After Dr. Bob Hutkins finished a presentation on fermented foods during a respected nutrition conference, the first audience question was from someone with a PhD in nutrition: “What are fermented foods?”

“I thought ‘Doesn’t everyone know what fermentation is?’ I realized, we do need a definition. Those of us that work in this field know what we’re talking about when we say fermented foods, but even people trained in foods do not understand this concept,” says Hutkins, a professor of food science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He presented The New Definition of Fermented Foods during a webinar with TFA

Hutkins was part of a 13-member interdisciplinary panel of scientists that released a consensus definition on fermented foods. Their research, published this month in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, defines fermented foods as: “foods made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components.”

“We needed a definition that conveyed this simple message of a raw food turning into a fermented food via microorganisms,” Hutkins says. “It brings some clarity to many of these issues that, frankly, people are confused about.”

David Ehreth, president and founder of Alexander Valley Gourmet, parent company of Sonoma Brinery (and a TFA Advisory Board member), agreed that an expert definition was necessary.

“As a producer, and having started this effort to put live culture products on the standard grocery shelf, I started doing it as a result of unique flavors that I could achieve through fermentation that weren’t present in acidified products,” Ehreth says. “Since many of us put this on our labels, we should be paying close attention to what these folks are doing, since they are the scientific backbone of our industry.”

Hutkins calls fermented foods “the original shelf-stable foods.” They’ve been used by humankind for over thousands of years, but have mushroomed in popularity in the last 15. Fermented foods check many boxes for hot food trends: artisanal, local, organic, natural, healthy, flavorful, sustainable, innovative, hip, funky, chic, cool and Instagram-worthy.

Nutrition, Hutkins hypothesizes, is a big driver of the public’s interest in fermentation. He noted that Today’s Dietitian has voted fermented foods a top superfood for the past four years. 

Evidence to make bold claims about the health benefits of fermentation, though, is lacking. Hutkins says there is observational and epidemiological evidence. But randomized, human clinical trials — “the highest evidence one can rely on” — are few and small-scale for fermented foods. 

Hutkins shared some research results. One study found that Korean elders who regularly consume kimchi harbor lactic acid bacteria (LAB) in their GI tract, providing compelling evidence that LAB survives digestion and reaches the gut. Another study of cultured dairy products, cheese, fermented vegetables, Asian fermented products and fermented drinks found that most contain over 10 million LAB per gram. 

Still, the lack of credible studies is “a barrier we have to get past,” Hutkins says. There are confirmed health benefits with yogurt and kefir, but this research was funded by the dairy industry, a large trade group with significant resources. 

“I think there’s enough evidence — most of it through these associated studies — to warrant this statement: fermented foods, including those that contain live microorganisms, should be included as part of a healthy diet.”

A sustainable food industry will be built by flavor, says David Zilber, noted chef and food scientist. 

Zilber made major headlines and surprised many in October when he left his job as head of the fermentation lab at Noma for a food scientist position at Chr. Hansen, a global supplier of bioscience ingredients. Noma, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been regularly ranked one of the best restaurants in the world. In 2018, Zilber co-authored a bestselling book on fermentation with Noma co-owner Rene Redzepi. 

In an Instagram live interview last week with Al Jeezera’s Femi Oke, Zilber elaborated on why he traded an apron for a lab coat. The global food system, Zilber says, is unsustainable. Waste is prevalent, food is created with long footprints, agricultural production is shrinking, meat is heavily consumed and large corporations control the industry. 

Transforming Vegetables

“What I’m trying to do in my work is to make vegetables as God damn tasty as they can possibly be by using microbes, using things that are already at our disposal, and convincing people that this might have to have a little bit of a longer inventory life while you let it ferment, while you build a stockpile, but this is the result, this is why you’ll be able to convince people why eating this way is healthy for them and the planet,” he says. “Flavor is king.”

Ingredients created by Denmark-based Chr. Hansen (the company has 40,000 microbial strains used as natural ingredients) feed 1-1.5 billion people a day. These include microbes in yogurt and yeast in beer.

“I work with them to try and make the food system more sustainable, to get more people eating vegetables,” Zilber says, adding that 30% of every calorie consumed by humans is fermented by bacteria, microbes or fungus. “No matter what we eat in the future, that’s still going to be the case. That slot of the human diet still needs some form of microbial transformation, whether it’s meat or dairy or oat milk or peas. I work to figure that out.”

