Nanny State

Raid on Venice Beach Church Targets Illegal Kombucha Tea

Undercover agents infiltrated a charity fundraiser at the church last Friday and seized the contraband probiotic beverage.


Full Circle/Instagram

Once upon a time, a boy with a beautiful head of hair starred in a bunch of teen movies and then grew up to co-found a new-age spiritual movement. Tale as old as time. The actor-turned-guru, Andrew Keegan, set up Full Circle's headquarters in an old Venice Beach, California, church last fall, and this would all just be a charming little fact ripe for the Tweeting were it not for meddling state alcohol control agents. Last Friday, an undercover officer from the state's Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) "infiltrated the temple," Vice reports, "clearing the way for a 9 PM incursion by five officers." What manner of crazy bootlegged hooch were the agents there to confiscate? 

Kombucha. Blueberry kombucha. 

For the uninitiated, kombucha is a type of carbonated, probiotic tea, popular among hipsters and health foodies. It's made by mixing regular tea, sugar, and a "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast" known as the "mother" and letting the whole business ferment for a few days. The end result is a somewhat vinegar-like beverage that's packed with good bacteria (à la yogurt) and ever-so-slightly alcoholic. 

Under federal law, beverages with more than 0.5 percent alcohol must state so on the label. In general, kombucha falls under this limit, though this can vary based on how it's made; and the longer kombucha is fermented—or, once bottled, the longer it sits on store shelves—the more the alcohol content may rise. For a brief while, in 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) looked like that they might crack down on kombucha, spurred by both widely-circulated rumors that Lindsay Lohan's alcohol-detection bracelet had been set off by drinking it and state tests showing some commercial brands were above the 0.5 limit. Most fell between 0.5 and 2.5 percent alcohol. 


On Friday, Full Circle was offering kombucha on tap, provided by local brand Kombucha Dog, during an event to benefit Freedom Project and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. But because the tea contains slightly above 0.5 percent alcohol, it requires a special license to sell say ABC agents, who cited a Full Circle rep for misdemeanor selling alcohol without a license. "We're a complaint-driven agency, so when someone notifies us about what might be an illegal activity, we respond to it," ABC Special Agent Will Salao told local newspaper The Argonaut. Keegan's response? 

"They may be a complaint-driven agency, but we're an intention-driven organization and our intentions are pure," Keegan said. "Kombucha is something we'd never imagine to be an illegal substance, and it's frustrating the system has that perspective." 

Jason Dilts, Full Circle's communications director, said drinking kombucha is part of the group's spiritual practice. "It's a sacred tea to a lot of people who come into our temple," Dilts told Vice.

But "despite the Kombucha Police raiding the layer, much awareness and love was shared" last Friday, one event-goer noted on Facebook. "Cheers to all who contributed their vibezzz." 

Full Circle can't comment on legal issues surrounding the raid, Dilts told me via email. "Rather than put energy into the unnecessary disturbance that took place, we will instead focus on business as usual," he said. On Sunday, Full Circle is holding a benefit concert in honor of Brendon Glenn, a young man who was killed in Venice Beach last week during an altercation with Los Angeles police.