Three fermentation experts weigh in on one of the most common problems in fermenting vegetables: mold prevention. The fermenters include fermentation chef David Zilber (head of fermentation at Noma) and fermented sauerkraut producers Meg Chamberlain (co-owner of Fermenti Farm) and Courtlandt Jennings, (founder and CEO of Pickled Planet and TFA advisory board member).

How do you handle prevent mold in sauerkraut?

David Zilber, Noma: That is something you are constantly trying to fight back, especially when you lacto-ferment in something like a crock. There are so many variables that go into making a successful ferment. How clean was your vessel before you put the food in there? How clean were your hands, your utensils? How much salt did you use? How old was the cabbage you were even trying to ferment in the first place? Every little detail is basically another variable in the equation that leads to a fermented product being amazing or terrible. It’s a little bit like chaos theory, it’s a little bit like a butterfly flapping its wings and Thailand and causing a tornado in Ohio. But with lots of practice, you’ll begin to understand that, if it was 30 degrees that day, maybe things were getting a little too active, maybe the fermentation was happening a little bit too quickly. Maybe I opened it a couple times more than I should of and it was open to the air instead of being covered. So there’s lots of variables.  But I would say that, if you’re having a lot of trouble with mold, just up the salt percentage by a couple percent. It will make for a saltier sauerkraut, but it will actually help to keep those microbes at bay. (Science Friday)

Forced mold in sauerkraut experiment from Fermenti Farm.

Meg Chamberlain, Fermenti Farm: You must allow the ferment to thrive by creating a favorable environment with “Good Kitchen Practices.” So, to prevent mold in your ferment start by using only purified water, like reverse osmosis, distilled or boiled and cooled and-no tap water(municipal). Only use vegetable-based soap that is NOT anti-bacterial, like a good castile soap. Finally, only use dry fine Sea Salt, no mineral/no gourmet or iodized. Keep Fermenting and do not get discouraged! #youcanfermentthat #diyfermentation #idfermentthat

Courtlandt Jennings, Pickled Planet: Preventing mold when making sauerkraut is all about a controlled atmosphere. How well you maintain your situational cleanliness and fermenting atmosphere is my best clue for you. There are many ways to control atmosphere and every situation will be different based on many factors but be dillegent and your ferments will improve with practice.

This may not seem like an answer but it’s directional… as is most advice unless dealing with a consultant. Good luck and may the ferment force be with you!

Kheedim Oh never aspired to start a food brand. The self-described “accidental entrepreneur”  began Mama O’s Premium Kimchi in Brooklyn in 2007, in the midst of the Great Recession. With just $50 to his name, he started hauling giant jars of  homemade kimchi to retailers on his skateboard. 

Thirteen years later, Oh has grown the brand  into one of the top fermented kimchi sold in the United States. Handcrafted kimchi is a labor-intensive food craft, but Oh doesn’t cut corners. He has never received a dime of funding and employs only a small team that uses his mother’s kimchi recipe.

“Everything we do is the time-honored, traditional way. From the experience of having to do it myself for so long, I’ve learned how to be as ruthlessly efficient in doing the steps to make the kimchi,” Oh says. “It takes time. But, to be honest, I don’t know how to do it another way. My goal is to make the best product.” 

His kimchi, kimchi paste and kimchi kit have been praised by Food & Wine magazine and Williams Sonoma. Oh spent decades prior to Mama O’s building a name for himself in the entertainment industry as a DJ. It’s only been in the last few months that he stopped working regular DJ gigs “and that’s only because I’ve had to dedicate so much more energy into making the kimchi.” Oh still incorporates music into his work, creating novel stop-motion recipe videos incorporating Mama O’s kimchi. He also hosts Kimchipalooza, an annual festival in Brooklyn with live music and kimchi-centric tastings, demos and DIY workshops. 

“I never had a 40 hour week job in my life. All I’ve done is hustle for gigs. I’m a hustler,” Oh says, adding: “I don’t mind it.”

Oh bounced from locations while growing his brand. From his apartment kitchen to a commercial kitchen space to a basement kitchen in a friend’s restaurant to a kitchen of a deli in Queens and, finally, to his current space in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn.

“I’m not trying to grow this company and then sell it. That’s not my motivation. I’m blessed to be able to do something I enjoy, that’s positive, that’s good for people, that helps people. Ultimately, that’s what I’m doing: helping people.” 

Below, a Q&A with the dynamic founder.

The Fermentation Association: Why did you start making kimchi?Kheedim Oh: I never set out to start a kimchi company. I needed kimchi for myself and all the kimchi in the stores were not to my liking. I asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I live in New York, my parents live in Maryland. It’s just too far to go bum a jar to kimchi so i asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I would take the Chinatown bus down to Maryland to make it. I would make a batch, but when you make a batch of kimchi at home, you typically do a 50-pound box of vegetables at a time. I would make it, bring it back in a cooler, then I’d wheel it back to my house on a skateboard because I couldn’t afford a taxi.

TFA: When did you move from making it as a hobby to selling it?
Oh: So I was making the kimchi and, at the time, I lived by myself. Fifty pounds is just way too much for your personal stash. I would give it away to my friends and they were like “This is so good, you should sell it.” I didn’t put much too much stake into that. But I was buying ribs from my butcher (Jeffrey’s Meat Market) and he was like “If you have kimchi and rice, you eat like a king.” So I gave him a batch, checked up on him a week later, and he said “I love it!” I said “You know I sell this shit?” and he said “I want to start carrying it.” At that point I had to come up with a name, incorporate, get insurance, all that stuff. I was making it out of the kitchen in my apartment, bringing it to him, he was only a couple blocks away. He was a total angel. He didn’t want any money, he just wanted to give me the opportunity to promote my business.

