Thanks to lactic acid — which kills harmful bacteria during fermentation — fermented foods are arguably among the safest foods that humans eat. But if critical errors are made, there is the  risk of food safety hazards.

“When we talk about fruit and vegetable ferments, there is a very long history of microbial safety with traditionally fermented fruits and vegetables,” says Erin DiCaprio, extension specialist at University of California, Davis, Department of Food Science and Technology. “While outbreaks associated with fermented fruits and vegetables are rare, vegetable and fruit fermentation is not without risk.”

DiCaprio, a food safety expert, detailed proper food safety protocols during a webinar for EATLAC, a UC Davis project putting scientific knowledge and research behind fermentation. DiCaprio shared two documented instances of fermented foods causing a foodborne illness, both from small-scale batches of kimchi. But she emphasized that, when all food safety concerns are mitigated, fermented foods do not pose a risk.

“From the food microbiology standpoint, bacteria really are the most important group of microorganisms because bacteria, certain types of bacteria, are a food safety concern,” she adds. “There are many different types of bacteria that contribute to food spoilage and, of course, there are specific types of bacteria that are used beneficially for fermentation.”

What happens during fermentation that makes food safe? Lactic acid bacteria are created, which convert sugars into lactic acid, acetic acid and CO2. Those antimicrobial compounds help fight off pathogens, competing with other microbes for nutrition sources.

Biological hazards — bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause foodborne illnesses — are the biggest concerns. Botulism, E. coli and salmonella are the main hazards for fermented foods. Botulism can form in oxygen-free conditions if a fermentation is not successful and acid levels are too low. E. coli and salmonella form when sanitation practices are not followed.

“Commercially, when someone is developing a valid fermentation process, they are typically going to be looking to see that sufficient acid is produced during fermentation, to inactivate some of these acid tolerant (bacteria),” DiCaprio says. “Our traditional vegetable fermentations — things like fermented cucumber, sauerkraut, kimchi — they’ve all been shown to produce sufficient acid to inactivate the sugar toxin producing e-coli, so from a safety standpoint, sufficient acid production is the critical control point for ensuring the safety of a fermented fruit or vegetable. “

There are seven critical factors to keep a ferment safe:

  1. High-quality, raw ingredients. “If there are a high number of spoilage microorganisms to start with, it will be really difficult for the lactic acid bacteria to dominate the fermentation,” DiCaprio says.
  • Research-based recipe. Following a tested recipe ensures the proper balance of ingredients to keep the food safe.
  • Proper sanitation. Cleaning of all utensils and surfaces ensures no pathogens will contaminate the food. This mitigates cross-contamination risk, too.
  • Preparation of ingredients. Food particles should be uniform in size, either cut in small slices or shredded. Smaller pieces release more water and nutrients, promoting the growth of lactic acid bacteria.
  • Salt concentration. Lactic acid bacteria thrive in a salt brine. The key amount: anywhere from 1-15% salt brine by weight of the ferment.
  • Appropriate temperature. A temperature between 65-75 degrees fahrenheit is ideal to keep spoilage microorganisms at bay.
  • Adequate time. “It takes a while for significant acid to be produced, so be patient and follow the directions in the recipe,” DiCaprio advises. Most fruit and vegetable ferments take 3-6 weeks to be completed.

When Sophie and Alexander Burov moved to Toronto, Canada, from Moscow, Russia, in 2007, farming wasn’t on their radar. Both entrepreneurs — she in fashion, he in mining — they were accustomed to life in one of the biggest cities in the world, not to rural farming. And their knowledge of fermented dairy was limited to taste — Alexander loved the tangy kefir he’d been drinking since childhood; Sophie devoured cheese and yogurt.

Sophie was a sheep’s milk aficionado, having tried it years earlier, She had fallen in love with its flavor, but soon learned how hard it was to find fresh sheep’s milk, especially in her native Russia. So when she met a producer at a farmer’s market in Canada, Sophie felt inspired to make her own sheep’s milk products.

“At that moment, I couldn’t even imagine running a farm,” Sophie says. She volunteered at a local dairy and sheep farm, quickly learning that: “Business is business and farming is business too, but it’s love as well. Farming is a lot of love.”

Today, Sophie, Alexander and their son Roman run the 150-acre Secret Lands Farms, south of Owen Sound in Ontario, Canada. Utilizing  old-world European farming traditions, they produce a range of artisanal sheep’s milk dairy products at their on-site creamery: kefir, two varieties of yogurt, and 25 cheeses. Their kefir — made from centuries-old Tibetian  grains — is also the base for their cheeses. Secret Lands is the only producer in Canada (and one of few in North America) using kefir grains as a culture for  cheese. 

“Seeing is believing — but tasting is falling in love,” Sophie says. “When you taste our product, you can feel the love.”

Sophie recently spoke with TFA; below are highlights from the interview.

The Fermentation Association: You purchased the farm seven years ago. Farming is hard work! Tell me what made you decide to purchase a farm?

Sophie Burov: Yes, we purchased it in 2013. The idea came about eight years ago. You know sometimes when you reach a point when you need to reconsider the purpose of your life and what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what’s the purpose of your existing?

The agricultural sector is huge in Canada but not dairy sheep farming , so I started thinking about it as a hobby farm and we’d still live in the city, but it turned in a different direction because if you want just a hobby, it will only be your hobby. If you want something serious, your life and dedication is different when it’s your life. I believe it’s from guidance from God, I was praying a lot.

Looking back, this is the hardest job me and my husband have ever done. But it’s rewarding mentally. I believe in the spirit of the land and the animals and what you’re doing through the product you give to people, you become a bridge connection between the land and the people. Through the product, you can tell much more than through words.

If you want to go farming for money and there’s no love between you and the animals, forget it. There has to be love between you and the animals. Everyday they are teaching us how to be better human beings because sheep are very social. They are also very appreciative animals. They give back their love. If they’re struggling, you’re struggling with them. 

