Buffalo is playing a significant role in the future of the kombucha industry. When Bootleg Bucha first came onto the scene, New York State still did not have a classification for the fermented tea. There was such a gray area that kombucha makers were told that they needed a license from the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) since there was a small percentage of alcohol in the drink (under 0.5% – about the same as a non-alcoholic beer). The issue arose because NYS could not decide whether kombucha should be a classified as a food or as an alcoholic beverage. This was no small issue. In fact, it had quite a bearing over the future of the kombucha industry in NYS. The State went so far as to send requests that the brewers “cease operations and shift all regulatory compliance to the SLA.”
If the kombucha brewers were to be categorized as an alcoholic beverage, the NYS brewing industry was going to have a rough time. Not only did they have to cease brewing, they also needed to act fast in order to catch the State up to speed about the brewing process and the drink itself. That was going to take a concerted effort by representatives of the kombucha industry. It turns out that one particular Buffalo brewer would play a significant role in helping to draft updated regulations.
Last September, Bootleg Buch owner Jeff Empric, along with Hannah Crum, President Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), met with the SLA and Department of Agriculture and Markets to draft regulations. The meeting in Albany resulted in an agreement between the brewers, the SLA, and the Department of Agriculture and Markets. The agreement allowed the kombucha brewers to continue producing as long as the they met the proper food safety requirements.
With the help of local lobbyist Diana Chihak, the discussions and dealings in Albany were fruitful, but for a hot minute the future of kombucha brewing in Buffalo looked rough. The decision could have gone either way.
“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.”
Already, since the September meeting, Bootleg Bucha’s business has been growing at a quick pace. They currently have their Bucha brew in over 100 locations throughout NY, including Wegmans and Tops.
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.
The recent rulings has also allowed Bootleg Bucha to invest over $100K into their brewing operation. The future of kombucha brewing now looks bright in NYS thanks to the stick-to-itive nature of Empric, whose story was told on BRO this past August. Due to Empric’s steadfast ways to get the job done, he has been asked to speak at the 2017 International Kombucha Conference in Long Beach, Calif. this February. Now that’s pretty darn cool.