Modern society needs fermentation now more than ever, as the food system becomes industrialized and unsustainable, says Meredith Leigh, farmer, activist and author. Consumers are far removed from  farmers and the land, and food produced in factories hurts the environment.

“People are eating more fermented foods. The experience of food is not a quantity thing anymore, it’s more of a quality/complexity thing.” Leigh shared her insights into meat fermentation and creating a food system connected to the land and animals during a TFA webinar, From Soil to Salami: Fermentation, Life and Health.

“The punch and umami and funk is really becoming more understandable to people. That’s really promising, specifically when it comes to protein. Smaller portions, more complex flavor over big chunks of flesh that are ultimately not in service of thrift or sustainability,” Leigh continues. “My hope is that the funkier the better because we really need people to be able to stretch their palate understanding in order to get specifically meat products in a better, more sustainable, ethical situation within the food system.”

Leigh started in the food industry as a farmer, raising vegetables and animals. Concerned with how much money she was losing to the meat processing sector, she streamlined her business by opening a whole-animal butcher shop and restaurant. Leigh served only regional meats and meat products to a local audience, but found the farm-to-table business model too complicated for the general public — folks were not ready to walk into a butcher shop and buy a whole animal.

So Leigh pivoted to educating, consulting with farmers, restaurant chefs and home cooks. She also authored two books, “The Ethical Meat Handbook” and “Pure Charcuterie.” [ADD LINK?]

Charcuterie often gets overlooked in fermentation conversations because meat preservation is a “vast umbrella” of fermented and cooked meat. 

“Uncooked, salt preserved meat items are very much a beautiful culmination of a lot of different culinary fermentative processes that humans harness. It very much belongs on the docket of fermented superfoods,” Leigh says.

The fermentation of meat, though, can be shocking to chefs accustomed to cooking in relatively sterile environments. When making a salami, for example, the meat becomes swollen, smelly and drippy, fermenting in a humid room.

“It’s not exactly a beautiful process. If you zip down to the microscopic level, there’s a lot of death happening, there’s a lot of engorging. It’s a sugar battle,” Leigh says. “It’s a sugar feeding frenzy and some of them are actually eating so many sugars that they’re exploding and the enzymatic soup of these explosions is part and parcel of the flavor we associate with fermented foods.”

“I tell people, ‘Close the door, it’s none of your business because you’re fermenting.’ That advice is disarming because it’s amusing. But also it’s really true. You’re in there tinkering and you sort of have control over this process, but you sort of don’t. And that’s a good thing that you’re not totally in control. You’re surrendering to nature.” 

Adds Kirsten Shockey, author and educator (and TFA advisory board member who moderated the webinar): “You’re much more of a microbe shepherd. You’re trying to herd everybody, but you have no control. Each of those microbes [is] out for themselves.”

Modern consumers and even commercial fermented food producers are often far removed from farming. Leigh says that, to reclaim our food systems, we need to look at the indigenous practices that founded the sustainable agriculture movement. Commercialized food erases the land ethic and the traditional farming and fermentative processes of indigenous people, especially indigenous women.

“If we as producers, curators and knowledge bearers of fermentation, if we’re not telling that part of the story to the people really into fermented foods, we’re not doing anybody any favors. We’re just making money and putting good food out there. Really connecting people back through fermented foods is one of the more hopeful ways we have of telling that story to people who will never touch soil or slaughter a pig or any of those things,” Leigh says, adding that the best place to start sharing that story is through social media. “The popular media conversation about fermentation is not doing that. Our production of these foods or curation of these foods is not only a way to elevate health, human health or flavor, but it’s also a way of commenting on and changing culture.”

Korean flavors are becoming more mainstream. Already popular with American diners is the Korean staple kimchi. But food experts predict two less common Korean favorites will soon become a part of American’s diets. Gochujang (fermented red pepper chili sauce) and doenjang-jigae (stew made with fermented soybean paste) will be 2021’s next food trend.

Read more (Forbes)

Homebound During Pandemic

Who is enjoying the pandemic pastime of creating global flavors in the home kitchen? Hannah Beech, the Southeast Asian bureau chief for the New York Times, details her first time making nukazuke, a Japanese preserve made by fermenting vegetables with rice bran. The recipe was passed down by her grandmother, who made nukazuke.

