Endangered Fermented Foods

Through selective breeding and domestication of plants and livestock, the world’s food system has lost diversity to an alarming degree. Crops are monocultures and animals are single species. Journalist and author Dan Saladino argues it’s vital to the health of humanity and our planet to save these traditional foods.

“There’s an incredible amount of homogenization taking place in the last century, which has resulted in a huge amount of concentration of power in the food system but also a decline in the amount of biodiversity,” says Saladino, author of Eating to Extinction. “That agricultural and biological diversity is disappearing and it’s taken us thousands, millions of years for plant, animal evolution to get to this point.”

Saladino was a keynote speaker at The Fermentation Association’s conference FERMENTATION 2022, his first in-person talk in the United States since his book was released in February. A journalist with the BBC, Saladino was also an active participant in the event, attending multiple days’ worth of educational sessions. He called the conference “mind expanding.”

“I thought I knew about fermentation, when in fact I know very little,” Saladino said to the crowd in his keynote. “We’ve been bemused by the media reports that fermentation is a fad or fashion. What we know is that the modern food system in the last 150 years is the fad. It’s barely a blip in the context of our evolution as species, and it’s the way we’ve survived as a species over thousands of years.”

Eating to Extinction includes 40 stories of endangered foods and beverages, just touching on a fraction of what is happening around the world. To date, over 5,000 endangered items from 130 different countries have been cataloged by the Slow Food Foundation’s project the Ark of Taste

During FERMENTATION 2022, Saladino centered his remarks around the endangered fermented foods he chronicled in his book – Salers cheese, skerpikjøt, oca, O-Higu soybeans, lambic beer, pu’erh tea, qvevri wine, perry and wild forest coffee. Here are some of the highlights of his presentation.

Salers cheese (Augergne, Central France)

Fermentation was a survival strategy for many early humans, a fact especially evident in the origins of cheesemaking. In areas like Salers in central France, villagers live in inhospitable mountain areas where it’s difficult to access food. In the spring each year, cheesemakers travel up the mountains with their cattle and live like nomads for months. 

“It’s extremely laborious, hard work,” Saladino says, noting there’s only a handful of Salers cheese producers left in France. He marvels at “the ingenuity of taking animals up and out to pasture in places where the energy from the sun and from the soil is creating pastures with grasses with wildflowers and herbs and so on.”

Unlike with modern cheese, no starter cultures are used to make Salers cheese. The microbial activity is provided by the environment – the pasture, the animals and even the leftover lactic acid bacteria in the milk barrels. Because of diversity, the taste is rarely consistent, ranging season to season from mild to aggressive. 

“The idea of cheesemaking is a way humans expand and explore these new territories assisted by the crucial characters in this: the microbes,” he adds. “It can be argued that cheese is one of most beautiful ways to capture the landscape of food – the microbial activity in grasses, the interaction of breeds of animals that are adapted to the landscape. It’s creating something unique to that place.”

Skerpikjøt (Faroe Islands)

Skerpikjøt “is a powerful illustration to our relationship with animals, with meat eating,” Saladino says. It is fermented mutton and unique to Denmark’s Faroe Islands. Today’s farmers selectively breed their sheep for ideal wool production, then slaughter the lambs for meat. In the Faroes, “the idea of eating lamb was a relatively new concept.” Sheep are considered vital to the farm as long as they’re still producing wool and milk.

Once a sheep dies or is killed, the mutton carcass is air-dried and fermented in a shed for 9-18 months. The resulting product is “said to be anything between Parmesan and death. It certainly has got a challenging, funky fragrance,” Saldino says.

But it contrasts traditional and modern food practices. Skerpikjøt is meant to be consumed in small quantities, delicate slivers of animal proteins used as a garnish. Contemporary meat is served in large portions and meant to be consumed quickly.

Oca (Andes, Bolivia),

In the Andes – “one of the highest, coldest and toughest places on Earth to live” – humans have relied on wild plants like oca, a tuber. After oca is harvested, it’s taken to the Pelechuco River. Holes are dug on the riverbank, then filled with water, hay and muna (Andean mint). Sacks of oca are placed in the holes, weighted down by stones, and left to ferment for a month. This process is vital as it leaches out acid. 

“Through processing, this becomes an amazing food,” Saladino says.