TFA: Tell me about the brand name, Mama O.
Oh: It was an homage to my mom because she taught me how to make it and what’s better than moms? You eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth. So we call it Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, not Mama O’s Cutrate Kimchi. We strive to make the best tasting, highest rated, best kimchi. That went into it with our branding, how we wanted to portray ourselves. We may not be the biggest kimchi brand, but we’re definitely making the best. 

TFA: Kimchi has traditionally been a recipe passed down through generations of Koreans. Today, that’s not happening as much. Do you think handcrafted kimchi is a dying food craft?
Oh: Yeah. It’s really sad. That was part of the reasoning why I wanted to learn to make it, because my mom makes really good kimchi. All of the stuff in the stores was just terrible. It was a link to my heritage that I really didn’t want to lose. I wanted to know how to make it just so I could have it. I invented Mama O’s Premium Kimchi Paste, which is the first paste for making kimchi at home. It’s my mom’s recipe. What’s great about the paste is it takes all the guesswork and grunt work out of it. What normally takes 3 hours takes 10 minutes because all the measuring and chopping is done.

TFA: You also created a homemade kimchi kit. Why sell a DIY kit?
Oh: It sells well around the holidays, especially. It’s a 7-inch cube, it’s a perfect gift size and it’s super cute. It’s the first kit of its kind. That kit took me two years to develop. I had to create the paste, then create the kit for it. 

What’s great about the kit is it works every time — it takes the guesswork out of making kimchi. I have so many people tell me they tried to make kimchi on their own and it didn’t work. Kimchi tastes totally different when you’re making it to when it’s done fermenting it and eating it. With lactic acid fermentation, it’s transforming the food on the molecular level. So people, when they’re making it, they try to mess with the flavor to make it taste how they want, but the flavor changes through fermentation.

I’m trying to educate consumers and retailers on how they can use this paste with their vegetables. Retailers can take any vegetable past their prime and make kimchi with it, add value to things they potentially have to throw away. It’s the art of how to transform your vegetables. It’s a great way to maintain food sovereignty. You’re in control of what you make and what you put in your body.

TFA: How have Americans’ perception of kimchi changed from when you started to now?
Oh: It’s interesting because, definitely, there’s a greater awareness of it. It’s kind of confusing on two ends because people don’t know what good kimchi is. There are a lot of chefs that put kimchi on their menus, but it’s not really kimchi. It’s quick kimchi, they acidify it with vinegar.

I’m curious how exactly it will end up in the American diet because kimchi is part of the American food zeitgeist. Kombucha is fully incorporated — it’s an American thing now. But kimchi, I don’t know. I’m curious how people are going to want to eat their kimchi. I think it will possibly be in the form of salad or salad accompaniment. I think a lot of people like kimchi with their eggs in the morning. My favorite way, personally, is on a hot dog, with Western food. I fulfilled a lifelong dream – -one of my neighbors in Brooklyn is Joe’s Pizza. He made a kimchi pizza. I like it better than pepperoni. Kimchi and cheese is like Starsky and Hutch, it’s a great combination.

TFA: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?
Oh: I see more of it, especially after whenever this outbreak settles. Though I got to say, what’s been interesting, the media and journalists have not been touting naturally fermented foods which they should be. I get the resistance to promoting probiotic supplements, I don’t think they’re good either. But I don’t get why no one is promoting fermented foods naturally to people because this has been saving people’s health since the beginning of time.

I see the fermented space growing. I’m curious to see if the supplement industry is going to blow up. I’m not a proponent of the probiotic supplement industry.

TFA: What’s your advice for other startups wanting to start a fermentation brand?
Oh: (Laughs) Besides don’t. Food is tough. Especially now because I think it’s going to get even harder. Really, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone. But coming out of this, so many people are going to want to start a food brand. You’ll have people coming in that have funding. 

That said, you have to love food to do it. But only do it if you love it. But if you don’t love it and you just want to make a killing at it, that’s not going to work. As they say, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success in the food business.

TFA: What are the future plans for Mama O’s Premium Kimchi?
Oh: Right now, I want to start more partnerships with restaurants when they open again. A lot of restaurants don’t have the time to make it, but I don’t want them making quick kimchi and passing it off as real kimchi.  

We are launching our first hot sauce — Kimchilli — in May with Whole Foods. I’m super excited to launch the hot sauce. 

I’m super lucky — I wish people would acknowledge luck in their success. I was fortunate with my timing, the new science with the mind-gut connection was starting to come out. I’m really trying to make things that people need. And do a lot of education. 

Ultimately my goal is to change how Americans eat and encourage them to eat more like Korean people. I totally get the appeal of a Western diet. I love a good steak. But you can’t just eat a steak. You have to have sides and all of that with it. Just a steak is obscene. I’m really trying to encourage people to eat in a way where meat isn’t the main thing, it’s just an accompaniment. Eat more traditionally fermented foods. One interesting thing with fermented foods is it’s not all the same probiotics. Kombucha affects me differently than when I eat kimchi. Even yogurt, I feel it does the least for me. But it’s based on your personal chemistry as well. It all depends on what works for you, then incorporating things in your diet. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen.

While trying to keep up with increased demand during the pandemic, fermented food brands can’t lose sight of their core values and business strategy.