“The fermenting bed was my grandmother’s equivalent of a sourdough starter, a lesson in resourcefulness from a war widow who turned humble ingredients into something delicious,” Beech shares. “To me, the sour-salty punch of a good nukazuke is a taste of home, even if I never actually lived in Japan, except for childhood summers at my grandmother’s cedar-scented house, chasing fireflies, watching fireworks and learning from her in the kitchen. Her pantry was filled with umeboshi, wrinkled pickled plums; vinegared young ginger; and a brandy perfumed with loquats that I would steal sips of when she wasn’t looking. …If we cannot physically travel, at least my family can do so with each meal, and we are lucky to be able to explore continents at the table.”

Read more (New York Times)

Kimchi Sales Exploding in Growth

Though kimchi only makes up 7% of the pickles and fermented vegetables category, sales are increasing at an explosive 90% growth rate. – SPINS

The health attributes and unique flavors of fermented food and drink are becoming increasingly  more important to consumers. But, for fermentation brands to succeed in the food industry, they must prioritize their labeling and marketing, and focus on their environmental impact, says international food industry expert Lisa Moeller. 

“Hopefully, it will be as advantageous to attach ‘Fermented’ as it is ‘Fresh Pack’ to shelf stable pickle products at some point in time,” says Moeller, speaking at a recent TFA webinar: Global Fermentation: Today & Tomorrow. “Never in our history has the power of positive change been more possible and necessary. I think there is an inherent history with fermented vegetables and a trajectory that can only take them higher going forward.”

After receiving  her master’s degree in food science, Moeller spent 25 years working with Mount Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina.  She later started her own company, Fashionably Pickled, where she consults to food brands on methods – such as assisting with traditional fermentation technology –  for crafting better products.

Fred Breidt, microbiologist with USDA-ARS and a TFA advisory board member, called Moeller “one of the premiere pickle people in the United States,” and praised her for working around the world on a variety of fermentations.

Moeller shared three forecasts for fermented foods.

  1. Health Concerns Become More Important

Consumers are more concerned about their health during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Folks are looking to boost immunity, reduce their weight and they’re looking for nutritious options,” Moeller says. 

People are also cooking more at home during the pandemic. Restaurant dining had continually increased over the previous two decades and, in recent years, only half the food eaten in the U.S. was purchased from a grocery store. But when COVID-19 hit, “this 23 year trend was blown out of the water,” says Moeller. By April 2020, 65% of the food consumed came from a grocery store, with less than 35% from restaurants. 

“I think this trend gives the fermented vegetable arena great potential,” Moeller says. “Fermented vegetables can increase the shelf life of produce, they’re nutritious, and they can be turned into a wide variety of flavors. And I think for a time, people are going to be more interested in having a supply of things in their pantry when they don’t feel comfortable going to a grocery store.”

Increased research will help promote fermentation as a viable health food. There are still consumers who are off-put by fermentation, leaving room for brands to educate.

“Though a large part of the pickle industry is still involved with fermented cucumbers, it is not the leader in the retail category at this time,” Moeller says. “We don’t label ‘fermented’ in America. Lots of times with the cucumber industry, the fermented kind of becomes the offshoot. It’s kind of the have-to-do so you can produce all the fresh pack that you want and still have a home for others.”  

  1. Labelling and Marketing Are Crucial 

Food product labels and marketing must adapt to their local markets. Brands must create different labelling, packaging and marketing plans, depending on the country.

“There truly is no such thing as global tastebuds. But there are successful product adaptations,” Moeller says.

Consider Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) as an example. There are over 23,000 KFC locations in 140 countries, and the restaurants adapt to regional flavor preferences, selling different styles of food depending on the location. Coca-Cola is another example. With 500 brands in 200 countries, a can of Coke will taste different depending on the country  where it was sold.

“Labelling is even more important when selling your brand. Know what is important to the folks that are going to make the decision to add you products to their store shelves. Whole Foods is different than Walmart,” Moeller adds.

