An organic farmer and nutrition activist is teaching schools and daycare centers in Japan to grow their own vegetable garden using fermented compost from recycled food waste, then incorporate into school lunches those fresh vegetables with traditional Japanese fermented foods (like miso and pickles). Two years after the program’s launch, absences due to illness have dropped from an average of 5.4 days to 0.6 days per year.
Farmer Yoshida Toshimichi “is a devout believer in the power of microbes.” Using centuries of Japanese folks wisdom that is supported by modern science, Toshimichi explains that fermentation bacteria in the compost yields hardy, insect-resistance vegetables. He says the key to a healthy immune system is maintaining a diverse and balanced gut microbiota. “Lactobacilli and other friendly microbes found in naturally fermented foods can help maintain a healthy environment in the gut, just as they do in the soil,” continues the article. Microorganisms in fermented foods like miso and soy sauce will help balance gut flora. “Organic vegetables, meanwhile, provide the micronutrients and fiber on which those friendly bacteria thrive. In addition, phytochemicals found in vegetables—especially, fresh organic vegetables in season—are thought to guard against inflammation, which is associated with cancer and various chronic diseases,” the article reads.
Toshimichi has authored books on his farming and nutrition practices and is featured in the two-part documentary film “Itadakimasu,” which translates to “nourishment for the Japanese soul.”
Read more (Nippon)
How to make fermentation practical for modern people? That’s a culinary goal Alex Lewin is passionate about reaching. Lewin is the author of “Real Food Fermentation” and “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond” (and member of TFA’s Advisory Board). His mission is “lowering barriers to fermentation.”
“Most of the ways we control the environment is lowering the barrier of fermentation for the microbes, like adding salt to the cabbage or keeping yogurt at the right temperature,” Lewin says. “But a lot of what I’m doing is lowering the barrier of fermentation for the humans.”
Lewin began fermenting as a hobby, and it turned into a passionate side career. Lewin works in the tech industry for his day job, then spends his spare time immersed in fermentation projects. His schedule parallels his interests. Lewin studied math at Harvard University, then studied cooking at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. He’s often tinkering with a microbe-rich condiment in the kitchen after office hours, and attending new fermentation conferences during his vacation time.
“Fermentation gives me direction in my life, but there’s also something about tech that nourishes me. And I don’t have to choose,” Lewin says. “The fermentation world, it is a huge amount of community. The community of fermenters really reflects the community of microbes. There’s some very interesting, very open-minded people who are outside of the mainstream in the fermentation world. And a lot of them feel they have a calling, that they were called to do this.”
Below, excerpts from a Q&A with Lewin from his home in California’s Bay Area:
The Fermentation Association: What got you first interested in fermentation?
Alex Lewin: I’d always been interested in food and started cooking a little in college. My dad had heart disease and later diabetes and he was on these diets and pills, but things didn’t seem to be getting him any better. When I got interested in health and nutrition during this time, I partly did it out of fear for my own life.
I started reading books about health, nutrition, diet, food. What struck me was they all said different things. I had studied math, physics, and generally the experts agree more or less on the obvious stuff. There’s discussion on the origin of the universe, yes, but no disagreement about what happens when you drop something and it hits the floor. I was surprised at the difference. One cookbook would say what would really matter in your health is your blood type — another would say the ratio from carbs to fat to protein that you eat, you have to eat them at a certain ratio at every meal. Then another book says don’t eat protein and carbs together, have space between them. I would read and was intrigued and frustrated. I had this idea that it should make sense and it didn’t make sense.
I was in a bookstore one day and I saw the book “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved” and thought it was such a fantastic title. It was about food politics and underground food movements and food subcultures. It was written by Sandor Katz and he writes with so much heart, very intelligently. He writes about radical food politics and has this way of keeping it very balanced and measured. Some books about radical politics can be shrill, but there’s nothing shrill or strident about anything Sandor does.
I wanted to read what else Sandor had written and found “Wild Fermentation,” and made my first jar of sauerkraut. In the meantime, there’s another book that affected me a lot, “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon. And that book similarly blew my mind. That book took all these diverse threads of diet, health and nutrition and pulled them all together in a way no other book has or has since. I felt like I finally understood what to eat, where before it was a free-for-all.