The COVID-19 outbreak has altered retail sales, with fast-paced, constantly changing sales and production cycles. Customers are going out of their way to find natural and fermented products, believing healthy food will be one of their best defenses against the global virus. But there is also pressure on pricing, with soaring unemployment and large segments of the economy shut down.

Dan Lohman, author of Brand Secrets and Strategies, says brands that sacrifice quality in order to compete on price will suffer. 

“We as a natural (industry), we need to do everything we can to help leverage this storm,” he says “The mainstream retailer’s Achilles Heel is price – and you’ll struggle to compete if you just think about price. … Don’t apologize for quality. Always, always focus on the quality of the product.”

Lohman, an organic and CPG industry strategic adviser, shared business advice in a webinar sponsored by Whole Foods on “How Do You Future Proof Your Store in Uncertain Times.” Here are four of his strategies to help brands survive the pandemic.

1. Focus on Quality

As consumers experience wage loss and unemployment, brands will be tempted to drop their prices and offer a cheaper product. Lohman calls this a tired strategy.

“When you’re thinking about gluten-free, plant-based, some of these other things that we champion that start in our industry, these are the things that are driving sustainable sales across every single channel,” he says. “We should never have to apologize for good quality. Understand it’s our products, our industry, that’s responsible for growth across every category.”

Nielsen Data shows total U.S. food sales are up 1.9%, but natural and organic sales are up 11%.

The modern consumer frames their shopping list by the adage “You are what you eat.” They know eating a healthy, nutritionally dense food will keep them full for longer than a cheap, generic product.

“If I buy the cheap generic bread, I’m hungry almost before I finish eating it. If I eat the best mainstream bread, I may be satiated for a few hours. But if I eat the organic bread and that organic bread provides me the nutrition I need, that might satiate me longer. Even though I’m paying more (for the organic bread), I’m paying less overall. That’s the argument this industry needs to make,” he says. “Unfortunately, this is where we need to rethink how we need to go to market. Its not about price, its about value.”

“Focus on that, focus on how you are delivering that real value to your customer.”

2. Know Your Shopper

The natural shopper stereotype is someone who eats a salad and takes a walk. Defining the shopper in a small scope is limiting. Today’s natural shoppers are diverse and united in a common purpose: craving healthy food.

“Creativity is our single greatest asset. This is how we stand out on a crowded shelf. This is all about having a purpose. Natural is really good at that because were all purpose driven,” Lohman says.

3. Maintain a Score Card

Critical during the pandemic is continuing to track sales measurements. Brands need to tell retailers average turns, anticipated sales, ideal backstock, customer insight and category trends.

“A lot of brands today are reactive. They need to be proactive. It’s your name on the package,” Lohman says. “When a customer sees your product out of stock, they’ll blame the brand, not the retailer.”

Eighty percent of natural food brands fail in the first year of operation. Measurements are key to surviving, Lohman says. They show the retailer “the contribution a brand brings to the store.” Your band may not be the top-selling brand in the category, but it may be bringing the most dollars to the category.

4. Market Intentionally

As grocery store shelves quickly deplete of essential goods and medical supplies, natural brands can market their product as a health alternative.

Shoppers are struggling to find cold medicine. How does your product help alleviate cold symptoms? Grocery stores are selling out of flour. Is your product a healthy alternative to a carbohydrate?

“Help customers understand you’re there to solve their unique problems,” Lohman says.

In a matter of days, the novel coronavirus outbreak dramatically changed grocery shopping. Empty grocery store shelves have become a ubiquitous symbol globally of home quarantine.

Sales exploded for pantry staples like dried beans (62.9%), powdered milk (126.3%) and rice (57.5%). But another grocery quarantine must-have item is emerging – fermented food and drink. Sales are up for kombucha (10.1%), natto is selling out in Japan, yogurt is selling out in Europe and pickle and sauerkraut sales in Russia are up 79%. Fermentation brands are reporting some of their biggest sales during the month of March, as much of the nation was forced into self-isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“For fermented food, it’s an interesting time. We’re an immune boosting type of food, so our sales are skyrocketing. We’ve had the best month we’ve ever had in business,” says Drew Anderson, CEO of Cleveland Kitchen and TFA board member. Cleveland Kitchen makes sauerkraut and fermented dressings and marinades. “It is bittersweet. Obviously, we want this virus to go away. But we’re seeing the fermentation industry as a whole, the one benefit is it’s driving a lot of trial. People say ‘I heard fermented food is supposed to be good for you, I’m cooking more, why not grab a pack of kraut.’”

Though sales are high, brands are changing their operation model. Rather than running two shifts of processing at Cleveland Kitchen, they’re down to one. Employees must take daily temperature readings before work, stop for mandatory handwashing breaks and use new Purell hand sanitizing stations.

“Sales are up overall, but we have had to implement our emergency sanitation protocols to continue production,” says Meg Chamberlain, CEO of Fermenti, LLC. The North Carolina-based brand sells a variety of vegetable ferments, teaches fermenting workshops and hosts annual the annual WNC Fermenting Festival. Their staff is under voluntary home quarantine – which means staff only goes from work to home. “Overall our company is proving resilient and we are hopeful to continue to provide Fermenti to our community.”

Because food production is considered essential business, licensed fermentation companies have not been forced to stop working during the coronavirus outbreak.

Aneta Lundquist, CEO of 221 B.C. Kombucha, has been posting videos to her Instagram stories of the Florida based kombucha processing facility. Lundquist says employees are working overtime to deliver orders.

