We live in a world of frustrated ideals. Sometimes bad things, oil spills for instance, or plumes of carcinogenic factory smoke, are under-regulated, while seemingly innocuous things, kombucha for example, are hounded by the faceless men and women of the state liquor license board. Sarah Coles spoke to Dean O’Callaghan from The Good Brew Company, about hypocrisy, the healing properties of SCOBY and the sacred art of ‘doing whatever the fuck I want.’
The first I heard of kombucha was from my Mum. It was during the perm years, when Mums all across the globe were rocking tight perms that really did look like poodles. Mum’s fellow brownie guide leaders had the perm. My Aunty in England had the perm, as did my Aunty in Sydney, who had an affair with her ballroom dancing instructor–he probably ran his fingers through her perm. It must have been around 1989. Someone, maybe from her work I can’t remember, had given Mum kombucha and it was in a Tupperware container in the fridge. I first tasted kombucha when I worked at Soul Foods on Smith Street. It was back when a lentil pattie cost $4.50 and came with a side salad and some deep hatred radiating from a giant dreadlocked man with seven versions of the same grey shirt. The old Soul Foods. Dave Sloggitt was the owner and he had a rule about playing a whole Johnny Cash album at least once a day. He would get me to spy on neighbouring cafes by giving me a pair of black sunglasses and asking me to go count how many people were in each and suss out what muffins they were into. ‘Spy matrix’ is what Sloggitt called it. There was kombucha there sometimes, nestled in among the vegan chocolate cake and crew screwing. Then I lived with an artist with a waxed moustache who was part of a party crew who made going to festivals a religion. He had a big ceramic crock in the cupboard of our share house with some incredibly oomphy kombucha in it. If we knew we were heading for a big night he would get the jar out and we’d do shots to prepare our systems for the onslaught. It was also a hangover situation, that jar. I once tried to kill my shame over punching a hole in an art deco sailing ship stained glass window by drinking a cup of that kombucha.
Kombucha, for the uninitiated, is a fermented drink produced by a SCOBY. It is tea with sugar in it that has the SCOBY, or mother, grown to it. The whole thing ends up as a sour tasting tonic that some people say tastes like apple cider. The SCOBY is visually arresting. It is rubbery and floats on the surface of the container. It looks a bit like some kind of marine biology laboratory set up or like jars in the old cabinet of curiosity days containing an embalmed head or some such. The SCOBY ferments. The SCOBY is not necessary for the kombucha to keep brewing–you can pour the kombucha ferment into a new container and a new SCOBY will form. . Kombucha is promoted as a health drink and immune booster. Sandor Katz writes, ‘Kombucha has inspired much polarized debate, with claims of dramatic curative properties matched by dire warnings of potential dangers. My own conclusion is that both sets of claims tend to be exaggerated.’
Dean O Callaghan, a self described ‘eco fascist’, runs The Good Brew Company, a beer, cider and kombucha operation out of a warehouse in Brunswick, Melbourne. He infuses herbs and fruit to his sweetened tea that he ferments at a solar enabled brewery in Healesville. Once the kombucha has fermented and has become acidic it is pegged and bottled and either stocked in the refrigerators of health stores all over this parched land or put into a bicycle bar (with 3 taps) that Deano pedals to talks and protests and whatnot. I had seen Deano at one such event before I met him for this interview, he was pouring pints at a fair food event headlined by food activist Robert Pekin. I also heard about him in a dumpster diving anecdote where two mild mannered friends of mine and Deano encountered supermarket security whilst foraging for yesterday’s brie. While my two friends had a peacekeeping strategy on hand for such encounters it is alleged that Deano launched into a fullscale attack, ‘You’re throwing food out. How stupid is that?!’ I was nervous about meeting him but on the way to the interview my bike copped a flat tyre and after texting him to apologise for running late he offered to fix my bike. A good egg then. As I rolled my busted bike into the warehouse Deano appeared and grinned. I could tell straight away that he was insane, in a good way.
Why I’m here talking to Deano is because a few days ago Deano turned up in the newspaper. Deano pours me a beer and we settle in to discuss the great alcohol licensing swindle of 2015.
Kombucha always contains a small amount of alcohol, as do a great many fermented foods. The alcohol content in Deano’s kombucha ‘hovers around 1%’ because it continues to ferment a little after bottling. 1% is considered non alcoholic in most states. If Colin Barnett, cracked one open after a hard day’s trying to kill sharks for example, onlookers could attest, ‘Look, the premier of WA is enjoying a non-alcoholic beverage.’ For Deano, trouble brewed in August 2015 when the Yarra Ranges Council took it upon themselves to test off the shelf samples of The Good Brew kombucha and found that, in some instances, the alcohol level exceeded the Victorian non-alcoholic level of 0.5%.
