FERMENTATION 2021 Wrap-Up

Nearly 300 individuals from around the world participated in The Fermentation Association’s first conference, FERMENTATION 2021. The virtual event included 35 educational keynotes, presentations, and panel discussions from more than 60 speakers over three days. Topics ranged from the science of fermentation to the art of fermenting to create flavor, from how fermented products are selling at retail to what’s next in the world of fermentation.

“I’ve been in this field for 40 years and, in all honesty, this is one of the biggest honors I’ve received, to be the speaker for this opening meeting of this really cool organization,” said Bob Hutkins, professor of food science at the University of Nebraska. Hutkins presented the conference’s opening keynote, Definition & History of Fermented Foods.

Over five years ago, John Gray, TFA’s founder, envisioned a trade show for producers of fermented foods and beverages, to make those artisanal items a more prominent part of the retail space. John connected with Neal Vitale, TFA Executive Director, and the organization was born out of their collective vision. TFA has grown, with a robust website, biweekly newsletter,a series of webinars and, now, an international conference. TFA has an Advisory Board that includes food and beverage producers, academics and researchers, and food and flavor educators and authors. TFA has formed working relationships with a number of other like-minded trade associations and organizations, and established a Buyers Council to create an active dialogue with food and beverage distributors, brokers and retailers.

“I have to tell you what a thrill it is to have you all here to witness and to participate in the beginning of a dream coming true,” added Gray in his welcoming remarks. Gray is the chairman and CEO of Katalina Holding Co., a food incubator and parent company of Bubbies Pickles.

FERMENTATION 2021 content paralleled TFA’s primary missions: first, help consumers better understand fermentation and its potential health benefits; second, work to improve health and safety regulations as they pertain to fermented products and third, connect the science and health research communities with producers, supporting scientific research and for a better understanding of the “state of the art.” 

What made FERMENTATION 2021 unique is that it was the first event to bring together everyone involved in the world of fermentation — producers, retailers, chefs, scientists, authors, suppliers and regulators. The conference was not a how-to fermentation education event, as TFA feels there are numerous, effective resources for the person looking to, for example, make kimchi or learn about using koji. 

“”We were delighted with how well FERMENTATION 2021 met — in fact, exceeded — our goals,” said Vitale. “While we were disappointed that the continuing impact of COVID-19 kept us from meeting in person, we were gratified by how all the participants responded, interacted, and engaged during our three jam-packed days. And, with recording of all our sessions now available online for our registrants, we expect that energy and excitement to continue.”, 

“Fermentation is experiencing a major surge of interest in restaurants and kitchens around the globe,” says Amelia Nielson-Stowell, TFA Editor. “Our conference was a major milestone for the industry and we are already in the planning stages for FERMENTATION 2022 next summer. And, assuming we will be able to meet in person once again, we plan to host a tasting and sampling event for consumers alongside our conference.” 

Food Technology’s latest issue features an article entitled “Not Just A Gut Feeling” which details how and why more consumers are buying and making fermented foods and drinks. Spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is growing interest in the gut microbiome and healthier food options.The curiosity around fermentation is buoying the retail category.

“It checks off all the boxes — artisanal, local, natural, sustainable, innovative,” says Bob Hutkins, food science professor of food science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (and a recent addition to TFA’s Advisory Board.) “People are making sourdoughs at home; they’re making kimchi at home; they’re going to kombucha bars. It’s definitely got the Gen Xers and the millennials intrigued.”

Included in the article are many insights from TFA — Advisory Board members Alex Lewin and Kheedim Oh, Executive Director Neal Vitale, and Editor Amelia Nielson-Stowell are all quoted.

Read more (Food Technology Magazine)

Is fermentation the next big home kitchen technique? As more restaurants hire directors of fermentation, consumers are inspired to experiment at home.

An article in The Spoon makes a case for the rise of home fermentation equipment, which makes the process “a little less mysterious.”

