Americans are embracing the Nordic way of life. An article in Harvard Political Review examines two aspects of Nordic culture that make the Nordic people happy and healthy: hygge and fermentation. Hygge translates to “cozy” in Danish and is a method people in countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland use to adapt to their long winter season. A fireplace, family dinner or cozy blanket can be hygge. Fermentation, the ancient technique used in Nordic cuisine to preserve food, is still practiced today. The article notes fermentation is pushing against fast-food consumerism. It’s a form of slow cooking the Nordic people traditionally do at home with the food they’ve foraged in the summer.

Read more (Harvard Political Review)

A new grant by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to the University of California at Davis will fund training and education for consumers around one of the most confusing grocery offerings — fermented fruits and vegetables.

“There’s a general need to educate the consumer on what fermented foods are — and they currently don’t have that education,” says Maria Marco, professor in Food Science and Technology at UC Davis (and a TFA Advisory Board member). “A definition and resources will help them be more empowered consumers and be more aware of what they’re eating. There’s a need — from kids to physicians. People need to know what these foods are.”

The grant will also fund research on the fundamental properties of fermented fruits and vegetables. Food scientists at UC Davis will study the microbial contents, characterizing the fermented foods. 

The 2019 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) funds 69 projects focusing on specialty crops grown in California. Grant recipients range from organizations, government entities and colleges and universities. The projects must specifically focus on increasing the sales of specialty crops through the “California Grown” identity. UC Davis received $213,051 for the grant titled: “Expanding Education and Knowledge of Fermented Fruits and Vegetables.” 

“California has an important role in the U.S. because such a large number of the United States’ crops are grown here,” Marco said. “We’re the fruit bowl, the salad bowl here in the U.S.”

Of the $72.4 million awarded nationwide, California led the nation in funding with $22.9 million. The California Department of Agriculture will oversee the projects.

Fermentation Education

Core to the grant is fermentation education. UC Davis will work with Master Food Preservers across the state, training them in fermentation. The Master Food Preserver is a community volunteer program available to any individual interested in food preservation. They take a series of extensive, in-depth courses. After earning certification, they can teach the public about food preservation.

“These Master Food Preservers are getting a lot of questions lately about making fermented foods at home,” adds Marco. By providing fermentation classes to the Master Food Preservers, “we’re extending knowledge and providing information on the science of fermented foods.”

“When people start to understand the science behind the food, what the microbes are doing, that engages the public in a way based on science rather than on feeling. That will help the food producers in the end. A more informed public helps elevate their product. It shows their product is different from something just pickled with acid.

Citizen Science

Education and training will be supported by up-to-date research. This research, performed in UC Davis’ Marco lab in the Food Science & Technology department, will also be funded by SCBGP money.

“We’ll be looking at microbial contents of crops and the metabolites that they make,” Marco added. “Characterizing those foods to provide more knowledge on what’s there, it’s a move forward to determining how fermented foods can be healthy for us.”

Few studies are available that examine how fermented foods benefit or alter human health. Though fermented food research in the Marco Lab won’t involve humans, it will provide a scientific base that could evolve into a human study. 

“This is important because there’s a lot of interest in this type of food and beverage. You see a lot more of these products available on the supermarket shelves. There is also an interest to be making more food at home. And there’s generally an idea that these foods are first of all tasty, but they could help our health in many, many ways. There is that belief. And there’s a risk — if these things are not made properly or if there’s some conditions where people should limit their fermented food intake. So there’s good, but if these things are not made properly there can be food safety risks.”

Food Processors

Grant research will benefit commercial processors, too. UC Davis will provide “new or improved methods for fermented food processors.” 

Consistency and scale are a challenge for fermented food producers because of the live bacteria. 

“Microbes have a mind of their own,” Marco said. “A lot of these foods are not originated with mass production in mind. They are usually made in small quantities. So when you scale up, it becomes an issue of quality and consistency. How do you make something that’s usually done in small quantities and sell across the country in large quantities?”

For the third year in a row, fermented foods tops Today’s Dietitian list of the year’s No. 1 superfood. The annual “What’s Trending in Nutrition” survey reveals the hottest food and nutrition trends to look for in 2020.

