Flavor is much more complex than just taste. Flavor can be collected, extracted, infused, created and transformed. And, in a billion-dollar flavor industry devoted to putting flavors into processed foods, fermentation is the oldest and most natural flavor creator, developing new flavors at a molecular level. 

“Fermentation as a flavor creation process in collaboration with microbes, there’s almost no limit to how you can apply it and use the ingredients around you and have a more flavorful palette to work from,” says Arielle Johnson, PhD, a flavor scientist, gastronomy and innovation researcher and co-founder of the Noma Fermentation Lab.

A food chemist dubbed the flavor whisperer, she works with restaurants on innovating dishes and cocktails. She researches how flavor is perceived and is writing a book on her studies, Flavorama. Her work comes together in “all things science and cuisine have to say to each other.” 

This week Johnson shared her insights into flavor and fermentation as a guest lecturer at Harvard University’s Science & Cooking series.

Taste & Smell Receptors 

Flavor can be quite complex – Johnson calls it a black box.

There are five primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, umami and bitter. Each taste evolved to ensure humans get basic nutrition. We use sweet foods for the energy in sugar, sour ones for vitamin C from fruit and fermented foods. Salty foods provide the essential mineral sodium. We seek umami foods for the taste of glutamine, an amino acid in proteins and fermented foods. 

But bitter, Johnson points out, doesn’t sense one thing. It senses multiple molecules that are potential toxins for us. This is why bitter is called an acquired taste.

Smell is Johnson’s favorite part of the flavor profile. In order to taste, we must smell, too. Molecules land in the olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity and help activate taste. This is why food is tasteless if you plug your nose while eating. But the back of the throat is also connected to the nasal cavity, so the throat becomes “the secret backdoor” for sensing flavor. 

While there are five major tastes and four receptor areas on the tongue, there are 40 billion smellable molecules and 400 receptors for smell.

Supertasters vs. Nontasters

Taste and smell, she detailed, help us understand how fermentation works.

The population can be divided into supertasters or nontasters. During her presentation, Johnson had the audience put a strip of filter paper on their tongue. The paper included a harmless bitter molecule phenylthiourea (PTC), but only roughly half the class could taste it. This group are supertasters – the group who could not taste the PTC are nontasters.

She explained everyone has different density of their taste buds. Supertasters have more taste buds, so more taste receptors signals are sent to their brains. This has culinary implications. Because their sense of taste is more sensitive, flavors are intense and supertasters have a less adventurous palette. Meanwhile nontasters have dulled senses, so it takes a lot of flavor to activate taste.

“The good news for supertasters is that fermentation is usually salty and sour and often umami – all of which counteract bitterness,” Johnson says. “Fermentation is a way to create new flavors but also transform ingredients.”

Fermentation as Flavor

Though “microbes are opportunistic” and pop up in foods whether planned or not, fermentation can’t be forced, Johnson says. When making a sauerkraut, for example, microbes don’t need to be added. Fermentation works with what’s on the surface of the cabbage and on the producer’s hands.

Salt is key in fermentation as a flavor additive, a preservation element and a safety measure. Salt filters out bad molds and avoids letting a ferment spoil. Other factors “dial in the flavors in this molecular flavor creation process,” she says, like the correct ingredients, temperature control and humidity.

“We’re really excited about microbes and fermentation,” Johnson says. “In this process of this exponential growth that microbes do, they’re eating things, they’re getting energy, but they’re also running their regulator metabolism. So there’s all these waste products that are not very significant to the microbes, but that can create a lot of interesting flavor complexity.”

Though scientists and environmentalists have warned about the dangers of increased meat consumption, Americans’ appetite for it is not slowing down. The last three years marked the largest amount of meat produced on record.

“People know about the harms of industrial agriculture, but people eat more and more and more meat,” says Bruce Friedrich, CEO of the Good Food Institute (GFI). “It’s an inextricable rise despite more and more attention to the issues. The vast majority of people are just not going to apply ethical considerations to their food choices.”