It’s a different philosophy compared to the food technology many new companies are utilizing to create alternative proteins like Beyond Burger. He complimented the company for their high standards, but he says a Beyond Burger patty is not a replacement for a juicy, beef burger. People pay more for an inferior eating experience.

 “At the end of that day, that will not cut it,” Zilber says. “Why does food have to be that processed to be purportedly that delicious? With some skilled tricks in the kitchen, with some ninja jiu jitsu behind the stove, you can make vegetables really, really delicious.”

Sustainable Food Systems

A sustainable food system will look much like one from 300 years ago, Zilber hypothesizes. It will be localized, where people purchase food produced close by. Modern practices of shipping ingredients and processed food around the globe are harmful to the environment.

“A truly sustainable food system looks far more decentralized than [the current one] does right now. There are [only a] very few stakeholders that are responsible for really a lot of calories,” he continues. 

Oke questioned how Zilber could change a broken food system controlled by large companies when he now works at one of the major companies. 

“If you want to be an idealist, that’s great, you might end up being a martyr,” Zilber says. “Sometimes you have to work within those contradictory institutions to try to do as much good as possible.”

Restaurant Industry’s Responsibility

The restaurant industry plays a part in it too, Zilber says. Workers are stretched thin, overworked, underpaid “and then extremely vulnerable in a time of crisis.” The pandemic has exposed and highlighted these problematic parts of the restaurant business. 

Zilber says there are still too many restaurants. It’s hard to find good cooks, and staff is often undertrained. 

“I took a step into food production myself. Maybe more of these cooks, more of these people who are passionate about food, need to consider options beyond just the restaurant setting and see value in becoming a farmer, becoming a distributor, becoming someone who decides how those calories are made because restaurants aren’t the full picture of the food system,” he continues. “There are a lot of talented people within it who know food, who understand it, who understand the human experience of what it means to make good tasting food and satisfying food. There’s other places for them to work as well.”

Probiotics and fermented foods are not equivalent, says Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD and executive science officer of the International Scientific Association of Probiotics & Prebiotics (ISAPP). She advises fermented food producers that don’t meet the criteria of a probiotic to use descriptors such as “live active cultures” or “fermented food with live microbes” on their labels rather than “probiotic.”

“There are quite a few differences between probiotics and many fermented foods. You cannot assume a fermented food is a probiotic food even if it has live cultures present,” says Sanders. She highlighted her 30 years worth of insight into the field during a TFA webinar, Are Fermented Foods Probiotics? 

Some fermented foods do meet these criteria, such as some yogurts and cultured milks that are well-studied. But many traditional fermented foods do not. 

Using multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies and conclusion from expert panels in the fields of probiotics and fermented foods, Sanders shared the ways in which fermented foods and probiotics differ:

  1. Health benefits

By definition, a probiotic must have a documented health benefit. Many fermented foods have not been tested for a health benefit. 

“If you are interested in recommending health benefits from a fermented food in an evidence-based manner, many traditional fermented foods fall short. They don’t have the controlled randomized trials that will provide a causal link between the food and the health benefit,” she says. “A food may be nutritious, but probiotic benefits must stem from the live microbe, not the nutritional composition of the food. Otherwise you just have a nutritious food that happens to have live microorganisms in it. You don’t have a probiotic food.”

  1. Quality studies

In her presentation, Sanders shared  multiple randomized clinical trials on human subjects with supported health evidence for probiotics. But there are few randomized, controlled studies on fermented foods. Most are cohort studies, which inherently have a higher risk of bias and cannot provide a causal link between consuming fermented foods and a health benefit. 

“A strong hypothesis is not the same as proof,” Sanders says. “Evidence for probiotics must meet a higher standard than small associative studies, many of which are tracking biomarkers and not health endpoints.” 

She noted, though, there are some studies on fermented milk and yogurt that show a conferred health benefit.

  1. Strain designation

Though many fermented foods do have live microbes, a probiotic is required to be identified to the strain level. The genus and species should also be properly named according to current nomenclature. Many fermented foods contain undefined microbial composition. Without that strain designation, one can’t tie the scientific evidence on that strain to the probiotic product.

  1. Microbe quantity

Another key differentiator is that probiotics must be delivered at a known quantity that matches the amount that results in a health benefit. Probiotics are typically quantified in colony forming units (or CFUs). 