‘THIS PRODUCT IS CURRENTLY ILLEGAL TO PURCHASE DUE TO A LACK OF UNDERSTANDING OF THE ‘risk’ OF BREWING KOMBUCHA’- The Good Brew Company website
‘I received an email from the Yarra Ranges Council saying “It appears that you’ve been brewing kombucha in a brewery in Healesville.” I said, “Yes it does and I have been and I’ve always been honest about that.” And they said, “Well why didn’t you tell us?”’
Deano didn’t think he had to tell the council that he was brewing food in a food safe space. But Deano says the council said, ‘Kombucha’s special. It’s a high risk food and you need special permissions to do that.’ ‘I said, “Since when?” and they said, “Since we started understanding what kombucha is.”’ Deano pointed out that there was nothing on their website that said anything about kombucha. To brew beer and cider you need a class 3 food safety space which is what The Good Brew has in Healesville. The council decided that kombucha needed Class 2. The man from the council came over and told Deano he needed a spot of paperwork and to be independently audited. ‘But that independent auditor needs to read food safety plans written by an independent expert.’ The short version is $10 000.
One gets the impression that Deano is being grifted, ‘Ever since the kombucha industry started growing I’ve received nothing but bills from bureaucrats. Ten grand to get the brewery up to Class 2 food safety, $500 to get a liquor license that covers kombucha in particular instead of just beer and cider which is what I already have. I don’t understand it.’ No liquor licence that has been written specifically for kombucha exists–but that doesn’t mean that the beer/cider/wine licence that Deano already has will cover kombucha.
‘Victoria and Queensland are adamant anything above 0.5% is an alcoholic beverage, the rest of the country goes along the same lines as national food standards Australia which says that anything below 1.15% is a soft drink. Now 1.15% is quite a safe level to differentiate between alcohol and a soft drink. 1.15% kombucha in a 330ml bottle is less than one third of a standard drink. So you have to drink 3 and a third of them in order to have one standard drink. Now one standard drink, you and I both know, is not going to put you on your ass anyway.’
I ask Deano if the problem might be with children having access to kombucha. His freewheeling answer is published in full here because I feel it gives a clear impression of the subtle contours of Deano’s mindscape: ‘Kids love kombucha. I’d prefer to see a kid drink kombucha than Coca Cola. And so will just about every good parent in this country. I’ve seen kids drink three, four, five kombuchas in a row. They’re running around like superheroes. Kids always look like they’re drunk because they’re free spirited and happy. You never see a kid coming down from kombucha. They don’t get hung over from it. They don’t get the sugar come down which they’ll get if they had a bag of red jellybeans. And there’s another thing, red food colouring. Red food colour is banned in every country but Australia. Red food colour can give you cancer. It gives children immediate tantrums. It’s a mood fuckerupperer and yet it’s completely okay. High fructose corn syrup, which is basically, really, really, bad sugar is in every synthetic soft drink and lolly and it’s totally fine. So I brew something that counteracts the fuckupness of this sugar industry and all of a sudden it is frowned upon because we’ve got a nanny state that has these cut and dry laws that don’t actually make any sense from a health and safety perspective.’
After receiving the letter in August Deano had to stop selling kombucha and withdraw all of his stock from 700 shops around Australia. ‘It has probably cost me around $100 000,’ he sighs. Deano says that the alcohol readings the environmental health officer from council got of up to 1.6% alcohol content are ‘highly disputable’ and questions whether the testing equipment was properly calibrated. Deano points out that he has a machine called an ebulliometer that measures the boiling content of alcohol. ‘It has a 0.15% margin,’ and that he uses it to test his product.
Deano is now sitting on ten palettes of stock in refrigerated warehouses all over Australia. As soon as he gets his food safety approval he will sell that stock as alcoholic brews. And once he is allowed to produce again he will make a low alcohol brew for the Victorian market that won’t have any flavours like hibiscus or mint, it will be just green tea. ‘It will be delicious but it will be quite boring and it won’t be as medicinally amazing.’
‘Things are set up in this country to really look after corporations and not small business. I have a lawyer now. His immediate recommendation to me as soon as he saw what was going on was to incorporate so I am no longer a small business I am a corporation.’ Deano is planning on running an open source cooperative on the Earth worker model. ‘I’ll be a corporation that has a flat hierarchy.’ There is an upside,’ If my corporation runs at a loss which it probably will this year because of everything that has happened, as a corporation the cost of the recall will be reimbursed by the government.’
‘I’m aware that I just have to play the game. The only way you can get ahead is to look at the rules. Just milk it.’ This sounds incongruous coming from a punk in a kilt. ‘It’s not this perfect world that I thought it was.’