When Keenan Smith made his first batch of water kefir, it was for his kids. He wanted something more nutritious for his young daughters, avid sparkling water drinkers.
Tangy, bubbly and packed with probiotics, water kefir hit all the right notes. The next year was full of home kitchen experiments, creating enticing flavors and perfecting the four-core formulation — purified water, kefir cultures, cane sugar and mission figs.
“My daughters are my best taste testers,” Smith says. “We used to be big kombucha drinkers, but water kefir is providing a different alternative. Water kefir is lighter, less sour and it has no caffeine. The kombucha flavor doesn’t work for some people, and water kefir is a perfect entry into the probiotic drink space. It’s a bridge between kombucha and sparkling water. People can still have a yummy, probiotic drink with water kefir.”
Smith is hardly a kombucha hater, though. He’s a big fan of the fermented tea. Smith was a sales broker for many natural brands for almost two decades — including Health-Ade Kombucha, one of the nation’s leading kombucha brands.
“When I was their broker, they majorly grew their company. But they’re still fermenting in individual glass vessels,” Smith says. “I look to that model because they’ve been so successful without sacrificing the fermentation process.”
By November 2016, Smith rented a commercial kitchen near his home in Portland, Ore. and began brewing kegs of water kefir under his label: Goodwolf Feeding Company. His first customer was Airbnb’s corporate offices. By late 2017, Goodwolf opened their own manufacturing facility, scaling up without sacrificing small batch fermentation. Even now as Goodwolf expands from a Pacific Northwest brand to the West Coast, Goodwolf continues to ferment in 50 gallon stainless fermentation vessels, cultivating additional kefir cultures as the business grows.
“Production is moving very quickly. It feels like we’re in a rocket ship,” Smith says. “It’s a great time for water kefir.”
A few months after his big win as the Expo East Pitch Slam winner, Smith shares how he responsibly built a fermented drink brand.
The Fermentation Association: You were formerly a sales broker for natural food and drink brands. How did your background help you launch Goodwolf water kefir?
Keenan Smith: Knowing the industry, understanding how retailers and distributors work, knowing the cost of doing business upfront. That’s why it’s taken so long for us to grow — we didn’t raise venture capital out of the box. We’ve been slow and steady. We haven’t taken on much investment at all.
A lot of brands will start selling at farmers markets, then pitch to stores, but I had the connections to the retailers. We went right to the retailers.
It’s been a blessing and a curse. The blessing is we’ve been able to get into a lot of the retailers, but where we’ve been short-sighted is the on-premise channels. We haven’t done much with food service and the alternative channel side — like local offices, beer distributors and bars, they’re wanting non-alcoholic options. We’ve missed out on that keg business. These were things I didn’t think about when I focused on the retail challenge.
TFA: Functional beverages are shaking up the drink industry. How do you stand apart from other functional drinks?
Smith: Our best IP (intellectual property) is definitely our recipes, our flavor. We have really good recipes because we really came into it, that was our main goal, to create a very good tasting and nicely packaged product. We announced our social mission at Expo East around mental health. We didn’t want to lead with that though, we wanted to make sure the product and the branding was dialed in.
And also our packaging and position stands out. If you look at the kombucha case, there’s a lot of yoga, spiritual, Hindu vector art. Everything screams yoga. It’s a lot of white. And our packaging is black. We are trying to be a challenger brand. We don’t want anything that’s superfluous in there. We want to position ourselves as a challenger brand to the industry norms. We’re trying to stand out that way — with our marketing and positioning that we’re a little different.
TFA: Tell me about the genesis of the name, Goodwolf.
Smith: Before I started Goodwolf, I was dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety. I was working on eating better and exercising. I was running one day and listening to a podcast and heard the popular good wolf legend story — the classic story on the good wolf, bad wolf. The good wolf is full of joy and love, you feed it by eating healthy. The bad wolf is angry and succumbs to fear, and you feed it a box of donuts. The one that wins is the one you feed. So I had this idea of the Goodwolf origin story.
TFA: What’s your most popular flavor.
Smith: Ginger. But our Gold is creeping up there. It’s cold pressed organic ginger, lemon, lime, pineapple and spices like turmeric and a little bit of black pepper. Our newest flavor is Habanero Fire, it’s our 5th flavor. It’s a nice addition because most brands don’t think about habanero, there’s a lot of cayenne cleanse, but no habanero. I tasted a habanero-infused cider and it had more of a round flavor, while cayenne is more of a single note of heat. Habanero is more well-rounded. We add cayenne, but the habanero really comes through. And it’s cold-pressed with ginger and apple cider vinegar.