“The 2020 survey results send a clear and consistent message. Consumers want to live healthier lives,” says Louise Pollock, president of Pollock Communications. “They have access to an incredible amount of health information, and they view food as a way to meet their health and wellness goals. Consumers are taking control of their health in ways they never did before, forcing the food industry to evolve and food companies to innovate in response to consumer demand.” 

Consumers are using fermented products as “powerhouse foods,” foods that boost gut health and reduce inflammation. Some nutrition experts recommend fermented foods should be included in national dietary recommendations. 

In April, Today’s Dietitian published an article “The Facts About Fermented Foods.” In it, Dr. Robert Hutkins, a researcher and professor of food science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, shared his expert opinion on fermentation. Hutkins wrote what many in the field consider the most exhaustive textbook on fermentation, “Microbiology and Technology of Fermented Foods.” He explained how fermented foods have a long history in the human diet. 

“Indeed, during much of human civilization, a major part of the human diet probably consisted of bread, yogurt, olives, sausages, wine, and other fermentation-derived foods,” Hutkins told Today’s Dietitian. “They can be considered perhaps as our first ‘processed foods.’”

Hutkins, who studies the bacteria in fermented foods, said researchers like himself “are a bit surprised fermented foods suddenly have become trendy.” 

“Consumers are now more interested than ever in fermented foods, from ale to yogurt, and all the kimchi and miso in between,” he says. “This interest is presumably driven by all the small/local/craft/artisan manufacturing of fermented foods and beverages, but the health properties these foods are thought to deliver are also a major driving force.”Fermented foods first appeared in the survey of registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) in 2017, where it was the 4th most popular superfood.

The full superfoods list includes:

  1. Fermented foods, like yogurt and kefir
  2. Avocado
  3. Seeds
  4. Exotic fruit, like acai, golden berries
  5. Ancient grains
  6. Blueberries
  7. Nuts 
  8. Non-dairy milk
  9. Beets
  10. Green tea

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 Katherine Harmon Courage (author of “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome”), Aneta Lundquist (owner of 221 BC Kombucha) and Alex Lewin (author of “Real Food Fermentation” and “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond”)

Do you think the surge of fermented food and drinks is a trend will disappear or a new food movement here to stay?

Katherine Harmon Courage, author of “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome”: It’s here to stay. I expect to see it expanding and incorporating into more people’s lives. There is really compelling research with the health benefits, but there’s also these amazing flavors for those of us who weren’t raised with it. Like kimchi. Once you eat kimchi, food seems bland and lacking without it. Koreans describe it as “You need kimchi with every meal.” They can’t imagine eating it without. The flavor and texture experience is a big part of eating. We shouldn’t be forcing it down for our health, but truly enjoying it.

Aneta Lundquist, Owner 221 BC Kombucha: The future is fermented. Stretching back as far as human history itself, the origins of fermentation are hard to track down. People have been teaming up with microbes for much longer than we know. Almost every culture appears to have embraced fermentation for millennia but without a deeper understanding of it’s purpose. Fortunately for us, today’s science became “microbes-curios” and surprised us with some terrific findings. One of the most important ones is that we actually are ONE large thriving ecosystem and its survival is based on an ongoing symbiotic dance between microbial and human cells. Those cells communicate with each other and the outside world, exchange their DNAs and they even shape human behaviors. Now, in the 21st Century, we finally started embracing this profound partnership because of its obvious benefits (gut-brain connection, anti-inflammatory properties, digestive help, depression and Alzheimer aid… this list is almost endless). And there is no way back from here. Demand on fermenting foods is going to only grow from now on. As soon as so called “good microbes” from fermented food find a safe home in human guts, they will call for more of its kind. This is how “they” operate! Suddenly, people will crave kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi-ferment generally. And that is exactly what we are observing now.

Alex Lewin, author of “Real Food Fermentation” and “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond”: Fermentation is not a new technology — in fact, it is one of our oldest! People have been doing it for millennia, and microbes have been doing it on their own since before humans even darkened the earth.
So by the numbers, it qualifies as a trend or movement.
But it’s definitely not a fad.

