The other day, my friend Jane offered me some homebrewed kombucha from a batch that she had forgotten about in the back of her fridge. Always one to appreciate a gift of fermented tea, I happily accepted it, not even thinking to check the expiration date on the bottle. As soon as I twisted off the cap and got a whiff of the contents inside, I knew I had made a mistake. Instead of the usual pleasantly tart aroma, it smelled absolutely rancid – like stinky feet mixed with vinegar. But at that point, it was too late. I had already taken a huge gulp of the stuff. Let’s just say I learned the hard way what happens if you drink expired kombucha.
Kombucha Doesn’t Really “Expire” in the Traditional Sense
Before we get into the gory details of my experience, it’s important to understand the shelf life of kombucha. When properly stored, most commercial kombucha has a shelf life between 6-10 months. The fermentation process creates an environment inhospitable to many spoilage organisms. The acids, alcohol, and probiotics act as natural preservatives.
Once opened, manufacturers often recommend consuming refrigerated kombucha within 1-3 months. Though according to health food store owner Sarah Green, “An unpasteurized kombucha kept at proper refrigerator temperatures, if stored in an air-tight container, should easily keep for 2+ months without deterioration in quality or flavor.” She stocks GT’s Kombucha, Health-Ade, Brew Dr., and Humm Kombucha at her shop and finds their expiration dates to be on the conservative side.
So really, the shelf life has more to do with taste and carbonation than actual safety. Exposure to oxygen can restart fermentation, resulting in a too vinegary or alcohol-y booch. But unless contamination occurs, it’s very unlikely for commercial kombucha to make you sick within it’s printed expiration timeline.
Trust Your Senses – Rancid Kombucha is a Warning Sign
As soon as I popped the lid off my friend’s homebrew, the foul stench should have stopped me in my tracks. But in my ignorance, I gulped it down anyway, only to have it burn the back of my throat with its intense acidity. One whiff should have alerted me that this booch was long past expired. Here are some keyred flags that your kombucha has spoiled:
- Mold – Fuzzy splotches in strange colors like black, blue, or green indicate mold contamination. While not inherently dangerous, the bacteria found alongside molds can cause illness. Best to toss.
- Rancid smell – Vinegar-y is normal, but a truly rancid kombucha gives off a putrid, rotting odor. Almost like stinky cheese mixed with feet. Not pleasant!
- Floaties – Solid bits floating in the kombucha are a bad sign. Could indicate growth of pathogenic bacteria.
- Overly vinegary – An intensely sour or acidic flavor, beyond the tartness you expect from kombucha, indicates over-fermentation.
- Fizziness – Lots of carbonation or bubbles can mean renewed fermentation. The booch may contain more alcohol and acids than intended.
- Strange textures – Slimey, slimy bits or weird stringy strands usually mean something is amiss. Don’t drink it!
Trust your instincts – if it looks or smells bad, throw it out!
What Happens If You Drink Expired Kombucha?
Unfortunately, I learned the hard way exactly why you shouldn’t ignore the warning signs of expired kombucha. Within 30 minutes of taking a few swigs of that rancid homebrew, I came down with horrible nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. I’ll spare you the gross details, but I spent the rest of the night in agony over the toilet.
Here are some of the potential risks if you drink contaminated kombucha:
- Food poisoning – If bad bacteria or mold is present, it can release toxins that lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and other symptoms. A serious case may even require hospitalization.
- Gut Issues – The acids and alcohol in over-fermented booch can irritate the digestive system. Those who are sensitive may experience gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea.
- Headache / Migraine – Some compounds created during unwanted fermentation are vasodilators that can bring on wicked headaches.
- Intoxication – Fermented too long, booch can contain up to 3% ABV. For those sensitive, even a small amount may cause impairment.
A CDC report showed that between 2009-2015, fermented drinks caused 489 foodborne illness outbreaks, leading to over 4,500 hospitalizations. Contaminated kombucha sickened dozens in 1995 and 2010. So don’t take chances with expired or questionable kombucha!
Proper Storage is Key for Maximum Freshness
To get the most out of my homebrewed kombucha and avoid repeats of The Rancid Booch Incident, I asked fermentation expert Jessica Ross for her storage tips:
- Refrigerate after 2F – After secondary fermentation when kombucha is carbonated, store in fridge. Proper cold temp (35°F – 38°F) slows fermentation.
- Avoid fridge door – Each open/close exposes kombucha to warmer air. Opt for back shelves.
- Limit light exposure – UV rays can damage nutrients. Store in opaque bottles or jars, or wrap in dark cloth.
- Open method matters – Replace original airtight cap with swing-top bottles or use food-safe clamp lids on mason jars to limit oxygen.
- Smaller is better – Brew smaller batches based on weekly consumption to ensure freshness.
- Listen for hiss – An audible hiss when opening indicates renewed carbonation. Consume quickly or move to fridge.
Following proper brewing protocol and trusting my senses can ensure I avoid any future incidents!
When Good Kombucha Goes Bad – Look For These Signs:
Since my traumatic experience, I’ve become vigilant about signs of kombucha going bad. Here are the top visual and aromatic red flags:
- Mold – Fuzzy spots, slimy strands, or strange colors
- Rancid smell – Powerfully unpleasant, gag-worthy stench
- Floaties – Solid bits or cloudy sediments
- Overly fizzy – Excessive bubbliness indicates over-fermentation
- Too sour – Intense puckering acidity
- Strange texture – Slimey, slimy, or just “off”
If it looks or smells funky, I don’t drink it! Not worth the risk.
How Long Does Kombucha Last? Depends On Storage
To avoid wasting my homemade kombucha, I follow the manufacturer-recommended refrigerator shelf life:
- Unopened – 6-10 months when refrigerated
- After opening – 2-3 months for most raw, unpasteurized booch
However, artisan brewers say their kombucha often lasts:
- 2-4 months refrigerated after opening if tightly sealed
- 1 week unrefrigerated but stays carbonated and palatable
I also brew smaller batches sized for my weekly kombucha intake. Fresher booch tastes better!
When In Doubt, Throw It Out!
My moral of the story is: trust your senses when it comes to kombucha! One whiff or sip of anything funky, and it goes straight to the compost. A night of vomiting and diarrhea just isn’t worth the risk to find out what happens if you drink expired kombucha!
Now excuse me while I go brew up a fresh batch of booch to wash away the trauma of The Rancid Booch Incident of 2022! Hopefully my tips help you avoid a similar fate and enjoy the most delicious probiotic-packed kombucha possible. Just remember – if it seems at all off, throw it out! Your gut will thank you.
Hi, I’m Ben Holland. I love cooking, traveling, and spending time with my family! Here you’ll find simple and delicious recipes, travel tips, and stories about my adventures with my wife and kids.