A new wood alternative made from a byproduct of kombucha brewing waste won this year’s James Dyson Award, which celebrates problem-solving design. The material, called Pyrus, was invented by sustainable-design student Gabe Tavas. Tavas’ company, Symmetry, makes small items from Pyrus that replicate exotic woods like mahogany or purpleheart (two wood types found in the rainforest and endangered by aggressive deforestation).
Tavas was inspired to create Pyrus after seeing designers use kombucha bacterial cellulose (the film that grows on top of the beverage during brewing) in various projects. Tavas was struck by the fact that trees are made from cellulose, and he began experimenting in his dorm room with the waste from his own kombucha brewing. He eventually partnered with local Chicago producer, KombuchAde, which supplies Tavas with 250 pounds of cellulose a day.
Pyrus is made by pouring cellulose into a mold, adding agar (an algae-based binding gel), and then dehydrating and compressing it. The synthetic wood can be sanded and cut, but will decompose in contact with water.
Read more (Fast Company)
Sebastian Vargo was an up-and-coming chef on the Chicago food scene when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and shuttered restaurants. Laid off from his job as head chef at Merchant Restaurant, Vargo experimented with different gigs — yoga teacher, realtor, even t-shirt graphic designer — but kept coming back to his passion: creating food.
So Vargo and his fiancée, Taylor Hanna, launched Vargo Brother Ferments. They produce a creative line-up of fermented condiments, sauces and beverages, including items like a pickled garlic sauce, chipotle beet sauerkraut, Mighty Vine tomato vinegar, Concord grape kombucha and a Bulgarian yogurt with fermented strawberry jam and miso peanut butter.
“Ultimately, I’m a flavor chaser,” Vargo says. “Fermentation is not really an obligation, it’s a necessity to really unlock certain flavors.”
Most of what they make is seasonal, created from fresh ingredients sourced locally from Chicago community gardens or out of Vargo’s backyard garden. Flavors heralding back to Vargo’s childhood are also featured. Collard greens kimchi is one example, featuring the leafy vegetable frequently served at Vargo’s family dinner table as he grew up in Detroit.
“You can’t help but find a little bit of nostalgia in what you make. Flavors are so connected to memories,” Vargo says. He recalls his mother’s buttery cornbread, her pinto beans flavored with a smoked ham hock and his grandmother’s braised short ribs with sauerkraut. “We were this African-American family in the Midwest in the ‘90s with Southern heritage, so some of my food preserves some of that history. With fermentation, there’s an intersection of both physical preservation and historical preservation. My fermented vegetables are an homage to the past, presenting certain vegetables in interesting and complex ways.”
Vargo and Hanna currently run their business from their home kitchen, selling over Instagram, at farmers markets and through collaborations with local restaurants around the Chicago area. They’re nearing the end of a Go Fund Me campaign to help move Vargo Brother Ferments into a commercial kitchen and, eventually, a storefront. .
Below is an edited Q&A between Vargo and The Fermentation Association.
The Fermentation Association: How did you first get into cooking?
Sebastian Vargo: My origin is with my grandmother. My mom worked really hard, she worked nights and then she was going to school as well. My grandmother was in our household a lot, she taught me and my brothers [the namesake behind Vargo Brother Ferments] a lot of life skills, how to box, how to play basketball, how to cook. I have fond memories of eating sauerkraut as a child out of a coffee mug with a fork. She was my earliest inspiration, I have fond memories of my grandma in the kitchen.
TFA: And how did you get into fermentation?
SV: My grandma introduced me to sauerkraut. It was such an exciting flavor, I hadn’t experienced the brininess of lactic fermentation, the way it feels on my tongue and cheeks. My mom loved to take us to local delis and we loved Reuben sandwiches. We’d go to a lot of Jewish delis in southeast Michigan, and they had salt brine pickles. That was a real fermented pickle, that flavor is something, too, that really kind of jump started my interest in fermentation.