But cities are demanding certain types of potatoes, encouraging remote villagers to plant monocultures of potatoes which are prone to diseases. The farmers end up in debt, buying fertilizers and pesticides to grow potatoes.

“For thousands of years, oca and this fermentation technique and the process to make these hockey pucks of carbohydrates and energy kept them alive in that area,” Saladino says. “It’s a diversity that is fast disappearing from the Andes.”

O-Higu soybeans (Okinawa, Japan)

The modern food industry is threatening the O-Higu soybean, too. It was an ideal soybean species – fast-growing, so it can be harvested before the rainy season and the arrival of insects. 

“But by the 20th century, the soy culture pretty much disappeared,” Saladino says.

With World War II came one of America’s biggest military bases to Japan. U.S. leaders dictated what food could be planted on the island. Okinawa was self-sufficient in local soy until American soy was introduced.

Lambic Beer (Belgium)

Saldino explained that, after a spring/summer harvest, Belgian farmers became brewers. They used their leftover wheat to create brews unique to the region.

But by the 1950s and 1960s, larger brewers began buying up the smaller ones. Anheuser-Busch InBev now produces one in four beers drunk around the world.

“There [is] story after story of these distinctive, unique, small breweries disappearing as they are bought up or absorbed into this growing, expanding empire of brewing,” Saladino says. “It’s probably one of the most striking cases of corporate consolidation of a drink and food product.”

Saladino stressed not all is lost. He shared stories of scientists, researchers and local people trying to save endangered foods, collecting seeds, restoring crops and combining traditional and modern-day practices to preserve the world’s rare foods.

“There have been so many fascinating stories of science and research discussed over the last few days at this conference, and I think the existence of The Fermentation Association is exciting because it is bringing together tradition, culture, science, culinary skills, all of these things we know food is,” Saladino added. “Food is economics, politics, geography, anthropology, nutrition. What I’m arguing is that these clues or glimpses into the past for these endangered foods, they’re not just some kind of a food museum or an online catalog. They are the solutions that can help us resolve some of the biggest food challenges we have.”

The first non-alcoholic wine shop has opened in Paris. An NPR article questions: Will the French actually drink their products?

Alcohol-free wine and liquor shop Le Paon Qui Boit (translation: The Drinking Peacock) opened in April, the brainchild of lawyer Augustin Laborde. The shop sells more than 300 bottles of low- and zero-proof beers, wines, gins and whiskeys. Laborde quit drinking during the pandemic and was frustrated going to bars with friends and finding his only non-alcoholic options were sugar-filled sodas or fruit juices.

The bottles have high price tags in Paris, at 10 to 15 euros (compared with 4 to 8 euros for an  alcoholic version). Laborde says there are  extra steps involved in making a non-alcoholic wine. After going through traditional fermentation, the alcohol in wine is evaporated through a filtration process.

Non-alcoholic wine consumption globally has grown 24% in the last year, according to consulting group IWSR Drink Market Analysis. Dan Mettyear, research director at IWSR, says “This is definitely not a fad…it’s all connected to the kind of big wellness trends that we’ve seen across the world.” 

Growth, though, has been slower in France than in the U.S. and the rest of Europe. He says it’s a harder sell in traditional wine markets like France. “A lot of people have already well-established ideas about what wine is and what wine should taste like.”

But there are wineries transitioning to the production of  non-alcoholic wines, such as Le Petit Béret, a small producer in southern France. And Laborde says he anticipates the flavor of non-alcohol wine to become more refined, as techniques improve and the market grows.

Read more (NPR)

Brewing Boom in Chicago

Dubbed the craft beer capital of America, Chicago has a brewery scene that is innovative and diverse. Numerous breweries have opened over the last decade, with now about 160 breweries across the city and surrounding suburbs. Ferment Magazine says Chicago’s craft brew industry is “one of the most expressive and most exciting experiences anywhere in the world, let alone in the U.S.”

“We have a very strong culinary scene in Chicago and a lot of consumers that have an open mind. There’s a lot we could throw at the market and people are very accepting of the different brewing styles, both old world and new world,” says Tyler Davis, founder and director of fermentation at Duneyrr Artisan Fermenta Project. “Of all the [different beer styles] we could produce, there are brewers in Chicagoland that specialize in that.”