We were very, very lucky, because we found the first sheep dairy farmers and breeders in North America — Axel Meister and his wife, Chris Buschbeck [owner of WoolDrift Farm in Markdale, Grey County, Ontario]. They brought this flock from Germany in the middle of the ‘80s and they started developing this flock in the middle of North America. When we decided to do this farm, we met Axel and started going to his farm and volunteering and he was guiding us, telling us what books to read and what to pay attention to with the sheep. His wife Chris is a vet for sheep and she helps us with our sheep.

TFA: How long did it take you to become experts at sheep farming?

SB: We are still learning. The first three years were extremely, extremely difficult. It was a hard time because, working as a volunteer at these different farms, it was very different compared to doing it yourself because all the ups, they’re yours, and all  the downs, they’re yours. 

TFA: Where do you sell your products?

SB: We sell at the farmers market on Saturday and home delivery twice a week. I believe home delivery is another bridge between the customers and us. If they have questions, we’re always here to answer. It’s not the easiest way to do it, but I believe that for small farmers and small producers, it’s the best way to connect with your customers and make money. We tried to work with retail stores, but retail chains, they are squeezing you. There’s no money for small farms. You can increase your flock, your production, to make more money, but we do not wish to become huge. For now it’s an ideal model for us to sell through online sales to all of the Canadanian provinces

TFA: What is a typical day like at the farm?

SB: Everyday is different. From the beginning, we were working like slaves. It was very unhealthy, all of us were sleeping just an hour, working at the farm then driving to the farmers market. Sometimes our working time was 22 hours a day, it was killing us. But now it’s easier because we have people who can help us in production and my husband Alex has people helping him on the farm, so it’s a little easier. [Secret Lands has anywhere from 8-10 employees, depending on the season].

The most difficult period of the year is lambing season. My husband and son are not sleeping at all. They have naps, but then they’re back to the barn. We do lambing once a year for a few months in spring. We do not do artificial insemination, we do it the way nature intended. The sheep are pasture-raised, grass-fed and no hormones.

TFA: You are Russian natives, where kefir originates from. Did you have kefir before starting the farm?

SB: Yes, kefir started in Russia, it began end of the 19th Century. It came from the Caucasus Mountains. But to be honest, when I started thinking about farming and a sheep dairy farm, I didnt even think about kefir, I was thinking about just yogurt because at that moment I was a yogurt and cheese person. I have hated kefir since I was a kid. My husband has been loving it since he was born. 

But when we met our sheep breeder, at that moment he gave me a glass of kefir at his farm. He was just producing kefir for himself, I tried it and thought this was interesting. He gave me a handful of kefir grains, and I made kefir and brought it to our church community for people to try and share with people our idea of what we would be doing on the farm. One lady started asking me so many questions about kefir. And I realized my knowledge about kefir is null. I went back home and started my research and I was just shocked. It was so amazing, it was my ah-ha moment. Kefir is incomparable with yogurt in nutrition. Then my amazement was doubled, tripled, because sheep’s milk kefir, the product is different, the amount of calcium is much higher than cow’s or goat’s milk. In the kefir variation, our body will assimilate twice the calcium and protein.

The real kefir — made from kefir grains — it’s very limited on the market because it’s difficult to make. Seven years ago I had a handful of kefir grains, but now I can produce nine pails of 15 liters each of kefir at the same time. It’s not a huge amount actually if we compare it to someone who does it commercially. It’s impossible to make money with that amount of product. When people ask why our product is high priced, I tell them because it’s the real stuff.

TFA: Tell me some of the benefits of sheep’s milk kefir.

SB: It’s a natural probiotic, it’s the most natural probiotic in the whole world. Some scientists are saying it has 50 different variations of probiotics.

If you are taking pills or taking kefir from commercial cultures, you are not digesting the good bacteria. But if you take the real kefir, it’s becoming you and it works. People ask “Why am I supposed to drink it all the time? What’s the reason?” I tell them even the best troops in the whole world can do a lot, but if you are not feeding them, they become weak. These troops are fighting the bacteria in your body and they’re fighting nonstop, invisibly fighting bad bacteria in your body. People need to understand there’s no miracle. You can’t drink a glass or a liter and that’s all. You need to do it constantly and it will give you the health benefits from the nutrients and vitamins. I drink half a glass for my breakfast and and half a glass at night.

In kefir, your body assimilates the nutrients and vitamins. Sheep’s milk is easier to digest because it’s closest to mother’s milk, more than goat or cow milk — it’s a superior milk. You can even freeze this milk, we freeze it for the winter time and when you defrost it, it doesnt change the structure. The globule of the fat in sheeps milk is four times smaller than cow’s milk. It’s easiest to digest for people, especially with lactose issues. Same with our cheese made from kefir, it has the same benefits.

TFA: What about your other fermented products? Tell me about the baked milk yogurt.

SB: The baked milk yogurt can be confusing to people because they say “Doesn’t it kill all the probiotics in your yogurt?” No, we are slow cooking it, and then we add cultures. It is Russian and Ukrainian, this process of making yogurt. It goes back to history when people in villages were baking bread in a wooden oven. It was always pre-heated, they would put milk in a cast iron pot or clay pot. It would stay there overnight, and the water is evaporating and the milk sugar is caramelizing. We call it the healthiest creme brulee. It has the taste of caramel, but no sugar or caramel added because of the process of the caramelization of the lactose. 

TFA: You make traditional yogurt, too?

SB: Yes, we are working with cultures from Italy. I tried to work with what’s available here, but it gave me a really sour, tart taste. It was too genetically modified, and that genetically modified culture is not allowed in Europe. We’re bringing all our cultures for our yogurt from Europe.

TFA: Tell me more about your cheeses.