“Our orders during the global pandemic have spiked. Consumers have gone full blown ‘healthy’ food during this health crisis,” she says. “Now is the time to make a switch from over-processed and denaturalized pseudo foods to real, natural and unprocessed foods that nourish our body, mind and spirit and help building a strong immunity.”

Lundquist adds customers need to “think of kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut and other fermented fruits and vegetables as microbiome rock stars!…Always choose wildly fermented foods.”

“Remember it is about diversity and the quality of microorganisms, not just quantity. You can only achieve this by fermenting traditionally.”

Keenan Smith, CEO of Goodwolf Kefir in Portland, agrees. He says: “The probiotic and fermented space will increase as people have an increase in health awareness and want a better functioning immune system.” They are home delivering their kefir, and donating a

Brands are getting creative with their marketing, too. Goodwolf Kefir is home delivering kefir to the Portland area and donating a proceed of sales to their local food bank. Cultured South and Golda Kombucha have setup a pick-up fridge at their Atlanta location where customers can prepay for an order online, get a secret code to unlock the fridge and grab fermented food and drinks. Wild Kombucha in Baltimore is offering free, local, “no human touch” home delivery for their 12 pack bottles. 28 Mile Vodka & Distillery in Illinois have converted their distillery to make hand sanitizer that they call “Fool’s Gin.” The CEOs of Miyoko’s Creamery and Lifeway Kefir are both using the brands Instagram accounts to share recipes using their product.

Outside the U.S., though, different government rules are restricting fermentation brands from operating during the global outbreak. In India, Mountain Bee Kombucha has halted operations during a 21-day lockdown.

“There is no question that our business is impacted immensely, one for the fact that we are still quite small-scale which supplies directly to a handful of local grocery stores. Currently those grocery stores have been working at limited capacity and/or temporarily shut,” said founder and head brewer Honey Islam. “Another reason for lesser business in these times is due to the lack of awareness in the Indian market about fermented foods, especially kombucha. We are engaged in educating our customers as well as spreading awareness in the community via workshops, classes, 101 sessions, pop-ups, all these channels are education are currently disrupted which stalled our efforts in bringing kombucha awareness to the masses.”

Mountain Bee Kombucha is focusing on educating through Instagram videos and YouTube tutorials.

Americans are hearing the term “microbiome” a lot lately. It’s become a common phrase in health food marketing. But the microbiome is still uncharted territory in science.

Dr. Shilpa Ravella, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, says a large army of trillions of bacteria lives on or in us, and we can alter that bacteria by fueling it with the right (or wrong) foods.

“There are also ways of preparing food that can actually introduce good bacteria, also known as probiotics, into your gut. Fermented foods are teeming with helpful probiotic bacteria, like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria,” Ravella says.

Fermented food and drink are critical to caring for gut bacteria. Because fermented products are minimally processed and provide nutrient-rich variety to diets, she adds.

But that doesn’t mean all fermented products are created equally. Yogurt is a beneficial food, for example, but some brands add too much sugar and not enough beneficial bacteria that the yogurt may not actually help.

Ravella shared her insight in a TedED talk. As the director of Columbia’s Adult Small Bowel Program, she works with patients plagued by gut issues.
“We don’t yet have the blueprint for exactly which good bacteria a robust gut needs, but we do know it’s important for a healthy microbiome to have a variety of bacterial species,” she adds. “Maintaining a good balanced relationship with them is to our advantage.”

Gut bacteria breaks down food the body can’t digest, produces important nutrients, regulates the immune system and protects our bodies from harmful germs.

Though multiple factors affect our microbiome – the environment, medications and even whether or not we were birthed vaginally or through a C-section – the food we eat is one of the most powerful allies for the microbiome.

“Diet is emerging as one of the leading influences on the health of our guts,” Ravella adds. “While we can’t control all these factors, we can manipulate the balance of our microbes by paying attention to what we eat.”

In addition to fermented food and drink, fiber is also key. Dietary fiber in foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grain are scientifically proven to colonize the gut.

“While we’re only beginning to understand the vast wilderness inside our guts, we already have a glimpse of how crucial our microbiomes are for digestive health,” Ravella says. “We have the power to fire up the bacteria in our bellies.”

When Keenan Smith made his first batch of water kefir, it was for his kids. He wanted something more nutritious for his young daughters, avid sparkling water drinkers. 

Tangy, bubbly and packed with probiotics, water kefir hit all the right notes. The next year was full of home kitchen experiments, creating enticing flavors and perfecting the four-core formulation — purified water, kefir cultures, cane sugar and mission figs.

“My daughters are my best taste testers,” Smith says. “We used to be big kombucha drinkers, but water kefir is providing a different alternative. Water kefir is lighter, less sour and it has no caffeine. The kombucha flavor doesn’t work for some people, and water kefir is a perfect entry into the probiotic drink space. It’s a bridge between kombucha and sparkling water. People can still have a yummy, probiotic drink with water kefir.” 

Smith is hardly a kombucha hater, though. He’s a big fan of the fermented tea. Smith was a sales broker for many natural brands for almost two decades — including Health-Ade Kombucha, one of the nation’s leading kombucha brands.

“When I was their broker, they majorly grew their company. But they’re still fermenting in individual glass vessels,” Smith says. “I look to that model because they’ve been so successful without sacrificing the fermentation process.”