And to be fair, in some parts of the world, fermentation was never “out of fashion”. In Korea, for instance, kimchi has been a staple food for a very long time, often eaten with every meal.

My forecast for North America is that fermentation will continue to grow.
This is because fermentation is the meeting point of a few trends that are on the rise here:

– Health. We are more interested in health (and concerned about health) now than we have been at any time in recent memory. We are learning more about gut health and how it affects the rest of human physiology. Fermented foods are directly related to gut health.
– Food. North Americans watch more food TV than ever before, and celebrity chefs are as famous as pro athletes. People are eating things on a regular basis that their parents had never heard of.
– Sustainability/Infrastructure Resilience. Producing and preserving food without reliance on electricity and other infrastructure is an important thing that we as individuals can do to prepare for an uncertain future that will include climate change and may include dramatic societal change and partial or total infrastructure collapse.

Fermentation opens a culinary Pandora’s Box says David Zilber, head of fermentation at Noma restaurant in Denmark. Instead of just pureeing or heating a berry, the berry can be juiced for alcohol, transformed into vinegar, preserved for a fish sauce, pickled or dehydrated.  

“Fermentation was a discovery of possibility,” said Zilber. “You see the recommitorial power that comes from fermentation. It’s not just a subset of cuisine in gastronomy, it’s honest to goodness as large or it not larger than the world of gastronomy itself.”

Experimenting with ingredients that lead to tasteful outcomes is why “fermentation is so thrilling to explore” Zilber told Harvard students at Harvard University’s Science and Cooking Lecture Series. Zilber lectured with former Noma colleague Jason White, head of research and development at the Kudzu Complex in Tennessee.

Experimenting in the Noma Kitchen

Their topic: “Exploring Flavor Space: Innovation through Tradition in Noma’s Fermentation Lab.” The two shared fascinating insight into Noma, the two-Michelin-star restaurant regarded as one of the best in the world. But how do cooks toy with fermentation when the Michelin guide historically values consistency? Thousands of experiments and variations. Only 5% of what the chefs in Noma’s fermentation lab creates make it onto a plate.

“If you’re not trying to keep things traditional, you’re free to do whatever you want. And that’s the beauty of fermentation for us,” Zilber said. “When Noma employs fermentation, we do it knowing that we can change things. That we can seek out flavors by looking to old techniques, by turning to tradition, breaking down processes via reduction, pulling them apart, saying what enzymes are at play? What molecules are in the mix? What byproducts can be produced?”

Zilber showed the huge shared file between Noma employees of recipe trials. Things like moose snout, moldy vegetables, roasted pinecone, egg picked in elderberry juice and pig meat fermenting in its own pancreas enzyme. One of Noma’s early successes was adding a few drops of a fish sauce to a dish. A few drops of a potent fish sauce iteration goes a long way when flavoring a meal. The cooks began creating fish sauce equivalents, like a fish sauce from squirrel, sea cucumber, beaver, sea star, reindeer, wild boar, razor clam, bear (“That was the worst thing we’ve ever tasted,” Zilber said, “that did not go right.”).

“These were huge discoveries for us at Noma because, all of sudden, you could have a primarily vegetarian cuisine that had all the flavor and impact of like a full plate of food with meat and starch and vegetables just by using seasonings,” Zilber said. “And kind of flipping the role of meat and vegetables on its head. Suddenly vegetables didn’t have to be the accoutrement that just served to kind of temper what you were chewing in your mouth and act as the texture. They were actually the starring role, but you were as satisfied as eating a full plate of sliced sirloin because you could have this taste of meat permeating through your samphire mixed with watercress emulsion.”

Fermentation is the most useful tool for the restaurant, Zilber said. Noma has what he calls a “DIY or die” attitude.

When Noma chef and co-owner Rene Redzepi opened the restaurant in 2003, he wanted to create a fine-dining experience concentrating on the food of the Nordic region. Fine dining in Denmark, Sweden and Norway was primarily French food because the cold, coastal Scandinavian countries have such a short growing season. Redzepi and the cooks dove into cultural recipes. They contacted local foragers, then experimenting preserving the ingredients they’d find. They started a Noma Food Lab to catalog the different ingredients.