Fermentation, Friedrich declares, can be part of the solution. “Fermentation can be so powerful for global health, climate and biodiversity,” he says.

Friedrich spoke at FERMENTATION 2022 on alternative protein innovation. GFI, a nonprofit, aims to accelerate the innovation of fermented, plant- and cell-based alternative meat. But the young, rapidly-growing alt protein industry faces major obstacles in scaling, regulation, pricing and consumer acceptance. Friedrich told a room of professional fermenters at the conference to consider shifting to a career in alternative proteins.

“Anyone involved in fermentation, you have the expertise in knowledge. It’s cross-applying the skills and interest in your professional life into this new field,” he says. “One of the significant barriers for all the companies doing this is talent, which is to say – you.” 

Global Agriculture Crisis

Friedrich does not mince his words: we’re on the precipice of a major environmental and health crisis if we don’t reduce meat consumption.

Mass producing meat is “extraordinarily inefficient.” Huge amounts of crops are grown to feed livestock so humans can then eat the animals.. “We have been using an antiquated method to produce meat for 12,000 years,” Friedrich adds.

Internationally, 4 billion hectares of land are used for agriculture – 3 billion are for grazing livestock or to grow their food. It takes 9 calories of feed to produce 1 calorie of chicken; 40 calories to produce 1 calorie of beef.

“This is an incredibly inefficient way to try and feed the world,” Friedrich says. 

And it’s getting worse. By 2050, global meat consumption is projected to increase – conservative estimates say 50%, while others go as high as 260%.

Animal agriculture also is thought to be a major contributor to global climate change and a major factor in deforestation. Livestock are pumped with antibiotics, creating resistance in humans that consume that meat.

Future of “Meat”

The answer isn’t necessarily a world of vegetarians – it’s to change traditional meat.

Friedrich compares the situation to renewable energy and electric vehicles. For decades, government leaders have preached reducing fossil fuel consumption. But, as populations have risen, so has energy consumption.

“You are not going to convince people to consume less energy,” he says. “What you need to do is replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”

Similarly with meat, there cannot be a meatless world. “This is innovation focused, it is not about behavior change,” he says.

 “GFI when we started, we were talking about disrupting animal agriculture. We very quickly realized our hope is to transform industrial animal agriculture,” he says. “Things will happen a lot more quickly if we have the major corporations on board.”

GFI is “enthusiastically working with the biggest companies in the world:” JBS, Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill and BRF, the five largest global meat producers. 

The aim is not to regulate big agriculture or stop subsidies. GFI hopes to open access into the science behind alternative proteins, incentivize the private sector to continue R&D and encourage government funding.

“The same sort of cash breaks that allowed Tesla to be successful should apply to Nature’s Fynd and Impossible Foods and others if they want that money,” Friedrich says, listing two major companies in the alternative protein industry. “Our global battle cry is that governments should be funding alternative proteins.”

Food Trifecta

By not gatekeeping alt protein technology, Friedrich says GFI is helping perfect the process of giving consumers the exact same meat experience, but using plant- or cell-based meats. People want the food trifecta, Friedrich says: Is it delicious? Does it fill me up? Is it reasonably priced?

Fermentation is a booming sector in the alternative protein industry. It is split into three categories: traditional fermentation using lactic acid bacteria, yeasts or fungi; biomass fermentation which involves naturally occurring, protein-dense, fast-growing microorganisms; and precision fermentation, which uses microbial hosts as “cell factories” to produce specific ingredients. 

Data from GFI found, of the alt protein startups utilizing fermentation, 45% use precision fermentation, 41% use biomass fermentation and the remaining 14% use traditional fermentation.

GFI recently hired two fermentation scientists, and their studies are already suggesting biomass and traditional fermentation will have better environmental numbers than plant-based meats. Fermentation is also a more powerful process than plant-based meat applications because fermentation can replicate precise fermentation proteins. And although traditional fermentation is the smallest part of the fermented alternative protein category, GFI sees it growing because of its ability to produce appealing flavors..