SB: We do different varieties of cheeses called kefir cheese, we use zero commercial cultures. We are using only kefir. It takes more time, it changes a little bit of the taste for the cheese, but it’s the same culture. We’re able to produce fresh cheese to a few-years-old Pecorino. But it’s the same culture.

David Archer, he wrote The Art of the Natural Cheesemaker, I met him just before we started making kefir cheese. At that moment, his book had just released and people introduced us at the farmers market. He came to our farm and we spent a month together  in our small-size commercial kitchen and creamery and he helped convert everything to kefir cheeses. 

I’m always asking people just think about the history of the cheesemaking, cheesemakers they didn’t use the cultures from the lab, it was a natural fermentation. It was the same farm with the same bacteria, they’ve been doing different varieties of cheese, but it depends on your region because the environment is different. Sometimes, you don’t know what’s involved because the weather is different, the humidity is different and even our mood is different. If you’re not in a good mood, it comes out in the cheese.

Same with kefir cheese, we’re using the same kefir as a culture for our milk, and it gives us different results. Even with our soft-ripened cheeses, Camembert and Brie, the rind we are growing, it does not have any artificial bacteria that people put on top of the cheese to grow a rind. Kefir gives this ability to grow the rind naturally. But you need to be thoughtful and it involves a lot of labor because you need to keep your eye on the cheese everyday to see what’s growing on top. And you need to develop the right bacteria for the rind of the cheese. 

TFA: Is the process to make a kefir cheese different from a traditional cheese?

SB: A little bit, but now much. The process to make it takes more time than traditional cheesemaking because you need to add kefir and wait. But it’s worth it because it’s a superior food that brings you all the good protein. It’s easier to digest compared to even meat because it’s naturally fermented.

TFA: How long did it take you to perfect these recipes?

SB: It’s an ongoing process. From the beginning I didn’t plan to do 25 cheeses. But I was surprised, people started asking me at the farmers market if I would make hard cheese. Now Pecorino is our top seller and our main product, it’s a sheep’s milk cheese made of full-fat, whole sheep’s milk. 

Sometimes people are suspicious — “Oh a Russian, doing Pecorino in Canada?” But when they taste it, they love it. 

Even as small producers, we are like big producers, because we are doing a big range of products. We have four more cheeses planned for the future. The sheep’s milk gouda is in the aging room now.

TFA: How does the taste of a fermented sheep’s milk product taste compared to fermented goat or cow dairy?
SB: Sheep’s milk is very sweet and high in fat, but good fat. It’s very smooth and creamy. My first impression when I tried a glass of sheep’s milk, it was like I was drinking the best cow’s cream of my life. It’s rich, but not heavy because the globule of the fat is very small. It gives richness, but at the same time, lightness. It’s so full of the different nodes of the taste. It’s sweet but not overly sweet, it’s balanced. The quality of the milk affects all the range of the products that we do.

Sheep milk is a very good balance between rich and light.This taste goes through the product. It’s totally different from goat milk, it doesn’t have a strong taste. Many people don’t like the taste of goat milk, the smell and taste. Sheep doesn’t have that strong taste at all.

TFA: I love that you are very invested in the welfare of your animals.

SB: For me the most important, I care how people are treating the animals. If the animals are healthy, free-range, pasture-raised, people are taking good care of them, they’re not giving them chemical-produced silo. We’re giving our animals  fermented hay because it’s easier to digest. Year-round, our animals are grass-fed. We are not just farmstead producers, we are much more. Our main concern is the health of our soil. The quality of the product, the health of the product, it starts from the health of our lamb. Only good soil can guarantee good health for your animals.

TFA: Where do you see the future of fermented products?

SB: I believe in the future of fermentation. However, it’s not easy. For example, back in Russia, back in Europe, my family we’ve been doing sauerkraut since I can remember. Even here in Canada, living in downtown Toronto, even when we were in a condo, I was making sauerkraut. And kombucha. 

But people are losing that connection to their food. They need the right guidance to reconsider their eating habits. I believe it will take some time to change, but we are optimistic.

A Yeast Primer

Brewers, winemakers and cidermakers are continually on the hunt for the ideal flavor profiles for their fermented beverages. And the key to manipulating those flavors is yeast.

“With beer, you’re taking this kind of gross, bitter soup of sweet barley and hops, and the yeast makes it taste good. Depending on the yeast that gets put in it, it can make it taste like 400 different things, so there’s so much potential there. I think that’s really exciting,” says Richard Preiss of Escarpment Laboratories. Priess was joined by Doug Checknita from Blind Enthusiasm Brewing and Patrick Rue from Erosion Wine Co. to discuss the world of yeast in TFA webinar, A Yeast Primer.

“If you’re invested in vegetable fermentation, yeast might be sort of clouded in mystery and something that is unwanted,” says Matt Hately, TFA advisory board member who moderated the webinar. “It’s what you live by in beverage fermentation in wine and beer and it’s the key to unlocking flavors to make that magic happen.”

Domesticated vs. Wild Yeasts

Just as dogs and cats were domesticated by humans, yeasts have been as well, says Priess, whose company makes and banks yeasts. They are microscopic organisms that adapt, “so if someone’s making beer for over the span of hundreds or thousands of years then the yeast is going to change to kind of get better at fermenting that beer and maybe it’s not going to be so good at surviving out in the wild, just like our toy poodle versus our wolf.”

Other fermented drinks, like wine, sake and cider, use different yeasts with their own specific sets of traits. This is why a wine yeast can’t be used in a beer and vice versa, “though there are some opportunities to experiment.”

Fermenting with wild yeasts has become increasingly in vogue with beer brewers. Aspirational brewers are finding yeasts on the skin of fruit or the bark of trees. 