“When you taste all the products of fermentation, you understand it is delicious because it is that heightened level of food. All life is transformation – creation and destruction are just two sides of the same coin. Building things up in a certain way is just half of the picture if you understand you have to break them down first. And when your body understands that something has been broken down for it in a friendly manner by something that isn’t harmful in any way, alarm bells go off and you understand these things to be delicious.”

“That search for that flavor…is how Rene and the team back in the test kitchen in those early days learned to use the very paltry pantry that sat at Noma’s disposal with all these Scandinavian ingredients and multiple them many times over w the dimensionality of flavor that fermentation could provide. If at first, they only had in a season 250 ingredients to work with, they could turn to fermentation and all the different processes at their disposal to turn those 250 into 1,000.”

During the Harvard lecture, White made a koji and miso for the students to sample. He detailed creating miso from unconventional protein-rich foods, like seeds, roots, parsnip, corn, fava beans, byproducts from oil extracted from nuts.

Transformation through Fermentation

“A field is a field and a plant is a plant. It’s only a weed if you choose to pull it out. But it’s a crop if you put it there and want to harvest it at the end. That’s exactly how you have to think about fermentation,” said Zilber.

Zilber said the technical, chemical definition for fermentation is the anaerobic, enzymatic pathway that yeast uses to metabolize glucose and transform that into alcohol in the absence of oxygen. Simply put, it is the transformation of one food into another by a microbe. But those definitions don’t go far enough to describe fermentation’s complexity.

“If you want to get really into it, you do have to talk about human intent,” he says. “And humans have a big part to play in fermentation because, without the human willing the fermentation into existence, you just have a free-for-all.”

Zilber uses the analogy that a fermenter is like a bouncer at a night club. The fermenter has to decide between the troublemakers and the enjoyable customers. Who is going to come in and start a bar fight and who is going to come in and order drinks and mingle with other customers?

“The club is all the food you’re looking to ferment, the ingredients you’re looking to transform, and which microbes to keep out,” he said. “The key to cooking with microbes is cooking with life. You need to keep these creatures alive so they do the cooking for you.”

Control points are key to a fermentation. Lactic acid – the metabolic process that converts sugar and glucose into energy – has five basic needs. Access to oxygen, salt concentration, pH levels, nutrient sources and temperature. Every control point and process will lead to a different fermentation outcome.

“You’re trying to build an environment for that microbe to survive,” Zilber added.

Harmful pathogens won’t grow in a controlled fermentation environment. Mold can’t live without oxygen. And botulism has a higher water activity level than lactobacillus, and water activity level drops once salt is added in fermentation.

“You’re cutting off at the pass any malevolent microbes that you think might grow,” he said.

Humans, he said, have domesticated the lactobacillus bacteria.

Use Tradition to Apply Fermentation Processes

Zilber knows fermentation is a trendy topic today, but he notes it’s been around since the dawn of man.

“The first real food technology we had for safe food preservation before the USDA was a thing was fermentation,” he said. “And it makes sense that we do it until this day and we have all these traditional recipes on our counter tops because these are things that have kept civilization alive for a very, very long time. And we have grown up to actually love the taste of them and understand them as part of our cultural history.”

Before recipes were shared through the internet, cultures passed recipes through families. Fermentation was mastered because because a grandparent taught it to a grandchild. This is why towns in Italy have a sausage (Genoa, Calabrese) and towns in Japan have a Miso variety (Hatcho, Saikyo).

Cooking your own fermented product “is about crafting those environments that your microbes need to thrive.” Making a koji is recreating the ancestral field in humid China.

Noma is revolutionizing fermentation by using using traditional processes, then creating their own techniques. Noma uses biological and mechanical technology in their food to push the boundaries of cuisine.

