Makers of the fermented tea known as kombucha say Albany did them a big favor late last year by not moving forward with plans to regulate the drink as alcohol. Kombucha makers in Buffalo see this as a chance to grow their business, while New York's agriculture commissioner sees this as a chance to breathe new life into the state's farms.
Those who make and consume Komubcha hail the beverage as one that offers health benefits, including probiotics. But it also contains a small amount of alcohol, about 0.5 percent, approximately the same as non-alcoholic beer.
Last year, the New York State Liquor Authority was preparing to implement regulation of kombucha as if it were considered an alcoholic beverage. But in the fall, the SLA, New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and kombucha makers met.
"When we met with the SLA as well as Ag and Markets, they were open to just learning about (kombucha) and understanding just how to regulate it," said Jeff Empric, owner of Buffalo-based kombucha producer Bootleg Bucha. "Eventually the SLA made the decision that it wasn't something they wanted to govern underneath their watch. Agriculture and Markets worked with us, hand in hand, to really kind of create regulations."
Those who support having the Agriculture Department set the rules, as opposed to the State Liquor Authority, say it spares kombucha makers from what they say would have made the business cost-prohibitive in New York. Empric told WBFO it allows businesses like his the chance to grow and compete with producers in states such as California and Oregon
"It lets us be on an even playing field with them and make a very safe, healthy product within Western New York," he said.
While visiting Western New York recently, Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball acknowledged last fall's meeting and suggested Albany has gained a new appreciation for the economic impact beverage producers create, and the new opportunities they offer for farmers.
"We've seen in the last two years a growth of the craft beverage industry, I think at last count by about 184 percent," Ball said. "Which means we need more hops. We need more barley. We need more rye. We need more corn."
Distillers within New York State are required to use locally-grown ingredients. Kombucha producers, Empric stated, are not held to the same rules but his company nevertheless buys its ingredients from some of the region's farms. He identified at least two in Niagara County among his providers.