The panelists on the webinar praise experimentation, but note there is risk. Priess says yeasts designed to survive in the wild can be challenging to use in a beer. Checknita points out the safety factor in using yeasts directly from nature as well, “you can get stuff that’s harmful to human health so you have to be careful with your pH levels and what controls there are.”

Traditional winemakers, on the other hand, have long used the wild yeast on grapes to ferment. Rue notes that 10 years ago winemakers began to deviate from this tradition to use pure cultures instead. This process is how many large-scale, industrial producers operate today. But smaller winemakers, who often want to emphasize the specific traits of their terroir, generally use native yeasts and traditional winemaking techniques.

“It’s amazing how wine is how God intended wine to be made because you let nature happen and you’ll probably have a pretty good result with natural fermentation,” Rue continues, “where beer, it’s very touch-and-go, you have to have the perfect conditions and I’ve been able to do spontaneous fermentation with those yeasts.”

The Yeast Family Tree

There’s a large and continually-growing family tree of yeasts, with branches forming for genetic diversity and specialization.

Priess sees three new trends emerging in yeasts: traditional yeasts (like Norwegian kveik) being rediscovered, yeast hybridization (similar to cross-breeding a tomato) and genetic engineering to enhance certain traits of yeast.

“That’s the exciting part of what we’re doing is no one really knows the best approaches to using beer yeast yet, but there’s a lot more new science that’s happening, a lot more brewers that are experimenting, and together we’re collaborating to understand how to work with yeast better and kind of unlock new flavors and new possibilities,” Priess says.

Checknita agrees. He says new yeasts are forming new family trees through spontaneous fermentation, which is taking the base of a beer and experimenting to “push and change those yeasts to do what we want and get that clean flavor that’ll make a beer that tastes good to the human palate.”

Sales are soaring. Although kimchi only makes up 7% of the pickles and fermented vegetables category, its sales are increasing at an explosive 90% rate, according to SPINS. 

We asked three kimchi experts their thoughts on the uptick in sales: Minnie Luong, founder and CHI-EO of Chi Kitchen, JinJoo Lee, chef and Korean Food Blogger at KimchiMari and Kheedim Oh, founder and Chief Minister of Kimchi for Mama O’s (and member of TFA’s Advisory Board).

We asked them: Why do you think kimchi sales are increasing so rapidly?

Minnie Luong: Originating in Korea around 4,000 years ago, kimchi is an iconic food symbolic of hope, trust, and survival that is the perfect food for our current times. One of the world’s most special foods, it elicits delight, storytelling and sharing. In fact, UNESCO has designated kimjang — the traditional way of making and sharing kimchi — a designated intangible cultural heritage of humanity. 

Low in calories, high in fiber and big on flavor that’s great for your digestion and gut health, kimchi is uniquely poised to cross over from being a specialty food to a must-have pantry staple for health and wellness enthusiasts, home cooks and those seeking out a satisfying flavor adventure. Its spicy, tangy, umami flavor is convenient and easy to use across a wide range of dishes along with a long shelf life when refrigerated. Just open a jar and it’s ready to go! While kimchi is often seen as a condiment, it should really be considered a vegetable, but one that packs a delicious, probiotic punch. Let’s face it, we could all use more veggies and flavor in our lives!

JinJoo Lee: I think the sales of kimchi are increasing because more and more people are aware of the health benefits of kimchi (loaded with probiotics like many fermented foods) and also are being introduced to the wonderful flavors of it now through many restaurant foods and magazine recipes.

More restaurants have started to use kimchi in their menu because I think chefs have realized kimchi works great in non-Korean dishes such as on hamburgers, pasta, cheese quesadillas and even with Brussels sprouts!

Kimchi has a very deep and complex flavor with an amazing zing that fermented foods have but it also is a perfect balance of sour, spicy, salty, umami and slightly sweet that works well with so many different foods, especially meats and seafood.

Most Americans may know only the spicy napa cabbage kimchi (Baechu Kimchi) but did you know there are over 100 different kimchis? kimchi can be made using all sorts of different vegetables such as cucumber, eggplant, radish, mustard greens, green onions, chives and more.

If made and stored properly, kimchi can last for weeks, months and years and it can be enjoyed throughout all the different stages of fermentation – from the very beginning as fresh tasting to fully ripe to overly ripe and sour then even when it’s aged for years! So kimchi is the perfect fermented food that’s tasty, healthy, versatile and even long-lasting.

Kheedim Oh: With everyone in the world simultaneously experiencing sensations of uncertainty mixed with mortal fears of peer contact, people are drawn to the near mythic powers of kimchi. One of the top 5 healthiest foods in the world (according to Health Magazine). A true superfood. People are attracted to the promises of probiotics. The comfort of supporting their immune systems with each bite. The flavor of fermentation. The addictive nature of how eating good kimchi makes you feel. 

The word kimchi has reached a tipping point where it’s no longer just the stinky rotting cabbage from Korea (or wherever) to the acidic/tart vegetable dish that “I had as part of a dish at the insert [trendy fusion restaurant] that I went to and I heard it’s really good for you.” It’s losing its Korean-ness and quickly being subsumed into White American food culture the way that kombucha has already completely become. There are a lot of “kimchis” that are only kimchi through very loose interpretations or are just not real kimchi by any definition, only by name. The culprits being many of the before-mentioned fusion restaurants. 

On the other hand, there is the whole DIY home fermentation movement that has been growing year over year. Educating themselves on how to achieve food sovereignty, they tend to be a more culturally sensitive crowd. Regardless of the hype surrounding the word, we hope that kimchi can maintain its popularity in America while maintaining its unique UNESCO World Heritage recognized cultural identity as a Korean food.

Behind every fermented food or beverage is  intriguing science that creates a pleasantly tangy taste. Customers want to know all about that chemical process, right? 

No. Stop geeking out and appeal to the foodie instead.

