Tea connoisseurs have long believed that black tea’s flavor comes from the chemicals created during oxidation, but a new study reveals microbes at play. Black’s tea’s rich flavor is partly due to fermentation, the same microbial process used to create fermented teas like kombucha, jun and pu’erh.

What does this mean for tea producers? By adjusting the microbes on the tea leaves, fermentation could amplify the flavor in the final brewed cup of tea.

“The finding that bacterial and fungal communities also drive tea processing suggests the microbiome of the leaves can be manipulated to create greater quantities of tasty compounds due to fermentation,” says Dan Bolton, founder, editor and publisher of Tea Journey.

In research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a team of scientists from Anhui Agricultural University in China studied how sterilization of tea leaves affected tea flavor. They began by sampling the microbes on leaves from the Dongzhi tea plantation in Anhui province. Half the leaves were sterilized in mild bleach for five minutes — the other half were left untouched. All the leaves were then processed traditionally: withered, rolled, oxidized in the sun and dried.  

Their conclusions found black tea produced through microbial fermentation from the unsterilized sample was full of catechins and L-theanine. Catechins are flavonoids and a naturally-occurring antioxidant; L-theanine is an amino acid (also found in  mushrooms) known to ease stress and insomnia. Both compounds  help make tea flavorful. The sterilized leaves produced tea that didn’t have the same amount of compounds, and so wasn’t as flavorful.

“The sterilization process dramatically decreased the content of total catechins and theanine in black tea, indicating that microbes on the surface of tea leaf may be involved in maintaining the formation of these important metabolites during black tea processing,” says Ali Inayat Mallano, PhD, professor at the university.

Interestingly, sterilization had no effect on green tea. Both samples of green tea, sterilized and unsterilized, had the same levels of caffeine and theanine.

[To explore premium dark teas, TFA recently organized a webinar Beyond Kombucha: Pu’erh, Jun and Dark Tea with Bolton and tea experts Jeff Fuchs (author, Himalayan explorer and co-founder of Jalam Teas) and Brendan McGill (chef and James Beard nominee who owns Hitchcock Restaurant Group in Seattle and Junbug Kombucha).

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)

Cacao would never obtain its rich flavor profile without a traditional food processing technique: fermentation.

“I feel like fermentation adds about three-quarters of the flavor to the finished chocolate. I think it is the most important step in the entire tree-to-bar process for the flavor of the chocolate, and the chocolate makers have been taking too much credit for the flavor of their chocolate,” says Nat Bletter, PhD and founder of Madre Chocolate. 

Chocolate makers “can definitely take a great grown and fermented cacao and make it shine, but it’s really hard to take a badly grown and fermented cacao and make a good tasting chocolate and that’s why so much of the world’s chocolate is loaded with milk and sugar to try to cover up some of the bad fermentation flavors.”

Bletter joined Max Wax (vice president of Rizek Cacao) and Dan O’Doherty (principal of Cacao Services) in sharing their expertise during a joint webinar, The Fermentation-Flavor Connection in Chocolate., co-hosted byThe Fine Chocolate Industry Association and The Fermentation Association.. 

The three speakers work in different size chocolate operations. Madre Chocolate is a small-scale chocolate making company in Honolulu that uses cacao from small Hawaiian farmers; Rizek Cacao is a producer and exporter of cacao and cacao products based in the Dominican Republic; and Cacao Services (also in Honolulu) s an agricultural and scientific consulting company that specifically focuses on cacao production systems.

Complex fermentation

Cacao fermentation is among  the most complex of food ferments because it utilizes three families of microbes and 5-10 species in each. “It is a little bit hard to control since it’s not just one single species of microbes that you’re trying to support a good ecosystem,” Bletter adds. 

Wax attributes less of chocolate’s flavor to fermentation. He says there are flavors produced by the metabolism of the plant itself, “so genetics is probably No. 1, then comes the terroir that comes with fermentation. We shouldn’t be dogmatic on fermentation but on the contrary open to this fantastic dialogue between wisdom and science.”

A chocolate maker is responsible for studying the effects of yeasts on their cacao ferment, Wax adds. They should ask: How does the naturally occurring yeast change flavor? What’s the metabolism rate? Is there a possibility of naturally inoculating the cacao for a different flavor? 

“It is absolutely true that you should not inoculate something using either commercial yeast or yeast from grapes or other types of culture, or even from different environments,” Wax says. “But it is also true that the variety of yeast that is naturally occurring, not all of them give the same taste profile. … Nobody wants the same flavor and the same cacao forever, just as we don’t want the same wine or the same cheese or the same yogurt or the same beer.” 