“Fermenting is still viewed as something of a black art. Part of it is the weird and slightly creepy terminology (mother, anyone?). Mostly, though, it’s also because the act of farming bacteria to create tasty and healthy new foods is a far cry from the usual activity of assembling and cooking our meals in our kitchen.”

The article interviewed two entrepreneurs making their own fermentation devices: Breadwinner (which helps bakers know when their sourdough starter is ready) and Hakko Bako (a fermentation appliance). The creators say their products are making fermentation easy, controlled and approachable. Tommy Cheung of Hakko Bako notes food trends usually start in Michelin restaurants, then trickle down to casual dining and finally end up at the home kitchen. “I definitely think (home fermentation devices) are going to be a huge part of the future.”

Read more (The Spoon)

Fermenting Coffee with Koji?

A two-time Finnish Barista Champion made headlines with his unique cup of joe at the World Barista Championship in Italy — a koji-fermented coffee. 

Aiming to make better coffee than what’s available on the market, Kaapo Paavolainen (pictured) studied how he could maximize the flavor in coffee beans. “Sugar in beans is responsible for coffee’s inherent sweetness but the lack of it results in unpleasant bitterness. But the current methods can extract only 70% of available sugar,” he told Forbes.

After reading about koji in the books Koji Alchemy (by Jeremy Umansky and Rich Shih) and The Noma Guide to Fermentation (by Rene Redzepi and David Zilber), he realized koji can tap into the remaining 30% of sugar in beans. 

Incredibly, this koji-based method was used on subpar coffee beans in experiments and still transformed the coffee. Umansky described the flavor as “deep, earthy and leathery. Depending on the roasting level of the beans, the flavor ranged widely from tropical fruits like pineapple and mango to chocolate and gingerbread. The mouthfeel was strikingly silky and luxurious like butter. The rounded, full-bodied texture made these tastes last very long.” 

Paavolainen aims to scale the koji process with a partner farm in Columbia. This new coffee method could aid coffee farmers, many of whom are financially challenged and are struggling to maintain farms in the face of climate change.

Read more (Forbes)

The Brewing Coffee-Farming Crisis

Many pressures are building on coffee farmers, making their jobs increasingly difficult. Climate change is causing numerous impacts — temperatures are rising, rainfall is increasingly unpredictable, weather can swing from drought to flood, and new crop pests are emerging. And these problems are on top of existing environmental concerns, as growing coffee requires large amounts of water. 

Further, studies show that, even with “modest declines of greenhouse gas emissions, about 50 percent of the land with conditions suitable for growing the two main species of coffee, arabica and robusta, which account for 99 percent of commercial supply, ‘could disappear by 2050.’ Brazil and Vietnam, major producing countries, would be especially hard hit.”


The Times details several organizations’ efforts to aid coffee farmers by restoring and protecting water resources, supporting more efficient use of water, improving crop yields with targeted fertilization and starting a global breeding network for new coffee species that can withstand tough climates.

Read more (The New York Times)

Cacao is one of the most environmentally harmful and ethically dubious commodities produced on the planet. It plays a huge role in deforestation, uses an alarming amount of water and more than 2 million children work in cacao farms. Yet cacao hasn’t been reimagined the way other foods with similarly harmful footprints have. 

“There’s a lot of ethical quandaries around the production of chocolate,” says Johnny Drain, PhD, co-founder of WNWN Food Labs. “Cacao is a huge contributor to climate change, and child labor and slave labor are hardwired into the supply chain.”

Drain’s nickname is the “Walter White of fermentation” because of his work helping pioneering restaurants and bars around the world incorporate fermentation into their food and drink. Now Drain can add “Willy Wonka of chocolate” to his resume. He is co-launching a cacao-free chocolate, next in the wave of alternative products designed to replicate flavor and texture without a harmful production cycle.

A Chocolate-Potato Connection?

WNWN (Waste Not, Want Not, pronounced “Win-Win”) happened by chance. About five years ago, Drain was boiling old, green potatoes, and leaned his head into the steam. He was surprised it smelled like chocolate. 