Chicago’s Brewers

Duneyrr (pictured) focuses on co-fermentation. Using craft beer as a base, Davis makes fermented drinks with ingredients from wine, cider and mead.

“It all came from me reaching the end of my creativity in a brewery. I got tired of creating the same format,” says Davis, who worked in Chicago as head brewer at Lagunitas  and at Revolution Brewing. He began experimenting with co-fermentation and found “how you ferment wine is shockingly similar to beer. There are nuances of both, but I enjoy blurring the lines.” 

The Nordic-inspired drinks he produces include his favorite, Freya Franc,(a sour hybrid with passion fruit and Sauvignon Blanc grape must. Duneyrr also has a Moderne Dune line, a sister brand that specializes in modern ingredients and techniques. 

Davis studied at the Chicago-based Siebel Institute of Technology, the oldest brewing school in the U.S. and alma mater to many area brewers. One alum is Dave Bleitner, who founded Off Color Brewing with his Siebel classmate, John Laffler. The two focus on funky fermentation.

“Even with our first flagship gose, Troublesome, we have always been fermentation-focused. Even when we are dumping in a bunch of rooibos tea and pumpkin pie spices into a beer, we believe beer needs a proper fermentation to work,” Bleitner says. “Maximizing flavor from yeast is always going to result in a superior beer. But beyond our focus on fermentation, we are not afraid to dump a bunch of rooibos tea and pumpkin pie spices into a beer. So the dual concepts of focusing on the basics of fermentation while teetering on the border of innovative and insane is something no one else should or can replicate.”

When Off Color launched in 2013, Bleitner and Laffler didn’t want to go the mainstream craft beer route. “We had some crazy idea that craft beer consumers wanted variety from their beer,” Bleitner said. They didn’t follow the usual craft beer formula of launching with an IPA. They started with lesser-known styles like gose and kottbusser. He notes “we really hit our stride with Apex Predator Farmhouse Ale.” 

At 15 years old, Half Acre Beer is one of Chicago’s pioneers of the craft beer scene. The brewery is the third-largest independent brewer in Illinois and now distributes their beer all over the country. They run a brewery and taproom in Chicago. Their best seller is Daisy Cutter pale ale, but they also sell seasonal and monthly varieties.

“These days we’re kind of the older, bigger brewery among the smaller, newer breweries. We focus on hop-forward and traditional beers,” said Gabriel Magliaro, president of Half Acre. He echoed the sentiment expressed by Duneyyr and Off Color – Chicago brewers are a supportive community. “Today I think we can call Chicago a beer town and, no matter how you choose to define that, we show up well.” 

The Next Beer Buzz

Craft beer brewers see increasing competition from the better-for-you, healthier fermented drinks, like kombucha, seltzer and low- or non-alcoholic beverages. 

Duneyrr is starting to specialize in lower-alcohol fermented brews. Off Color, too, has added a lower-alcohol beer, a 2.5% ABV Belgian-style they call Beer for Lightweights. 

Lagers are making a comeback as well. “A lot of old world brewing styles, there’s become a renaissance,” Davis says. He sees “candy beers” – filled with artificial flavors – going away. Bleitner, too, is not a fan  – he calls hard seltzers “fermented pixie sticks”. But he’s found that consumers like flavor in their brews. When sales of Off Color’s Troublesome gose began to decline, adding lime juice revived the drink. They called it Beer for Tacos and “it took off almost immediately.” 

In an era fraught with pandemic shutdowns, retail inflation and supply chain issues, brewers foresee challenges ahead.

“Obviously the pandemic has been a factor, one that is still playing out,” Magliaro says. “The on-premise was rocked and I don’t think anyone knows how that will look in five years.”

Climate change is affecting grain crops, “things we knew to be stable are now being highly influenced by the weather patterns,” Davis says. The hot weather is changing the nutrient level of grains, leading to grains higher in protein. “It’s pretty scary,” he says.

But beer will always find a way to thrive.

“We make something embedded in human culture,” Magliaro says. “Beer is a gathering liquid that has place almost anywhere for almost any occasion with so much heritage to its being.  The industry, consumer landscape and world can do what it needs, but beer will live on.”

Washington Brewers Sue Oregon

Three Washington breweries are suing the state of Oregon, arguing a law puts out-of-state brewers at an unfair disadvantage. 