Rizek Cacao employs 32 varieties of yeast in their chocolate.

Sensory Cues

O’Doherty, who works with cacao farmers, says it’s possible to ferment cacao without any kind of quantitative measuring devices.

“If you’re an experienced fermenter and you really know what you’re looking at, you use all your senses,” O’Doherty says. A fermented cacao bean will be plump and juicy; the color will be reddish-brown (a pale bean is  under-fermented) and the bean’s scent will change depending on the stage of the fermentation process. 

“If I only had one sense to go on for cacao fermentation, I think it really would be aroma,” O’Doherty continues. The scent sequence will begin as fresh and fruity, transition to a strong yeast fragrance, next to wine , then to ethanol  and, finally, the sharp vinegar scent will fade to a fruity vinegar.

One of the topics mostly frequently raised by cacao producers, says  O’Doherty,is how to modernize their operations. He points out that most cacao farmers still ferment using boxes and heaps.

“In general, cacao cultivation and processing is centuries behind,” he says. Most cacao farms are run by small shareholders who don’t have the money for barrels or stainless steel equipment. “Sophisticated fermentation vessels are not really an option for consideration. Truth be told, well executed, both heaps and wooden box fermentations can produce some absolutely fantastic cacao.”

O’Doherty concludes: “The larger question about commodity cacao and the incentives or lack thereof is the reason that I have a job helping farmers with fermentation. Although there may be traditions, there’s no feedback mechanism. There is no incentive for good quality and, typically, there’s really not a penalty for bad quality, unless it is actually decomposing…a lot of the work I do is linking these producers that I assist with their harvest and process to chocolate makers that will pay double or triple the typical commodity price. I still don’t think that’s enough but it’s moving the needle in the right direction.”

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)

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 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)

More specialty coffee producers are developing unique approaches to their coffee bean fermentation, isolating native microorganisms to create a flavorful cup or  working closely with rural farmers to utilize fermentation control techniques on small-scale operations.

“Practically all the coffee we drink has been fermented in one way or another. But there is huge room for improvement, innovation and development in the realm of coffee fermentation,” says Mario Fernández, PhD, Technical Officer with the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). The SCA partnered with The Fermentation Association for the webinar The State of the Art in Coffee Fermentation

Fernández continues: “Coffee is produced by millions of small coffee producers around the tropics that have very little capital to invest in fermentation equipment. Oftentimes, the price is too low for them to add fermentation controls as part of the cost equation. Therefore, for perhaps 99.9% of coffee in the world, it undergoes wild fermentation, in which the microbes grow on the mass of mucilage in a wild fashion and the coffee producer only controls certain parameters, such as the length of the fermentation.” 

Two industry experts on the forefront of coffee fermentation technique and technology joined Fernández — Felipe Ospina, CEO of Colors of Nature Group (multinational specialty coffee trader) and Rubén Sorto, CEO of BioFortune Group (a coffee, upcycled and food ingredient manufacturer based in Honduras). 

Post Harvest Processing Technology

Sorto is adapting fermentation technology to coffee, mapping the microbiota of the bacteria and yeasts that are present at Biofortune Group’s farms.

“We realized that fermentation was one of the key aspects of the coffee production that hadn’t been addressed,” Sorto said, noting fermentation is controlled in industries like dairy, wine, beer and bread but not in coffee. “We learned that our soil, our water, our coffee trees, our leaves, our [coffee] cherries, had a large compendium of bacteria and yeast that were involved in the posterior fermentation process…some of the yeasts and bacteria were definitely beneficial and were urgently needed during the fermentation but some of them were not.”

To maximize flavor, they focus on that complex array of bacteria and yeasts, preferably indigenous to the countries of origin. These microorganisms thrive in their local environment, reflecting altitude and temperature. To control the fermentation of those bacteria and yeasts, Biofortune reduces the variables, including monitoring pH levels, alcohol content and container contaminants.

“If you are able to control the fermentation, you are also able to offer a higher-quality product, a consistent quality product…and that’s what the market is looking for, consistent quality in a cup,” Sorto says.

Educating Coffee Farmers

Ospina, meanwhile, is researching fermentation techniques accessible to small-holder coffee producers and training them. The goal is for them to understand the role of each microorganism, discover how to use it in fermentation, then scale that knowledge to small-scale operations, so they can produce incredible coffees. 