“A probiotic has a known effective dose. But fermented foods often contain unknown levels of microbes, especially at time of consumption,” Sanders says.

What Can Brands Do?

If food brands keep using the word probiotics as a catch-all to describe a fermented product, the term will lose its utility. Using “probiotics” on food with unsubstantiated proof of probiotics is a misuse of the term.

“When I see a fermented food that says probiotics on it, I very often think what they’re trying to communicate on that label [is that it] contains live microbes,” Sanders says, “because I’m doubting, at least some of the products I see, that they have any evidence of a health benefit. And so they’re just looking for a catchy, single word that will communicate to people that this has live microbes in it. ‘Live active cultures’ is something that resonates with people as well. So why not use that?”

Sanders encourages fermented brands to standardize the terms “live active cultures,” “live microbes,” “live microorganisms” or “fermented food with live microbes.” For products pasteurized after fermentation, there’s a term for them too: “Made with live cultures.”

Controlled human studies on fermented foods can be challenging, Sanders admits. Such studies can be difficult to properly blind, since placebos for foods are hard to design. The fermentation process affects the product taste so that study subjects may know what they are consuming. But the health benefits of fermented foods could be studied, though. She also advises producers to focus on the nutritional value of their food. 

“That’s one thing that really has me excited about this concept of core benefits,” says Maria Marco, PhD, professor  of food science and technology at University of California, Davis (and a member of TFA’s Advisory Board) and moderator of the webinar. “I think it kind of opens the doors to the possibility of fermented fruits and vegetables where there’s certain organisms, microorganisms that we’d expect to be there but again we need to know really if those microorganisms are needed to make those foods healthy.”

Natural and organic products had a record year in 2020, growing 12.7% to $259 billion in sales. Sales were fast-tracked by the pandemic, as consumers cooked more meals at home in quarantine and developed a greater interest in healthier food and beverages. 

“2020 was a challenging year. But natural and organic brands face a bright future. We are positioned where a growing number of consumers are headed,” says Carlotta Mast, senior vice president and market leader at New Hope Network. Mast shared industry highlights during her State of Natural & Organic address at New Hope’s Spark Change virtual conference earlier this month.

Natural and organic food and beverages (39%of total sales) and functional food and beverages (31%) dominate the industry. The natural and organic category alone grew 13% to $186 billion in sales. Produce accounted for 24% of those sales. Beverages were 17% of the total; dairy, 15%; packaged/prepared foods, 13%; breads and grains, 11%; snacks, 8%; meat, fish and poultry,7% and condiments, 5%.

Here are some key trends from this banner sales year: 

  1. Consumers Prioritize Health 

Consumers want immunity-boosting foods. Brands should consider adding vitamins and minerals to their products, as nutrient-dense food will be core to the future of food production.

Nutrient density “is very difficult to market,” says Nick McCoy, managing director and co-founder of Whipstitch Capital, a food-focused investment bank. “It manifests itself as superfoods over time, but it’s one of these things, if you’re in a natural grocery store, historically not many shoppers are going to take the time to read the label. It’s really encouraging to see that this is reversing.”

Adds Kathryn Peters, executive vice president at SPINS, a data company for the natural and organic industry: “Consumers are expecting more from the products they buy. But another key piece is consumers are expecting more density of nutrition in the products they buy.”

  1. Wellness is Challenging to Maintain

Consumers are focusing on health and wellness more than ever — 77% of New Hope Network survey respondents said personal health is more important to them now than it was in 2019. 

But research shows consumers are struggling to maintain healthy lifestyles. People said they ate more junk food, exercised less, felt more anxious and slept less during 2020. Binge drinking is up an alarming 41% among women since the start of the pandemic. 

Brands, Mast says, can help people fix bad habits.

“I think this is our big opportunity for 2021 and beyond,” Mast says.

  1. Diet as Lifestyle

SPINS’ Peters says she anticipates that, “as we look to resurrect our former selves,” shoppers will look for new eating plans, ones they can personalize to their needs. 

She highlighted a few trends. Consumers want less sugar and fewer carbs and additives. They’re also shifting buying habits based on the trend to Paleo and Keto diets. Plant-based products, too, are estimated to grow at twice the rate of their traditional counterparts. Plant-based products grew 30% from 2019 to 2020, hitting $5.7 billion in sales.

