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A Columbia grocery store ID'd for kombucha. A month later, that's likely to change.


Food Lions across South Carolina have begun asking for identification to purchase kombucha. Photo by Hannah Wade.

After confusion surrounding regulation on the beverage kombucha, retailers and producers of the fermented beverage received clarity from the S.C. Department of Revenue on April 29.

The state agency that regulates alcoholic beverages issued a notice that it would not be regulating the drink — such as those produced by national brand GT’s and local maker Lil Duck Kombucha.

The revenue agency said kombucha made for wholesale distribution falls under the regulation by the state's Department of Agriculture.

While kombucha does have alcohol, it's only trace amounts and would require consuming massive quantities for any effect to take place.

“Standard kombucha is not subject to regulation under (statute) since it is a bacterially fermented tea and not a beer, ale, porter, or ‘similar malt or fermented beverage’,” the department said in an email. “It is a type of tea with a specific process for fermentation that is different from that of beer and does not feature barley, hops, or malt.”

This notice comes after regulation surrounding kombucha became confusing earlier this month. Food Lion grocery stores began requiring buyers to be over the age of 21 for kombucha purchases in South Carolina.

In response to questioning earlier this month, a Food Lion spokesperson told Free Times that it made the decision after conversations with the S.C. revenue agency. A revenue department spokesperson said the agency was reviewing its handling of the drink at that time.

In the April 29 notice, the revenue agency said that the department would continue to regulate “nonstandard kombucha" based on aspects like its target market, whether the producer sells other "products that require a license or permit" and advertised alcohol content. It defines standard kombucha as one that is a bacterially fermented tea.

The revenue also spelled out how it differentiates the drink from other fermented alcohol. 

"Kombucha is uniquely fermented with a bacteria and yeast colony that produces acetic acid and a low alcoholic content most similar to the composition of vinegar. It is also not a wine or cider because it is not fermented from fruit or berries," the release explained. 

This is the second time in the last month that the regulation of kombucha has become the topic of conversation for state officials and non-alcoholic drink distributors and sellers. In late March, non-alcoholic beer company Athletic Brewing Co. halted direct shipping to South Carolina customers citing the way non-alcoholic beverages are regulated in the state.

That raised questions over whether kombucha makers would have to be licensed like a brewery to conduct business — and whether it would be able to sell its products in an unrestricted way.

“It would be a huge damper on us because I mean, if we were required to have it, even though we didn’t have alcohol," said Debey Hancock, who owns Lil Duck Kombucha with her husband, Wil, at the time. "We would still probably not serve alcohol, but I would just really be concerned about the price, the cost of the licenses."

The revenue department's notice only addressed the kombucha confusion, leaving questions over nonalcoholic beer's standing under state regulations.