TFA: It sounds like a lot of work goes into crafting your flavors.
Smith: Yes. There’s a lot of R and D. Our No. 2 ranked SKU is called Bloom. That was originally called Wolf Berry because Wolf Berry was another name for goji berry, which we were fermenting with in the beginning. The way we use figs now, figs are used to culture the wild yeast out of the air, they float to the top of the water when fermenting, then you throw them out. We were doing the same thing with goji berries. But something happened in fermentation that made it very foamy with goji berries. So we stopped using the goji berries and now we’re using figs.
TFA: You announced a social mission at Expo East. Tell me more about your social mission.
Smith: Coming from a broker world, I worked with a lot of brands that were social mission first. “Buy our product and we’ll give our product to someone that doesn’t have this product!” But this doesn’t always work. Maybe this product isn’t something needed, or it’s not as good as something else on the market so it didn’t make sense. We didn’t want to lead with that social mission.
We could slap 1% for the planet on the bottle, that would be easy. But I struggled with anxiety, I have family members who have struggled with depression. I can really get behind that interest because I relate to it. This felt unique. It’s part of the challenger brand position. And it’s feeding the good wolf, making the right choices.
We’re trying to do something harder, align our brand with mental health awareness. We can’t just donate our money to it because we don’t have money yet, all our money is going back in the business. You can’t really volunteer unless you have a degree, they don’t just want anyone off the street working with people suffering with mental health issues. A friend who is a doctor is consulting with us on how we can best use it. Maybe profits go to the National Association On Mental Illness. Right now it’s an intention versus a full fledged mission. It will be baked into the company as we grow.
TFA: How can brands effectively advertise the health benefits of their product?
Smith: I personally think you have to be crafty. You don’t want to scream health at the customer because you alienate people who think it won’t taste good because it’s healthy. Or you’re preaching to the choir because the healthy people know it’s healthy. You need to be able to imply the benefit without being too forward.
TFA: What challenges do fermented food and drink producers face?
Smith: Education. Even though we’ve made strides, there’s still so much education to be done. One of the big challenges is how do we stay true as smaller brands that are doing traditionally fermented products against larger brands with tons of venture capital and are adding probiotics. It’s apples and oranges when you’re talking about products sitting on a shelf together. Are they a brand funded by Coke? We have to tell our story. It’s advantageous when you’re going into retailers and say we’re small, we’re traditionally fermented. If you can tell that story to your buyers and convey it to your customers. We pushed the traditional fermented aspect.
TFA: What are the fermented food and drink industry strengths?
Smith: Well look, there’s a global pandemic happening and I think that ultimately, you will begin to understand that health is your only wealth. Health and your family are the only things that matter. When people understand that, your product is like gold because you’re providing health to people. And that’s the most important thing we have.
TFA: What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs starting a fermentation brand?
Smith: My advice is some advice I heard recently: Find a space that isn’t already crowded. Maybe we don’t need more sauerkraut and kombucha brands or water kefir, frankly. But try to focus on how you can expand to your maximum potential locally and regionally. Don’t just look at national chains and distributors, but look at on-premise sales. How can you get your product into universities, schools, tech campuses? Think outside the box, find something truly unique that the markets are not flooded with. Or else we’re all just cannibalizing each other.
Donna Schwenk is not surprised kefir has gone from relative obscurity in the U.S. to the new star of health food. The author — “Cultured Food in a Jar,” “Cultured Food for Health,” “Cultured Food for Life” — has been making and eating fermented foods for over two decades and, in the last few years, watched interest and research in probiotics climb.
Kefir is expected to grow to a $2.58 billion industry by 2027, increasing at a CAGR of 5.8%.
“(If you want to improve gut health), drink kefir. It has the most probiotics, it’s the most versatile. You can strain off the whey and make kefir vegetables, kefir cheese, kefir soda, kefir dips, kefir smoothies. It has the most probiotics, it’s the easiest to make, and it’s the most life changing thing I’ve seen.”
Schwenk was 41 when she received life-changing news: she was unexpectedly pregnant with her third child. Health problems plagued her through the pregnancy. She suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and her liver was shutting down. Schwenk became so sick that her daughter, Holli, was born 8 weeks early.