“This is about the joy of eating, and so when you over-science me and you over-gut me, I forget the joy of eating. Remind yourself that your most important message is how pleasant, how tasty, how engaging, that’s the pleasure of eating, and then you can tell me how you make that pleasure,” says Sasha Strauss, managing director at Innovation Protocol (a marketing consulting & design agency). Strauss shared his brand strategy tips in the TFA webinar Building a Fermented Brand. He stressed fermented brands need to avoid getting stuck in the “scientific nuance of how you make your products. I’m not saying delete the science, just don’t make it the marquee.”

Alex Corsini, founder of frozen pizza company Alex’s Awesome Sourdough (and TFA Advisory Board member) agrees. Corsini, who moderated the webinar, says he began his brand with a heavy emphasis on the science of fermenting sourdough.

“Our customer didn’t really respond to that. And that’s something I see in fermentation all too often, is people aren’t selling the actual benefit. They want to understand the benefit, so that’s what you lead with,” Corsini advises. 

If you’re selling kombucha, for example, share that it’s a feel-good product that will make you feel better than a soda, Corsini says. Don’t make your selling pitch the SCOBY’s technical specifications.

Teach, Don’t Sell

“I don’t understand fermentation. I don’t understand the health benefits. I don’t understand its cultural origins. I don’t understand what section to buy it in. I don’t understand what to eat it with or who to serve it too. Your first duty as a brand is to help me make sense of this, help me understand it,” Strauss says. “It’s not your job to be the sexiest, raciest, the most innovative, it’s your job to help me understand. And where understanding sits in the consumer’s mind is where buying behaviors originate. So the first and most important duty of your brand is to simply help me not feel alone, help me not feel confused, help me not feel overwhelmed.”

By educating the consumer, by inspiring them to learn about fermentation, “they will be indelibly connected to you,” Strauss continues. “They will prefer you. They won’t wonder if your price is a penny cheaper, they’ll prefer you because you’re who they learned from. We buy who we learn from.” 

There’s not enough room on a label to detail all the health benefits or the scientific details of a product. But this information can go on a brand’s website, social media page or table-top display at a trade show or farmer’s market.

“I hope that your audience doesn’t hear from you just once,” Strauss says. They should find a video of your product on Instagram, find recipes on your website and see an ad in the local paper. Brands need to create multiple opportunities to engage, “don’t try to cram all of your value in a single channel.” 

A New Economy

The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed the economy. Consumer lifestyles have changed, too, and these new  behaviors create opportunities, especially for fermented products that are healthy and flavorful.

“Historically, if you were trying to build a consumer packaged goods brand, it was really about your resume, your long list of accomplishments , your heritage in farming, your understanding of the chemistry and that was what marked the person, the business, the brand,” Strauss says. “But actually now, it’s really about how you resonate, how I connect with you, how you inspire me, and that doesn’t require a long history, that requires a contemporary participation.”

“In a world where the audience is starting and ending their search digitally, each of the things that you share, post, write about, blog about, video dialogue about, those things are little breadcrumbs that will never go away,” Sasha says. “They’re little trails that lead to your brand, lead to your resources, lead to your understanding and this is powerful.”

Consumers rejected traditional brand loyalties this past year. They’re increasingly open to new brands, curious about new cultural flavors and want healthy food. Critically, Strauss points out, they want to purchase from socially responsible brands. “In a post-covid era, we want a brant to also do good,” he says.

Producers must make conscious choices about the farmers they use — how are they improving soil health? What is the environmental impact of their distribution line?

“Understand you have to make an impact, somehow do good for the world while building business,” Strauss says.

Don’t expect people immediately to dump their sourdough starters and crowd restaurants when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. In a U.S. consumer trends survey, 42% of people said they plan to cook more at home post-pandemic. This news is great for Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brands.

From record sales to supply shortages to new safety regulations, the retail grocery business was changed dramatically by the pandemic in 2020. But CPG companies experienced phenomenal growth: sales rose over 10% — more growth in one year than in the four-year period from 2016 to 2019. Though pandemic stockpiling (fingers crossed) likely will not recur in 2021 , CPG sales show no signs of slowing down. A mere 7% of Americans said they’d cook less after the pandemic than before. Consumers are buying CPGs more than ever. And they’re not staying loyal to their favorite brands — over 50% of respondents said that they are willing to try different products, and 66% of them stuck with those new brands.

Fermented CPG brands are in a great spot to take advantage of these trends. Healthy foods gained significant share in the food market in 2020. The pandemic propelled fermented food and beverage into the spotlight. More Americans began experimenting with healthier eating during the pandemic, and now they’ve adopted it as a habit. 

What does this mean for the future of CPG brands? Here are four ways they must adapt to the “new normal”:

  1. Sales via Multiple Channels

Consumers won’t be shopping for your products only in brick-and-mortar stores. More consumers than ever are buying through ecommerce. Digital grocery sales were a niche category before the pandemic — now, CPG food and beverage sales are estimated to top $100 billion in 2021

Food and beverage sales became the largest CPG online segment in 2020.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales also shifted into high gear. Consumers turned to DTC during the pandemic to get their favorite products straight from the manufacturer. Good examples are kombucha producers selling bottles directly from the brewery and a sauerkraut maker shipping to consumers from their kitchen. An analysis by Retail Dive found direct-to-consumer businesses during the pandemic fared better than did traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.

But this doesn’t mean CPG brands should abandon selling in grocery stores. 

According to Deloitte’s 2021 Consumer Product Industry Outlook, four out of five companies say “resetting their go-to-market strategy is critical to meeting their objectives; however, only half rated the current maturity of their related capabilities as high.” A majority of CPG companies surveyed say a bigger online and omnichannel presence will be a means of reaching consumers in 2021.

  1. Conscious Consumption

Consumers want to buy from brands that care about social and environmental issues. Societal inequality and environmental impact are big concerns to many consumers, and they are spending their dollars on ethical brands willing to put their money where their mouth is.