By November 2016, Smith rented a commercial kitchen near his home in Portland, Ore. and began brewing kegs of water kefir under his label: Goodwolf Feeding Company. His first customer was Airbnb’s corporate offices. By late 2017, Goodwolf opened their own manufacturing facility, scaling up without sacrificing small batch fermentation. Even now as Goodwolf expands from a Pacific Northwest brand to the West Coast, Goodwolf continues to ferment  in 50 gallon stainless fermentation vessels, cultivating additional kefir cultures as the business grows. 

“Production is moving very quickly. It feels like we’re in a rocket ship,” Smith says. “It’s a great time for water kefir.”

A few months after his big win as the Expo East Pitch Slam winner, Smith shares how he responsibly built a fermented drink brand.

The Fermentation Association: You were formerly a sales broker for natural food and drink brands. How did your background help you launch Goodwolf water kefir?

Keenan Smith: Knowing the industry, understanding how retailers and distributors work, knowing the cost of doing business upfront. That’s why it’s taken so long for us to grow — we didn’t raise venture capital out of the box. We’ve been slow and steady. We haven’t taken on much investment at all.

A lot of brands will start selling at farmers markets, then pitch to stores, but I had the connections to the retailers. We went right to the retailers.

It’s been a blessing and a curse. The blessing is we’ve been able to get into a lot of the retailers, but where we’ve been short-sighted is the on-premise channels. We haven’t done much with food service and the alternative channel side — like local offices, beer distributors and bars, they’re wanting non-alcoholic options. We’ve missed out on that keg business. These were things I didn’t think about when I focused on the retail challenge.

TFA: Functional beverages are shaking up the drink industry. How do you stand apart from other functional drinks?

Smith: Our best IP (intellectual property) is definitely our recipes, our flavor. We have really good recipes because we really came into it, that was our main goal, to create a very good tasting and nicely packaged product. We announced our social mission at Expo East around mental health. We didn’t want to lead with that though, we wanted to make sure the product and the branding was dialed in.

And also our packaging and position stands out. If you look at the kombucha case, there’s a lot of yoga, spiritual, Hindu vector art. Everything screams yoga. It’s a lot of white. And our packaging is black. We are trying to be a challenger brand. We don’t want anything that’s superfluous in there. We want to position ourselves as a challenger brand to the industry norms. We’re trying to stand out that way — with our marketing and positioning that we’re a little different. 

TFA: Tell me about the genesis of the name, Goodwolf.

Smith: Before I started Goodwolf, I was dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety. I was working on eating better and exercising. I was running one day and listening to a podcast and heard the popular good wolf legend story — the classic story on the good wolf, bad wolf. The good wolf is full of joy and love, you feed it by eating healthy. The bad wolf is angry and succumbs to fear, and you feed it a box of donuts. The one that wins is the one you feed. So I had this idea of the Goodwolf origin story.

TFA: What’s your most popular flavor.

Smith: Ginger. But our Gold is creeping up there. It’s cold pressed organic ginger, lemon, lime, pineapple and spices like turmeric and a little bit of black pepper. Our newest flavor is Habanero Fire, it’s our 5th flavor. It’s a nice addition because most brands don’t think about habanero, there’s a lot of cayenne cleanse, but no habanero. I tasted a habanero-infused cider and it had more of a round flavor, while cayenne is more of a single note of heat. Habanero is more well-rounded. We add cayenne, but the habanero really comes through. And it’s cold-pressed with ginger and apple cider vinegar. 

TFA: It sounds like a lot of work goes into crafting your flavors.

Smith: Yes. There’s a lot of R and D. Our No. 2 ranked SKU is called Bloom. That was originally called Wolf Berry because Wolf Berry was another name for goji berry, which we were fermenting with in the beginning. The way we use figs now, figs are used to culture the wild yeast out of the air, they float to the top of the water when fermenting, then you throw them out. We were doing the same thing with goji berries. But something happened in fermentation that made it very foamy with goji berries. So we stopped using the goji berries and now we’re using figs. 

TFA: You announced a social mission at Expo East. Tell me more about your social mission. 

Smith: Coming from a broker world, I worked with a lot of brands that were social mission first. “Buy our product and we’ll give our product to someone that doesn’t have this product!” But this doesn’t always work. Maybe this product isn’t something needed, or it’s not as good as something else on the market so it didn’t make sense. We didn’t want to lead with that social mission. 

We could slap 1% for the planet on the bottle, that would be easy. But I struggled with anxiety, I have family members who have struggled with depression. I can really get behind that interest because I relate to it. This felt unique. It’s part of the challenger brand position. And it’s feeding the good wolf, making the right choices.

We’re trying to do something harder, align our brand with mental health awareness. We can’t just donate our money to it because we don’t have money yet, all our money is going back in the business. You can’t really volunteer unless you have a degree, they don’t just want anyone off the street working with people suffering with mental health issues. A friend who is a doctor is consulting with us on how we can best use it. Maybe profits go to the National Association On Mental Illness. Right now it’s an intention versus a full fledged mission. It will be baked into the company as we grow.

TFA: How can brands effectively advertise the health benefits of their product?

Smith: I personally think you have to be crafty. You don’t want to scream health at the customer because you alienate people who think it won’t taste good because it’s healthy. Or you’re preaching to the choir because the healthy people know it’s healthy. You need to be able to imply the benefit without being too forward.

TFA: What challenges do fermented food and drink producers face?

