombucha Town brewery to the public from 3-6 p.m. on weekdays. In the facility, located in Suite 603 of the Herald Building at 1155 N. State St., customers can purchase bottles in two sizes: a 16-ounce for $3, and a 32-ounce for $6.
First-time customers also pay a $3 bottle deposit. Kombucha Town bottles can be returned to the brewery, where they are washed and reused.
Production at Kombucha Town actually began in December 2012, and McCoy currently has his beer available in several local stores, including both locations of the Community Food Co-Op, along with The Market on Lakeway Drive and several Haggen stores. A few local restaurants, including Old Town Cafe and Dashi Noodle Bar, also serve Kombucha Town beer by the glass.
While the Whatcom County Health Department has issued food-service permits to producers of similar products, McCoy is the first in recent memory to seek permitting to brew kombucha as an alcoholic beverage, said Tom Kunesh, the department’s environmental health supervisor.
Kunesh said the county’s food-safety requirements for Kombucha Town are not much different from those that would be used for producers of other fermented drinks. The main element that stands out with kombucha, Kunesh said, is the need to maintain the drink’s acidity during the brewing process to inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. McCoy had to ensure his production method met this guideline.
He also had to secure a number of other permits and licenses before he could start brewing commercially.
On the federal level, kombucha produced as an alcoholic beverage is regulated by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. According to the agency, kombucha that is fermented with sugar or another malt substitute and carries an alcohol-by-volume level of 0.5 percent or greater is classified as beer.
The drink can also be classified as other types of alcohol products depending on its contents, how its made and how much alcohol it contains.
Makers of such products are subject to federal alcohol laws, which dictate taxes and labeling requirements.
Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesperson for Washington’s liquor board, said state liquor licenses for producers of alcoholic kombucha are issued based on how their products are classified on the federal level. Kombucha sold as beer, or as any type of alcohol, is not yet a common product in Washington state, he added.
Kombucha Town is licensed as a microbrewery. One side benefit to that: If kombucha doesn’t sell well, McCoy can still brew regular beer and have a backup product to offer.
From empty office to brewery
Getting licensing in line to brew alcoholic kombucha was actually the easy part of starting his business, McCoy said. Taking a 770-square-foot space in a historical downtown office building and transforming it into a production facility was more of a challenge.
McCoy said he chose the space in part due to its affordable rent, but also because of the Herald Building’s history and iconic status, something he hopes will draw in curious customers.
Kombucha Town’s home base sits on the south side of the building’s sixth floor, with windows facing out over State Street and the southern shoreline of Bellingham Bay. The space has a bar and a small taproom.
McCoy plans to eventually offer a full drink menu that could include Kombucha Town beer and other local beers on tap, as well as kombucha cocktails and smoothies.
The fermentation and brewing areas are set apart from the taproom. McCoy said he can produce up to 50 gallons of kombucha per week, and he has the potential to expand to as much as 300 gallons per week. However, that capacity would require him to find additional space to store fermentation equipment, he said.
While the uniqueness of his product makes for a good selling point, he said, McCoy emphasizes environmentally friendly production in his business.
Kombucha Town’s reusable bottles are a good example. By charging his customers a small fee upfront, and then encouraging them to return bottles after they have been used, McCoy cuts down on what he said would be one of the more wasteful and expensive components of owning the brewery.
His commitment to sustainable business practices is also apparent on other levels.
Byproducts of the brewing process, mainly just spent tea leaves, are composted. The kombucha culture is also saved after brewing and reused.
Aside from basic utilities used to power the brewery, McCoy said the only real non-sustainable component of Kombucha Town are the resealable caps used on its bottles. For food-safety reasons, those caps can’t be used more than once, he said.
Kombucha Town’s future
McCoy, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and environmental studies from Western Washington University, is optimistic about the future of kombucha in the consumer market.
As more established, large-scale producers begin selling the beverage, he said he thinks the industry will continue growing, much like it has in the past decade.
“It’s gone from something people do in their closets to a several million-dollar industry,” McCoy said.
Among the next steps for Kombucha Town are adding a couple of regular employees and finding new retail outlets for its beer. McCoy has so far operated the business with the help of a few good friends. He said he would like to hire two or three employees, as well as interns to help with marketing.
Since 80-85 percent of his profits will likely come from wholesale distribution, McCoy is targeting larger grocery chains around the Pacific Northwest that cater to natural, locally made products.
That strategy, he said, works in tandem with establishing Kombucha Town’s home base in Bellingham.
“There isn’t a premier brand for kombucha that’s sold as an adult beverage,” he said. “That’s what I’m shooting to become.”