“Noma applies the basic concepts of fermentation, of preservation, of making something last in a season where it normally wouldn’t be available, but taking it to the nth degree,” Zilber said. “No, it’s not always about combining flavors and seeing which is the best. Sometimes it’s combining technologies and seeing what produces the best flavor. We try all different sorts of extraction, sonication, vacuum filtration, the (supercritical fluid extraction systems) unit.”

Partnering with local Denmark bio-tech firms, Noma uses scientific technology to explore different fermentation projects.

The New York Times asks: are there benefits to drinking kombucha? The article explores hard kombucha and the health claims of drinking the fermented tea.  “But for those interested in integrating a variety of microbes into their diet, Dr. Emeran Mayer, author of ‘The Mind-Gut Connection,’ recommends doing so naturally. ‘I personally drink it occasionally,’ he said. Instead of using pills or supplements, he said, alternate different fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchi, cultured milk products, and, yes, kombucha.

Read more (New York Times)

Fermented drinks are becoming a major part of the food industry, and San Diego’s Mesa College is taking notice. Mesa College is offering a new Fermentation Management Certification Program. The program aims to prepare students for a variety of careers in San Diego’s $1.2 billion craft beer industry. But the program focuses on other fermented beverages as well, like kombucha, mead, cider, coffee and tea. In the 30-unit course, students will learn the basics of brewing and learn the business side of running a brewery, from sales, marketing, law, accounting, importing, distribution and operations. “There’s so much fermented beverage going on, that there’s gotta be at least 250 companies out there looking for qualified people,” said adjunct faculty member Kevin Rhodes, who co-founded Groundswell Brewing.

Read more (NBC San Diego)

Raw, clean ingredient pet food is the fastest growing part of the pet food category. More pet food brands are inventing ways to feed their pets unprocessed, organic ingredients. A new article highlights Answer Pet Food, the first (and so far only) fermented raw pet food supplier. Answers Pet Food utilized kombucha, raw cultured whey, cultured raw goat’s milk and kefir in their pet food products. Their products include fermented chicken feet and fermented pig feet. Answers Pet Food says: “Fermentation is the most natural and effective way for us to make our products as safe and healthy as possible. … Our raw fermented pet foods are formulated to create a healthy gut. Fermentation supports healthy immune function by increasing the B-vitamins, digestive enzymes, antioxidants, and lactic acid that fight off harmful bacteria. It’s also the ultimate source of probiotics.”

Read more (Pet Product News)

Western North Carolina is becoming “a hot spot for fermented goods” thanks to female entrepreneurs. These fermented product brand leaders credit the health-conscious culture of Asheville, N.C. with helping their businesses thrive in “Ferment City.” Sara Schomber of the Buchi Mamas tells Asheville’s Mountain Xpress: “Fermentation is all about the alchemy of ingredients normally found in the hearth and home where, for centuries, women have been the keepers. We believe fermentation is the expression of a natural tendency, the human spirit’s way of giving itself permission to heal and inviting all of us to extend beyond our own immediate mortality. It’s normal and natural for humans to want to preserve, put away and celebrate.” Local brands featured include: Shanti Elixirs Jun, Smiling Hara Tempeh, Yoga Bucha kombucha, Buchi Kombucha, Sister of Mother Earth cider and honey, Serotonin ferments ferments and Fermenti Foods ferments.

Read more (Mountain Xpress)

Ready-bake and frozen pizza is a market with little disruption. Processed ingredients, chemical-filled cheese and cardboard-like dough are the mainstay of a grocery store pizza.

But Alex Corsini wants to change that. After battling an autoimmune disease, quitting his rat race job in the tech industry and completing an apprenticeship at a Michelin-star restaurant, Corsini wondered why there wasn’t a delicious sourdough pizza in a consumer packaged goods brand. He started Sourdough Story in 2018 as the first USDA organic and Non GMO Verified pizza on the market.

“We wanted to hone in on ultra-thoughtful sourcing and really meticulous preparation, and celebrate slow sourdough fermentation” Corsini said. “I think there’s a lot of dogma in nutrition, and I want people to listen to their own bodies and also think about the roots of where their food is coming from. Pizza is an interesting canvas and platform to showcase this narrative and perspective.”

