Reviving Sake with SoCal Style 

James Jin of Nova Brewing Co. doesn’t want to create a Japanese-style sake — he’s working to create a Southern Californian sake. 

Jin uses Calrose rice grown near Sacramento, imports koji and yeast from Japan and designs his own brewing equipment. The flavor of his modern sake is thanks to a secret blend he uses to make the koji rice (the base for the sake), utilizing both yellow and black koji spores, as well as yeast from the Brewing Society of Japan. The flavor — more wine-like, fruitier, higher in acidity and easily paired with food — “it’s a lot more appealing to the younger generation.” 

“I respect the history of sake brewing, but it’s a dying art in Japan,” Jin says, adding, “Sales of sake [are] constantly going down [there]. I’m one of the few brewers in America trying to bring the dying art back to life.”

“I’m not a Japanese brewer. I’m an American brewer. I purposefully do things they wouldn’t do in Japan.”

Nova Brewing produces four sakes and 10 craft beers at their facility in Covina, California. They are the only craft sake brewery and tasting room in Los Angeles County — and the only sake and beer hybrid producer in California.

Read more (Los Angeles Times)

Can Gut Microbes Fight Viruses?

An estimated 40 trillion microbes make up our gut microbiome. Researchers are now studying how these microbes protect our immune system, fighting off viruses like Covid-19.

“Imagine microbes that block a virus from entering a cell or communicate with the cell and make it a less desirable place for the virus to set up residence,” says Mark Kaplan, chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “Manipulating those lines of communication might give us an arsenal to help your body fight the virus more effectively.”

These microbes, according to an article in National Geographic, may fight viruses in one of three ways: “building a wall that blocks invaders, deploying advanced weaponry and providing support to the immune system.” Kaplan calls intestinal bacteria “the gatekeepers between what we eat and our body.”

The article details the new, innovative measures medical professionals are taking to repair a patient’s damaged gut microbiome — transplanting fecal matter, administering a bacteria-targeting virus and pills that release antiviral interferons. But the most compelling way may be consuming a diet rich in fermented foods — the article notes a consensus among medical and science professionals that fermented foods can promote a healthy microbiome.

Read more (National Geographic)

Researchers think fermented pomegranate could be the latest anti-aging secret. A study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found patients who drank fermented pomegranate (FPE) or used it as a serum improved their skin quality. 

In the double-blind study, participants who drank FPE saw increases in their skin’s moisture, brightness, elasticity and collagen density after 8 weeks. Participants who used FPE serum noticed the same skin improvements — plus a reduction of UV spots. 

The study concludes that fermented pomegranate extracts, when consumed daily, “can protect the skin against oxidative stress and slow skin aging.

Read more (Dermatology Times)

Kombucha producers across the U.S. have organized an awareness campaign for the KOMBUCHA Act. The legislation — which was reintroduced into Congress this year for the 5th year in a row — would exempt kombucha  from excise taxes intended for alcoholic beverages.

The KOMBUCHA ACT Days of Action, organized by the trade organization Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), is from September 14 to 18. The act would raise the alcohol by volume (ABV) threshold for kombucha from its current level of 0.5% to 1.25%. Producers plan to lobby, emailing representatives, posting on social media and encouraging the public to sign a petition in support of the bipartisan bill. 

In a statement from KBI President Hannah Crum, she points out that kombucha is not an alcoholic beverage. The fermented tea rarely exceeds 0.5% ABV, while light lager beers contain about 3.2% ABV and most craft beers are 5% or higher. (Note: hard kombucha, an increasingly popular drink option, is specifically brewed to have higher alcoholic content and is labeled accordingly.). Here are some of the key paragraphs from her statement:

“Today, most kombucha sold in the United States contains trace amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation that occurs during production. The alcohol, a natural preservative, acts to protect kombucha’s live cultures, as well as the safety of consumers, from unwanted pathogens,” Crum says. “Traditionally made kombucha seldom tests above 1 percent ABV, as kombucha cultures are not suited to high levels of alcohol, so this level allows kombucha brewers to feel confident distributing their products by providing ample buffer room to shield them from the threat of this tax.”