At La Cereza Research Center, the Colors of Nature facility in southern Colombia, they are experimenting with fermentation processes. Some alcoholic fermentations result in coffees that produce coffees that taste of whiskey, cognac, champagne, sangria or even beer. Lactic fermentations might produce coffees with flavors of banana, mango, papaya, grapefruit or even cacao. “This is showing us the potential is humongous,” Ospina says.

“Wild fermentation is the ultimate expression of the terroir and it’s very important for us because the terroir produces unique coffees,” Ospina says. “The thing is, we don’t understand wild fermentation yet, but I’m very against demonizing wild fermentation. Why? Because we have seen hundreds and hundreds of outstanding, amazing coffees from all over the world that have been produced with wild fermentation.”

There are challenges. Food safety is a big concern. Ospina teaches the use of disposable gloves at the farm level to prevent contaminants, and to put a new plastic bag in the bioreactor for each batch of beans to avoid cross-contamination. 

The cost of implementing fermentation technology can be high. Sorto recommends to start by buying each farmer a pocket pH meter and a refractometer to closely monitor the fermentation.

“Translating science and technology to small farmers with very little investment will help them increase the possibility of a higher income because if you are not able to control fermentation, you are risking the effort of a one year harvest,” Sorto advises.

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)

Tea consumption globally is increasing. But consumers don’t want a cheap, poor quality tea bag. They’re buying premium teas — and increasingly, dark, fermented teas. 

“What’s trending right now seems to be authentic tea, tea that has great flavor, more closely married to the terroir. People are beginning to understand that it’s just fine to have tea. You don’t have to have coloring in it, you don’t have to have a lot of bits and pieces of fruit and flowers, there’s a genuine benefit to just understanding the terroir and keeping it simple,” says Dan Bolton, the founder, editor and publisher of Tea Journey. Bolton and two tea experts discussed two lesser-known fermented tea varieties in the TFA webinar Beyond Kombucha: Pu’erh, Jun and Dark Tea. “Tea just isn’t as good as it could be, without fermentation.”

A new study on tea demonstrates how important fermentation is to tea quality, Bolton says. Researchers from the Anhui Agricultural University in China recently studied the effect of surface microbiomes on the quality of black tea. The results found microbial fermentation in non-sterilized control tea samples produced complex compounds and more flavorful teas than with sterilized tea leaves. The results  were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry

“It’s a remarkable finding because, certainly for the last century or so, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether fermentation plays a role in the production and processing of tea,” Bolton says. The study proves “black tea is actually a result of both fermentation and oxidation.”

Pu’erh Tea

Jeff Fuchs — author, Himalayan explorer and co-founder of Jalam Teas — shared details of pu’erh tea. Pu’erh is a tea style from a strain of camellia leaf cultivated and produced in the Yunnan province. Fuchs spent over a decade living in there and is the only Westerner to have traveled the Tea Horse Road through Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet.

“Pu’erh is a tea that certainly I think it’s been deliberately mystified to some degree,” Fuchs says. “It’s interesting that you have this very simple, raw material green tea that is now arguably one of the great  boutique commodities.”

Fuchs stresses consumers need to research tea sourcing. Where is the tea coming from? How was it stored? Who stored it? Older tea cakes are being sold for large amounts of money, but can have questionable provenance.

“Young teas I think are making a big assertion in the tea world right now because they represent a closer line to the terroir, a closer line to the origin point,” he says, adding dark teas are becoming more popular in North America. He sees more bartenders experimenting with dark teas, playing with flavor compounds. “I think dark teas will come into the sway more and they’ll remain.”

Jun Tea

Jun is another tea style making waves in the fermented beverage market. It is a type of kombucha, but the base is green tea and honey instead of black tea and sugar. Brendan McGill shared his experience making jun — he is a chef and James Beard nominee; he owns the Hitchcock Restaurant Group in Seattle and  the newly-launched Junbug Kombucha.

“Jun is a very special style of kombucha,” McGill says. “It’s shrouded in mystery, where these cultures originated. What we do know is how they’ve been developed and manipulated in fairly recent history. One of the joys I’ve had with this is just being extremely creative because i found that while the fermentation isn’t necessarily a delicate process, it has allowed us to modify and use a lot of different inputs that it’s actually a pretty robust fermentation process.”

McGill began making kombucha over a decade ago, as a replacement for beer and wine. He liked jun for its similar flavor to alcohol, the additional bioactive compounds that create a more nutritious drink and it’s made with honey instead of added sugar. 

Junbug Kombucha uses filtered water, organic green tea, wild honey and, of course, a SCOBY. In the secondary fermentation, fresh herbs, berries and even mushrooms are added. Junbug flavors include Chaga Root Beer, Chili Raspberry and Maui Mana.