And then, just working with cool chefs. A new part of my mind was unlocked at every restaurant. Great chefs helped cultivate my love of fermentation. Being in the industry in Chicago is so cool. Every last one of us, we’re all trying to experiment and see what we can do with flavors. When I worked for Stephanie Izard at Girl & the Goat, we were doing kimchi for certain dishes. At Schwa with Brian Fisher and later Wilson Bauer, we made our own yogurt and fermented our leeks, our apricots. And then when I worked for Tony Quartaro at Dixie, he was really pushing the envelope with this Southern-style restaurant where we took inspiration from around the world in a way and applied it to this Southern technique. We had some peaches come in that were underripe, we couldn’t use them for the actual dish, so instead he mixed it with some rum and taught me how to make a vinegar out of it.
TFA: What took you from Detroit to cheffing in Chicago?
SV: It was one Le Cordon Bleu commercial. I was young, I was in a bit of a crossroads and I made the decision to go to the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Chicago. I was working at the Salvation Army at the time and I got on the Megabus with my little thrift bags and maybe $800. I had no plans, I found out $800 will not get you an apartment in Chicago, so I stayed in hostels. Before I got enough money for culinary school, I worked as a canvasser to make money.
TFA: March 2020. You are the head chef at Logan Square’s Merchant and your fiancée was cooking at the Ace Hotel. Then Covid-19 lockdowns happen. Tell me how your lives changed.
SV: Merchant was the first restaurant where I was head chef, it was fun. We made our own hot sauces, we fermented pickles. But once I had the call that we were closing for Covid, I was ready to figure something out. I was a little bit burnt out from the industry at the time. I was ready to leave, it’d been a lot of pressure and a lot of stress for a while. So, like a lot of Americans, we took the unemployment. I had never been on unemployment. Being unemployed gave me a chance to finally reset. I was working up to 120 hours a week cheffing around. Now I could see what else is out there.
The whole time I was looking outside of the industry, me and Taylor were still doing a lot of experiments in the kitchen. We were making a lot of bagels, making pickles. I have a friend Joe Morski who runs a one-man sandwich operation called Have a Good Sandwich. It’s like a rotating sandwich club in Chicago. Meanwhile, I was trying to start a pickle club, and I asked him if he wanted to serve my pickles in the lunch pack for his sandwiches. That was my first foray into getting my pickles out there. From there, we just started peddling our jars.
TFA: What was the transition to your own business?
SV: To this day, there’s so few fermented, unpasteurized pickles on the market. It wasn’t even a search for a niche, it was something I love to do and I was excited to share my flavor palette with the public. Fermentation is a fun way to be creative, to use it as a platform for new dishes, to play aground with colors. It’s definitely been a great medium to pursue my love of food, of art. Feeding people is my love language. And fermentation is definitely something that’s going to live on forever. It’s wellness, it’s never going to go out of style.
TFA: Tell me about your G-Dilla pickle. That’s a customer favorite. What makes it so special?
SV: The G-Dilla pickle is a flagship that’s always in season. The name G-Dilla, we have blank labels and I didn’t want to write “Garlic Dill” each time. So I started G-Dilla as an homage to J-Dilla, a great producer [and rapper from Detroit].
The taste is akin to a Jewish deli, a garlic dill pickle, the one that would accompany a Reuben sandwich. I just take it kind of a step further with the herbs and the garlic. We use black tea in our pickle brine, it is a fun way to add tannins to the mix which provides that nice, crunchy skin. We really enforce the flavors through fresh herbs, fresh dill from our backyard, parsley, grape leaves, fresh bay leaf and we add lots of garlic and toasted block peppercorn and mustard seed. Maybe a little gochujang, some turmeric. You bite into one and you’re getting that loud crunch and you’re just getting that lactic acid zing that’s electrifying the flavor. It makes you stop what you’re doing, you can’t talk through it, you have to finish chewing and enjoy the whole experience. It’s been a journey — I think back to the first pickle I made to now and it’s something I’ve kept at, I’m a student of the game, always striving to learn more techniques and refine what I’m doing.
TFA: Why do you think more and more chefs are exploring fermentation?