“Traditional fermentation can be an absolutely essential element to get meat to taste the same or better or cost the same or less,” he says.

“The plant based and fermentation products, they’re just getting started. The idea of competing with industrial animal meat has been around for (snaps his fingers) that long. The products are just going to improve and improve and improve.”

Organic food is considered by some to be healthier and more nutritious than its conventional counterpart. But what about when that food is fermented? Does organic vs. conventional matter?

A new study reveals some surprising results: when it comes to fermented foods, “the quality of organic food is not always better than conventional food.”

Organic vs. conventional agricultural production is a hotly debated topic – some reports indicate organic food is more nutritious, but other research suggests the nutritional differences are not significant. Meanwhile, fermented foods are scientifically-proven to include higher nutritional value. “During fermentation, the concentration of many bioactive compounds increases, and the bioavailability of iron, vitamin C, beta carotene, or betaine is also improved,” the study notes. Fermented products also “inhibit the development of pathogens in the digestive tract.”

Researchers at the Bydgoszcz University of Science and Technology in Poland questioned whether fermenting organic food would change its nutritional output versus using conventional food. Their results were published in the journal Molecules.

Analyzing fermented plants (pickles, sauerkraut, beet and carrot juices) and dairy (yogurt, kefir and buttermilk), researchers measured the vitamins, minerals and lactic acid bacteria in the items. They compared using organic ingredients in one group to products made from conventional ingredients. 

“Research results do not clearly indicate which production system–conventional or organic–provides higher levels of bioactive substances in fermented food,” the study reads.

Results were mixed. Lactic acid bacteria – the good, healthy kind – were higher in organic sauerkraut, carrot juice, yogurt and kefir. Organic kraut and pickles produced more vitamin C than conventional versions. And calcium levels were higher in yogurt made with organic milk. 

But, interestingly, lactic acid bacteria levels were higher in conventional pickles and beet juice. Conventional beet juice also had five times more beta-carotene (vitamin A). 

Read more (Molecules)

Mexican Hard Cider

An Oregon cidery is taking an interesting approach to hard cider, ciders inspired by aguas frescas.

La Familia Cider Company founder José Gonzales is a first-generation Mexican-American. He runs La Familia Cider Company with his wife, Shani, and their kids Jay Jay and Jezzelle. José and Shani grew up drinking aguas frescas, but couldn’t find those drinks in Oregon.

“As my wife and I were enjoying Oregon craft beer and cider, she said, ‘Too bad there aren’t any of the flavors we grew up with,” José said. So they developed their own brand with flavors reflecting their heritage.

Their ciders are from freshly-picked, northwest-grown apples, but the flavors reflect the family’s Mexican heritage. Mainstay flavors include Manzana, Tamarindo and Hibiscus. 

“With our ciders we wanted to do something a little bit different,” explained Jay Jay. “Change up the game a little bit.”

Today, the Salem, Ore.-based brand is in more than 50 stores in Oregon and Washington.

Read more (KGW8)

Science met the culinary arts in Chicago, at the first in-person conference of The Fermentation Association (TFA), FERMENTATION 2022. Over 200 food and beverage professionals from 15 countries Participated in four days of programming.

“There’s no denying that fermentation is having a moment – and that’s a wonderful thing that more and more people are aware of fermentation and interested in fermentation – but it’s really important to keep saying fermentation is not a fad, fermentation is a fact,” said Sandor Katz, fermentation author and educator. 

Katz was the opening keynote speaker at FERMENTATION 2022. The nearly 50 experts and thought leaders who presented included Dan Saladino (BBC journalist and author of Eating to Extinction), Kirsten Shockey (author, educator and co-founder of The Fermentation School), Bob Hutkins (food microbiology professor at University of Nebraska and founder of Synbiotic Health), Sharon Flynn (founder of The Fermentary in Melbourne, Australia), Bruce Friedrich (co-founder and executive director of The Good Food Institute), Maria Marco (food science professor at University of California, Davis) and Sean Brock (chef and owner of Nashville’s Audrey Restaurant). 

