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.”

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)

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)

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)

AI-Generated Wine Reviews? 

New artificial intelligence software writes wine and beer reviews said to be indistinguishable from those by human critics. Researchers hope this tool will help wine and beer producers aggregate more reviews, and also provide human reviewers with a template. But the software has a major limitation: it cannot accurately predict the flavor profile of a beverage, something that can only be sampled and described by human taste buds. 

Keith Carlson of Dartmouth College, who co-developed the algorithm, said wine and beer are perfect for AI-generated text because of the variety of their descriptors. Fermentation style, growing region, grape or wheat variety and year of production are all mentioned in reviews, aiding the AI algorithm. Reviews also tend to use the same vocabulary — words like “oaky,” “floral” and “dry.” 

“People talk about wine in the same way, using the same set of words,” Carlson said, adding “it was just a very unique data set.”

The research team — interdisciplinary scientists from Dartmouth, Indiana University and The Santa Fe Institute — used more than a decade’s worth of reviews (over 125,000) from Wine Enthusiast, and 143,000 beer reviews from the website RateBeer. Results were published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing

Next, they envision using the software for other experiential products, such as coffee or cars.

Read more (Scientific American)

Kombucha can no longer be legally sold as non-alcoholic in the state of South Carolina. A new rule change in state code set a maximum alcohol content for beers and other fermented beverages, but did not set a minimum alcohol level. Any fermented beverage with an alcohol content above 0.0% — any trace of alcohol — is now considered alcoholic by default. 

Last month, TFA wrote about a decades-old South Carolina law that threatened kombucha and non-alcoholic beverage producers selling their fermented drinks in the state. Kombucha, which typically contains less than 0.5% alcohol [the legal definition of an alcoholic beverage in the U.S.], has always been deemed non-alcoholic, sold on grocery store shelves next to refrigerated juices. 

Now, any brand selling a fermented beverage in the state must apply for an alcohol license, and their drink cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 21. 

“Effective immediately, all of these producers and retailers will have to cease business until they receive the proper licensing, which will take several months to get if they’re located in South Carolina and the money to get their facilities up to code,” said Brook Bristow, an attorney specializing in beverage law, in a statement about the rule change. “So, until then, no sales, i.e., no money.”

Adds Gabriel Coggins, owner of the S.C.-based Kava Konnection:“Of all the things lawmakers could focus on to restrict and take away from the public, kombucha was the last thing I expected. It’s a healthy product, and the only logical reason I can see beyond some strange maliciousness toward it is that they just didn’t understand what they were doing.”

Read more (Greenville Journal)

Tastier Non-Alcoholic Beer

Though non-alcoholic drinks are growing in popularity, alcohol-free beer has been a laggard. These brews lack the flavorful aroma of hops, with the resulting beverage flat and watery.

Mimicking beer’s flavor profile has been challenging for brewers hoping to appeal to dry drinkers. Some producers add aroma hops in the final stages of brewing, but it’s expensive and wasteful.

“When you remove the alcohol from the beer, for example by heating it up, you also kill the aroma that comes from hops. Other methods for making alcohol-free beer by minimizing fermentation also lead to poor aroma because alcohol is needed for hops to pass their unique flavor to the beer,” says Sotirios Kampranis, a professor in University of Copenhagen’s department of plant and environmental sciences who led the research.

Now researchers from the university have found a possible solution. Their innovation uses baker’s yeast that’s grown in fermenters and releases an aroma of hops. Results of their study were published in the journal Nature.

“After years of research, we have found a way to produce a group of small molecules called monoterpenoids, which provide the hoppy-flavor, and then add them to the beer at the end of the brewing process to give it back its lost flavor. No one has been able to do this before, so it’s a game changer for non-alcoholic beer,” Kamprani says. “When the hop aroma molecules are released from yeast, we collect them and put them into the beer, giving back the taste of regular beer that so many of us know and love. It actually makes the use of aroma hops in brewing redundant, because we only need the molecules passing on the scent and flavor and not the actual hops,” explains Kampranis.

Sustainable Solution

Their discovery represents a potential breakthrough for the overall beer industry because, researchers point out, it could improve beer’s sustainability. 

Aroma hops require an enormous amount of water. Over 713 gallons are needed to grow one kilogram of hops. And sourcing fresh hops involves a carbon-heavy supply chain. Hops are farmed mainly on the U.S. West Coast, so trucks and refrigeration units are needed for transportation .

By using baker’s yeast, researchers can create a hoppy flavor without wasting gallons of water and creating carbon emissions. 

“With our method, we skip aroma hops altogether and thereby also the water and the transportation. This means that one kilogram of hops aroma can be produced with more than 10.000 times less water and more than 100 times less CO2,” Kampranis says. “Long term, we hope to change the brewing industry with our method – also the production of regular beer, where the use of aroma hops is also very wasteful.”

Kampranis and colleague Simon Dusséaux plan to have the process ready for the brewing industry by this October. The two have founded the biotech company EvodiaBio

A decades-old South Carolina law is threatening kombucha and non-alcoholic beverage producers who sell their fermented drinks in the state. 

The current statute dictates that a permit is needed to sell beer and other fermented beverages. But the law lists no minimum ABV, forcing kombucha brewers and non-alcoholic beer producers to follow the same permitting regulations as alcoholic brands.

Though the statute is loosely enforced, it came to a head recently (pun intended). Non-alcohol beer company Athletic Brewing Co. announced it would no longer sell their products in South Carolina due to ““the recent legal interpretation by state officials on the unique definition of non-alcoholic beer.” The state’s Department of Revenue began investigating Athletic Brewing Co. after receiving a complaint about the brewer.

“This is definitely going to create a lot of uncertainty for a lot of different types of businesses and, you know, ultimately, the question is, ‘Are we going to apply the alcohol rules to companies who don’t necessarily, you know, the alcohol is so minimal?’” said Brook Bristow, an attorney at Bristow Beverage Law, who served as Executive Director of the state’s Brewers Guild for seven years. 

Brewers that want to comply with the current law have to apply for an expensive license. SouthCarolina’s General Assembly currently has no bills under discussion that would modify the regulations.

Read more (The Free Times)