One of the things I learned to think about when you’re eating are foods with enzymes, microbes and live foods that weren’t processed with modern processing techniques. That really set me on my path.
TFA: After that, you spent the next decade diving into fermentation. You went to cooking school, started teaching fermentation classes, got involved with the Boston Public Market Association. How did your book “Real Food Fermentation” come about?
Lewin: A friend of mine who had a chocolate business recommended me to a book publisher. That was for “Real Food Fermentation,” my first book, in which I made it as easy as possible for people to ferment things. I knew from my class, making sauerkraut is not very complicated, and once people see it and how easy it is, they’re likely to keep doing it. So in my book, there are lots of pictures. There are lots of people with kitchen anxiety who are more comfortable if they see pictures of everything — pictures of me slicing the cabbage and putting it in the jar. I’m not a visual learner, I want to see words and measurements and numbers. So the book has both.
As time went on, I ended up meeting Raquel Guajardo (co-author for Lewin’s book “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond), and we decided to write a book about fermented drinks. I think it’s a great book because we both got a chance to share our ideas about food and health and what is happening in the world. Then we got to share recipes from my experience and her experience as a fermented drink producer in Mexico, where some of the pre-Hispanic traditions are very much alive.
Fermented drinks I think are also easier. They’re a little less weird to people than sauerkraut and kimchi, they’re less intimidating. We all drink things that are fizzy, sweet and sour. But like kimchi, it is so far outside of the usual experience of eating. Most people know they shouldn’t drink five Coca-Colas a day, so fermented drinks are the answer.
TFA: Tell me more about your goal to lower the barrier into fermentation.
Lewin: What is it about kombucha that is familiar? It’s fizzy, sweet and sour. What is soda? It’s fizzy, sweet and sour. I’m certainly not the first to observe that, but I’m connecting the dots on how we can integrate these ancient foods into our modern lives.
For me, I always considered myself an atheist. Then when I started fermenting, I started letting go and thinking there are things outside of our control and we just need to accept them. There are things we will never understand completely, there are forces we don’t even know about. I came to faith and spirituality through the practice of fermentation.
A lot of the problems that we face today have been created by application of high technology to the food system, then we try to solve them by using more food technology — like growing fake meat. The problems caused by high tech are not going to be solved by high tech, they’ll be solved by low tech. And fermentation is one of my favorite low tech technologies. You pretty much just need a knife.
Fermentation also gets away from the western, scientific, medical paradigm that’s so reductionist, where we’re looking for some small isolated problem in the body and then trying to counter it. Looking for some metabolic issue and trying to neutralize the symptoms. “Your blood pressure is high, let’s lower it with a pill.” If the underlying causes of all these things are eating bad food, trying to attack the symptoms one at a time is not the easiest way to make progress. We have to move away from this reductionist mindset where we’re playing whack-a-mole with our symptoms. We’re healthier looking for the underlying problems and addressing them.
Gut health is a big one. All sorts of other problems caused by high-tech, processed foods. Eastern medicine has more of an idea of holistic health, what’s going on in the system. I think that’s the future. I think a lot of the health problems will be solved through system-type thinking. This balance of energy. There’s a dynamic of equilibrium in our gut.
TFA: You mentioned Sandor Katz’ book “Wild Fermentation” introducing you to fermentation. What about his book appealed to you?
Lewin: There’s something rebellious about making food and leaving it out on the counter. I hadn’t been to cooking school yet at that point when I read it. But you read about food safety and there are rules, you can only leave food on the counter for so long at this temperature. There are all these things you’re not supposed to do with food. But in order to ferment, you have to violate these rules to grow the microbes. There’s something rebellious about fermentation.
Another part of it is the utterly low tech aspect to it. All the trouble we go to to process our food in high tech ways today, turns out we can do it better without preservatives, without heat packing things, without the refrigerator.
When you ferment something, every time it’s a little different. And you can keep doing it again and it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t perfect. And a lot of times you can do something interesting with it. I made pickles the other day, they turned out soft, so I’m going to make them into relish. Too much sourdough starter? Turn it into a porridge. Your kombucha got too sour? Turn it into vinegar. Sometimes something can be ruined, but often you can turn it into something else. Being able to make kombucha that’s better than most of the store-bought kombucha is pretty cool — I discovered that ability.