Pantry staples, frozen foods, meat/fish/poultry and plant-based  alternatives experienced the highest growth rates. Snack foods and packaged and prepared foods — which had previously experienced large sales gains — took big hits in 2020 as fewer people chose grab-n-go offerings during quarantine.

“How is your brand interacting with what consumers are looking for today?” Peters says. 

  1. Multicultural Foods Grow

Of health and wellness products in the U.S., only 20% are multicultural, according to the Nutrition Business Journal

“That tells me there’s a lot of room for better-for-you multicultural foods to grow into the profile of all the other categories,” Whipstitch’s McCoy says. 

  1. Differing Preferences for eCommerce or Brick-and-Mortar 

The pandemic accelerated ecommerce sales, which grew 60% in 2020, generating $16.5 billion. Natural products are outpacing traditional ones in ecommerce, with natural product shoppers spending nearly twice as much as those who buy “traditional” items via ecommerce. And, while “traditional” shoppers spend 22% of their dollars at WalMart, natural product shoppers only use WalMart for 12% of their purchases.

“As you all know, organic is mainstream now,” Mast continued, noting that natural sales remained high in 2020 even as unemployment rates soared. “During other economic downturns that we’ve experienced, the organic sector has typically taken a hit when it comes to sales growth. But not in 2020.”

A new project is aiming to provide accurate information and resources to the public around the microbial mysteries of fermented foods. EATLAC is a University of California, Davis, project putting scientific knowledge and research behind fermentation.

“A good understanding of food and beverage fermentation is particularly important for people making fermented foods at home so that the foods are made properly and minimize the risk of foodborne illness,” says Maria Marco, PhD, microbiologist and professor in the department of food science and technology at the university (and member of TFA’s Advisory Board). “Access to accurate information about fermented foods is quite important for understanding their roles in healthy diets and what properties about them are different from the starting ingredients.” 

EATLAC officially launched in 2019, with the help of funding from California Department of Food & Agriculture. Led by project directors Marco and Erin DiCaprio, PhD, a food safety expert and extension specialist at UC Davis, the EATLAC team is composed of grad and undergrad students helping to develop science-based guidance on fermented vegetables and fruits. Resources being developed in the project include recipes, consumer surveys, and webinars. This information will be available to the general public, from home fermenters to commercial producers.

The name EATLAC stands for Evaluating And Testing Lacto-ferments Across the Country, but LAC is also a play on words for lactic acid bacteria, the beneficial bacteria present in fermented foods. 

Project objectives include:

  • Developing educational materials on fermented foods.
  • Conducting public education workshops on fermented foods.
  • Measuring the bioactive properties of unpasteurized (fresh) fermented fruits and vegetables produced from specialty crops in California.
  • Disseminating research findings to food processors.

“It is very important to spread reliable information and vetted recipes so that everyone can create something that is great but, more importantly, safe,” says Zoe Mitchell, undergraduate student at UC Davis. “Fermentation requires that food be left out on the counter (in the microbial temperature danger zone) for days on end. To create a safe fermentation environment that supports the growth of the microbes we want, recipe ingredients include things like acid and salt to inhibit pathogens. However, because just a little too much or too little of these ingredients can grow the wrong and potentially dangerous microorganisms, it is paramount to have reliable sources.”

An important role of the student team, Marco says, is to “perform laboratory research to study the microbiota and bioactive properties in fermented fruits and vegetables.” Students will also be responsible for developing informational materials on fermented fruits and vegetables and run the social media accounts. 

Natália Ribeiro, doctoral student at UC Davis, has developed aspects of the project communication. She manages the EATLAC Instagram account, coordinates the posts on FaceBook, and is helping create fermentation fact sheets that will be available on the website. Riberio says she decided to join the project because she wanted to study further the health benefits of fermentation.

“There’s so much more  to know about fermented foods and map out. We want to spread that information in a more validated way,” Riberio says. “People associate fermented foods with flavor, but in a society where we see so many people dealing with diseases, making fermented foods part of your habits could actually alleviate or improve your health in a very easy and even tasty way. Educating people about what is known (and not) is important.”

Since most of the team is not allowed to be in the laboratory due to the pandemic, they are collecting home ferments for analysis. EATLAC is calling on home fermenters around the country to send in their fresh fruit or vegetable ferments. Fresh ferments are samples taken right after fermentation, before refrigeration. The research group will then study the nutritional content and beneficial bacteria. Mitchell adds this allows the team “to create an extensive database on the microbial ecology of various fermentations.” Elements like ingredients, location, salt percentage and vessel type are all tracked to see how these factors affect fermentation. 