“Nevertheless, for the purpose of assessing federal excise taxes on beer for its alcohol content, the Internal Revenue Code defines the term ‘beer’ in a way that encompasses kombucha, if the kombucha contains 0.5 percent or more of ABV.”

“For kombucha brewers, this federal law presents a real dilemma. While their kombucha may be leaving the facility below the 0.5 percent ABV threshold, trace alcohol can increase slightly – in some cases above 0.5 percent ABV – if the product is exposed to temperature fluctuations on distribution trucks or grocery store shelves after it has left the kombucha brewery.”

“Under the current law as written, kombucha brewers have a Damocles sword hanging over their heads. That is, their kombucha can leave the brewery untaxed, only for its ABV level to rise slightly above 0.5 percent once out of their control, thus becoming subject to the federal excise taxes.”

Hard cider makers waged a similar battle in 2015. Federal law had limited hard cider to under 7% ABV, but cider makers (particularly smaller producers) found it difficult to control alcohol levels because of  apple varieties and cultures. Congress passed a bill increasing the allowable alcohol content in hard cider to 8.5%.

Crum continues: “While hard cider is an alcoholic beverage and kombucha is not, the two products nonetheless share a similar issue: the alcohol level in each can vary naturally due to fermentation.”

“As with cider makers in 2015, this dilemma and the anxiety it causes kombucha brewers would be easily remedied through the enactment of a similar common-sense update: the bipartisan KOMBUCHA Act (H.R. 2124/S. 892) now being considered in Congress. The bill – sponsored by House Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) – creates an exemption in the tax code for kombucha, so long as the ABV level of the product is 1.25 percent ABV or lower.”

Crum says many kombucha producers limit growing their business “in order to protect themselves from this risk, as well as facing burdensome costs of testing to comply with the arbitrarily restrictive limit.” There are over 600 kombucha producers in the U.S. Kombucha has “garnered a cult following in the last 20 years for its unique taste and probiotic benefits,” she says, adding:

“We are hopeful that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and their colleagues on both sides of the aisle (multiple Republicans in various states have co-sponsored the bill) can succeed in getting this legislation enacted into law this year. If they do succeed, they’ll pave the so-far rocky path for a new and rapidly growing industry that promises to add thousands of jobs with benefits to the economy at a time when they are desperately needed.”

Hawaii’s traditional dish, poi, is in danger. Fewer farmers are growing taro, the starchy root vegetable that is fermented to make it.

Historically, poi was a staple for native Hawaiians and in Polynesian countries. Today it’s mostly served at celebrations and luaus. The purple, paste-like dish is made by cooking and mashing taro root, then leaving it to ferment for a week. Poi develops a sour flavor, similar to yogurt.

But taro farming is steadily declining. Honolulu Civil Beat points out that growing, cultivating and cooking taro “is hard work that’s not always profitable.” Limited access to farming land and Hawaii’s wet climate also make taro a difficult crop to raise. And production and sales data — the basis for Federal and state subsidies — under-represent actual activity, as many farmers trade taro to friends and family instead of selling it to retailers.

Read more (Honolulu Civil Beat)

The alcohol levels in wine have been rising over the past 30 years — and wine experts say the sugar content in grapes is to blame. 

Though a winemaker can manipulate sugar levels in the vineyard and alcohol levels in the cellar, a hotter climate is driving increased sugar content in grapes. California’s wine grapes have had a “substantial rise” in sugar levels since 1980. A study by the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) hypothesizes global warming is contributing.

Read more (Decanter)

Fermented Foods FAQ

The New York Times breaks down “The Dos and Don’ts of Fermented Foods” in a new article. Food science writer, Anahad O’Connor, was interviewed to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about fermented foods. For example: What are the differences in sugar content of yogurt brands? How can fermented foods be incorporated into daily life? 

O’Connor says there are “thousands of different types of fermented foods consumed around the world” that “are chock-full of live microorganisms, known as probiotics, and they are widely available at grocery stores, supermarkets and farmers’ markets.” 