Below, a Q&A with Corsini, who believes food — especially fermented food — “is the foundation of healthy people.”

Q: Why did you start Sourdough Story?

Around 2016, I was working in the technology industry in startups. I developed this autoimmune condition out of nowhere. My doctors didn’t really have a name for what I was going through, they kept testing me and concluded this was something I’ll have for the rest of my life. I decided to turn to nutrition to mitigate symptoms. I read about the Whole 30 Diet and basically cut out every major allergen. I did it for 60 days, and all my symptoms went away. It was really powerful for me to overcome this through food and not really any medication at all.

Eventually, I started slowly adding back in foods. I started reading about wheat and the ancestral diet. My ancestors are from Sweden, and fermented dairy and sourdough is big there. I started baking sourdough and, the first loaf I ever made, me and my roommates just devoured the whole thing in minutes. And we still felt really good.

I had this epiphany that this whole anti-gluten movement I fell into, there’s definitely valid signs, some people have Celiac Disease. Some people can’t digest wheat as well as others. But there’s also this layer of dogma that I’ve succumbed to. Maybe this is about the ingredients and preparation than the reductive nutrition side of things that’s all too common in the media. 

I started getting obsessed with sourdough baking. I decided I didn’t want to go back to the tech industry. I applied to sourdough bakeries and Michelin rated restaurants that focus on sourdough baking. I got an apprenticeship at Kadeau in Copenhagen and I literally walked into my tech job the next day and quit. I said I’m done with technology and I want to focus on food.

I spent a month apprenticing, learning about fermentation and the farm-to-table movement. Copenhagen is this booming food scene. There’s this identity and really strong sense in bakeries around California — it was even greater in Copenhagen.  I had this realization — why is there not a sourdough pizza in a consumer packaged food brand? And why is there not a brand focused on sourdough as a general concept?

My whole thing was, let’s create a brand around sourdough. We started with pizza, but it’s a broad category. When I decided to do a CPG concept, I talked to the founder of my favorite natural food store in Sausalito. I asked to stock or work in product and get a sense of the retail store environment. I spent three months working in the grocery department, stocking at a natural food store. I told them about my sourdough pizza concept and asked if I could put a couple pizzas on the shelf and see how they sold. We have this idea of what our movement would be — we’d vacuum-seal pizza, we’d put them on the shelf in the deli section, people could take and back. We put out 12 pizzas, and in a few hours they were gone. The orders started getting bigger and bigger from there.

We officially launched in June 2018, making 50-70 pizzas a week for that location alone. We were written up in the local independent journal, and it started a domino effect. Now we’re in about 100 stores in the Bay Area and just throttling growth. We’re at the point where we’re ready to make a big footprint.

Q: You said when you were learning how important fermentation is to people’s diets, that pizza is a great platform to showcase that. Why?

My initial idea, going back to working at the Michelin star restaurant, I loved the idea of knowing where every ingredient came from. I love going to a customer with the menu and saying “This butter is from a grass-fed cow, its name is Mike.” Having that level of granularity was really important to me. With pizza, there are so many ingredients that make up pizza. It’s also a great creative product. It’s a product everyone is familiar with and everyone is passionate about it. If you ask somebody what their favorite type of crust is, you’ll get lots of different answers. They’ll fight you on their favorite pizza place in New York. They all have a favorite topping. It’s a passion product.

Our toppings, the tomato is the best organic tomatoes in the U.S. from DiNapoli, an hour away from us in California. Our flour is freshly milled flour by Central Milling Organics, an old family mill based out of Northern California. The cheese is from grass-fed cows from the Rumiano pasture, the oldest family-owned California dairy. I love the idea of partnering and showcasing with these companies, being on a first-name basis. Pizza is a great vehicle for that.

Q: Why is modern bread bad for the gut? What’s better about sourdough?

We think of modern bread making, conventional bread is a process of simply leavening bread, giving rise to the dough. They all use the same commercially manufactured yeast that was derived from a lab back in the late 1800s. The whole concept around this was to mass produce bread to make sure you can create an industrial product that you can scale to consistency. Before that, it was all sourdough-based bread products, dating back to ancient Egypt. 