TFA: Why do you encourage people to incorporate fermented foods in their modern diet?
Lewin: One of them is just coming back to the kitchen. During the coronavirus pandemic, people are coming back to their kitchens. That’s an unqualifiedly good thing, it means that much less processed food and that much less fast food. Fermentation also brings people back into the kitchen. And fermentation is in the limelight during the pandemic. Especially sourdough right now. Fermented projects are great things to do with families, kids. When you talk to the older generation about making sourdough, pickles, bread, they have these stories. My mom never made pickles, but her father did. It’s not too late to get these stories. Food is one of the things that connects generations of people, that reminds us of our roots and grounds us, literally.
Making anything with your hands, it’s a cure for all sorts of things. Not even getting into physical, digestive health. Just making something and liking it is psychologically healthy. You feel empowered in the face of so many disempowering things. If you can turn cabbage into sauerkraut, you have power.
And then there are all the concrete, physical health benefits of eating fermented foods. You get more enzymes, more vitamins, more microbes, you get more of the good microbes and fewer of the bad microbes. You get probably less processed food, less sugar, you get all these trace substances that you really don’t get from processed food. Like nattokinase, which is this enzyme you only find in natto and might protect against heart disease and cancer. Depending on the ingredients you use when fermenting, if you use the right salt and right sweeteners, you can get minerals. Fermenting in some cases creates vitamins. You can straighten out a lot of digestive problems in my experience by introducing fermented foods, gradually.
TFA: You’ve watched Americans’ diets adapt (or not adapt) over the past few decades to changing health standards. How have Americans’ perception of fermented food and drink changed in that time?
Lewin: Americans are absolutely more accepting of it. The story of kombucha is a good one. You can follow annual kombucha sales. You used to say “kombucha” and people would say “Ew” or “What’s that?” or “My crazy aunt makes that.” Now, it’s a billion dollar business. You can get it in mainstream supermarkets in most of the country, it’s not a fringe thing anymore. Fermentation is coming to the mainstream. Kimchi is not a fringe thing. I think the rise of food culture, with food reality TV shows, has really helped fermented things like kimchi. When food trucks in LA started having kimchi and Korean BBQ tacos, for me I felt like something had turned the corner. The rise of microbreweries and the interest in natural wines and the movement away from like super-oaky chardonnays and ginormous reds to more natural wines. I think people are a lot more sophisticated about food than they were 20 years ago, and a lot of that is leading to increased interest in fermented foods.
Fermented foods are no longer fringe. We’ve come a long way in 20 years. Kombucha and kimchi are two of the flag bearers of fermentation. I think fermentation is on the rise. People will say “I think it’s just a fad,” and I’ll say “It’s absolutely not a fad.” People were fermenting 10,000 years ago. It never left. Every drop of alcohol you’re drinking, that’s fermented. It never went away, it was under the surface and now it’s on the surface again. People are just realizing it’s important.
TFA: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?
Lewin: I think the more people ferment at home, the more people are going to want to buy fermented things. The more people ferment at home, the more they’ll appreciate fermented products and seek them out. It’s not like there’s a competition between home fermenting and commercial producers. If anything, there’s a symbiosis. I’ll make kimchi sometimes, but I’ll buy it sometimes, too, because it’s messy and there are people that make very good kimchi. Same with kombucha or high alcohol kombucha. I could make it if I wanted to, but it requires time and patience. Miso is another example, I don’t have the patience to wait six months to make miso.
Craft breweries, which were heading into their second decade of a major boom, are now shuttering during the coronavirus pandemic. “There’s going to be a lot of dead distilleries coming out of this,” said Paul Hletko, the founder and distiller of FEW Spirits, in Evanston, Ill. “Even if you survive, the new normal is going to be punishing for small brands.” Craft distilling relies on bars, tasting rooms, face-to-face sales and customers willing to pay a higher price for a premium product — all factors dramatically changing with social distancing and a global recession.
Read more (The New York Times)
Three fermentation experts weigh in on one of the most common problems in fermenting vegetables: mold prevention. The fermenters include fermentation chef David Zilber (head of fermentation at Noma) and fermented sauerkraut producers Meg Chamberlain (co-owner of Fermenti Farm) and Courtlandt Jennings, (founder and CEO of Pickled Planet and TFA advisory board member).
