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BOOTLEG BUCHA CHAMPIONS NEW YORK STATE KOMBUCHA BREWERS
By Jeff Empric
Dec 23, 2016, 18:59
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(Buffalo, N.Y.) -- The future of kombucha production in New York State is bright, thanks to the efforts led by Buffalo-based Bootleg Bucha, the city's first kombucha brewer and distributor. A news release earlier this week from Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), a trade organization, announced an agreement between the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA), New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and statewide kombucha brewers to allow continued production of kombucha tea across New York. This means, effective immediately, KBI members who were told they couldn’t make kombucha without an SLA license were again able to do so, provided they meet the food safety requirements put forth by the Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Representatives of the kombucha industry, including Jeff Empric, one of the owners of Bootleg Bucha, along with KBI President Hannah Crum, met with the SLA and Department of Agriculture and Markets in Albany last September to draft regulations that would protect consumers and help to move the industry forward across the state.

Until recently, state regulators were undecided on how to properly manage kombucha production in New York. The problem stemmed from confusion over whether kombucha, a fermented tea infused with other flavors and long-hailed for its health benefits, ought to be regulated as a food or as an alcoholic beverage, since it contains trace amounts of alcohol (under 0.5%, about the same as a non-alcoholic beer). Because of this lack of consensus, Bootleg Bucha and other New York kombucha brewers received requests from the state this summer to cease operations and shift all regulatory compliance to the SLA. They were informed that the SLA intended to treat all kombucha as an over-21 product regardless of alcohol by volume, and that continued production would require an SLA license. As the licensing process requires a separate facility, expensive bonds and additional hurdles, the companies had no option but to suspend brewing.

In response, Bootleg Bucha engaged local lobbyist Diana Chihak to assist in finding common ground with state officials. Discussions between the New York-based kombucha brewers and regulators began in early August. Bootleg also brought KBI into the discussion to leverage some of the national and global product power. These talks evolved into September’s roundtable discussion at the State Capitol, where they established a collaborative approach with the common goal of establishing high standards of food safety and product handling for kombucha production.

“To be given the green light and a set of regulations that are clear and attainable has been an amazing change to the kombucha landscape in New York State," said Empric, who along with Todd Salansky and Heather Lucas, started Bootleg Bucha in 2015. "The open door cooperation from New York State was a breath of fresh air after years of uncertainty. We couldn’t be happier.”

Since September's meeting, Bootleg Bucha has experienced substantial market growth and will be entering 2017 with placement in over 100 locations throughout New York. Bootleg’s products are found in select Tops Friendly Markets across the state and Wegman's stores in WNY. A new distribution agreement with Seneca Falls-based Finger Lakes Farms will also take Bootleg Bucha to over 500 co-op markets and grocers from Buffalo to New York City. Support from Albany has allowed Bootleg Bucha to make over $100,000 in capital investments in recent months, with more to come, said Empric.

As a result of his championing efforts, Empric will also be a speaker at the 2017 International Kombucha Conference in Long Beach, Calif. this February.

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