The conference comes as sales of fermented foods and beverages continue to rise. Fermented products grew 7.1% in the last year, according to SPINS LLC, a data provider for natural, organic and specialty products that also presented at FERMENTATION 2022.

Though Katz taught his first fermentation workshop in 1998, he’s seen “a building interest in fermentation” in the last decade. Each year since 2011, “someone says the food trend of the year is fermentation.”

“Usually I end up being a cheerleader for fermentation, encouraging people who somehow think that fermentation is an alien process, that there’s something scary about it,” he said. “I mostly reassure people that they’ve been eating products of fermentation almost every day for their entire lives, that these are processes that their safety has been proven by their endurance over time. But you all don’t need to hear that. I am speaking to the converted here.”

Where Science Meets Industry

TFA aims to fill a niche in the world of fermentation. There are plenty of DIY fermentation festivals, food and beverage industry conferences and trade shows. But TFA connects science and industry.

Attendees at the event included an array of professionals involved in fermentation – producers, retailers, chefs, scientists, researchers, authors, suppliers, educators and regulators. The conference revolved around three tracks: food, flavor and culture; science and health; and business, legal and regulatory. The group of passionate fermenters in attendance uniformly expressed their excitement and delight to learn from experts in different disciplines.

“This unique conference had the most diverse attendees as it included chefs, scientists and more,” said Glory Bui, a graduate student researcher at the University of California, Davis. “It was nice to network with those who were and were not in academia to hear different perspectives in the fermentation industry.” [Bui won the student poster competition with her research on how fermented dairy products can affect gastrointestinal health.]

Producers made up over 40% of attendees and ran the gamut from small to large scale. Sash Sunday, founder and fermentationist behind OlyKraut in Olympia, Wash., said she’s been searching for such a fermentation conference since starting her brand in 2008.

“I really appreciate getting to spend time getting to know other fermenters, hearing about people’s creative processes and experiences in the field,” Sunday said. “I really loved all the tastings and spending time with people who really think about the flavors in fermented foods.”

Niccolo Fraschetti, owner of Alive Ferments, said networking was one of his favorite parts of the conference.

“There were people there that were superstars of fermentation to people making kimchi in the bathtub,” Fraschetti said. “It was such a cool merging of fermentation.”

Fraschetti officially launched Alive Ferments in March and said he never expected the brand to grow so fast, so quickly. Alive Ferments currently is sold in 25 stores in the San Diego area. At FERMENTATION 2022, he brainstormed ideas with attendees and speakers. 

“Usually I feel like in these situations, everyone is tight-lipped and doesn’t want to share (business secrets),” he said. “But everyone was a really embracing community and willing to share their knowledge. There was no competition between the peers that were at the conference.”

Connecting with others in the industry was a highlight, too, for Suzette Smith, founder of Garden Goddess Ferments and Pick up the Beet in Arizona.

“I loved that like minds were able to come together sharing similar passions,” Smith said. (I also loved “learning what’s new in the promotion of fermented foods.”

Gregory Smith, an independent chef based in Pittsburgh, said he “drove back from Chicago with my mind racing about all the things I learned.” He said the various chefs who spoke at the conference – like Flynn, Brock, Ismail Samad of Wake Robin Foods, Jessica Alonzo of Native Ferments, Misti Norris of Petra and the Beast and Jeremy Kean of Brassica Kitchen – inspired him to dive into upcycling.

“I’m excited about the way they made me look at food waste in the kitchen space and how to help utilize waste and taking excess product and converting it into something tasty,” said Smith, who runs his independent culinary service Thyme, Love & Culture with friend Romeo Kihumbu. 

Karen Wang Diggs, founder of the ChouAmi fermentation device, spoke at the event in a session on fermenting with medicinal plants. She said it was “an honor” to speak at FERMENTATION 2022.