How do you handle prevent mold in sauerkraut?
David Zilber, Noma: That is something you are constantly trying to fight back, especially when you lacto-ferment in something like a crock. There are so many variables that go into making a successful ferment. How clean was your vessel before you put the food in there? How clean were your hands, your utensils? How much salt did you use? How old was the cabbage you were even trying to ferment in the first place? Every little detail is basically another variable in the equation that leads to a fermented product being amazing or terrible. It’s a little bit like chaos theory, it’s a little bit like a butterfly flapping its wings and Thailand and causing a tornado in Ohio. But with lots of practice, you’ll begin to understand that, if it was 30 degrees that day, maybe things were getting a little too active, maybe the fermentation was happening a little bit too quickly. Maybe I opened it a couple times more than I should of and it was open to the air instead of being covered. So there’s lots of variables. But I would say that, if you’re having a lot of trouble with mold, just up the salt percentage by a couple percent. It will make for a saltier sauerkraut, but it will actually help to keep those microbes at bay. (Science Friday)
Meg Chamberlain, Fermenti Farm: You must allow the ferment to thrive by creating a favorable environment with “Good Kitchen Practices.” So, to prevent mold in your ferment start by using only purified water, like reverse osmosis, distilled or boiled and cooled and-no tap water(municipal). Only use vegetable-based soap that is NOT anti-bacterial, like a good castile soap. Finally, only use dry fine Sea Salt, no mineral/no gourmet or iodized. Keep Fermenting and do not get discouraged! #youcanfermentthat #diyfermentation #idfermentthat
Courtlandt Jennings, Pickled Planet: Preventing mold when making sauerkraut is all about a controlled atmosphere. How well you maintain your situational cleanliness and fermenting atmosphere is my best clue for you. There are many ways to control atmosphere and every situation will be different based on many factors but be dillegent and your ferments will improve with practice.
This may not seem like an answer but it’s directional… as is most advice unless dealing with a consultant. Good luck and may the ferment force be with you!
Kheedim Oh never aspired to start a food brand. The self-described “accidental entrepreneur” began Mama O’s Premium Kimchi in Brooklyn in 2007, in the midst of the Great Recession. With just $50 to his name, he started hauling giant jars of homemade kimchi to retailers on his skateboard.
Thirteen years later, Oh has grown the brand into one of the top fermented kimchi sold in the United States. Handcrafted kimchi is a labor-intensive food craft, but Oh doesn’t cut corners. He has never received a dime of funding and employs only a small team that uses his mother’s kimchi recipe.
“Everything we do is the time-honored, traditional way. From the experience of having to do it myself for so long, I’ve learned how to be as ruthlessly efficient in doing the steps to make the kimchi,” Oh says. “It takes time. But, to be honest, I don’t know how to do it another way. My goal is to make the best product.”
His kimchi, kimchi paste and kimchi kit have been praised by Food & Wine magazine and Williams Sonoma. Oh spent decades prior to Mama O’s building a name for himself in the entertainment industry as a DJ. It’s only been in the last few months that he stopped working regular DJ gigs “and that’s only because I’ve had to dedicate so much more energy into making the kimchi.” Oh still incorporates music into his work, creating novel stop-motion recipe videos incorporating Mama O’s kimchi. He also hosts Kimchipalooza, an annual festival in Brooklyn with live music and kimchi-centric tastings, demos and DIY workshops.
“I never had a 40 hour week job in my life. All I’ve done is hustle for gigs. I’m a hustler,” Oh says, adding: “I don’t mind it.”
Oh bounced from locations while growing his brand. From his apartment kitchen to a commercial kitchen space to a basement kitchen in a friend’s restaurant to a kitchen of a deli in Queens and, finally, to his current space in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn.
“I’m not trying to grow this company and then sell it. That’s not my motivation. I’m blessed to be able to do something I enjoy, that’s positive, that’s good for people, that helps people. Ultimately, that’s what I’m doing: helping people.”
Below, a Q&A with the dynamic founder.