He shared his advice for shopping for fermented foods, pointing out: “Not all foods that are made through fermentation contain live microorganisms when they reach store shelves or your kitchen table.” Sourdough, for example, loses all fermented bacteria once baked. Most wine is filtered and processed to make any live microbes disappear. Fermented foods packaged with statements like “containers probiotics,” “contains live cultures” or “naturally fermented” are good products to look for — and most are in the refrigerated aisles.

Read more (The New York Times)

Fermented Fungi Forge Forward 

The alternative protein industry continues to explode in growth — and fermented mushrooms are leading the pack as the preferred meatless protein. In a recent article, the World Economic Forum highlighted mycoprotein, the protein-rich, flavorless “foodstuff” made from fermenting mushrooms. Companies creating alt proteins with fungi “are starting to sprout almost overnight,” the article notes.

Mycoprotein has a big advantage over plant-based proteins, as it has a meat-like texture that can then be flavored to taste like animal meat. Plant proteins must go through further processing to replicate a meat-like texture, and many plant proteins retain the taste of the original plant.

The mycoprotein production process was developed and patented by UK brand Quorn in 1985. But their patent expired in 2010, and  the food technology is now available for all.

Read more (World Economic Forum)

Tequila sales last year were 60 million gallons, 800% higher than two decades ago. This agave-based spirit has become so popular that distillers are “selling it at the price of gold.” What caused the boom? Celebrity endorsements.

From George Clooney to Arnold Schwarzenegger, LeBron James to Nick Jonas and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Kendall Jenner, celebrities have made billions off their tequila brands.

A Los Angeles Times article highlights the pros (a booming local economy in Mexico,  tequila being introduced to more people) and the cons (environmental concerns, agave plants harvested too young, diverse crop fields and forests turned into monocultures of agave, foreigners taking over a traditional drink) of this growth. The article continues: 

“Pre-Hispanic Indigenous groups in Mexico had been fermenting agave into a viscous alcoholic drink known as pulque for centuries when Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century and first distilled tequila. It has since evolved into an $10.8-billion-a-year industry.”

Read more (Los Angeles Times)

In America, where 40% of the population identifies as nonwhite, why do grocery stores still have an ethnic aisle? The outdated aisle initially began after World War II as a way for soldiers to buy the food they ate while in Italy, Germany or Japan. But the European foods, like pasta sauces and sauerkraut, eventually became integrated with the rest of the store, while foods from BIPOC countries stayed put. 

Heads of ethnic food brands and grocery chains have been pushing for a change, but it’s been a hard sell. Doing away with the aisle is a layered problem — and still not the most popular approach with food professionals.

“Several food purveyors of colors see the aisle as a necessary evil — a way to introduce their products to shoppers who may be unfamiliar with, say, Indian food — though a barrier to bigger success,” reads an article in The New York Times

Some ethnic brands come to store buyers with little capital to get their products on the shelf, so the only spot for them is on the ethnic aisle. They will never break out unless they’re acquired by a larger company. Larger corporations, like Pepsi or Nestlé, can afford to pay stores to put their products on shelves with prime product placement. And large ethnic brands (like Goya beans and Maruchan ramen) are placed on both ethnic aisles and their respective traditional product section because they’re considered broadly recognized.

But many products with international flavors made by nonwhite brands are not placed on the ethnic shelf. The Times shares the story of Toyin Kolawole, who runs the African ingredients brand Iya Foods. Kolawole tried to get her cassava flour into the flour aisle with a Midwestern retailer with no success. But when cassava flour began trending as a substitute for traditional flour, bigger companies launched their own cassava brands — which were put in the flour aisle. 

On the flip side, other food professionals note that consumers turn to the ethic aisle in search of international flavors. Customers like the convenience. There is a fear that unique ingredients (like tamarind or pomegranate molasses) without a clear spot in a grocery store would get lost in a conventional aisle. And, even worse for some brands, integration in an American grocery store means being “divorced from its cultural background.”

Read more (The New York Times)