She advises to never make a label too complicated. Yogurt sales are projected to drop by 10% by 2024 “and this is partially because there are too many choices and the category has gotten too complicated.”

  1. Environmental Concerns Lead to Upcycllng

The environment is a big topic of concern worldwide, Moeller says.The global food system accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, 40% of the food produced is never consumed and 78% of global consumers are concerned about the environment. 

Upcycling will be the new food trend. Brands like Toast Ale (beer made from old bread) and RISE + WIN Brewing Co. (who recycle  grain scraps to make granola and sweets) are already making waves in the industry. During the pandemic, chefs reported using fermentation more than ever before to make use of uneaten produce.

“There’s not a vegetable out there that could be turned into something else,” Moeller says. “Turning food waste into alternative products…I think it’s one of the most wonderful ideas, (brands) need to partner with the folks that they want to get these byproducts from.”

Bringing Sool to America

Disappointed to find so little premium Korean sool in the U.S., Kyungmoon Kim @kimsomm_ms (who helped open Jungsik restaurant in New York City). Sool is Korea’s all-alcoholic beverages. In January 2020, Kim, a master sommelier, launched KMS Imports, the first importer of Korean sool featuring a small selection from nine producers. Kim wants to establish sool and soju, a Korean version of vodka, as a major spirit category and teach Americans about Korea’s brewing and distilling traditions.

“I believe soju can follow in the footsteps of mezcal: Fifteen years ago, nobody knew mezcal,” Kim says. “You could only find the cheapest grade bottles with worms inside. Now, regardless of cuisine, you can find mezcal behind the bar, and people appreciate nuances in flavor profiles and regional production. Soju has its own unique story, and once people understand it, they will want to learn more.”

Check out the SevenFiftyDaily article for a fascinating history into Korea’s ancient brewing traditions.

Read more (SevenFiftyDaily)

Sake sales in the U.S. grew 16% for 2020, and plant-based meat alternatives and miso each grew 26%. – SPINS

Chefs Predict More Fermentation

Fermentation is on the list of chef’s biggest food trends for 2021. Though fermentation has been climbing “Best of” chef lists for years, most chefs use fermentation to increase the flavor profile of a dish. In 2020, though, as restaurants dealt with various stages of closures and lost business, more chefs used fermentation in its traditional use: preservation. Fermentation became a way to preserve the unused ingredients they had on-hand, and continue buying produce from farmers.

“Fermentation is becoming really big again…I think a lot of us fell in love again with this type of way of preparing food,” says Jorge Guzmán @jorgeguzman1 chef/owner at Minneapolis-based Petite León and a James Beard Award nominee.

Read more (Food and Wine)

New Amazake Shake

The second largest burger chain in Japan is now serving an amazake shake. Mos Burger is pairing non-alcoholic amazake (fermented rice, koji and water) topped with Mos Burger’s vanilla shake. They are collaborating with sake brewery Asahi Shuzo to create the amazake ingredient. Amazake is traditionally served at shrines around New Year’s Eve, and Mos Burger will serve the seasonal shake through February.

Japan’s fast-food chains are leading unique fermented creations. Starbucks Japan released a limited Lemon Yogurt Fermented Frappuccino last year that included amazake.

Read more (TimeOut)

Atlantic Sea Farms began 2020 with landmark accomplishments. Their food service partnerships were bigger than ever, providing ready-cut kelp for David Chang’s kelp bowl created for Sweetgreen restaurants, seaweed kimchi for B.GOOD restaurant’s burgers and a kelp puree for salad dressing at Western Pennsylvania restaurant Lil’ Bit.

Then the coronavirus pandemic business shuttered restaurants, and Atlantic Sea Farms — which had sold 90% of their Maine kelp to food service establishments — had to flip their business model. Their new fermented products (Fermented Seaweed Salad, SeaChi, SeaKraut) and frozen Ready-Cut Kelp and Kelp Cubes became the focus of kelp processing. Atlantic Sea Farms will end 2020 processing 900,000 pounds of kelp and selling their retail product in 800 stores.