Deloitte found nine in 10 consumers say the pandemic is “an opportunity for large companies to hit ‘reset’ and focus on doing right by their workers, consumers, communities and the environment.” The CPG companies surveyed agree — three in four say establishing such initiatives in 2021 are a “strategy to place purpose alongside profit, express corporate values, and address heightened consumer attention to sustainability, social justice, equality, and environmental consciousness.”

Authenticity is key for proper brand activism. CPG companies need to be transparent with their consumers, integrating their social and environmental purposes into all parts of their business and organization. A brand that acts inconsistently will quickly lose trust with a consumer.

  1. Preference for Small Producers

CPG sales during the pandemic showed an interesting dichotomy: large companies had the highest dollar growth, but small companies – taken as a whole – gained meaningful share of market. A report by business consulting firm McKinsey & Company found market share of small companies during the pandemic increased from 18.2% in 2019 to 19.2% in 2020, while midsize businesses were flat and large companies fell from 51.2% to 50.5%.

More consumers did switch to new brands during the pandemic, but their primary reason was availability. This area is one where large brands have an advantage, as their greater resources should help them keep products on grocery store shelves.

  1. Supply Chain Improvements

Whether implementing new safety rules, finding sources with available products or switching packaging materials, every CPG brand had to adjust their supply chain in 2020. They are acting quickly to fix weaknesses exposed by the pandemic, and nine in 10 say they’re making significant progress.

CPG companies used to be praised for holding minimal inventories, but 2020 tested their resilience. Deloitte’s report explains: “Resilience is how companies keep their supply chains from breaking and restore them quickly when they do. It is also how they can gain the nimbleness and scalability to power new go-to-market approaches and innovative business models.” 

Barb Renner, Deloitte’s vice chairman and U.S. leader of consumer products, says one of the biggest problems identified in their survey was an over-reliance on a small number of vendors. Most companies didn’t have backup plans. “If they were getting their product from a handful of vendors and one of those vendors had to close down, did they try to find an alternative source?” she asked.

CPG executives indicated supply chain resilience is important or very important for the company in 2021, with nine in 10 saying they are investing in improvements. Beyond creating reliable supply chains that can support their production, CPG companies need to be able to respond to demand and shift supply to new locations.

For the fifth year in a row, the KOMBUCHA Act was reintroduced to Congress. If the legislation passes, kombucha beverages would be exempt from excise taxes intended for alcoholic beverages. The act proposes to raise the alcohol by volume (ABV) threshold for kombucha from its current level of 0.5% to 1.25%.

“The past year has been incredibly hard on businesses in Oregon and across the country, especially as supply chains have been disrupted. Still, kombucha is one the fastest growing beverage industries in the world,” says U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). “There’s no reason why kombucha brewers and sellers should get taxed like beer. Our common sense legislation would eliminate this burden and support a burgeoning industry that has a major impact on Oregon’s food and beverage economy.”
U.S. retail sales of kombucha sales grew 2.4% over the twelve months though mid-July 2020, to $703.2 million, according to SPINS.

“Modernize Taxes & Regulations”

Blumenauer first introduced the bill in 2017 — and has reintroduced it every year since. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the Senate Finance Chair, is the bill’s co-sponsor.

The word “KOMBUCHA” also has a double meaning — it is an acronym for Keeping Our Manufacturers from Being Unfairly taxed while Championing Health Act. The legislators understand kombucha is a fast-growing beverage category, especially in their home state of Oregon, home to many kombucha brands.

“The growth of kombucha production in Oregon and nationwide creates jobs and a beverage folks enjoy,” Wyden said. “It’s been a particularly difficult year for small businesses, and our bill would modernize taxes and regulations so these businesses can continue to grow and sell their products in stores across the country.”

Kombucha Brewers Lobby

Commercial kombucha brewers are especially concerned with the regulation. In 2010, Whole Foods and other retailers pulled kombucha off shelves as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau investigated whether alcohol levels in kombucha were higher than what was printed on the label. And since then, consumers — and even other brands — have filed lawsuits against various kombucha brands, alleging alcohol levels higher than indicated.

Kombucha can keep fermenting after it’s made, as the yeasts continue to eat sugars. Under current law, if kombucha leaves a processing facility at 0.4% ABV, but increases to over 0.5% by the time it’s placed on grocery store shelves, the brewer would have to pay federal alcohol taxes like a beer brand.

Hannah Crum, co-founder and president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), the trade organization for kombucha brewers, emphasizes that kombucha producers fear constant repercussions from the law.

“These numbers were created over 100 years ago during prohibition,” says Crum, and notes there are no scientific studies on these ABV values. “Kombucha labels say ‘Alcohol is present’ — no one is trying to trick the consumer.”

Reads a statement from KBI: “ These laws were never intended to make kombucha subject to taxes designated for beer. Passing the KOMBUCHA Act under the next appropriations bill will relieve this unnecessary burden on kombucha brewers. Only kombucha above that level (1.25%) will be subject to federal excise taxes when this Act becomes law.”

KBI has actively lobbied for the bill’s passage. Big kombucha brands (GT’s and Health-Ade) have supported the bill actively. KBI — for the first time — is asking consumers to write to their government representatives (via a form on their website) to urge them to support the bill. 

When Julie Smolyansky began working at her family’s Lifeway Foods business, her father advised her: “Don’t talk about the bacteria. People in America freak out about the bacteria on their food.” So when Lifeway became the first company in the U.S. to put “probiotic” on a label in 2003, it wasn’t a big surprise when customers began calling, asking for the company’s non-probiotic version of kefir.