“I got to hang out with a bunch of really cool, ‘cultured,’ fermenting people – and the presentations were fabulous,” she said.

Added Neal Vitale, executive director of The Fermentation Association: “It was a privilege to have a stellar lineup of speakers. It was great to get to get together at last and explore so many aspects of fermentation.”

Focus on Food

Other events at the conference included: a dinner with a fermentation-focused menu prepared by Rick Bayless, chef and restaurateur; a mezcal tasting with Lou Bank, founder of SACRED and the Agave Road Trip podcast; a craft beer and chocolate pairing with Long Beach Beer, Bread and Spirits Lab; a flavor analysis workshop with Sensory Spectrum Inc.; a screening of Ed Lee’s film Fermented (complete with buttered popcorn!); and multiple book signings.

Bayless, the James Beard Award winner who runs multiple Chicago restaurants, mingled with conference attendees during the dinner. He said he and his staff enjoyed the challenge of putting something fermented in every course.

“This is the first time we’ve done a meal that is so heavily fermented,” he said, “and we had a lot of fun doing it.”

Courses included a fermented corn masa tamal, beed with a fermented black bean sauce made with black bean miso and Oaxacan pasilla chile, smoked yellowfin tuna in a broth of tejuino (fermented corn drink), and chocolate from Tabasco, Mexico, with tepache (fermented pineapple) sorbet . 

“I was at a conference with Sandor Katz years ago and I talked to him about making black bean miso, and now I get to serve it to him,” Bayless said.

The Fermentation Association was started in 2017 as the brainchild ofJohn Gray, then the owner of Bubbies Pickles. His goal was simple – to bring together everyone in the world of fermentation. Today, TFA circulates its biweekly newsletter to nearly 14,000, is followed by over 11,000 on Instagram and will next develop its presence on LinkedIn. The Association is run by a small staff and a 22-member Advisory Board, including six Science Advisors.

FERMENTATION 2022 was originally planned to be a May 2020 event, but obviously postponed due to Covid-19. A virtual FERMENTATION 2021 was held in November 2021. TFA will announce plans for 2023 and beyond in the coming months. 

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.”

If you still think of hot dogs and deep dish pizza as the icons of Chicago’s culinary scene, you need to think again. The so-called “Capital of the Midwest” is a hub of innovation in the food industry. Chicago has the largest food and beverage production in the U.S., with an annual output of $9.4 billion Startup companies in the region raised $723 million in venture capital last year. 

“Chicago is one of the most diverse cities for eating,” says Anna Desai, Chicago-based influencer of ‘Would You Like Something to Eat’ on Instagram. ”Our culinary scene is constantly elevating and evolving. We are always just a neighborhood or tollway away from experiencing a new culture and cuisine. I’m most excited when I find an under-the-radar spot or discover a maker who can pair flavors and ingredients that get you curious and wanting more.”

Desai wanted to celebrate and champion the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community in the Chicago food and beverage scene. She says “food has long served as a cultural crossroad” and Chicago’s multicultural cuisine exemplifies that sentiment. 

Chicago is home to some of the most creative minds in fermentation, from celebrity chefs, zero waste ventures, alternative protein corporations, the world’s largest commercial kefir producer and plenty of regional and artisanal producers lacto-fermenting vegetables, brewing kombucha and experimenting with microbes in food and drink.

“Chicago is a great food city in its own right, so naturally there is a ton of talent in the fermentation space,” says Sam Smithson, chef and culinary director of CultureBox, a Chicago fermentation subscription box. “The pandemic’s effect on restaurants has also spawned a new wave of fermenters (ourselves included) that are looking for a path outside the grueling and uncertain restaurant structure to display our creative efforts. This new wave is undoubtedly community-motivated and concerned more with mutual aid than competition. There is a general feeling that we are all working towards the same goal so cooperation and collaboration is soaring and we are seeing incredible food come from that.”

Flavor is King

Flavor development is still the prime motivation for chefs to experiment with fermentation. A good example is at Heritage Restaurant and Caviar Bar in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. 