Smith: Education. Even though we’ve made strides, there’s still so much education to be done. One of the big challenges is how do we stay true as smaller brands that are doing traditionally fermented products against larger brands with tons of venture capital and are adding probiotics. It’s apples and oranges when you’re talking about products sitting on a shelf together. Are they a brand funded by Coke? We have to tell our story. It’s advantageous when you’re going into retailers and say we’re small, we’re traditionally fermented. If you can tell that story to your buyers and convey it to your customers. We pushed the traditional fermented aspect.

TFA: What are the fermented food and drink industry strengths?

Smith: Well look, there’s a global pandemic happening and I think that ultimately, you will begin to understand that health is your only wealth. Health and your family are the only things that matter. When people understand that, your product is like gold because you’re providing health to people. And that’s the most important thing we have. 

TFA: What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs starting a fermentation brand?

Smith: My advice is some advice I heard recently: Find a space that isn’t already crowded. Maybe we don’t need more sauerkraut and kombucha brands or water kefir, frankly. But try to focus on how you can expand to your maximum potential locally and regionally. Don’t just look at national chains and distributors, but look at on-premise sales. How can you get your product into universities, schools, tech campuses? Think outside the box, find something truly unique that the markets are not flooded with. Or else we’re all just cannibalizing each other.

The new wave of protein is not plant-based — it’s fermented.

“Fermentation is really cultivating microbes,” says Thomas Jonas, CEO and co-founder of Sustainable Bioproducts. “And it’s incredibly efficient. Microbes duplicate very fast. So when you think about the double time for a cow or a pig, you’re talking about years. When you talk about microbes, you’re talking about hours. … This is nature’s technology. Nature is really the No. 1 biotech engineer in the world.”

The current agriculture system is incredibly inefficient. Livestock continues to be the world’s largest user of land resources. Pasture land consumes 80% of total agricultural land. Fermented organisms are emerging as new sources of proteins and ingredients. 

Leaders in the biotech industry shared how science is looking beyond plants to create food at a panel sponsored by The Good Food Institute.

Is Microbe Fermentation the New Era of Farming?

Sustainable Bioproducts creates a 50% protein based food ingredient from a microbe cultivated in the volcanic springs at Yellowstone National Park. Jonas explains that these fungal strains, called extremophiles, naturally produce a complete protein when grown in a controlled environment. Sustainable Bioproducts will soon move to a 36,000-square foot facility in Chicago’s former meatpacking district for production. The facility will take up just 0.7 acres. Compare the amount of food Sustainable Bioproducts produces to the equivalent of cow meat and 7,000 acres of grazing land would be needed for the cows.

“It’s the next generation of very efficient farming. I think what we want to get through farming are the nutrients that we need for our food. And microbes can do this tremendously efficiently,” Jonas said. 

By fermenting proteins in bioreactors versus deriving the protein from plants or raising it and slaughtering it on a feedlot, food scientists can do a lot with the health profiles.

Michele Fite, chief commercial officer for Motif FoodWorks, said they work with microbes to adjust sensory attributes, like taste, smell, flavor and texture. “We can help so we don’t have to compromise taste or nutrition when consumers are looking to access plant based foods,” she said.

Adds Anja Schwenzfeier, business development manager for Novozymes: “You want to produce specific proteins that might already exist, but you want to do that more efficiently and more sustainably. You deal with molecules you’re already familiar with.” 

“It’s not so much about creating a completely new protein. Right now we’re looking into how we can improve ingredients we already work with through fermentation.”

Fermentation as a Marketing Advantage

Panel moderator Jeff Bercovici, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, asked how biotech companies are meeting consumers in the development of fermented meat alternatives.

“(There is an) evolution of consumer attitude towards their food, which in some ways are really driving them very quickly to embrace meat alternatives, but in some ways there are some counter currents in terms of people wanting to eat whole foods, natural foods, foods with shorter ingredient lists,” Bercovici said.

The panel noted fermentation has long been a stable in the history of food, from beer to yogurt to cheese. As fermentation is making a comeback, it’s a “marketing advantage,” Bercovici notes, “now it’s a net positive, it generates consumer excitement.”

Fite at Motif FoodWorks said they’ve conducted research on meat alternative users. These consumers are currently buying meat alternatives because they believe it’s healthier than red meat and even chicken. “They want to be in this space,” she said. Consumers voice that meat alternatives are more sustainable, better for the environment, better for animal welfare and equally nutritious.

“They’re open to technology helping to solve that issue for them,” she said. “These consumers are more open to technical solutions than consumers that are a lot older have been in the past…there’s a gateway for these consumers to technical advancements, because they believe it aligns with their values.”

Adds Mark Matlock, senior vice president of food research at Archer Daniels Midland Company: “To me, it’s really refreshing to have some consumers who are embracing technology to this degree, to the extent that they may lead the mainstream their direction.”

Battling Land Use Challenges

As the global population grows, the great challenge to the environment over the next decade will be making more food with less space.

The average American consumes 215 pounds of meat a year. Raising that meat uses 32 million acres of land, and produces 82 million metric tons of greenhouse emissions.

“The real challenge for the planet is not going to be ‘Are we going to have enough oil or carbohydrates?’ it’s ‘Are we going to have enough protein?’” Matlock said. “We create protein the way a cow creates protein. … we have to think: where are our rare resources going to be put?”

A third of the corn crop grown in America feeds livestock.

Donna Schwenk is not surprised kefir has gone from relative obscurity in the U.S. to the new star of health food. The author — “Cultured Food in a Jar,” “Cultured Food for Health,” “Cultured Food for Life” — has been making and eating fermented foods for over two decades and, in the last few years, watched interest and research in probiotics climb.