The team is currently studying samples from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’re anxious to return to the lab. 

“There is a great and long history of food fermentation research at UC Davis,” Marco notes. The team will update existing informational resources and write new ones within EATLAC. 

For more information about the educational resources, visit EATLAC webinar series.

Fermented dairy foods have been shown  to lower the risk of chronic diseases, inflammation and weight gain. And, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are purchasing more fermented dairy products.

“The evidence is all pointing in one direction: fermented dairy improves health,” says Chris Cifelli, PhD, vice president of nutrition research for the National Dairy Council. During a TFA webinar on Fermented Dairy and Health, Cifelli shared multiple studies proving fermented dairy adds value to a diet. “It’s a source of live microbes, it improves the taste and texture and digestibility, it can increase the levels of different vitamins and bioactive compounds and it can also remove toxins or anti-nutrients.”

From lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes to lower blood pressure levels to reduced cardiovascular disease risk, research proves consumers who eat fermented dairy “tend to also eat healthier in general,” Cifelli says. “Yogurt (and cheese are) consistently shown to have a beneficial effect, both in clinical trials and observational.”

Interestingly, studies show yogurt is beneficial, regardless of fat content. Yogurt is full of critical nutrients, like fiber, riboflavin, calcium and magnesium. This “halo of health” surrounding yogurt has driven a recent sales surge.

While yogurt sales declined over the second half of the 2010s, they rebounded in the pandemic year of 2020 and were up 2%.

“Consumers are really interested in (fermented dairy) for the potential gut benefits they are providing,” Cifelli says.

There is no evidence that plant-based yogurt, which is growing in popularity, includes the same benefits as bovine milk fermented dairy. 

Kefir sales are on the rise;, too, are also growing. gGlobally, itkefir is expected to reach $1.84 billion in sales by 2027. Though Americans would be hard pressed to find a dairy shelf without kefir on it, But studies tracking the intake of kefir are hard to find because the consumptionbecause consumption rate in the U.S. is still low. Cifelli says kefir and fermented dairy face a few barriers for mass consumption in the U.S. 

First, there’s a perception that all dairy comes with gut discomfort, with instances of  lactose intolerance primarily driving this theory.

“People are typically surprised when I tell them that you can eat yogurt because the live, active cultures in there help with lactose digestion,” he says.

Second, consumers are nervous about hormones coming from cow products. But, Cifelli notes, all food has hormones. 

Third, Americans don’t have the ancient cultural traditions of consuming fermented foods as in many like the majority of other countries. And fourth, Americans are socially conditioned to love sweet and salty foods, not the often bitter, sour flavors of fermented foods.

“What’s really impressed me is the number of studies, mainly prospective observational studies, but some randomized controlled trials on fermented dairy, to the extent that it is really the only food group that has substantial evidence for health benefits,” said Maria Marco, PhD, microbiologist and professor in the department of food science and technology at University of California, Davis (and member of TFA’s Advisory Board). Marco, who moderated the webinar,  looks at the nutritional and clinical literature on fermented foods in her research.

Cifelli said this is because, in the U.S., milk and cheese have been actively consumed and studied for decades. The bulk of yogurt research is only from the last 20 years. Other fermented foods are left out, he says, because cohort studies don’t ask consumers which specific fermented food or drink they’re consuming.

“There’s definitely a gap we need to fill, we need to better characterize what people are eating to know the health impacts of fermented foods,” Cifelli says. “Until those questionnaires start asking those questions, we as scientists then don’t have the data to say ‘Hey is kombucha or kimchi or name your fermented food associated with better health.’”

2021’s Top Superfoods

Fermented foods are still the top dog amongst nutritionists. For the fourth year in a row, fermented foods are No. 1 on Today’s Dietitian list of the year’s top superfoods

The 9th annual What’s Trending in Nutrition survey, conducted by Pollock Communications for the magazine, polled more than 1,165 registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs). They were asked for insight into consumers’ diets and, particularly, how food and beverage choices have changed during the pandemic.