“Fermentation has been a cornerstone of the restaurant since its inception,” says Tiffany Meikle, co-owner of Heritage with her husband, Guy. “With the diverse cuisines we pull from, both from Eastern and Central Europe and East Asia, we researched fermentation methodologies and histories, and started to ‘connect the dots’ of each culture’s fermentation and pickling backgrounds.”

Menus have included sourdough dark Russian rye bread, toasted caraway sauerkraut, kimchi made from apples, Korean pears and beets and a kimchi using pickled ramps (wild onions). Heritage has also expanded their fermentation program to the bar, where they’ve created homemade kombucha, roasted pineapple tepache, sweet pickled fruits for cocktail garnishes, and kimchi-infused bloody mary mix. 

“It’s fascinating to me that there are so many ingredients you can use in a fermented product,” says Claire Ridge, co-founder of Luna Bay Booch, a Chicago-based alcoholic kombucha producer. “People are really experimenting with interesting ingredients in kombucha…I have seen brewers do some of the wildest recipes and some recipes that are very basic.”

Innovating Food

Chicago-based Lifeway Kefir is indicative of the innovation taking place in the city. Last year the company expanded into a new space: oat-based fermentation, launching a dairy-free, cultured oat milk with live and active probiotics.

“We’ve spent so many years laying the groundwork in fermented dairy,” says Julie Smolyansky, CEO. “Now we’re experimenting and expanding to see what’s over the next horizon, though we’ll always have kefir as our first love.”

Chicago is home for two inventive fermented alternative protein startups: Nature’s Fynd and Hyfé Foods. Both companies were born out of the desire to create alt foods without damaging the environmental. 

“Conscious consumerism is a trend that’s driving many people to try alternative proteins, and it’s not hard to understand why,” says Debbie Yaver, chief scientific officer at Nature’s Fynd. The company uses fermentation technology to grow Fy, a nutritional fungi protein. “Fungi as a source of protein offer a shortcut through the food chain because they don’t require the acres of land or water needed to support plant growth or animal grazing, making fungi-based protein more efficient to produce than other options.”

Alternative foods outlasting the typical trend cycle is a challenge for companies like Nature’s Fynd. When grown at scale, Fy uses 99% less land, 99% less water and emits 94% fewer greenhouse gasses than raising beef. But, to make an impact, “we need more than just vegans and vegetarians to make changes in their diets,” Yaver adds.

Waste Not

Numerous companies are using fermentation as a means to eliminate waste. Hyfé Foods, another player in the alternative protein space, repurposes sugar water from food production to create a low-carb, protein-rich flour. Fermentation turns a waste product into mycelium flour, mycelium being the root network – or hyphae (hence the company name) — of mushrooms. 

“[We’re] diverting input to the landfill and reducing greenhouse gas emissions at scale,” says Michelle Ruiz, founder. “Hyfé operates at the intersection of climate and health, enabling regional production of low cost, alternative protein that reduces carbon emissions and is decoupled from agriculture.”

Symmetry Wood is another Chicago upcycler. They convert SCOBY from kombucha into a material, Pyrus, that resembles exotic wood. Founder Gabe Tavas says Pyrus has been used to produce guitar picks, jewelry and veneers. Symmetry uses the discarded SCOBY from local kombucha brand Kombuchade.

Many area restaurants and culinary brands also use  fermentation to preserve food for the long Chicago winters, when local produce isn’t available. Pop-up restaurant Andare, for example, incorporates fermentation into classic Italian dishes. 

“Finding ways to utilize what would otherwise be waste products inspired our initial dive into fermentation. The goal is not just to use what’s leftover, but to make it into something delicious and unique,” says Mo Scariano, Andare’s CEO. “One of our first dishes employing koji fermentation was a summer squash stuffed cappellacci served with a butter sauce made from carrot juice fermented with arborio rice koji. Living in a place with a short grow season, preservation through fermentation allowed us access throughout the year to ingredients we only have fresh for a few weeks during the summer.”