Kefir is expected to grow to a $2.58 billion industry by 2027, increasing at a CAGR of 5.8%. 

“(If you want to improve gut health), drink kefir. It has the most probiotics, it’s the most versatile. You can strain off the whey and make kefir vegetables, kefir cheese, kefir soda, kefir dips, kefir smoothies. It has the most probiotics, it’s the easiest to make, and it’s the most life changing thing I’ve seen.”

Discovering Kefir

Schwenk was 41 when she received life-changing news: she was unexpectedly pregnant with her third child. Health problems plagued her through the pregnancy. She suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and her liver was shutting down. Schwenk became so sick that her daughter, Holli, was born 8 weeks early.

“I felt so guilty she was born early to save my life,” Schwenk says.

The genesis story of most health food advocates usually begins with a personal health scare. In Schwenk’s case, she was searching for answers to help her premature daughter thrive. Schwenk read Sally Morell’s book, “Nourishing Traditions.” The kefir section piqued Schwenk’s interest. Morell details the benefits of kefir in her book — and the ease of making it. Kefir is made by using kefir grains to culture raw milk. Because kefir can be cultured at room temperature, it takes only 24 hours to make. The taste of kefir is tart, flavorful and refreshing.

A few weeks after regularly drinking kefir, Holli began sleeping through the night and started gaining weight, a key developmental milestone for a premature baby. Schwenk was drinking kefir, too, and her health improved. Her blood sugar levels stabilized and she felt better than she had in years. 

“I realized the answer to my prayers were in this jar that had billions and trillions of microorganisms in them that made me well. And I wanted to know why,” Schwenk says in a podcast with Kriben Govender, a food science and technology grad and founder of Gut Health Guru (Honours Degree in Food Science & Technology). “Microbes are where it’s at for me. They were my angels in disguise.”

Schwenk dove into the world of fermentation, making her own kefir, kombucha, cultured veggies and sourdough bread. She shares her DIY tips in her books and on her website Cultured Food Life.  Schwenk’s developed a loyal following of fellow home fermenters. Her tips have helped fermented food brands launch their businesses, too.

Fermented Drinks

Though she realizes many people are attracted to dairy-free water kefir, Schwenk is still a fan of milk kefir. She’s made vegan kefir, but says the greatest benefits are in milk kefir. She notes water kefir has 14 strands of bacteria and yeast, but milk kefir has over 50 strands. 

“When you ferment it, it completely changes the food. You put vitamin C into it and more B vitamins, you add more probiotics, you remove the lactose. You transform the food by fermenting it. It’s a completely different food than regular dairy,” Schwenk says.

Vegan kefirs are finicky. While kefir grains must be fed daily with raw milk, vegan kefir must be fed more. There are few carbohydrates in a coconut milk kefir, for example, and the bacteria feed of the carbs to make probiotics. She suggests adding a date paste to vegan kefir.

Regularly drinking kefir is key for health benefits, she adds. Schwenk says many fermented foods have “transient bacteria” — bacteria that is good for the body, but doesn’t dwell in the stomach or organs. It only lasts 2-3 days. Consuming more fermented foods replenishes that transient bacteria.

Kefir is not the only fermented drink star with incredible health properties. Schwenk is passionate about kombucha, too. Kombucha is strong artillery against potential viruses because of the saccharomyces yeast strain found in the fermented tea. Saccharomyces is the No. 1 probiotic yeast strain used in hospitals worldwide because it cannot be killed by probiotics.

“That’s one of the strong things that makes kombucha stand out and do its job more effectively. It actually acts like a pathogen in the body and it attracts pathogens to it and kills them. But it only lasts a few days in the body,” Schwenk says. “That’s one of the powerful weapons kombucha has that’s such a benefit to our own bodies, our own lives, and keeps us healthy. If you have to take an antibiotic, kombucha is a great thing to help keep your body in balance because it doesn’t get killed by antibodies.”

The Second Brain

Gut flora is a balance. The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” — neurotransmitters and other chemicals produced in the gut affect the brain.

“We’re made up of trillions of bacteria. We’re basically a big sack of bacteria walking around. When I connected to that, I healed my body and my mind,” Schwenk says.

Staff at TFA were getting ready to head to Anaheim for Natural Products Expo West, the enormous spring trade show, when, Monday night, the show’s producers announced it would be postponed because of mounting concerns about the coronavirus. New Hope Network, a division of Informa PLC, said they plan to announce by mid-April a new date for the conference.

In a statement on their website, New Hope wrote that the “natural products community has made it clear it doesn’t want the show to go on.” Reports indicated attendance — forecast to approach 85,000 at Expo West, the largest natural products show in the world —  would be down by up to 60% this year. It’s been reported that more than 200 exhibitors had pulled out of the show over the last few days.

Multiple members of the TFA advisory board traveled to Anaheim this week for Expo West.

“I was surprised they postponed considering how much money this makes for them.  But it makes sense,” says Kheedim Oh, founder of Mama O’s Kimchi. “I assumed it would still be on after finding out many buyers were pulling out because I doubted they would cancel.”

Oh estimates he lost $3,000 on Expo West. Though he was able to get a last-minute refund from his Airbnb host, flights, car rentals and shipping of product were all non-refundable.

Matt Reynolds, brand manager for Bubbies Fine Foods and Cook’s All Natural Pantry, said it’s not just money lost, but time, too. Expos are resource intensive. And “it’s hard to quantify that lost lead that could’ve been a game changer.”