“People are excited about what we’re doing. We’re fermenting seaweed, and it tastes really damn good. We have retail buyers even at a time when every store is limiting SKUs, and they want our product,” says Brianna Warner, CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms. “The seaweed people typically eat in the United States is imported dry, rehydrated, then dyed with all the same chemicals that’s in Mountain Dew. But we are making a fermented seaweed that’s fresh, healthy and has all the goodness that comes from fermentation and kelp.”

Atlantic Sea Farms launched nine years ago as the first seaweed farm in the country. The majority (98%) of seaweed Americans eat  is imported from Asia dried and unnaturally dyed. American-grown seaweed is still a new concept. When Warner became CEO two years ago, she set big goals for the small company. She wants Atlantic Sea Farms to provide alternative income sources for Maine’s lobster farmers, clean the water to aid climate change and make healthy food. They’ve increased the amount of kelp they produce to 14 times what they did two years ago and, by 2021, they will be in retail locations all over the U.S.

Coming on  the heels of numerous awards for their one-of-a-kind, fermented kelp-based products, Warner spoke with TFA about Atlantic Sea Farms.

TFA: Tell me how your work at the Island Institute (Maine’s community sustainability non-profit)  introduced you to Atlantic Sea Farms.

Briana Warner: At the time, Atlantic Sea Farms was called Ocean Approved and they were basically just a farming company. They were growing seeds and farming and I’m a development economist by trade. I was in the foreign service for a number of years before I moved to Maine. And the big question that the Island Institute was trying to solve and why they hired me as their first economic development director is we’re so dependent on this natural resource, which is lobster. It’s a lobster monoculture, we’re one of the most rural states in the country, we’re the oldest state in the country as far as demographics go, and there’s very little else in many of these communities other than lobster. There just is no diversity.

At the same time in Maine, we’ve had 10 of the best lobster farming years in the past 20 years. But that is worrying. Why? We know the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of oceans worldwide, and we know that’s because there’s arctic ice melt that’s creating a confluence of currents that gives the best opportunity for lobsters to thrive here. But what that ultimately means is it will continue to warm. And it will continue to warm to the point that lobsters are no longer surviving at the rate than they’re surviving now. 

So with my economic development background, the ultimate solution is to provide alternative supplemental sources of income now while people have the money to invest in it. This is a way to absorb some of the shock of that lobster volatility so that in 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years, whenever it is that lobster isn’t as secure as it is now. And it’s not secure now either — we know there will be lobsters now, we just don’t know where the price is, we don’t know where it will go, that’s some of the volatility, and all the eggs are in that basket.

The ultimate proof of concept is if we’re able to help people adapt to this kind of economic change and at the same time, mitigate some of its climate change effects. Because when you plant seaweed, you’re actually removing carbon and nitrogen from the water and reducing acidification locally. So it’s this incredible crop that’s off season to the lobster income.

I started working with fishermen to start getting them into seaweed, but the problem is there is no institutional buyers at scale in the entire country. We were the first commercial seaweed farm in the country, when I joined, they were just farming their own seaweed but not buying anything from anyone else. So we really had to think big about what could the supply chain look like? And how could we make this a viable alternative income for fishermen?

The answer to that is, first, make a good product that people want. Second, make sure that that money goes back to the fishermen. And that’s really what our entire business model is based around. Coming up with products that are really delicious, putting them out there in a way that’s accessible, because right now 98% of the seaweed that we eat in the United States is imported, Fresh seaweed is not something anyone has had in the United States. This is a totally different product from the very very cheap stuff that comes from Asia, and it’s a very clean product because it’s grown in the clean, cold waters of Maine by independent fishermen farmers. And it tastes good. Our supply chain that we’ve built from that narrative, we create all the seeds in house, we give them out to our farmers for free, then we guarantee purchase of every single blade of kep that they grow.

When someone is buying a jar of our Fermented Seaweed Salad, that money is going back quite literally into the pockets of fishermen because our whole supply chain is built around as much as we can sell, the more we can put in the water and buy. Then we can make the ocean cleaner, we can make the coast healthier from an economic perspective, and the products are really good for the consumer and taste good. So it’s sort of this five-legged stool that we’re constantly working towards. 

TFA: How does kelp farming work?