Oregon allows in-state brewers to sell their beer to licensed retail businesses. Out-of-state breweries that want to do the same must obtain a federal wholesaler’s permit, then use a licensed Oregon distributor. It’s expensive, especially for small- and mid-sized breweries.

Fortside Brewing Co. co-founder Michael DiFabio (pictured on the left with co-founder Mark Doleski) went through the arduous process four years ago, and founded a separate Oregon company (Fortis) just to distribute beer in the state. The process of getting their Washington beer to Oregon customers costs their brewery thousands of dollars a year. Fortside is one of the breweries involved in the lawsuit.

A Seattle Times article points out there is precedent for the case. A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling “established the principle that states could not favor their own alcohol beverage industries.” 

The breweries involved – which also include Mirage and Garden Path Fermentation – want Oregon to treat out-of-state breweries the same as they do for in-state ones. Oregon brewers submit a statement each month detailing how much beer they sold. The state calculates the tax due and the breweries pay, with no additional permits or distributor fees.

“We’re just trying to level the playing field,” DiFabio says.

Read more (Seattle Times)

Naked Wine

Olfactory properties are central to the wine drinking experience. But a chemical reaction known as light strike can ruin the rich aroma. When wine is exposed to ultraviolet or high frequency visible light, its smell can resemble marmalade. Sauerkraut or even wet dog. 

This is why wine is stored and aged in dark bottles – the color glass is crucial to producing a great wine.

“Every technician knows about it,” says Fulvio Mattivi, a food chemist at the Edmund Mach Foundation in Italy. “But then the final decision as to what goes on the market is up to the head of marketing.”

Mattivi and collaborators recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing how bottle color affects light strike in wine on grocery store shelves.

Clear bottles made of a refractive material called flint glass are often used to sell white wine and rosé, to show off the fermented beverage’s color. The new research shows that just a week on supermarket shelves in clear bottles can produce smelly compounds. “With exposure, you can have a very bad wine,” Mattivi said. This chemical origin of light strike, including the speed and conditions, has been unknown until Mattivi’s study. In his team’s research, more than 1,000 wine bottles in different grocery store conditions were studied.

Despite consumer preferences for clear bottles, Mattivi gives a hard “no.” He compares it to the folk tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In the Hans Christian Andersen story, the emperor is conned by swindlers into believing the new clothes they bring him are beautiful – but, in reality, there are no clothes and the emperor is naked. 

Mattivi said: “Wine in clear bottles is naked.”

Read more (New York Times)

The headline says it all: “The Country’s First Native American Woman-Owned Brewery in the U.S. Doesn’t Want to Be Its Last.”

Co-founders Shyla Sheppard (who has heritage from the Three Affiliated Tribes – Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – of North Dakota) and her business partner and wife, Dr. Missy Begay (Diné heritage) founded Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. in 2016. The brewery has become known for wild and sour beers made with cultivated yeast. They forage for neomexicanus hops, a species found in New Mexico. Local and indigenious ingredients – like blue corn, sumac, prickly pear and juniper – are used in a new line of hard seltzers.

Bow & Arrow began a unique initiative on October 11, 2021, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The brewery launched Native Land. They provided an IPA recipe to breweries across the U.S. to create a beer for a common mission: “to acknowledge the contributions and history of Native American people in the United States.” Participating breweries were given a can design template, which included space to acknowledge the tribal land where the brewery is located.

The campaign was so popular – 53 breweries in 24 states and one Canadian province brewed Native Land beer – that they extended the deadline for the project to September 2022. The beers are “vehicles for activism,” with a portion of proceeds going to a Native American-operated nonprofit of the brewer’s choice. 

“We’re reclaiming our history and narrative. I think the contributions that Native people have had to agriculture have been erased or dismissed. It’s important to share that story to non-Native people, but also to other Native folks,” she says. “I think fostering that appreciation and connection to our history brings about healthier Native communities.”

Bow & Arrow is one of only a small number of Native-owned breweries in the U.S. – but Sheppard and Begay hope that will change and, one day, there will be more. Sheppard adds: “Having done what we’ve done — in what I hope is a respectful way of incorporating our culture and background — I think it’s inspiring other brewers.”