“This Expo’s postponement seems to be somewhat unprecedented and is still unfolding on all sides,” Reynolds says. “Expos can be great for sales leads, vendor leads, as well as for customer and broker feedback and face time. Expos can also great for identifying trends and featuring new products. At best, postponing Expo West postpones these opportunities. At worst, we lose them.”

Fred Linder, Group President of New Hope Network, said: “As with all our events, it was the intention here at Expo West in Anaheim, to follow official guidance from local authorities and to listen to the voices of the community we serve and support, in order to maximize the health of the industry.”

“Today, it is clear the majority of those voices are saying they want Expo West but not this week. And so we are being guided by that majority in postponing the show.”

The statement continues that New Hope was planning to continue with the conference this week, at the advice of local government and health authorities from the City of Anaheim. Many brands were already setting up booths on the various trade show floors Monday.

But, notes New Hope Network: “In the particular case of New Hope’s Natural Products Expo, the situation has been very different in that the show was in-flight, with production underway, when the views of the community started to diverge. Some of our partners strongly advocated continuing with the show as planned. Some of our partners wanted the show, but not now, and some just wanted a straight-forward cancellation.”

“It is now clear…that the majority of our Community want the show, but they do not want it now.”

Last week, New Hope Network sent an “Update on Coronavirus” to attendees that the show would continue. They said: “The majority of our Chinese exhibitors are unable to participate in this year’s event and a small number of companies are reducing their presence due to corporate travel policies.”

Over the last few days, though, many brand leaders and industry professionals shared please on social media for the conference to be cancelled. Food Business News said, out of 3,600 exhibitors, 200 pulled out of the conference because of fears of the virus spreading or company travel restrictions.

John Foraker, co-founder and chief executive officer of Once Upon a Farm, told Food Business News that attending Expo West “makes no business sense” as retail buyers from such companies as Amazon, Kroger, Whole Foods Market and Target have cancelled attendance.

“The retailer cancellations have been so significant for us that there is little point to go,” Foraker said. “That combined with no less reason to be concerned about the (COVID-19) health risks for employees given news this weekend. The point of Expo is to sell and build our brand. We think that is not possible now, certainly relative to all the other considerations.”

There were an estimated 85,000 attendees at this year’s Expo West, and sampling food from different brands is a major part of the trade floor experience. Daniel Lubetzky, founder and executive chairman of Kind Healthy Snacks, posted an open letter on LinkedIn as to why his company would be pulling out of the conference:

“While we are hoping that (COVID-19) will not be as damaging as the fear it is fomenting, we decided that gathering with 30,000 people from across the world inside closed quarters to try tons of food samples was probably not the most prudent path forward this week, particularly as we don’t have enough information about (COVID-19). Our team members’ health is our paramount priority.”

Sagan Schultz, CEO at plant-based functional beverage brand WellWell, shared his views as a medical doctor in an open letter on LinkedIn:

“Over the last few weeks, COVID-19 has started behaving like the once-in-a-century pandemic academics have feared,” wrote Schultz, who is also a doctor. “It has the ability to kill healthy adults at a 1-2% case fatality rate making it similar to the 1918 Spanish Flu, and it has proven to spread quite efficiently and exponentially — each infected person on average can infect 2-3 others. So far COVID-19 has caused 10x more cases than SARS in a quarter of the time.”


We asked three fermentation experts if recent popularity of fermented foods is a fading trend or a new food movement. These industry professionals weigh in on their predictions for fermentation’s future. The fermenters include: Bri Warner (CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms, a commercially viable seaweed farm that makes kelp kraut and kimchi), Nicholas Gregory (owner of Pulp Hot Sauce, an Atlanta-based fermented condiment brand), Joshua Rood (co-founder and CEO Dr Hops Kombucha beer, a health-conscious alcohol).

Do you think the surge of fermented food and drinks is a trend will disappear or a new food movement here to stay?

Bri Warner, CEO Atlantic Sea Farms: “Now that we have a robust understanding of how good gut health effects overall health, I think fermentation is here to stay. I do think the category will continue to innovate to remain relevant, with a stronger focus on quality ingredients that are good for people, planet, and, in our case, oceans!”

Nicholas Gregory, owner Pulp Hot Sauce: “I think the current fermented food movement is here to stay. We are at an intersection of technology, science and health further than we have ever seen in human history. The internet, television, several seminal books and air travel have given us unprecedented exposure and access to information. This exposure and access to food and world cultures is more in depth than ever before. Including the food history and traditions of those cultures. Combine that awareness with a relatively intelligent and sophisticated medical system; an understanding of healthy lifestyles, a willingness to make healthy decisions, an understanding of the benefits of a healthy gut biome and how it all correlates to a longer, happier, healthier life. Along with a craving for umami and fermented funky flavors for a growing number of the population. I believe we are in the middle of a movement that shows no signs of slowing down or going away anytime soon. In fact, I see it only becoming more popular, more normal, more accepted, more diverse, more creative and more exciting in the decades to come.”

Joshua Rood, co-founder and CEO Dr Hops Kombucha beer: “As co-founder and CEO of Dr Hops Kombucha Beer, I appreciate that there is currently a powerful trend towards living, fermented foods. But answering the question of whether or not that will continue is repugnant. We here at Dr Hops are driving that trend! We are not playing the game of hoping that it will simply continue. We are committing ourselves, each day, to the life-enhancing awesomeness of fresh, authentic, fermented foods and beverages. Please join us in that! Join us in leading the health-conscious food and beverage revolution!”