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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Inside kombucha club: how brewers hope to convince UAE authorities the tea is alcohol-free

The drink is lauded for its healthy-gut benefits, but, like any fermented drink, exists in a legal grey area

Ruthie Alexander, an American expat who makes kombucha tea at home. Victor Besa / The National
Ruthie Alexander, an American expat who makes kombucha tea at home. Victor Besa / The National

Even among kombucha enthusiasts – and people who love this healthy, fermented “tea” are indeed a very enthusiastic bunch – Ruthie Alexander stands out.

“Symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” she sings, describing the rubbery white culture – known as a “scoby” – that is the heart and soul of the beverage she started brewing only last October.

Alexander has her kombucha production down to a science. There is the “sweet spot” in the corner of the villa she shares with her husband, beside the drinks cooler, where she has placed several large, culture-bearing jars – each commonly referred to as a “scoby hotel” – after finding the temperature was a perfect-for-brewing 27 degrees Celsius.

She regularly removes a litre of liquid from the hotels, replacing it with a mix of tea and sugar, which feeds the culture. Her cupboards bear dozens of empty, variously sized Ikea stopper bottles; in the refrigerator door are more, filled, each meticulously labelled. The contents, laced with combinations like ginger and spirulina, mango and habanero lime, are ice cold and ready to drink.

In just six short months since she took a kombucha workshop, Alexander has become a genuine “booch head”. She is part of a much wider and not-so-secret kombucha society in the UAE, people who have either brought in the essential first step – the scoby – from abroad, or found someone willing to share a lopped-off piece.

Alexander and her husband consume about a half-litre a day and cannot imagine living without the drink. When asked about the allure, other than the fuzzy, cider-esque immediate refreshment, she says simply: “It’s great for your gut.”

Abu Dhabi, UAE, April 4, 2018.  Ruthie Alexander, an American expat who makes kombucha tea  at home. 
Victor Besa / The National
National
Reporter: Ann Marie McQueen
Kombucha tea is made by brewing bacteria and yeast. Victor Besa / The National

For years now kombucha has been all the rage in trendy, health-obsessed North American circles, increasingly bolstered by a growing body of scientific evidence that improved gut health can positively impact everything from immunity to cholesterol levels to mood.

Customers in any grocery or corner store – as well as at an increasing number of breweries, tap rooms and bars – can have their pick of flavours, with varieties that can sell for US$7 (Dh25) a pop. And they are not the only ones: growth in the global kombucha market has been estimated to more than triple, from $600 million in 2015 to $1.8 billion in 2020, according to a report by Markets and Markets.

Yet other than the odd small vendor offering what they’ve personally imported at one of the popular local markets, kombucha is not sold commercially in the UAE.

Dubai Municipality did not answer requests to clarify whether it has a policy on the drink, and Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority said it only regulates commercial premises. It is not clear which authority would be responsible or if there is yet any official policy on the drink.

However, the lack of supply points to one issue: that like any fermented food or drink, kombucha could contain traces of alcohol, due to the probiotic enzymes that occur as a result of the fermentation process.

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Read more:

Fermented food in the UAE: where to find it and why you should eat it

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Enthusiasts argue that the scoby is no different from the “mother”, a culture found in certain brands of apple cider vinegar, which are regularly sold in the UAE’s largest grocery stores, or other fermented foods such as kimchi or kefir, or even fruit. An internet search yields as many arguments that kombucha is haram as halal.

Islamic Q&A, for example, ruled that since the amount of alcohol is negligible, it cannot intoxicate and is therefore halal. Even the fatwa centre at Awqaf, the UAE’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, gave two different answers on the same day when asked about the drink. Over the phone, the ruling was: “Even if it has one drop of alcohol, it is rejected and haram.” Via text message, the centre said the tea would be haram if it had “a situation of intoxication”.

Asma Lootah is a Muslim who brews and drinks kombucha at her home in Dubai. She is so passionate about its benefits that she wants to produce and sell it commercially, alongside juices and other offerings, at her holistic pilates studio The Hundred Wellness Centre. She plans to officially test batches in cooperation with Dubai Municipality later this year, because while there may be people who are selling kombucha in the UAE without official approval from the government, Lootah won’t be one of them.

“It’s my country, it’s my conscience,” she said. “I have to do it right.”

Abu Dhabi, UAE, April 4, 2018.  Ruthie Alexander, an American expat who makes kombucha tea  at home. 
Victor Besa / The National
National
Reporter: Ann Marie McQueen
Ruthie Alexander makes kombucha tea at home. Victor Besa / The National

Rouhda Al Marri, an Emirati mom living in Abu Dhabi, first sought out kombucha on a summer trip to the US three years ago after hearing about the health benefits via YouTube. Ever since, the yoga teacher and vegan said “whenever I could get my hands on some, I would buy it”; her family even brewed it for a time.

Yet she is well aware there are others who believe the drink is haram.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Is the problem alcohol? But how much is the alcohol? Point 003 per cent? Isn't that the same as eating pickles?”

Since the region has a long history of fermenting foods to preserve them when refrigerators didn't exist or were a luxury, Al Marri believes there is a reason kombucha has been singled out with suspicion.

“Because it’s a drink,” she says. “I think that’s the only issue, people questioning it because it’s a drink.”

One Muslim British-Lebanese lawyer and mom, who would only speak about kombucha if she could remain anonymous, used to suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome and believes drinking it helps keep her gut healthy. However her Emirati husband won’t touch the stuff she brews at home and neither will one of her friends, both abstaining over suspicion of alcohol.

For now she can live with the grey area, but “if the government says it is alcoholic, then I will have to destroy what I have and never drink it again”, she says. “First of all, as a Muslim, you cannot in this government own anything that relates to alcohol. I would be against the law.”

Locally, the UAE Culture Club on Facebook has about 700 members. (Recent post by one Abu Dhabi-based member: “I have scoby babies ready for adoption. PM me if interested.”)

The group was started by Abu Dhabi-based American expatriate Jennifer Richter after she had trouble finding resources about probiotic-rich foods – including kimchi, kefir, sourdough bread and other fermented items – upon moving to the UAE.

Typical members are generally “interested in their health and wellbeing,” she says. “People who have read the great benefits of introducing it in support of healthy gut bacteria and to build a strong immune system. I think many people also just love experimenting and getting creative in the kitchen.”

Alexander, who now has a heavily marked notebook filled with kombucha experiments, stared at her floating scobys with immense pride, calling them “awesome” even as she acknowledged they aren’t exactly pretty.

“I’ve had people come and go ‘that’s disgusting! You have this in your house?’”