Read more (Eater)

Just because you’ve pitched an exotic fermenting agent into your beer doesn’t mean the hard work is done. Mixed-culture fermentations are becoming increasingly popular choices for brewers looking to add complexity to their beers. But, as an article in Craft Beer & Brewing details, using a mixed array of yeasts and bacteria requires greater attention to the fermentation process.

“Just because it’s a wild beer doesn’t mean that you can be careless,” says Patrick Chavanelle, R&D brewer at Allagash in Portland, Maine. “Be as meticulous when crafting a mixed-fermentation beer as you would when brewing a beautifully crisp lager.”

Mixed fermentation uses multiple microorganisms as fermenting agents. The most common are yeasts Saccharomyces (known as brewer’s yeast) and Brettanomyces, and the bacteria Lactobacillus and Pediococcus

The article advises brewers to: embrace uncertainty, focus on pitch rate, pay attention to choice of fermentor, research the yeast or bacteria used and consider post-fermentation doctoring. 

Read more (Craft Beer & Brewing)

Making Mead

Mead appealed to David Lane because of the fermentation challenge: it’s hard to make a bad wine, but easy to make a bad mead.

“Honey sometimes needs various chemical nudges,” he said. “It’s a big puzzle figuring out how to get the chemistry just right for each varietal.”

His Oregon-based brand, Wild Nectar Mead, is made with honey from local honeybees. Interacting with their beekeepers made Lane even more passionate about mead. He learned about the dangers of honeybee extinction and the importance of local pollinators. He calls it his “bee-cause.” 

Each mead flavor reflects the essence of a variety of honey, such as basswood, clover or wildflower. Lane says he loves these flavor differences. 

Lane also has taken a different approach to production. Many purists believe a good mead needs months-long fermentation. Lane has tinkered with a process that takes only a month. 

“(Mead) has a long history, but then it fell out of favor with history,” Lane said. “So it feels like a comeback drink to a lot of people.” Read more (auburnpub.com)

Mead’s Modern Moment

“Somewhere between wine, beer, and cider lives mead. An ancient libation like no other, mead has been a pleasant surprise to drinkers for eons. Norsemen would be thrilled to know that it has made a modern-day comeback.”

Mead was highlighted in an article in Tasting Table, “appreciated by everyone from Vikings to millennials.” Also known as honey wine, it is experiencing a modern resurgence. Mead makers are adding unique seasonings and spices to enliven their creations – but it needs to be at least 51% wine. 

More meaderies are popping up – there is now at least one in every U.S. state. But liquor stores are still confused on where to put meads. The national sales manager of Chaucer’s Cellars – the country’s longest-running meadery – says most stores have no clue where to display mead. 

Read more (Tasting Table)

Brewing giants Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch are introducing new brands into the growing alternative milk category.. The brewers’ non-alcoholic, plant-based barley milks are “pioneers of a nascent sub-category in the fast-growing alternative milk field, with each product utilizing byproducts of their main business,” according to Ad Age

Barley milk, notes the article, is a smart product that helps the brewers diversify their product portfolios. buoys declining beer sales, capitalizes on the growing wellness trend and upcycles a brewing byproduct.

Both brands (Molson Coors calls their barley milk Golden Wing; Anheuser-Busch,  Take Two) are in the trial stage and aiming to raise awareness. Golden Wing is currently sold only in Southern California, and Take Two is only in the Pacific Northwest.

Take Two is positioned as an eco-friendly beverage, and is working with advocacy groups like the Upcycled Food Association. Anheuser-Busch produces about 8 billion pounds of spent barley a year.

“All that’s been removed is the sugar and starch. All this wonderful protein and fiber is still there,” says Holly Feather, head of marketing for Anheuser-Busch. She notes much of that spent grain is sent to commercial farms. “Saving the planet doesn’t have to be so serious. You can have a good time and do something good in the mix.” 

Golden Milk, on the other hand, is aiming to be the “badass” alt milk alternative, and is marketing to health-conscious men.

“We want to invoke curiosity in consumers when they see our packaging and our bold voice, and ultimately get them to try our great-tasting products,” says Brian Schmidt, marketing manager for Molson Coors. “Longer-term, we want Golden Wing to unlock barley milk as the next big thing in the plant-based milk category, and we believe it can do just that.”

Read more (Ad Age)