“I felt so guilty she was born early to save my life,” Schwenk says.
The genesis story of most health food advocates usually begins with a personal health scare. In Schwenk’s case, she was searching for answers to help her premature daughter thrive. Schwenk read Sally Morell’s book, “Nourishing Traditions.” The kefir section piqued Schwenk’s interest. Morell details the benefits of kefir in her book — and the ease of making it. Kefir is made by using kefir grains to culture raw milk. Because kefir can be cultured at room temperature, it takes only 24 hours to make. The taste of kefir is tart, flavorful and refreshing.
A few weeks after regularly drinking kefir, Holli began sleeping through the night and started gaining weight, a key developmental milestone for a premature baby. Schwenk was drinking kefir, too, and her health improved. Her blood sugar levels stabilized and she felt better than she had in years.
“I realized the answer to my prayers were in this jar that had billions and trillions of microorganisms in them that made me well. And I wanted to know why,” Schwenk says in a podcast with Kriben Govender, a food science and technology grad and founder of Gut Health Guru (Honours Degree in Food Science & Technology). “Microbes are where it’s at for me. They were my angels in disguise.”
Schwenk dove into the world of fermentation, making her own kefir, kombucha, cultured veggies and sourdough bread. She shares her DIY tips in her books and on her website Cultured Food Life. Schwenk’s developed a loyal following of fellow home fermenters. Her tips have helped fermented food brands launch their businesses, too.
Though she realizes many people are attracted to dairy-free water kefir, Schwenk is still a fan of milk kefir. She’s made vegan kefir, but says the greatest benefits are in milk kefir. She notes water kefir has 14 strands of bacteria and yeast, but milk kefir has over 50 strands.
“When you ferment it, it completely changes the food. You put vitamin C into it and more B vitamins, you add more probiotics, you remove the lactose. You transform the food by fermenting it. It’s a completely different food than regular dairy,” Schwenk says.
Vegan kefirs are finicky. While kefir grains must be fed daily with raw milk, vegan kefir must be fed more. There are few carbohydrates in a coconut milk kefir, for example, and the bacteria feed of the carbs to make probiotics. She suggests adding a date paste to vegan kefir.
Regularly drinking kefir is key for health benefits, she adds. Schwenk says many fermented foods have “transient bacteria” — bacteria that is good for the body, but doesn’t dwell in the stomach or organs. It only lasts 2-3 days. Consuming more fermented foods replenishes that transient bacteria.
Kefir is not the only fermented drink star with incredible health properties. Schwenk is passionate about kombucha, too. Kombucha is strong artillery against potential viruses because of the saccharomyces yeast strain found in the fermented tea. Saccharomyces is the No. 1 probiotic yeast strain used in hospitals worldwide because it cannot be killed by probiotics.
“That’s one of the strong things that makes kombucha stand out and do its job more effectively. It actually acts like a pathogen in the body and it attracts pathogens to it and kills them. But it only lasts a few days in the body,” Schwenk says. “That’s one of the powerful weapons kombucha has that’s such a benefit to our own bodies, our own lives, and keeps us healthy. If you have to take an antibiotic, kombucha is a great thing to help keep your body in balance because it doesn’t get killed by antibodies.”
The Second Brain
Gut flora is a balance. The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” — neurotransmitters and other chemicals produced in the gut affect the brain.
“We’re made up of trillions of bacteria. We’re basically a big sack of bacteria walking around. When I connected to that, I healed my body and my mind,” Schwenk says.
We asked three fermentation experts if recent popularity of fermented foods is a fading trend or a new food movement. These industry professionals weigh in on their predictions for fermentation’s future. The fermenters include: Bri Warner (CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms, a commercially viable seaweed farm that makes kelp kraut and kimchi), Nicholas Gregory (owner of Pulp Hot Sauce, an Atlanta-based fermented condiment brand), Joshua Rood (co-founder and CEO Dr Hops Kombucha beer, a health-conscious alcohol).
Do you think the surge of fermented food and drinks is a trend will disappear or a new food movement here to stay?
Bri Warner, CEO Atlantic Sea Farms: “Now that we have a robust understanding of how good gut health effects overall health, I think fermentation is here to stay. I do think the category will continue to innovate to remain relevant, with a stronger focus on quality ingredients that are good for people, planet, and, in our case, oceans!”
