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Full disclosure: I love kombucha and I really love Heart Beet Organics’ brew.
I also love My Plum, My Duck – a new vegan restaurant in Charlottetown where I can order food for my personal dietary needs (I’m vegetarian) along with a glass of Heart Beet Organics’ locally-made kombucha. I can feel good about supporting two local businesses that are supporting each other while consuming healthy, plant-based food and drink that makes my body smile.
My smile disappeared when I found out I can no longer order kombucha at My Plum, My Duck.
A provincial liquor inspector slapped restaurant owner Sarah Forrester-Wendt with a warning on Thursday. He had read a CBC story in which the owners of Heart Beet Organics, Amy Smith and Verena Varga, told of the growing demand for their kombucha and plans to expand their portable taps to more locations. In the article, they mentioned the miniscule alcohol content of their beverage.
Kombucha is a fermented tea created by using a “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast” also known as a SCOBY. It turns a combination of tea and sugar into a carbonated beverage filled with enzymes and probiotics, considered to promote good health.
The fermentation process produces a very small amount of alcohol. But it is no more than the amount contained in non-alcoholic beer, which is why it is utterly baffling that a provincial liquor inspector told Forrester-Wendt, Smith and Varga they can’t sell kombucha in licensed establishments unless they purchase it from the P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission.
However, the liquor commission doesn’t supply kombucha. Why? Because it’s not an alcoholic beverage.
The inspector cited section 71 of the P.E.I. Liquor Control Act, which states, “Any liquor that contains more than one-half of one per cent by volume at 60 degrees Fahrenheit of absolute alcohol shall conclusively be deemed to be intoxicating.”
At 0.5 per cent alcohol content, Heart Beet Organics kombucha is now treated the same as vodka by P.E.I.’s liquor laws.
And since My Plum, My Duck has a liquor license, it must abide by the Liquor Control Act and only purchase beverages containing more than 0.5 per cent of alcohol from the liquor commission.
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After I left My Plum, My Duck Friday, I went to the Superstore in Charlottetown, where I purchased a bottle of kombucha (made in Beverly Hills) from the health food section of the store.
It seems retailers and establishments that do not have a liquor license can sell kombucha, as long as no one formally files a complaint with the commission about it.
The whole situation would be laughable except that it is hurting three small business owners in P.E.I.
Forrester-Wendt is trying to make a go of it in the competitive restaurant industry. Smith and Varga are organic farmers who began brewing kombucha as a value-added product to diversify their business. It now accounts for 30 per cent of their business.
They all want to work collaboratively with the liquor commission to see how they can make and sell kombucha legally in P.E.I. After all, it is sold as a health beverage (not an alcoholic drink) in jurisdictions across Canada and the world.
In response to a request for comment, the P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission (PEILCC) sent a statement saying it’s their job to control of the manufacture, distribution and sale of any product that contains beverage alcohol.
“This requirement is in place to help ensure that the public are not put at risk from the sale of tainted alcohol,” Carl Adams, CFO of the PEILCC, said in the statement.
These Island businesses are not selling tainted alcohol. They are selling a high-quality product that honestly cannot get anyone drunk.
This situation certainly flies in the face of the messaging from Premier Wade MacLauchlan who often talks about growing Island businesses and even highlighted in his recent throne speech he wanted to “work with our small businesses and recognize their entrepreneurial spirit, risk-taking and contributions to our communities.”
Sadly, outdated government legislation is literally shutting down opportunities for these two local businesses.
Last April, former finance minister Allen Roach said he asked the liquor commission to review its act and regulations for the first time in 40 years. It’s about time we saw the results of this review.
And for goodness sake, update the act quickly and get out of the way of local entrepreneurs trying - legally - to grow their businesses. And stop this ridiculous crackdown on kombucha.
Teresa Wright is The Guardian’s chief political reporter. She can be reached at Teresa.firstname.lastname@example.org or at 902-629-6000 ext. 6033.