BW: Our fishermen usually have four-acre farms, so you lease the water. You have to get a permit and a lease (from the state), which takes many months if not years. And we help them with all of that. We provide all the technical assistance for their site selection and leasing requirements. And then on four acres,  they put two mooring balls at either end of about 1,000 foot of line, and they do this 13 times on the farm. They put it about  7-feet under water, so all you can see is mooring balls. They put it on these 1,000-foot, horizontal ropes and the kelp starts growing.  Kelp grows up to 6-inches a day in the warmer summer months. So it really grows very quickly. We harvest what we call a baby kep because it’s so young. Because it’s at the top of the water column, its this incredibly high-quality food that allows us to serve it fresh in a way that wild harvest wouldn’t because wild harvest you don’t know if you’re getting a 4-year-old plant or an 8-year-old plant whereas, with us, we’re harvesting very young, very tender, very clean kelp that’s  at top of the water column.

Right now, we work with 24 kelp farmers. It’s owner-operator run, they have the license to fish and own their own boat. Our farmers work lobster season from June to November, plant our kelp seeds in November and December, then start harvesting them in April. Kelp is the inverse of lobster season.

TFA: Atlantic Sea Farms was just a kelp farm when you joined the company two years ago. Why expand to commercial products?

BW: We were growing 30,000 pounds of kelp a year when I came on in 2018, and now our kelp farmers are growing 900,000 pounds of kelp a year. We rebranded and came out with all these products in 2019 because 30,000 pounds is such a small scale. Nobody is going to make money from doing that, especially farmers. If we really want to make an impact on the coast, there’s a sense of urgency to build this quickly and make sure that we get the scale that we need so we can actually help absorb some of that shock. 

Most lobster in America is actually sold to restaurants. But with COVID, people had absolutely no idea what kind of season they were going into this year. It was terrifying. But we were able to send out an email before kelp harvest season saying “There’s a whole lot to worry about right now, but us picking up is not one of those things. We will be there and we will honor every commitment we have.” And it was not easy. It was very, very challenging. And we did it. Because we know above all else, integrity along this coast is what we’re built on and what we’re doing this for. So if we can’t do that, what are we doing? So we picked up, by the last dollar we had.

We were mostly working in food service, that’s why there was such a big fallout. But we had these fermented products that were used in some food service locations but were mostly part of our regional brand we were building in New England. We have our jars, we have our frozen products. They were just in the region. And we really just turned it on its head and went after buyers of national chains for retail and switched our food service to retail. We’ll be launching in Sprouts in January with our frozen products, we’re in several regions of Whole Foods already and we’ll be in more starting in April, we’re in MOMS, Wegmans, all these places where there are ferments. We feel very blessed and very lucky, we’ve been working our tails off. I can’t quite say it’s worked yet. We’ve got these placements, now we’ve got to slam these out. In June we were in 100 stores but by January, we’ll be in 800 stores.

TFA: What does Maine kelp taste like?

BW: It’s very fresh, very vegetal, very light. For our ready cut, for our cubes and for our fermented salad, We blanche it so it knocks off the sort of low-tide taste. That also gives it the green color because, when you dip seaweed in hot water, it turns bright green, so we don’t ever use any dyes or anything. For our SeaChi and our Sea-Beet Kraut, we use it raw because people want those kick-in-your face flavors. If you like kimchi, you’re not going to be afraid of a pretty hard umami taste. It makes our SeaChi so good to have that deep, ocean flavor on it that you’d usually have to use fish sauce for. The blanched seaweed really tastes super mild. It kind of takes on the flavor of whatever you put in it. It’s loaded with calcium, potassium and iodine. 

TFA: Have you seen Americans’ perceptions of eating seaweed change? Do you think their perceptions of fermented food have changed, too?

BW: Absolutely. With seaweed, two of the top importers of seaweed are Trader Joes and Costco. People are eating it. There’s nori sheets everywhere and there’s sushi restaurants in the farthest reaches of America. It’s everywhere. People have definitely gotten a taste for seaweed. It’s new for Americans to have it in a form that’s not dried. People want to know where their food comes from, they want to know the food they are eating is regenerative, which is what kelp is, it’s taking carbon and nitrogen out of the water. We don’t use any arable land, we have no fertilizer, we have no fresh water, it’s like this climate change diet dream, everything in it is better for the environment. People also want to know the people connected to it — all our products have the faces of our farmers on it — it checks all those boxes. Let alone it tastes good and it’s good for you.