Americans have come a long way. Consumers today search for the “live, cultured” label on fermented dairy, and gut health is a critical component of the modern diet. Smolyansky and Raquel Guajardo, author/educator, shared their thoughts on kefir during the TFA webinar The Many Sides of Kefir

“Fermented foods were not part of the American diet, and the way that kefir and fermented foods in general were used in other parts of the world from Asian to Eastern Europe to even India and Mexico, these cultures all have fermented foods as one of their pillars as their foods sources and their health and wellness cultures,” Smolyansky says. “It wasn’t until immigration from all these other countries that we started talking about kimchi or kefir or lassi or you name your cultured kind of special food.”

In the U.S., the average person consumes 9-10 cups of fermented dairy a year. Contrast that statistic with Europe, where the average consumption is 28 cups a month.

“When you’re born consuming it and you’ve developed that taste palette, then it’s very easy to play in the space and have a diet that’s very rich in probiotics and kefir and all sorts of other fermented foods,” Smolyansky says, adding that the situation is changing in the U.S. Now, “people are hungry for it, they want it, once they learn about it, once they taste it, they fall in love with it, they’re hooked.”

Lifeway’s kefir’s sales have soared. The company was valued at $12 million when Smolyansky took over in 2002 — now it’s valued into the hundreds of millions. And even more customers have found kefir during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they adopt healthier lifestyles.

Guajardo has seen her online classes increase during COVID. The Mexico-based educator co-authored the book “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond” with Alex Lewin, TFA advisory board member, who moderated the webinar.

“People say ‘You’re crazy, why do you teach what to do at home what you can buy in the supermarket?’ But my business has been growing that way,” she says, adding that health benefits are the main selling point for her classes. “Why would people buy sauerkraut or kefir if you’re not explaining the benefits?”

Dairy Kefir vs. Water Kefir 

Guajardo, who makes both dairy kefir and water kefir (also known as tibicos) stresses that the grains used to make each are “totally different.” Kefir grains are living bacteria and yeast microorganisms clumped together with milk proteins and sugars. They are gelatinous and white, almost like cottage cheese. Water kefir grains are also made from living bacteria and yeast microorganisms, but they’re clumped together with sugar and have a translucent, crystal-like appearance.

“Water kefir” is not the appropriate term, Guajardo and Smolyansky agree, instead calling it by its traditional Mexican name, tibicos. And they feel that using kefir or tibicos grains in coconut or almond milk and calling it kefir is also inappropriate. Smolyansky favors using a description like cultured coconut milk or beverage, but not kefir. 

The National Dairy Council and Codex Alimentarius, the international food code, both state kefir is a fermented dairy product made from the milk of a lactating mammal. Smolyansky points to the many peer-reviewed studies on kefir, verifying it is full of probiotics and nutrients. Water kefir and non-dairy kefir have not been studied, and can’t guarantee the same health benefits.

“Just by throwing the name onto anything and just bastardizing the definition, we completely dilute any of the research that’s ever been done [on kefir], it would dilute the history, the folklore. So we are very passionate about protecting the name,” Smolyansky says. “My ancestors made sure that kefir survived for 2,000 years, and it’s critical that we don’t dilute it now that it’s having a moment, now that it’s popular.”

Smolyansky’s family emigrated to the United States from the then Soviet Union in the late ‘70s. Her father, Michael, began Lifeway Foods in Chicago in 1986. 

“We have to respect the standards and what these definitions mean or it will be the Wild West and people won’t know what they’re buying,” she adds. She shares the labelling of ice cream as an example — ice cream is considered dairy while non-dairy products have other names, like sorbet, gelato or non-dairy frozen dessert. 

Can Kefir Grow Like Yogurt?

Yogurt has paved the way for kefir to expand its consumer base in the U.S. Both are fermented dairy products with tangy tastes. But for kefir to achieve widespread, mainstream adoption like yogurt, significant education is needed. Thousands of peer-reviewed studies prove kefir contains a higher concentration of probiotics than yogurt — and a wider range of beneficial bacteria. For kefir to grow, this message needs to reach consumers.

“It’s a different set of microbes,” Lewin says. “Kefir is fermented with yeast and yogurt isn’t. Kefir has a larger family of microbes.” 

Smolyansky is passionate that kefir cannot be compared to the products of the major. yogurt companies.

“The yogurt produced in the United States is so over-produced and so over-pasteurized that there’s practically nothing living in it after it’s been processed,” she says. “It’s one of the biggest problems with yogurt in the U.S.”

Lifeway regularly sends their products to be tested for probiotics, measuring Colony Forming Units (CFUs), the active microorganisms in a food product. Smolyansky says eating probiotics is critical in a germ-phobic, antibody-heavy society, where we’re over-sanitizing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“If our bodies aren’t fighting an outside kind of pathogen, it starts to fight itself,” she says. “One of the ways to counteract this disruption in our microflora is by the use and the introduction of consistently replenishing microflora including diversity of bacteria, a variety of food sources that offer bacteria, the diversity and kind [of bacteria] is always the king. It makes for great food environments in the gut.”

Shelf-stable fermented sauces are growing tremendously. In the past year, fermented sauces grew 41%, with sales reaching $275 million. Soy sauce still dominates with 70% of the market share, but sales of both fish sauce and gochujang increased over 50%.

“I think a lot of brands are thinking ‘Are we going to hang onto this new [normal], this new baseline?’ This is a segment of products that’s really having its baseline reset,” says Kevin Snodgrass, solutions architect for SPINS. Snodgrass shared insights in a TFA webinar, Retail Trends for Fermented Sauces. “Brands are going to continue to experience this great growth in the months and years ahead.”

The increase is significant — sales growth in the one year from 2019 to 2020 was 5.7%. This improvement is attributable to multiple trends across the food industry — more people are buying healthy food and cooking at home, the American kitchen is becoming more globalized, and more consumers are embracing the unique flavors of fermented sauces, especially those from Asia.