Sourdough is a process of not only leavening bread but acidifying bread. The key benefits come from the acidification. So you’re getting benefits like a lower glycemic index, more available vitamins and minerals from grain, some people think it’s easier to digest and you’re getting better preservation. The higher the acidity, the lower the propensity for bacteria or mold to affect the product. 

The science of it — it mainly comes down to phytic acid, which is an organic, indigestible compound that all grains and seeds possess. 

Unfortunately, humans don’t have the enzyme to break it down — it’s called phytase. Some animals have this, and can eat raw grains and nuts and benefit. So when we eat grain in modern bread today, there’s a ton of potential nutrients that we’re not absorbing. There are two primary ways of breaking this down. One way to break this down would be sprouting the bread, one would be sourdough fermentation. Lactic acid fermentation and the acidification process of sourdough, you are breaking down fidic acid. There are studies that show you can get up to 90% percent of the available nutrients in the dough, whereas conventional bread would get like 20%, according to clinical trials.

A lot of the indigestibility of bread is around phytic acid, but gluten is coming to the mainstream, it’s become the easy thing to blame.

It’s great to be able to say, with clinical backing, there’s more bio nutrients in sourdough. That’s powerful. What we’re trying to do now is be the first party and authority on validating the science around lactic acid fermentation. There really hasn’t been an interested party or corporation interested in investing in the science. Our goal is to work with these scientists.

Q: How do you ferment your sourdough?

Modern bread, industrial bread or pizza on the shelf, you probably see an hour to three hours of fermentation time. With us, we do a full three days of fermentation time. We constantly have this starter, this mother culture, that we feed twice a day. We slowly mix our batches, low and slow. We do a bunch of small batches rather than one large batch, we find we get better quality that way. We do a really slow batch, then we take our dough and ferment it in a proofing room for two full days and nights. It will vary a little bit, but each ferment goes above 70 hour.

We use 100% organic flour from Central Milling. The better the flour, the more microbial activity in the flour. We use a specific flour that’s grown three hours away in california, there’s a lot of whole grain in the flour. So the microbial activity is really active. What you get is a really healthy ferment with more lactic acid, so you get that classic sourdough tang and that’s what we’re going for.

Q: The flour seems really critical in fermentation to create a good dough. 

It’s one of the important elements. You could have a company that says “We’re organic sourdough,” but they could be using terrible bleached flour and putting vinegar in it to make it taste sour, there are so many shortcuts.

Q: Tell me about the sourdough starter you use to create your dough.

For the starter, we use a local whole wheat starter and triple filtered water. Good water is super important with any ferment. We feed our starter local whole wheat, but our starter is decades old. It’s an heirloom starter from a natural foods business out here in Fairfax, California. It could be over 100 years old, we’re not sure. Feeding the starter is a constant point of stress. There’s a reason people mass manufacture bread, let’s put it that way. It’s like having a pet.

Q: What is the most challenging part of fermenting sourdough?

All the variables. It’s similar to any fermentation, where you need to measure the time and temperature. One thing that’s especially challenging is making estimates based on the temperature of the room and the seasonality. Thankfully we’re in San Francisco, so it’s not dramatic, but sometimes we’ll get a heat wave and it will change the dynamics of our operation, we’ll have to make adjustments on the fly.

Q: What flavor difference does sourdough bring to pizza?

The biggest difference is that, with any baked good with conventional yeast, you’re going to taste yeast. It’s a very distinct taste. Our sourdough specifically, what you’re going to taste is something that’s a little more nourishing and wholesome. You’re doing to get a little bit of the whole grain but not too much, it doesn’t taste like a whole-grain pizza. It’s something more artisan. You’re going to get a finish that’s slightly acidic, enough that you want to take another bite. It’s addicting — it makes you salivate. With any ferment, there’s this metabolic process where you’re salivating more, you’re wanting more, it’s your instinct.

Q: Sourdough Story was the first USDA organic and Non GMO verified pizza on the market. Why was that important to you to get those certifications?