That’s similar with fermentation. Years ago, fermentation might have been ripe to have it on the menu, but quite frankly, everything out there wasn’t that good. It was these plastic bags of sauerkraut that tasted like pork and sauerkraut. There wasn’t anything else out there. Then you saw some kimchi coming out in the market that you didn’t really know what it said because there wasn’t a whole lot of English writing on it. Then the branding started coming and it started being in more food. For fermentation, it’s been a slow but obvious move because it’s good for you and, again, it tastes good. We just have to take the intimidation factor out, and I think fermentation did that already, and now we’re trying to do that with seaweed.

TFA: Why ferment seaweed?

BW: Part of it is that’s the best way to store it. But the other part of it, the Venn diagram between people who eat kimchi and people who are excited about beet kraut and fermented foods and those who aren’t intimidated at all by seaweed is pretty overlapping. There are few people who say “I like fermented food — but seaweed, ew.” The low hanging fruit is so substantial. That’s kind of our first folks we can approach, they can be our true believers and then they help us advocate for what we’re doing.

TFA: How much time did it take to perfect these recipes?

BW: I’d been playing with them for years. SeaChi was something I was doing — buying kimchi and putting our kelp in it. And the Sea-Beet Kraut came from the fact that beets and kelp really go well together, they’re both very sweet and ferment well together. We spent months trying to figure out how to not make that sugar turn it into a mess of purple explosion.

 But we started working with this wonderful company called Chi Kitchen Foods based out of Rhode Island, and they make kimchi and vegan kimchi. So we basically took the recipes as far as we could take it, then we brought it to Minnie (Minnie Luong, founder Chi Kitchen Foods) and basically begged her to help us figure it out. Our speciality is in kelp. We do all the kelp, and then they make the kimchi. They basically helped us commercialize our fermented products. 

TFA: Tell me about being a female CEO. Females often make the purchasing decisions for the home. What perspective do you bring to the table? 

BW: On top of female CEO, female CEO in seafood. That’s been rarer. Seafood is a white male-dominated category. Most of the fishermen we work with are men — we have one woman.

We have an absolutely broken food system. Things don’t work. People aren’t making more money who are producing the food. The good food is not getting cheaper, and the bad food is getting cheaper. Food is one of the biggest polluters to our planet. Our priorities in what we eat and how to get the food to our table are completely off center and completely broken and creating a massive devastation both on our health and on the health of the environment. 

This is not to slight my male counterparts, but that thinking happened under the leadership of men. So instead of taking the same thinking and trying to slightly adjust it, let’s absolutely rethink how we look at our food system. That’s going to take different minds, and it’s going to take different approaches. And I think women are in the best position to do that. We want to feed our children and we want to feed our planet. We look beyond five years in the future. Our plan is our grandchildren and the health of our families and the health of us. While that may be a vast generalization, I think we really need to look at who broke the system and how we can fix it. And that’s going to take all types of thinking. 

TFA: Where do you see the future of fermented products?

BW
: The future of fermented foods is wide open. We’ve seen, there’s been such a shift in the past year or two in branding, flavor. It used to be sort of this niche thing of a few sauerkrauts and kimchis that all varied in taste only slightly. Then everyone started doing a bunch of cool stuff with those products in their home kitchens or in restaurants. But you couldn’t find those cool things on the shelf. I think we’re starting to see people looking beyond cabbage and recognize that fermentation can happen in so many forms. Just like the homebrewers spurred craft brewers. People are realizing there’s a lot of innovation to be had and buyers are realizing the fermented category isn’t limited to just health food people anymore. It’s people who really want to get those probiotics but also the flavor of the fermentation in the first place. Kombucha has shown us that, obviously. There’s a lot of different forms of fermented stuff out there right now that people are going to simply because it says the word fermented. The possibilities, I think we’re just at the beginning.