Industry Challenges

Despite growing interest and increasing sales, fermenters face some significant hurdles.

Smithson at CultureBox says he sees that consumers are open to unorthodox, less traditional ferments. Though favorites like kombucha and sauerkraut dominate the market, “their share is being encroached on by increasingly more varied and niche ferments.” But getting these products to market can be a challenge. Small-scale, culinary producers are challenged by the regulatory hoops they need to jump through to legally sell ferments – especially unusual ones a food inspector doesn’t recognize. 

“The added layer of city regulations on top of state requirements, sluggish health department responses, and inflexible policy chill the potential of small producers,” Smithson says. But he highlights the recently-passed Home-to-Market Act of Illinois as positive legislation helping startup fermenters.

Consumer awareness and education are also vital. “Many longstanding and harmful misconceptions on the safety and value of fermented products still exist,” Smithson says.

Matt Lancor, founder and CEO of Kombuchade makes consumer education a core part of marketing, to align kombucha as a recovery drink.

“Most mainstream kombuchas are marketed towards the yoga/crystal/candle crowd, and I saw a major opportunity to create and market a product for the mainstream athletic community,” he says. “We’re on a mission to educate athletes and the general public about these newly discovered organs [the gut] – our second brain – and fuel the next generation of American athletes with thirst quenching, probiotic rich beverages.”

Product packaging provides much of a consumer’s education. Jack Joseph, founder and CEO of Komunity Kombucha, says simplicity is key. 

“People are more conscious of their health now, more than ever before,” he says. “So now it comes down to the education of the product and creating something that is transparent and easy for the consumer to digest.”

Sebastian Vargo of Chicago-based Vargo Brother Ferments agrees. 

“Oftentimes food is considered ‘safe’ due to lack of microbes and how sterile it is,” he says. “Fermentation eschews the traditional sense of what makes food ‘safe’. We need to create a set standardized guide for fermented food to follow, and change our view of living foods in general. One of the brightest spots to me is the fact that fermentation is really hitting its stride and finding its place in the modern world, and I don’t see it going anywhere but up in the near future.”

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.”

In anticipation for our conference FERMENTATION 2022 in Chicago, TFA asked over a dozen area fermenters about what they love about the city’s fermentation scene. Their answers touched on a number of points: creativity in foods and beverages, diverse offerings, scrappy and determined founders, supportive community and evolving foodscape.

Below are the answers from three local fermentation experts – kefir company founder Julie Smolyansky (Lifeway Kefir), local ferments producer Sebastian Vargo (Vargo Brother Ferments) and chief scientific officer Debbie Yaver, PhD (Nature’s Fynd).

The question: What do you love about the Chicago fermentation scene?

Julie Smolyansky, Lifeway Kefir

Chicago is a true melting pot. We have diversity, talent, and lots of skilled manufacturing talent. It’s one of the premier food cities in the world and I’m so grateful that we’ve been able to build our business and community in Chicago. The natural foods, fermentation, and dining scene all commingle to create opportunities for a special type of risk-taking that’s uniquely Chicago. Lots of it bubbles under the radar – who would have guessed that the kefir capital of the United States is in the Midwest?

Sebastian Vargo, Vargo Brother Ferments 

I love the fact that we are seeing more fermentation than ever, from restaurants to store shelves to folks starting projects at home. I love the community behind it, folks are sharing recipes and exchanging tips and tricks. People don’t have time for gatekeeping anymore.

 Debbie Yaver, Nature’s Fynd

I love that it flips the script. For so long Chicago was known as the “Hog Butcher to the World,” but now one of the oldest technologies in the books is experiencing a renaissance. There are lots of companies utilizing traditional fermentation, but not as many in the food space. It’s exciting to be one of the newer kids on the block, to see how different companies are putting fermentation to work, and to get to pull from such a stocked talent pool. Chicago is full of bright minds with deep fermentation experience.

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)