“I had this light bulb moment where I thought ‘There must be some compounds within the skins that are also found in cacao and chocolate.’ I wondered — ‘Could I make chocolate from potatoes? What other weird and wonderful things could make chocolate?’” Drain says.

WNWN plans to release a small-run batch of their chocolate next month. Drain and co-founder Ahrum Pak, a former investment banker and fellow fermenter-turned-food-activist, are calling the product category choc

WNWN’s choc ingredients are proprietary until its formal release but, as with traditional chocolate, they are plant-based and fermented. Drain describes them as familiar, whole ingredients that are common in an average person’s diet. 

“It’s not a Frankenstein, lab-created product, mixing this potion with that potion. We take whole ingredients, we ferment them just as we would chocolate, then we end up with this delicious chocolatey paste that goes into a quite conventional chocolate-making procedure,” Drain adds.

WNWN also replaces cocoa butter — made from cacao pods — with plant-based oils. Cocoa butter is what gives traditional chocolate a silky, creamy texture as it melts in your mouth. 

Fermented Flavors

At the heart of choc’s flavor, though, is fermentation.

“Cacao is fermented to make chocolate in the same way our product is fermented. We use similar, friendly microbes to create complexity,” he says. “We’re recreating that flavour profile of chocolate that we all know and love using the same fundamental techniques that are used to make chocolate.”

High-quality chocolate contains roughly 600 different flavor and aroma molecules. Cacao fermentation involves lactic acid and acetic acid bacteria, along with various yeasts, to create its flavor.

“If you didn’t have that cocktail of microbes, you would end up with something that only tastes vaguely like the chocolate we know and love,” he adds. “At the heart of this is fermentation. The product that we have, if we produced it without the fermentation processes, it wouldn’t taste anything like chocolate, just like if you eat a raw cocoa bean or even a roasted, unfermented cocoa bean, it doesn’t really taste like chocolate. You have to have that very complex cascade of chemical reactions, made possible by the fermentation, to get the final chocolate flavour.”

The Next Big Alt Movement?

Drain is quick to point out WNWN is not the only company trying to create what he and Pak have coined “alt-chocolate.” Three companies — QOA, Voyage Foods and Cali-Cultured — all officially launched in the past three months.

Some of these companies have been operating in stealth mode for a number of years but made official launches once word of competitors began to circulate. QOA and Voyage appear to be using approaches similar to that of WNWN. CaliCultured is using a syn-bio precision fermentation route to modify yeast cells to produce lab-grown cacao cells that are genetically identical to those found in the wild.

Drain says he’s encouraged by the other companies. 

“It’s exciting that there’s multiple people working in this space,” he says. “Look at the plant milk space or alternative protein space — there’s definitely plenty of room in this marketplace too, and collectively we are all doing this because we care about the ethical and environmental damage being wrought by the current cacao supply chain.” 

European and American consumers historically dominate chocolate sales, but chocolate sales all over the world are increasing

Drain and Pak feel that a shake-up in the industry at the top is needed. Huge international producers are responsible for the vast majority of global chocolate. Mars, Nestle and Hershey promised over 20 years ago to stop using child laborers, but reports say the problem continues.Similarly, these companies pledged a decade ago to source more sustainable chocolate, but negative environmental problems from cacao continue to increase. 

“The way in which we consume food has to change. It’s unrealistic that millions of tons of mass-produced cacao is somehow ethically- and sustainably-produced,” Pak says.

Drain adds; “So, really, we’re not anti-chocolate, we’re anti-big-chocolate produced in unethical, unsustainable ways.” 

Recreating Food

Chocolate is merely the first challenge that WNWN wants to address. Coffee and vanilla are next, foods with similar human rights and sustainability concerns. The company is building a software system that can ideate fermentation pathways for creating sustainable, flavour-identical analogs to delicious – but unsustainable – products.

