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.

NEXT: Steven Greenhut on California State Employees' Special Traffic Privileges

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42 responses to “Raid on Venice Beach Church Targets Illegal Kombucha Tea

  1. “For the uninitiated, kombucha is a type of carbonated, probiotic tea, popular among hipsters and health foodies”

    Let me guess, someone’s about to have a brief and extremely narrowly targeted libertarian moment.

    1. Yeah, I wouldn’t bet against that result.

      1. Foodie freedom! Libation liberty! Wait, what’s this about money and speech? Gun rights? Religious freedom? I just wanted my stuff…

        1. So, they’re followers of Libation Theology?

    2. It’s gross. My old roommate used to make her own kombucha in my kitchen. This was one of the reasons she is no longer my roommate. Think of a pervasive sweaty gymsock smell.

      1. But that’s so liberating! it means you can have friends over & no matter how much BO you have, or how long since you took out the garbage or washed the bedsheets & blankets, nobody will notice.

  2. Nothing left to cut.

    Also, I don’t think it’s possible to get an alcoholic buzz on .5% alcohol beverage. 3.2% beer is damn near water.

    1. I bet I could get drunk on a .5% alcohol beverage.

    2. I got a twelve pack of 3.2 once. Drank the whole thing in a couple hours and barely got a buzz.

      1. That’s basically 7 lagers. Unless you’ve got a very low tolerance, you probably won’t be feeling much.

  3. I blame “10 Things I Hate About You”. Must have sent him over the deep end.

  4. We’re a complaint-driven agency

    Snitches get stitches. Or they get to sic ABC agents on someone they don’t like. Either way.

    They may be a complaint-driven agency, but we’re an intention-driven organization and our intentions are pure

    Oh, my friend, their intentions–to control you and show you their power–outrank yours. They are the gang that runs things. Sorry.

  5. “probiotic beverage” [citation needed]

    Since kombucha tea is a sewer that can contain a zillion possible assortments of bacteria, whether it is “probiotic” is a bit of a crap shoot.

    1. Certain kinds of it are. Obviously you want to be careful what you consume, but you can’t go blanket “not it’s not” or “yes it is” either way…

    2. Everything you ever eat or touch can contain a zillion possible assortments of bacteria.

  6. Say what you want about kombucha, but it is the best hangover cure in the world.

  7. 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 (? la yogurt) and ever-so-slightly alcoholic.

    That’s not “vinegar-like”, that is vinegar. A unique ingredient list and unusual fermentation method to be sure, but vinegar none the less. The point is that most, if not all, vinegars on the shelf contain alcohol above the magic 0.5% level. If they changed the name from Kombucha Tea to Kombucha vinegar would that satisfy the booga-booga for the ABC?

    1. They would just argue that vinegar isn’t “marketed as a drink”.

      So they’d tell the makers to change the labeling and force them to stock it in the same aisle as the vinegar, which would effectively kill the company.

      Never underestimate yadda yadda…

      1. I don’t think it’d kill the biz at all. How many people like kombucha, anyway? You think they wouldn’t all be just as motivated to find it shelved w the rest of the vinegars? Besides, it’s probably sold mostly in stores so small that that’s the same aisle as beverages anyway.

        Is this the same stuff that grows a wort on top that’s like a big mushroom cap? I remember drinking that at Ralph & Kathy’s back when they lived in Morristown, so that was 20 yrs. ago, and it was awful.

  8. 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.

    And they’ve somehow or other managed to land on the ABC’s radar. Merely a bizarre- nay, freakish- coincidence.

    1. I’m glad you noticed that. I kept rereading that section and wondering what bothered me about it.

    2. Yeah. I’m sure that had nothing to do with anything. Nothing at all.

      1. From the Vice piece: The raid came just one day after Keegan spoke at a town hall meeting organized by the LAPD, which concerned the controversy over the recent killing of a homeless man named Brandon Glenn. I was at the event that night, and heard Keegan speak about explaining another run-in with law enforcement. He claimed that during a charity event meant to raise money for multiple causes, he was “set up,” by the LAPD and “had a very unfortunate situation in which I was taken down by ten police officers for no good reason.”

        Keegan was most likely referring to an event In 2011, when he was caught on video, screaming in pain as officers handcuffed him. He was reportedly uncooperative after police asked him to turn down his music, according to TMZ.

        “I want to be really clear that we don’t see those as being tied in together,” said Dilts. ABC is a state agency, acting separately from the LAPD. However, Dilts said, “I would question the judgement of the ABC coming into the temple on Friday night when tensions are so high in Venice…It really does a disservice to the LAPD.”

  9. Do what a group of coop-ers ’round these parts did when NC declared selling raw milk illegal – give it away and ask for ‘suggested donations’ instead.

    Worked like a charm.

    1. I don’t think you can “give away” whisky at an event as that would fall under “serving”.

      1. Yeah they weren’t selling the kombucha, if I understand correctly, but b/c the event had a cover, it was counted as selling it

  10. Heaven forfend they should also have dancing in their church. That would likely ratchet it up to a felony.

    1. Heaven forfend they should also have dancing in their church.

      That’s a paddlin’.

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  12. So the government stopped a religious institution from serving what many of the institution’s members regard as a “sacred tea.”

    It shouldn’t be too hard for these persecuted folks to win a case simply by asserting their rights under the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

    So, let’s see if I can find a link to California’s RFRA:…..tutes.aspx

    Oops, they don’t have one. Well, I’m sure the legislature will adopt one any time now.

  13. if they’re really on about alcohol to underage in public settings, they should raid the local catholic church and see how that move goes over. They use regular table wine, 10 to 12 % abv. and here they’re warting about a commercially available beverage with less than one percent?

    1. I was wondering when someone would get around to mentioning communion.

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  15. Why did they go after a church? Kombucha is available at many health food stores, places like Sprouts or Whole Foods, and is even available at my local Costco. These were mean spirited actions taken for other reasons.

    1. It’s possible the stuff at the store is properly labeled as being ‘alcoholic’. The article says the tea at the church was being served on tap. From what I read, it might have been a matter of not having the proper licenses to serve booze.

  16. How much of the taxpayer’s money did they waste? I’m disabled, now’ I don’t make enough to pay taxes. But, I still believe in principles! It just seems absurd!

    1. Then again, able bodied people need jobs!

  17. Keegan would do well to learn the difference between the system and the prohibitionist kleptocracy the Prohibition party still manages to farm off on the GOP and Dems. The same tactics were used when God ordered dry politicians to send men with guns out to confiscate grape juice and raisin cakes. Herbert Hoover had to enforce prohibition to please Congress. And that half-percent definition is straight out of the Volstead Act, enforceable as of The Night of January Sixteenth, 1920.

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