“It definitely coattails a lot on the acceptance and growth of the fermentation market as a whole,” says Jared Schwartz, a TFA Advisory Board member who moderated the webinar. Schwartz is the founder of fermented sauce producer Poor Devil Pepper Co., and director of operations and quality for Farm Ferments, a facility in Hudson, N.Y., that is home to Hawthorne Valley Farm. “As consumers are becoming more open to reaching for fermented foods, kind of the next step is adding a flavorful, fermented hot sauce.”

Brands Growing, but Room for More

The top 10 selling fermented sauce brands in both natural retail grocers (like Whole Foods) and traditional (MULO) outlets (like Wal-Mart and regional grocery chains) are all experiencing double-digit growth. “That’s a great sign,” Snodgrass notes.

Kikkoman, Bragg, San-J, Coconut Kitchen, Lee Kum Kee and Big Tree are among the top 10 brands in both the natural and MULO channels. Smaller brands like Red Boat, Mother-In-Law’s, Ohsawa and Yamasa thrive in the natural channel,; La Choy, BetterBody Foods and Chung Jung One are strong in MULO. 

The category is ripe for continued innovation, Snodgrass says. Smaller brands can emerge, even with competition from larger, established brands, so it can be worthwhile to start a fermented sauce brand. 

Label Claims & Consumer Education

SPINS found certain product attributes on fermented sauces help sales.. Certified gluten-free fermented sauces grew 40.8%; USDA organic, up 40% and non-GMO increased 33.8%.

Since many sauces don’t put “fermented” on their label, many consumers may not be aware they are, notes Snodgrass. He says that these products could benefit from using “fermented,” as it would suggest that there may be health benefits to the sauces.

Schwartz agrees. He points out Tabasco as a fermented hot sauce, even though producer McIlhenny Company doesn’t market it as such. Educating the consumer would also help the category. Probiotics are a selling point but they confuse buyers. And there’s a clear difference in health benefits between shelf-stable and refrigerated fermented sauces. Refrigerated sauces may have live, beneficial bacteria; shelf-stable ones are pasteurized, killing any good bacteria in the process.

“At the end of the day, I think it comes down to flavor,” Schwartz says. Fermented sauces are “funky and vinegar-free. It’s got this like natural layers of complexity that you can’t really achieve without fermentation.”

In the past decade, more cideries have begun  clubs as a way to connect with their customers, keep year-round sales and sell rare ciders.

But during 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed taprooms and cancelled restaurant sales, cider clubs became critical to earn revenue. The American Cider Association (ACA) reported 22% of their members started a club in 2020.

“Our cider club was the one bright spot of 2020. That was really the one thing that kept growing, kept us motivated and got us excited,” says Talia Haykin, founder of Colorado-based Haykin Family Cider. Her products were  sold in local fine dining establishments, but those sales evaporated during the pandemic. 

“Everyone has kegs they can’t sell during the pandemic,” says Christopher Shockey, who co-authored the book The Big Book of Cider with wife Kirsten (a TFA Advisory Board member). “Cider clubs are keeping them afloat.” 

Guaranteeing Sales & Creating Fans

Cider clubs are a subscription service where the cidery ships new, rare, seasonal or limited edition ciders to members multiple times a year. As both online shopping and access to direct-to-consumer alcohol shipping have expanded, subscriptions to cider, wine  and other alcohol  assortments have become feasible and increasingly popular. 

“It’s taking customers who are already excited about you and converting them into a model that’s going to have them buy more from you regularly” says Eleanor Leger, founder of Eden Speciality Ciders. Leger and Haykin shared their tips on cider club growth opportunities during 2021 CiderCon. 

“That’s money you know you’re going to have versus just duking it out on the store shelves where a new store manager can just decide they don’t want you and they want somebody else and you lose that shelf space,” Christopher says during the TFA webinar on “The State of the Art of Cidermaking.”

An ACA survey found that cider clubs generate up to 10% of a cidery’s total revenue.

Quarterly shipment of ciders is standard. Haykin and Leger advise cideries to  ship more than twice a year, so members won’t forget they joined a club.

“You want to continually remind them that you exist,” Haykin says. 

Shipping costs for cider — a fermented product which must be kept cold and is often sold in glass bottles — can be pricey. But, Haykin notes, even though he bears that high cost of shipping : “the repeat business of a club member is worth so much more to us.” Many clubs offer local pick-up to eliminate shipping costs. 

Attracting & Keeping Customers

In the crowded alcohol market, cider clubs are a way to differentiate a brand. 

While there are not specific stats on the demographics of Americans who subscribe to alcohol clubs, product subscription services overall are rapidly growing. Millennials are the dominant users of subscriptions — 31% currently have one or more, and another 38% say they will in the next six months. 

Cider sales grew 9% in 2020, and they represent  11% of the craft beer category (where cider sales are tracked). Wine is struggling with Millenial and Gen Z consumers, who view it as a drink for an older demographic. Kirsten Shockey says younger consumers gravitate to cider instead.

“People are looking for funky flavors,” she adds. “I think the biggest battle cider makers have is feeling like the wine cooler crowd is their crowd. But that is changing, people are looking for more flavor.”

Member offerings vary for cider clubs, and can include:

  • Discount on tap room products.
  • First chance to try new items.
  • Exclusive taproom tastings.
  • Forage days (members help pick cider apples from local orchards).
  • Volunteer opportunities at local farmers markets and food festivals.

The No. 1 reason people cancel a membership is because of a bad experience. Haykin stresses the importance of responding to a customer within, at most, 12 hours. “Communication is one of the most important things you’ll offer as a club,” she says.

Leger adds: “We jump all over someone who has had a problem to make sure they know we are sorry and we take care of it right away. Handling a problem really well creates incredible loyalty. People can be out there building your brand for you because they love you and they’re telling all their friends. If they have a bad experience, they’re destroying the brand for you.”