The Fermentation Association: Why did you start making kimchi?Kheedim Oh: I never set out to start a kimchi company. I needed kimchi for myself and all the kimchi in the stores were not to my liking. I asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I live in New York, my parents live in Maryland. It’s just too far to go bum a jar to kimchi so i asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I would take the Chinatown bus down to Maryland to make it. I would make a batch, but when you make a batch of kimchi at home, you typically do a 50-pound box of vegetables at a time. I would make it, bring it back in a cooler, then I’d wheel it back to my house on a skateboard because I couldn’t afford a taxi.
TFA: When did you move from making it as a hobby to selling it?
Oh: So I was making the kimchi and, at the time, I lived by myself. Fifty pounds is just way too much for your personal stash. I would give it away to my friends and they were like “This is so good, you should sell it.” I didn’t put much too much stake into that. But I was buying ribs from my butcher (Jeffrey’s Meat Market) and he was like “If you have kimchi and rice, you eat like a king.” So I gave him a batch, checked up on him a week later, and he said “I love it!” I said “You know I sell this shit?” and he said “I want to start carrying it.” At that point I had to come up with a name, incorporate, get insurance, all that stuff. I was making it out of the kitchen in my apartment, bringing it to him, he was only a couple blocks away. He was a total angel. He didn’t want any money, he just wanted to give me the opportunity to promote my business.
TFA: Tell me about the brand name, Mama O.
Oh: It was an homage to my mom because she taught me how to make it and what’s better than moms? You eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth. So we call it Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, not Mama O’s Cutrate Kimchi. We strive to make the best tasting, highest rated, best kimchi. That went into it with our branding, how we wanted to portray ourselves. We may not be the biggest kimchi brand, but we’re definitely making the best.
TFA: Kimchi has traditionally been a recipe passed down through generations of Koreans. Today, that’s not happening as much. Do you think handcrafted kimchi is a dying food craft?
Oh: Yeah. It’s really sad. That was part of the reasoning why I wanted to learn to make it, because my mom makes really good kimchi. All of the stuff in the stores was just terrible. It was a link to my heritage that I really didn’t want to lose. I wanted to know how to make it just so I could have it. I invented Mama O’s Premium Kimchi Paste, which is the first paste for making kimchi at home. It’s my mom’s recipe. What’s great about the paste is it takes all the guesswork and grunt work out of it. What normally takes 3 hours takes 10 minutes because all the measuring and chopping is done.
TFA: You also created a homemade kimchi kit. Why sell a DIY kit?
Oh: It sells well around the holidays, especially. It’s a 7-inch cube, it’s a perfect gift size and it’s super cute. It’s the first kit of its kind. That kit took me two years to develop. I had to create the paste, then create the kit for it.
What’s great about the kit is it works every time — it takes the guesswork out of making kimchi. I have so many people tell me they tried to make kimchi on their own and it didn’t work. Kimchi tastes totally different when you’re making it to when it’s done fermenting it and eating it. With lactic acid fermentation, it’s transforming the food on the molecular level. So people, when they’re making it, they try to mess with the flavor to make it taste how they want, but the flavor changes through fermentation.
I’m trying to educate consumers and retailers on how they can use this paste with their vegetables. Retailers can take any vegetable past their prime and make kimchi with it, add value to things they potentially have to throw away. It’s the art of how to transform your vegetables. It’s a great way to maintain food sovereignty. You’re in control of what you make and what you put in your body.
TFA: How have Americans’ perception of kimchi changed from when you started to now?
Oh: It’s interesting because, definitely, there’s a greater awareness of it. It’s kind of confusing on two ends because people don’t know what good kimchi is. There are a lot of chefs that put kimchi on their menus, but it’s not really kimchi. It’s quick kimchi, they acidify it with vinegar.
I’m curious how exactly it will end up in the American diet because kimchi is part of the American food zeitgeist. Kombucha is fully incorporated — it’s an American thing now. But kimchi, I don’t know. I’m curious how people are going to want to eat their kimchi. I think it will possibly be in the form of salad or salad accompaniment. I think a lot of people like kimchi with their eggs in the morning. My favorite way, personally, is on a hot dog, with Western food. I fulfilled a lifelong dream – -one of my neighbors in Brooklyn is Joe’s Pizza. He made a kimchi pizza. I like it better than pepperoni. Kimchi and cheese is like Starsky and Hutch, it’s a great combination.
