Gut feeling

Is hard kombucha good for you?

Beer lovers often grapple with how to balance their beverage of choice with a healthy lifestyle. Among the millennial generation, especially, this seems to be a significant concern, with many people in their late 20s and 30s reportedly cutting back on alcohol or opting for low-alcohol drinks.

For many health-conscious imbibers, beer-kombucha blends have become the drink of choice. Brands like Boochcraft, Unity Vibration, JuneShine, Kombrewcha and KYLA make sour fermented tea drinks that contain enough alcohol to do what beer does—give you a buzz—while supposedly providing health benefits in the form of living bacteria, or probiotics. Many breweries are releasing similar products, often beers blended with kombucha before kegging or bottling.

But how healthy are beer-kombucha hybrids, really?

Nobody actually knows. In fact, even the purported health virtues of traditional kombucha are mostly unsubstantiated by research. The sour, bubbly drink—with origins in East Asia some 2,000 years ago and now wildly popular—has been said to reduce cholesterol levels and blood pressure, slow the spread of cancer, and boost function of the liver, the immune system and digestive functions.

Indeed, health virtues have been a powerful marketing leverage for kombucha producers, who often pair their product images to backdrops of hippies in the sun, people hiking, and lean men and women in yoga poses.

Marin Kombucha’s website states that “medical research on the many nutrients and acids of Kombucha has cast light upon the positive results that this tea can provide to our bodies and minds.”

There has been plenty of science demonstrating the benefits of a healthy gut biome populated by a diversity of bacteria, but there is limited evidence showing how fermented foods support this internal ecosystem or improve overall bodily health—and the science gets especially weak with kombucha. Research published in January in the journal Annals of Epidemiology concluded that “[d]irect evidence supporting kombucha’s benefits for human health is lacking.”

“Nonetheless,” the authors—Julie Kapp and Walton Sumner—wrote, “significant commercial shelf space is now dedicated to kombucha products, and there is widespread belief that the products promote health.”

Add alcohol to the booch, and all bets are off. Alcohol, after all, is an effective antimicrobial agent at higher concentrations. It even kills the very yeasts that produce it. Thus, whether the probiotic properties of kombucha persist under alcoholic conditions is a topic of uncertainty.

“Probiotics don’t do well at our high alcohol level,” conceded Garrett Bredenkamp, chief executive officer of Kombrewcha, in a 2017 Well+Good magazine article. Keep in mind, moreover, that Bredenkamp’s boozy booch is barely boozy, with each of several flavors containing a meager 4.4 percent alcohol by volume, according to the Brooklyn company’s website. Other brands contain nearly twice the alcohol, and one might assume, then, that the health benefits of hard kombucha crumble before they even begin.

Yet, in the same article, Adam Finer, co-founder of Boochcraft said the opposite—that lab analyses showed that the beneficial critters in Boochcraft could withstand ethanol concentrations of 15 percent alcohol-by-volume. Boochcraft’s most prominent brands run 7 percent ABV.

Other hard kombucha companies push the health claims, usually with vague, fluffy language. On its website, the San Diego-based JuneShine calls its 6 percent ABV product line “an alcohol you can feel good about drinking.”

Unity Vibration’s website claims that its kombucha beers “offer functional wellness benefits, plant-based adaptogens, living probiotics and are truly a better-for-you alcoholic libation!”

KYLA Hard Komucha’s website waffles and calls boozy booch “healthy-ish.”

Healthy-ish. OK, I’ll buy that. I generally stand by the word of sound science, and I am always leery of shameless product advertising. But while we’re waiting for peer-reviewed papers to establish the benefits of drinking hard kombucha, I’m willing to give certain health claims the benefit of the doubt. As for the notion that beer loaded with bacteria and yeast is healthier than conventional beer, I’ll roll with it.