“A year full of staying home and cooking more has influenced consumers to rethink their food and nutrition choices. In 2020, the food and beverage industry saw sales increases in products like green tea, as well as renewed attention on comforting, tried-and-true foods like dairy milk and healthy, fermented foods like yogurt,” says Louise Pollock, President of Pollock Communications. “The plant-forward trend continues to grow, as does demand for clean labels. Our trends survey findings reflect these significant changes caused by COVID-19 that will continue to affect eating habits and the food industry for years to come.” 

Cookbook author Susan Jane White calls fermented foods the “celebrity superfood.” 

“One of the many benefits of eating fermented foods is their gut-supporting role,” White says. “Of course, being uncooked, ferments have their goodness locked into a tango with all those beneficial bacteria. You’re left with a crisp tang that is both bewitching and nourishing.”

Changes to the top 10 superfood list reveals that consumers want more plant-based food. For the first time, nutrient-rich spinach and leafy greens made the list. Green tea jumped from No. 10 to No. 3. Superfoods, Today’s Dietitian notes, “have become dominant in consumer choices to help support immunity. From boosting gut health with fermented foods to reaping the benefits of antioxidants with blueberries and blunting inflammation with green tea.”

“We are witnessing unprecedented times in the world of nutrition, health and wellness,” says Mara Honicker, publisher of Today’s Dietitian. “As the world grapples with how to best manage health and longevity, consumer awareness of beneficial diets and ingredients is growing, and they will be looking to RDNs and the food industry to help navigate these shifting needs.”

Despite a year when cideries around the world were forced to close down taprooms and cancel restaurant sales due to the pandemic, cider sales grew 9% in 2020. 

“I know some of you are barely hanging on — but you are hanging on,” said Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association (ACA). “We did not waver, we held our shares and we kept growing.”

McGrath presented industry statistics at CiderCon 2021, the ACA’s annual global cider conference. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the conference was virtual this year. Nearly 800 people from 18 countries and 41 states attended the three-day conference. 

Smaller, local cider brands sparked consumer interest in 2020. Sales of regional cider brands  grew 33%, while national brands  declined 6%. 

The impact of the pandemic, though, has been severe on certain sectors of the industry. On-premise cider sales (in restaurants, breweries and taprooms) declined nearly 70% from 2019. 

“We’re resilient, we’re tough, we’re savvy. You couldn’t have predicted how your business would have stood up to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” said Anna Nadasdy, director of customer success at Fintech, a data company for the alcohol industry.

Nadasdy’s keynote on expected consumer trends in 2021 cited the key drivers influencing consumer behavior — the economy, politics and natural disasters. Here are seven of her takeaways for cideries: 

  1. Consumers Buying all Alcohol Types

Though consumers have long been loyal to one type of alcohol — beer, wine or spirits — the “beer guy or wine gal” label is disappearing. Over one-third  of consumers are purchasing from all three major categories. 

Hard seltzer is the third largest beer segment (16% of dollar share, behind domestic premium and imported beers), but it’s the fastest growing. This is exciting for cider makers, Nadasdy notes — hard seltzer in 2018 was the size of the cider market today.

  1. Fruit-Flavored Cider is Growing

Though apple cider still dominates the cider market with 52% of sales, fruit-flavored cider grew three points in the past year to 12% of sales. The top three fruit-flavored products are: Ace Pineapple Craft Cider, Incline Scout Hopped Marionberry Cider and 2 Towns Ciderhouse Pacific Pineapple Cider. 

(Other products in the cider category include: mixed flavors, dry cider, seasonal cider/perry, herb/spice cider.) 

  1. Cider is Making Waves in Craft Beer

Cider — tracked as part of the overall  craft beer category — is proving a worthy participant.Cider has 11% of the dollar share, second only to the category leader, India Pale Ale (41% of the  market). 

“That’s really impressive for such a small base,” Nadasdy says. “Even though you guys are a smaller segment, you still have a lot to contribute to the overall beer category. And I think it’s important when you’re having these conversations with retailers that you are able to point out these wins.”

  1. Hard Kombucha is Gaining Ground

Cideries are competing with hard kombucha. Though hard kombucha is a fermented tea and not a cider, retailers consider hard kombucha and cider comparable drinks. And hard kombucha sales are growing quickly.

“Although small now, keep an eye on (hard) kombucha,” Nadasdy said.