SV: I think so many chefs are seeing the flavor benefits alone. Food fermentation offers a more nuanced flavor that you just can’t achieve the same way. Fermentation is in everything that we do, everything that we eat. There is really an endless source of inspiration and flavor for chefs. We’ve seen the interest pick up in fermentation, but it’s not a fad in the food world. Fermentation is something that is here to stay, with the recent explosion and interest in it, fermentation will find a nice settling place in food.
TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation?
SV: I would like to see a future in which fermentation is no longer just a trending topic, something that everyone acknowledges for its real health benefits. So people aren’t just taking a probiotic gummy, they know they can get probiotics easily through so many foods. Society is at a place where we are not quite as healthy as we should be. Maybe we can make fermentation convenient, maybe we can show people that it’s not hard, we can show folks that there’s food you can have that has enhanced flavors and there’s something in fermentation for everyone.
Fourteen years after earning two stars from the Michelin Guide, Noma was finally awarded the illustrious third star.
“After so many years of working together, to finally achieve something like this is extremely special,” says René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of the Copenhagen-based restaurant, during Michelin’s ceremony for Nordic countries earlier this month. Redzepi said the announcement left him surprised and flabbergasted. “I’m completely blown away, it’s a new feeling for me. This opportunity happens once in your lifetime.”
Long lauded as one of the top restaurants in the world, Noma has an innovative fermentation lab and test kitchen that creates wildly imaginative and ingenious dishes. Their summer menu featured an edible candle made with cardamom, saffron and a wick of silvered walnut; a salad made with reindeer penis; and a cold-pressed beetroot juice served in a flower pot adorned with a ladybug made from raspberry and black garlic .
The reactions from food industry professionals echoed the same sentiment — the third star was overdue.
James Spreadsbury, restaurant manager at Noma, said during the ceremony that the staff at the restaurant has been patient. “At some point, we kept on and didn’t expect anything would change. But we were still so proud of what we did and believed in what we did. After so many years of working together, to finally achieve something like this is extremely special.”
Redzepi was also honored by Michelin. The Chef Mentor award, given annually to a chef sharing their knowledge to help others, was presented to him by Peyman Sabet, the vice president of business development for Michelin.
“It’s really about innovation and making the path for a new generation of chefs,” Sabet said.
Redzepi said he was humbled to receive the award. He noted that, when Noma opened 18 years ago, “I was a terrible leader…when you are in the industry, you find yourself becoming a head chef and you don’t have the tools to actually figure out how are you doing to do this, how are you doing to lead and inspire a team.”
He said years ago he “promised himself this is not who I wanted to be.”
“One of the most enjoyable things I have in my professional career is to see someone that’s been a part of your own success, but when they leave they have their own success. That’s really really enjoyable.”
Noma is proud of their alumni and highlights them on their website. Reads the webpage: “Our chef René was himself a stagiaire [a cook who works briefly, for free, in another chef’s kitchen] around the world before opening Noma. It is a part of sharing ideas and knowledge that is quite special in our trade. We wouldn’t want to be without stagiaires and we believe that everyone that has been through Noma shares in part of our success.”
Former Noma chefs include: David Zilber (nowat bioscience company Chr. Hansen), Thomas Frebel (head chef at INUA in Tokyo), Dan Giusti (founder of chef training company Brigaid), Matt Orlando (head chef at Amass Restaurant in Copenhagen), Søren Ledet (owner and restaurant manager at Geranium in Copenhagen) andMads Refslund (head chef of ACME in New York City)
Bow & Arrow Brewing in New Mexico is part of two small but growing groups in the U.S. — it is both female- and Native American-owned.
Bow & Arrow locally sources their traditional Native American ingredients (blue corn, Navajo tea, three-leaf sumac) for their seasonal sour beers. The hops they use — subspecies neomexicanus — were used for their antiviral properties by the Navajo people in the Southwest,who put them in teas and salves. The brewery owners — Missy Begay and Shyla Sheppard — forage for hops in the mountains near Albuquerque. They also give their spent brewing grains to a local Native American family for use as feed for their livestock.