Nicholas Gregory, owner Pulp Hot Sauce: “I think the current fermented food movement is here to stay. We are at an intersection of technology, science and health further than we have ever seen in human history. The internet, television, several seminal books and air travel have given us unprecedented exposure and access to information. This exposure and access to food and world cultures is more in depth than ever before. Including the food history and traditions of those cultures. Combine that awareness with a relatively intelligent and sophisticated medical system; an understanding of healthy lifestyles, a willingness to make healthy decisions, an understanding of the benefits of a healthy gut biome and how it all correlates to a longer, happier, healthier life. Along with a craving for umami and fermented funky flavors for a growing number of the population. I believe we are in the middle of a movement that shows no signs of slowing down or going away anytime soon. In fact, I see it only becoming more popular, more normal, more accepted, more diverse, more creative and more exciting in the decades to come.”
Joshua Rood, co-founder and CEO Dr Hops Kombucha beer: “As co-founder and CEO of Dr Hops Kombucha Beer, I appreciate that there is currently a powerful trend towards living, fermented foods. But answering the question of whether or not that will continue is repugnant. We here at Dr Hops are driving that trend! We are not playing the game of hoping that it will simply continue. We are committing ourselves, each day, to the life-enhancing awesomeness of fresh, authentic, fermented foods and beverages. Please join us in that! Join us in leading the health-conscious food and beverage revolution!”
“I just want everyone to understand the depths of Indian cookery,” says Usha Prabakaran, author of the 20-year-old cookbook “Usha’s Pickle Digest.” The New York Times published the fascinating story behind the woman known as India’s Pickle Queen. Her self published book is a cult classic today, highlighting India’s rich history with pickling and fermenting. “ India’s pickle culture goes back thousands of years to when cucumbers and other vegetables were simply preserved in salt. Modern Indian pickles are more complex and probably more delicious, too — hot and tangy, deeply perfumed with aromatics and ground spices.”
Read more (The New York Times)
You’ll never find Jon Bertolone, chef of Nourish in Oregon, serving an Impossible Burger. He says there are other ways to be inventive with a savory, plant-based patty. “Umami is something that has sort of driven my culinary journey,” Bertolone says. He’s been experimenting with goram (fermented fish sauce) to capture beef flavor, too. Fermentation, Bertolone says, is “the key to bridging cultures, because every culture has them.”
Read more (The Register-Guard)
“Science is here to explain why fermenting vegetables is not only perfectly safe but also surprisingly easy and rewarding. Spoiler: Microbes do most of the work.
In our hyper-Pasteurian, expiration date-driven era, it might be difficult to relinquish control over our food to these mysterious forces. But a small measure of understanding yields rich rewards: crisp classic sauerkraut, warmly tart beets, bright preserved lemons and just about anything else you can dream up.” Katherine Harmon Courage writes in her article for the Washington Post “Eat Voraciously” section that fermentation adds a depth to fruits and vegetables. Harmon Courage, author of the book “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome”
Read more (Washington Post)
Civil Eats declares: “Tempeh, the ‘OG of Fermented Foods,’ Is Having a Moment.” More artisanal tempeh producers are selling around the country, and restaurants are beginning to sell tempeh-based dishes. The founder of Tofurky (Seth Tibbott) says tempeh is one of the company’s fastest-growing product lines, increasing 17% from 2017 to 2018. Pictured is Tibbot in front of his first tempeh incubator, in 1980.
Read more (Civil Eats)
Americans with German and Eastern European descent make sauerkraut part of their Thanksgiving tradition. The Baltimore Sun highlights Baltimore-based Hex Ferments that produces a few tons of sauerkraut a month, in multiple varieties. Sales are going so well (Hex Ferments makes kombucha and kimchi, too) that they’ll be expanding to a bigger production facility in 2020. Hex Ferments cofounder Meaghan Carpenter said: “I think sauerkraut can save the world.”
Read more (The Baltimore Sun)
“Fermenting foods requires attention to detail and knowledge that not everyone has,” reads an article in the Greenfield Recorder in New England. The newspaper featured Jim Wallace, recipe developer at New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. Wallace says, to be a fermenter, “You have to be a bit of a mad scientist. (As) a mad scientist, you need to be answering questions.” In his home fermentation cellar, Wallace ferments wine, cheese, beer, kombucha and vegetables. He also teaches workshops, classes that have become more popular as more people tap into fermentation “a global food phenomenon — renewed interest in resurrecting forgotten food tradition.”
Read more (Greenfield Recorder)