This was a point of contention. Just because industrial organics and the fact that having this certifications does not inherently validate that you’re a thoughtful brand. The reason I would argue it was the right decision is it creates immediate consumer trust, and puts us in channels that we want to grow into quickly, whether its natural or conventional. It gives us a point of differentiation against brands that aren’t thoughtful at all. It helps us with our sales funnel, and through the sales process being able to go to buyers and check the box. It also gives us leverage in closing new accounts.

For consumers, if anything, having both shows we’ve done our due diligence and we’ve been vetted. Overarchingly, I think it was the right decision.

Q: Is there a lot of competition from the gluten-free market?

My whole thing is that, whether you’re gluten free or not, at the end of the day, people want to feel good about eating pizza. We’re providing people an avenue to feel good about eating pizza.

There’s so many new entrants in the gluten-free space. What really bugs me about gluten-free products is a lot of them don’t care how they’re sourcing their ingredients. They’ll get terrible rice flours you don’t even know where they’re coming from, or cauliflower from international markets, or processed cheeses making up crusts. Our thing: we’re going with tradition. We’re going to trust the heirloom staples, sourdough being one of them, that’s been around for thousands of years, that’s touching every culture. I think it’s good for us to be different.

Q: Where is your copacker, are they in Northern California?

Yes, they’re in Berkeley. It’s a copacker made up of artisan pizzaiolo from Italy. Every pizza is handmade and hand stretched. It’s a USDA organic facility. It’s only us and then their line of organic products. It’s a special little manufacturing facility.

Q: More and more retail news shows fermented pizza dough is an increasing trend. Why do you think so?

If I had to say one thing I’d start with flavor. You win people on taste. And I don’t think there’s anyway a modern bread can taste better than sourdough. The reason being it’s pure umami flavor. If you ferment dough correctly, you’re going to get this incredible flavor that’s unmimicked by conventional applications.

Q: Where do you see the future of Sourdough Story?

We want to have a national footprint in natural and conventional. More importantly, we want to be the authority for all things sourdough based. We want to provide research, we want to provide recipes and information on how to get people involved in traditional baking, we want to be the point on all things sourdough based, and really creating a category for it. And we see the brand expanding beyond pizza in the future, too.

Q: Do you think consumers awareness of fermented foods is increasing?

Wholeheartedly, yes. Almost all my friends have jars of kraut in their fridge now. The whole microbiome, all the understanding and science coming out on the importance of the microbiome, how it influences all elements of health from your mood to your skin to you name it. I think it’s an extremely exciting industry. Not to mention that fermented foods are popping up everywhere. Look at kombucha, look at fermented, plant-based yogurts. They’re everywhere. I think it’s one of the hottest trends.

Q: What challenges do fermented food producers face?

From the manufacturing side, it’s hard to scale a fermented food. It’s hard to scale any manufacturing product, but with fermented food, there’s value in having a smaller volume. It’s also a living organism, it’s really a living thing with a personality that you really need to really thoughtfully think of how to scale. You also just have to learn from your mistakes, it’s just a trial by error thing. It’s a growing category and there’s a ton of competition.

Q: What are the fermented food industry strengths?

I think the entire ecosystem of retail is going to healthy food, functional food, slow food. When you look at Wal-Mart being the largest seller of organic products, that’s exciting. That’s correlated to the fact that people want to eat healthy. Fermentation is a staple and tiller of health in every single culture, you name it. Every corner of the world has fermented food.

Q: Where do you see the future of the fermented food industry?

I think the future would be people being a household necessity to the point where people are trying to get a form of fermented food in their diet every single day. It’s becoming a preventative medicine, and that’s promising.

Q: What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs starting a fermentation brand?

Start small and don’t grow too fast. We’ve had some serious growing pains, and just really try to add value to the product, listen to your consumer, and you get in front of it as many consumers as you can and gather feedback so you can find your niche.

And also, tap into the community. What excites me the most about fermentation and food in general is there’s so many people willing to help and provide advice. 

Q: What can the fermentation industry do to better educate the public about fermented foods?

The onus is on, the brands. this was one of the reasons I started a food company, people vote with their dollars. And the best was to educate is to create a really good product.