Begay, pictured left (who is Diné [Navajo]) and Sheppard, pictured right (a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes [Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara]) met at Stanford University in 2000. They took different career paths, but both fell in love with craft beer and homebrewing. They opened Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. in 2016.
“There is a sweetness to the land here, and all of this is sacred. We hope, as Native American women brewery owners, that people understand the story we have to tell,” Begay says.
Read more (Outside)
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)
This is the first in a series of articles that TFA will be releasing over the next few months, analyzing trends from our Member Survey.
Though fermentation brands overwhelmingly reported substantial sales gains during the Covid-19 pandemic, they’re not breaking out the champagne. Now, nearing fall 2021, many are starting to see sales flatten. This trend is consistent with sales for the food industry at large, which started to plateau in March 2021.
Most fermenters reported struggles meeting demand — packaging shortages (38%), costly and time-consuming Covid-19 sanitation protocols (30%), distribution delays (29%) and ingredient and labor shortages (both 28%). Then there’s the challenge of keeping a fermented product in stock with constantly changing sales demands.
Jared Schwartz, a TFA Advisory Board member, is 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). He says forecasting has been especially difficult for a refrigerated fermented food with a processing cycle more delicate than that of its shelf-stable counterpart.
“While these spikes in sales are incredible, they also depleted our on-hand WIP [Work-In-Progress],” Schwartz says. He would project barrels of fermenting vegetables to provide adequate inventory for a certain length of time, but peak pandemic demand depleted stock. Finding new ingredients is difficult because everything is sourced locally. “With fermentation, there is of course a much longer lead time on a finished product as the process can’t be rushed. So these challenges left us extending our production season and looking to source from the spot market, which is generally out of our norm. We generally source 95% of our ingredients from New York State and base our projections around the trajectory aforementioned.”
Sales Flatten After Record Year
While predicting sales has been difficult — especially as many states are again increasing Covid-19 restrictions because of the Delta variant — some brand leaders were prepared for a decrease in sales in 2021.
Kheedim Oh, founder of Mama O’s Kimchi (and also on TFA’s Advisory Board), said sales doubled in 2020. But, this summer, they fell dramatically from that peak. “July was terrible,” Oh says, but they “anticipate a boost in the fall since summer months are typically slower.”
Revenue almost tripled in 2020 for hard kombucha brand Dr. Hops, but sales have since started to flatten. The company had secured new distribution before the pandemic, then redesigned their product line this year. “We would have likely done much more… if we had been able to do all the field sales and marketing we had planned,” says Joshua Rood, co-founder and CEO of Dr. Hops Real Hard Kombucha,
Hawthorne Valley is seeing a similar downturn. Sales from March to April spiked about 50%, with overall year-over-year growth at 46%. But “things have definitely plateaued for now,” Schwartz says.
Supply Chain Nightmares
Small packaging supplies — like the tiny plastic caps for glass kombucha bottles — caused huge production issues. Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International, says this was the biggest challenge for brewers. “It’s had a massive impact,” she says.
Twenty-four percent of survey respondents said they anticipate production constraints will continue to be a challenge throughout 2021.
And though sales remain strong for Bubbies pickles according to John Gray, owner of Bubbies (and TFA Advisory Board member), “glass shortages have affected the entire industry. Sales are strong, but shortages persist,” as he describes the pandemic’s double-edged sword facing many fermented brands.
Production and distribution issues hit frozen pizza brand Alex’s Awesome Sourdough, too — packaging costs went up 10%, and freight expense nearly doubled. But these didn’t slow the company’s growth. They expanded massively in 2020, from 100 to 1,500 stores. An overall uptick in frozen food sales helped them as well, especially as competing pizza brands went out of stock.
“Sales are strong as pizza is a seasonal category and the end of summer and early fall are the beginning of peak season,” says Alex Corsini, founder of Alex’s Awesome Sourdough (and another TFA Advisory Board member). “We anticipate sales being even stronger if Covid protocols remain strict and restaurants continue operating at a limited capacity. Restaurants definitely take a piece of our pie (pun intended).”
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 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)