TFA: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?
Oh: I see more of it, especially after whenever this outbreak settles. Though I got to say, what’s been interesting, the media and journalists have not been touting naturally fermented foods which they should be. I get the resistance to promoting probiotic supplements, I don’t think they’re good either. But I don’t get why no one is promoting fermented foods naturally to people because this has been saving people’s health since the beginning of time.
I see the fermented space growing. I’m curious to see if the supplement industry is going to blow up. I’m not a proponent of the probiotic supplement industry.
TFA: What’s your advice for other startups wanting to start a fermentation brand?
Oh: (Laughs) Besides don’t. Food is tough. Especially now because I think it’s going to get even harder. Really, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone. But coming out of this, so many people are going to want to start a food brand. You’ll have people coming in that have funding.
That said, you have to love food to do it. But only do it if you love it. But if you don’t love it and you just want to make a killing at it, that’s not going to work. As they say, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success in the food business.
TFA: What are the future plans for Mama O’s Premium Kimchi?
Oh: Right now, I want to start more partnerships with restaurants when they open again. A lot of restaurants don’t have the time to make it, but I don’t want them making quick kimchi and passing it off as real kimchi.
We are launching our first hot sauce — Kimchilli — in May with Whole Foods. I’m super excited to launch the hot sauce.
I’m super lucky — I wish people would acknowledge luck in their success. I was fortunate with my timing, the new science with the mind-gut connection was starting to come out. I’m really trying to make things that people need. And do a lot of education.
Ultimately my goal is to change how Americans eat and encourage them to eat more like Korean people. I totally get the appeal of a Western diet. I love a good steak. But you can’t just eat a steak. You have to have sides and all of that with it. Just a steak is obscene. I’m really trying to encourage people to eat in a way where meat isn’t the main thing, it’s just an accompaniment. Eat more traditionally fermented foods. One interesting thing with fermented foods is it’s not all the same probiotics. Kombucha affects me differently than when I eat kimchi. Even yogurt, I feel it does the least for me. But it’s based on your personal chemistry as well. It all depends on what works for you, then incorporating things in your diet. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen.
Americans are hearing the term “microbiome” a lot lately. It’s become a common phrase in health food marketing. But the microbiome is still uncharted territory in science.
Dr. Shilpa Ravella, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, says a large army of trillions of bacteria lives on or in us, and we can alter that bacteria by fueling it with the right (or wrong) foods.
“There are also ways of preparing food that can actually introduce good bacteria, also known as probiotics, into your gut. Fermented foods are teeming with helpful probiotic bacteria, like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria,” Ravella says.
Fermented food and drink are critical to caring for gut bacteria. Because fermented products are minimally processed and provide nutrient-rich variety to diets, she adds.
But that doesn’t mean all fermented products are created equally. Yogurt is a beneficial food, for example, but some brands add too much sugar and not enough beneficial bacteria that the yogurt may not actually help.
Ravella shared her insight in a TedED talk. As the director of Columbia’s Adult Small Bowel Program, she works with patients plagued by gut issues.
“We don’t yet have the blueprint for exactly which good bacteria a robust gut needs, but we do know it’s important for a healthy microbiome to have a variety of bacterial species,” she adds. “Maintaining a good balanced relationship with them is to our advantage.”
Gut bacteria breaks down food the body can’t digest, produces important nutrients, regulates the immune system and protects our bodies from harmful germs.
Though multiple factors affect our microbiome – the environment, medications and even whether or not we were birthed vaginally or through a C-section – the food we eat is one of the most powerful allies for the microbiome.
“Diet is emerging as one of the leading influences on the health of our guts,” Ravella adds. “While we can’t control all these factors, we can manipulate the balance of our microbes by paying attention to what we eat.”
In addition to fermented food and drink, fiber is also key. Dietary fiber in foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grain are scientifically proven to colonize the gut.
“While we’re only beginning to understand the vast wilderness inside our guts, we already have a glimpse of how crucial our microbiomes are for digestive health,” Ravella says. “We have the power to fire up the bacteria in our bellies.”
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)