  1. Prepare for Changed On-Premise Sales

Once wide-spread vaccination is in place and on-premise dining returns, expect fundamental changes such as  more online ordering, healthier menu choices and a rise in food tech like tablet menus. The National Restaurant Association listed other significant changes that will impact cideries:

  • Streamlined menus. There will be fewer menu items, with 63% of fine dining operators and half of casual and family dining operators saying they will  reduce their offerings.
  • Alcohol-to-go. Seven in 10 full-service restaurants added alcohol-to-go during the pandemic. Thirty-five percent of customers say they are more likely to choose a restaurant that offers alcoholic beverages to-go. 
  1. Rosé-Flavored Cider is Out

Every brand of rosé-flavored cider is losing sales. The top three brands showing the most significant losses in this category are: Angry Orchard, Bold Rock and Virtue. 

  1. Cans Are King

Cans are leading the dollar share of the market, growing at 1.5 times the rate of bottles. Six-pack (11-13 ounce) cans are now the top share item with 29% of total cider sales. This is followed by six-pack (11-13 ounce) bottles and 4-pack (18-ounce) cans. (These figures do remove shares of Angry Orchard, which sells in bottles. Because Angry Orchard dominates 40% of the cider market, they skew the data.)

One of the biggest hurdles in the food and beverage industry is getting a product to market — an even bigger challenge for fermented food and drink brands featuring live bacteria.

“Fermented foods in general are still relatively new in the commercial marketplace. When we started, most beer distributors knew nothing about it. And that’s still a big challenge, how to communicate what you have. What is a fermented food? Why should people care about it?” says Joshua Rood, co-founder and CEO of Dr Hops Real Hard Kombucha. Rood shared his advice during a TFA webinar, Launching a Fermented Brand.

Rood officially began Dr Hops in 2015 with co-founder Tommy Weaver. They met in a yoga class, and turned their passion for health and great hops into a kombucha beer they started brewing in Rood’s kitchen. 

At the time, there was a lot of variety and craft beer and kombucha, but hard kombucha was unheard of. “You don’t have a lot of focus on health in alcohol,” Rood says.

Rood went to investors with a pitch deck that outlined why traditional alcohol products don’t appeal to a health-conscious consumer — craft beer is made with gluten, cider is high in sugar and hard alcohol is too strong for regular use. Dr Hops, meanwhile, is gluten-free, low in sugar, unfiltered, made with organic ingredients and full of active probiotics.

“We have a passion for creating more delightful, health-conscious alcohol, and really pushing the envelope with that,” Rood says. “One of our biggest challenges is still how to communicate that into a very tiny amount of time to consumers, retailers and distributors.”

Starting in a category that didn’t yet exist, figuring out licensing took years. Dr Hops began with $13,000 raised from a Kickstarter campaign, then crowdsourced another $10,000  the following year. By 2017 — with labelling, alcohol licensing and product stability figured out — investors pledged $115,000, enough to start small-scale commercial production. Dr Hops officially went to market in 2018, self-distributing and selling at street fairs and beer festivals. 

“Part of the key to selling stuff without a huge marketing budget is focus,” says Alex Lewin, webinar moderator, Dr Hops advisor and TFA Advisory Board member. “Dr Hops started in the Bay Area, and  won over  relationships we had with some retailers — we had some real advocates. Don’t do a national launch if you have no budget.”

Rood stresses education is a key piece of marketing for the fermentation category. 

“How much is the whole community speaking about and educating the world about and celebrating the value of live fermented foods? The more we’re all doing that, the more it works to sell these products,” he adds.

Test audiences, consumer feedback and word-of-mouth marketing have been key to Dr Hops success.

“The fact that we were able to grow our business almost three times in 2020 even in the pandemic with no marketing is one of the best things we have to say about what we have. People want this,” Rood says.

Highlighting strengths helps Dr Hops distinguish itself in a newly-competitive field of hard kombucha brands. Dr Hops’ product line includes flavors that compare to well-known alcohol beverages. Their Kombucha Rose flavor is a substitute for wine, Ginger Lime for a cocktail, Kombucha IPA for beer and Strawberry Lemon for a mimosa. 

“While people might not understand hard kombucha, they pretty much already have a preference between beer, wine, cocktail and champagne or spritzers,” Rood says.

Health is core to Dr Hops, but higher-alcohol drinks are also higher in calories. Seltzer has been a key competitor to hard kombucha because seltzer’s calories are low. 