“When you really start looking at how most of the world’s food is produced and consumed, there are so so many cases where it’s produced in a really terrible and damaging way,” Drain says. But “the market wouldn’t have been ready for a product like this five years ago. People are becoming much more aware of where their food comes from. People are thinking about ‘How do I make my purchasing habits, my diet better for the planet in a way that I don’t have to sacrifice the flavors and taste that I love?’ There will be work to do. But people are more receptive now that fermentation is more of a household name than it was five years ago. I think the fact that more people want to remedy these challenges is brillant.”

Drain will be speaking FERMENTATION 2021 on “The Alt-Universe”

This is the second in a series of articles that TFA will be releasing over the next few months, analyzing trends from our Member Survey

Fermentation is cloaked in mystery for many consumers — it’s bubbly, slimy, stinky and not always Instagram ready. 

So how can fermentation producers appeal to potential consumers? What’s the best way to share fermentation’s flavor and health attributes?

In The Fermentation Association’s membership survey on industry trends, a better-educated consumer was identified as a priority. When asked what would foster increased consumption of fermented foods and beverages, the top item for nearly 70% of producers was greater consumer understanding of fermentation and familiarity with the flavors associated with fermentation.

“More than wanting to sell a product, I want people to know the information,” says Sebastian Vargo of Vargo Brothers Ferments (who is speaking at FERMENTATION 2021). The Chicago-based brand sells ferments like pickles, sauces and kombucha. “I believe preventative health starts with fermentation. I’m explaining the difference between a pickle you see on the shelf versus a pickle you see in the refrigerator. But I’m also teaching people to power up their pantry, sauce up their life with condiments.”

Health vs. Flavor

Producers say they struggle sharing fermentation’s benefits with consumers. There are not enough peer-reviewed scientific studies on many fermented products to be the basis for health claims.

“We feel a responsibility as a fermented food company to entice customers into trying these hugely beneficial and delicious products,” says Savita Moynihan, who owns SavvyKraut in Brighton, UK, with her husband Stevo. But, “with sauerkraut, it is generally understood that raw and unpasteurised kraut is good for you but once you try to elaborate on live culture vs probiotics it gets complicated, more than it needs to be.”

Can a brand claim to include probiotics? Producers feel that guidance is not clear.

“There is confusion here that we feel needs to be ironed out in order to loosen the reins so fermenters can promote their products and their benefits with much more confidence,” she adds.

Moynihan says that, when SavvyKraut sells at farmers markets and local shops, they try to communicate two main things to consumers. First, the health benefits, like enhanced vitamin and nutrient contents, increased fiber and an aid to a diverse gut and digestive system. Second, the delicious flavor.

“The process of fermentation really enhances the flavours and creates an entirely new type of flavour which can elevate any meal,” Moynihan adds. 

Lack of Tastings Hurting Efforts

One of the best ways to familiarize consumers with fermentation is for them to taste a product — flavor is a great marketing tool. But COVID-19 has hurt these efforts. Producers are unable to stage in-store demonstrations, offer samples at farmer’s markets or host in-person events. This has been especially hard for kombucha brewers, says Hannah Crum(who is also speaking at FERMENTATION 2021), president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI). 

“We still have such a big part of the population who don’t drink kombucha or don’t even know about [it]; we still have a lot of work in education,” Crum says. 

Joshua Rood, CEO of Dr Hops Hard Kombucha, confirms, adding: “It continues to be very difficult to grow our brand and the whole category without live events.”

“The inability to do live tastings in 2020 had a significant diminishing impact on our sales during the pandemic,” he continues. “One of our main distinctions as a brand is superior taste.  Consumers, however, do not believe claims about that unless they experience it for themselves.  Even now we are significantly hampered by the lack of large beer festivals and street fairs. An artisanal craft brand like Dr Hops needs those live interactions!”

The Knowledge Gap

Despite the lack of in-store tastings, experts at New Hope Network (producers of the Natural Products Expos) say brands have a great opportunity — now, more than ever, during the COVID-19 pandemic — to connect with their consumers. 

