Sobriety isn’t black and white. There are plenty of differing opinions when it comes to hot button topics (like vaping), and a biggie is whether or not kombucha is safe for sober individuals to drink. 

In this article, we’ll go over what kombucha is, its recent history, and why it has a controversial status in the sober community. Having been on both ends of the ‘yay or nay’ kombucha spectrum, I also share my personal experience on habits and ideologies to be mindful of.

For starters, what is kombucha?

While it might seem like kombucha popped up in the last decade, the fermented tea was big in ancient China, 19th century Russia, and other parts of Europe. Plain kombucha has a tangy bite, though most commercial brands offer fruity versions, like mango, blueberry, or strawberry. Similar to kimchi and sauerkraut, well-made kombucha beverages can provide probiotic benefits.

Why is kombucha controversial in the sober community?

Since kombucha is lightly fermented, it does have trace levels of alcohol. Most brands have fermentation processes that keep the levels below the .5% limit. Anything above that percentage must be sold as alcohol.

That said, there have been some missteps.

In 2010, Whole Foods pulled bottles from GT Dave, one of the most visible brands, because some had more than the legal limit. GT Dave still sells the .5% version, and they also created a line with a higher alcohol content that’s differentiated by a black cap, as well as a line that’s infused with CBD — another controversial product in the sober community.

At the end of Oct 2019, Health-Ade, another growing competitor in the kombucha marketplace, settled a $4 million dollar class-action lawsuit when Gabriela Bayol and Bruce Verbeck brought forward findings that stated some of Health-Ade’s kombuchas had alcohol levels of .88% and upwards of 2x the legal limit.

Is kombucha safe or unsafe for sober folks?

Learning about the most recent Health-Ade lawsuit is naturally concerning, so if you’re someone who is very wary of any alcohol consumption — including alcohol in herbal tinctures, syrups, or even extracts — you would probably want to avoid kombucha. Luckily, there are flavorful alcohol-free drinks to turn to when you need a seltzer break. These include:

  • Switchel
  • Shrubs
  • Ginger Beer
  • Artisanal small-batch sodas (see what your local co-op has!)

While we shouldn’t sniff at that lawsuit, it’s important to remember most options you’ll come across don’t exceed the .5% barrier. For further protection, you can check the “drink by” dates and toss anything that tastes off.

Can I get accidentally intoxicated by or addicted to kombucha?

With kombucha within the legal limit, it’s virtually impossible to get drunk. There haven’t been any official blood alcohol studies, though several writers have tried and written about their failed attempts. In fact, many got sick from downing too many bottles before getting remotely close to drunkenness.

It’s also impossible, even with trace levels, to get physically addicted to kombucha. If you get kombucha cravings, rest assured you’re probably craving the fruit sugar, which is found in many of the major brands.

For final reassurances, know it is extremely unlikely you’ll do the following after drinking kombucha:

  • Get into an argument with your partner or cheat on them
  • Skip work because you don’t feel great
  • Burn bridges
  • Crash your car
  • Not show up for your family
  • Say things that are unkind or regrettable
  • Struggle with mental health issues

Things to keep in mind: 

Even though you cannot get drunk or physically addicted to kombucha, there are things to be mindful of so you can have a conscious relationship with the beverage, whether you choose to consume or abstain.

For those who drink kombucha:

It’s never a bad idea to watch out for certain habits. For example, I drank kombucha before I got sober, and afterward, I started making it my Friday treat in sobriety for getting through the week. 

After many months, I started to feel unsettled by how excited I got for my Friday “kombucha fix” and how similar it was to the way I drank wine.

Now, routines aren’t bad. But if they start to feel more like bandaids then it’s definitely worth addressing the underlying issue of why you’re consistently taking an action, especially one that mimics a life you no longer lead, as a means of coping.

For those who abstain:

Choosing to fully (or mostly) abstain from kombucha can also be a powerful choice. However, and speaking from experience, I know it can sometimes be rooted in fear or dogma.

A little over a year and a half ago, I decided to stop drinking kombucha, except for one fancy dinner in Montreal and, not so surprisingly, while writing this article. 

A few things had taken place in my recovery that were scary and I wanted to cut out any potentially triggering outliers. Even though I didn’t want to buy a bottle, I was always a bit fearful, which I didn’t love either.

Then, this past year, I started drinking coffee a few times a week. It made me buzzy and alert, which is the beverage’s M.O. After some time I realized that coffee had a much greater effect on my body and mind than kombucha ever did. Ironically, coffee is even the darling beverage of the recovery community.

While I don’t see myself returning to drinking kombucha on a regular basis, I have a much more neutral opinion since I know that plenty of foods and drinks can affect us even when they’re not linked to alcohol.

If you have a kombucha fear (or even a bit of self-righteousness), check-in on that too and see how you can reframe. That doesn’t mean you have to consume but I think you’ll enjoy a stance that’s not covered in fear.

As you can see, the answer to whether kombucha is safe for sober individuals isn’t cut and dry, and at the end of the day, it’s very personal. That can make things more challenging, though I think the non-answer is good, as it gives sober people more flexibility to create a life that reflects their values. Just remember to mindful of your intent, stay open, and trust that you’ll be able to come up with the right decision.