“But it’s not interesting,” Rood says. “If you really love alcohol or food or beverage in general, you want something more interesting than that. At this point, we’re willing to gamble on enough people who care about transparency and authenticity that if we put the nutrition label on there and list all the ingredients, even if it doesn’t compare very well on a calorie level, there’s enough else to it that people are going to try it.”

Results of the first large-scale study of sourdough starters were released last week — and the conclusions are fascinating, challenging myths about sourdough. Scientists from four different universities studied 500 sourdough starters from four continents, with an aim to determine microbial diversity. 

“We didn’t just look at which microbes were growing in each starter,” says Erin McKenney, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University. “We looked at what those microbes are doing, and how those microbes coexist with each other.”

The most striking finding: geography doesn’t matter.

Sourdough enthusiasts preach that location and climate will alter  sourdough flavor. San Francisco has long held bragging rights for the most distinctive taste profile. But, of the 500 samples, there was little evidence of geographic patterns.

“This is the first map of what the microbial diversity of sourdoughs looks like at this scale, spanning multiple continents,” says Elizabeth Landis, co-lead author of the study and a PhD student at Tufts. “And we found that where the baker lives was not an important factor in the microbiology of sourdough starters.”

Alex Corsini, CEO and founder of sourdough pizza brand Alex’s Awesome Sourdough (and TFA advisory board member), says the research “demystifies the misconception that sourdough is only good in certain pockets of the world such as San Francisco.” Great sourdough, he says, is about the raw materials.

“It further shows why sourdough is ubiquitous all over the world — starters can thrive anywhere as nature provides the magic and bakers just need to be in a position to coax out a result without ruining the magic — the magic here being the microbial balance needed to ferment and levain baked goods,” Corsini says.

The research also found there is no one single variable responsible for sourdough variations, bucking conventional baking wisdom. 

“What we found instead was that lots of variables had small effects that, when added together, could make a big difference,” says Angela Oliverio, co-lead author of the study and a former PhD student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “We’re talking about things like how old the sourdough starter is, how often it’s fed, where people store it in their homes, and so on.”

As a commercial sourdough producer, Corsini values the “low and slow” process to master a sourdough batch, especially when making it consistently on a large scale. Alex’s Awesome Sourdough undergoes a 70-hour ferment using high-quality flour, filtered water and a decades-old starter. 

“Although location makes little or no impact on the starters microbial ecosystem, regulating temperature and time is fundamental and adjustments need to be made based on the location you are in (hot climate, cold climate, humidity, etc.) to get a desired result,” Corsini says. “We make slight adjustments throughout the year to ensure a consistent texture and flavor in our dough.”

The study found variations in dough rise rates and aromas were due to acetic acid bacteria, “a mostly overlooked group of sourdough microbes.” The bacteria slowed the rise time and gave the sourdough a vinegary smell. Researchers were “surprised” that 29.4% of the samples contained acetic acid bacteria.

“The sourdough research literature has focused almost exclusively on yeast and lactic acid bacteria,” says Ben Wolfe, co-author of the study, associate professor of biology at Tufts University (and also a TFA advisory board member). “Even the most recent research in the field hadn’t mentioned acetic acid bacteria at all. We thought they might be there to some extent, since bakers often talk about acetic acid, but we were not expecting anything like the numbers we found.”

The 500 sourdough starters studied mostly came from home bakers in the U.S. and Europe. Researchers performed DNA sequencing for each sample, narrowing down to 40 starters as being representative of the diversity of the original array. 

Those 40 were: assessed by sensory professionals for aroma profile, chemically analyzed to determine the organic compounds released by each and then measured for dough rise time.

“I think it’s also important to stress that this study is observational — so it can allow us to identify relationships, but doesn’t necessarily prove that specific microbes are responsible for creating specific characteristics,” says Wolfe. “A lot of follow-up work needs to be done to figure out, experimentally, the role that each of these microbial species and environmental variables plays in shaping sourdough characteristics.”

“And while bakers will find this interesting, we think the work is also of interest to microbiologists,” Landis adds. “Sourdough is an excellent model system for studying the interactions between microbes that shape the overall structure of the microbiome. By studying interactions between microbes in the sourdough microbiome that lead to cooperation and competition, we can better understand the interactions that occur between microbes more generally — and in more complex ecosystems.”

The research, “The Diversity and Function of Sourdough Starter Microbiomes,” was done with support from a National Science Foundation grant.