New Hope’s 2021 Changing Consumer Survey found U.S. consumers are not satisfied with their current health. Only 8% say they’re “extremely satisfied” with their health today, compared with 20% in 2017. Nearly 80% of consumers understand that diet greatly influences their health (79%). But achieving good health is both a goal and a struggle for consumers — and this is where brands can step in.

“There’s a gap to be bridged,” says Eric Pierce, vice president of business development for New Hope Network, during a session “Understanding Your Consumers” at the most recent Expo East. “I see it as our opportunity and our responsibility to help consumers translate healthy intentions into healthy behavior, either in how we’re educating them in our stores, the products that we’re innovating or the ways we’re communicating. Getting better at communicating can help them with solutions.”

A consistent, transparent, well-communicated message — from product label to social media page to website — is important. Pierce says consumers quickly see past “shallow marketing claims.” 

“Leave a trail of breadcrumbs people can find,” Pierce advises. “You don’t have to communicate everything all at once, but allow people to follow a trail to the deeper story. When consumers want to find that trail, if it’s not there, they’ll quickly write you off as shallow with unbacked claims.”

Amanda Hartt, market research manager at New Hope, suggests putting a QR code on a product label that links to the science backing the benefits of your ingredients. Or partnering with a registered dietitian on social media to highlight how to use your product as part of a healthy diet.

[To learn more about this topic, register for FERMENTATION 2021 to hear one of the keynote panels “Educating Consumers About Fermentation.”]

Are Beer Bars Dying?

As the number of craft breweries continues to balloon — growing to nearly 9,000 in 2020 — craft beer bars are going extinct. The New York Times explores why: brewers are turning into competitors. Few people want to drink at a bar when they can instead go to a brewery’s own taproom.

Bars helped the craft industry grow, but now what was once “a prime way of bringing people into bars was gradually taken away by the breweries themselves,” says Chris Black of Falling Rock Tap House in downtown Denver. Black was forced to close his bar this summer, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused sales to plummet.

The pandemic accelerated closures for numerous failing bars across America, a big loss for locals who found community at their hometown establishment. But brewery taprooms aren’t the only culprit. The article notes craft beer used to be found only in bars — now it can be purchased in stadiums and supermarkets.

(Pictured: Joann Cornejo and Eddie Trejo, who run Machete Beer House in National City, Calif. It’s a community-focused bar that offers brews from America and Mexico and features pop-up vendors selling birria tacos and paletas.)

 Read more (The New York Times)

Craft Kombucha Battles Big Brands

A group of craft kombucha brewers are banding together to fight industrialized kombucha. These small, UK-based companies say a number of big players are entering the kombucha space but taking mass production shortcuts, like pasteurizing and adding sweeteners. Many of the bigger brands, they say, are “kombucha in name only” making lab-engineered fermented tea without the fermentation.

“They don’t have time to ferment, some of them just use an instant mix, which totally goes against the grain of what kombucha is,” says Gary Leigh, founder of Go Kombucha and who that is leading what they’re calling the Real Kombucha Revolution. “Some make the kombucha, pasteurise it, kill off all the natural bacteria and add their own in.”

This consortium of craft brewers says mass-produced kombucha is edging out smaller, authentic brands. Craft brewers are struggling to compete when bigger companies are selling cheaper “kombucha”  with a longer shelf life. Many consumers don’t realize what they are buying. Leigh stresses they’re not anti big kombucha brands, they just want  brewers to be transparent about their production methods –  they need to note on their labels if they’re pasteurized and/or they use sweeteners.

Read more (The Grocer)
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A cabbage shortage is forcing North Koreans to give up winter kimchi making for the second year in a row. They are unable to take part in gimjang, the Korean tradition of communally preparing kimchi each October for the winter season. 

Flood damage and poor crop yields led to a poor cabbage (and radish) growing season. The cabbage that was harvested was mostly  routed to military and government agencies, “leaving the people empty handed.” Cabbage prices have risen 25% from a year ago, “making a large batch of kimchi cost more than a government-provided monthly salary,” according to Radio Free Asia.

Read more (Radio Free Asia)