More fermentation brands are creating ways to connect with their customers, face-to-face. Harvest Roots Ferments started in 2012 as a small farm in Birmingham, Ala. “At the time, Lindsay was fermenting kraut and kombucha for our farmers market table. Our customers wanted ferments way more than kale,” said Pete Halupka, who runs Harvest Roots Ferments with Lindsay Whiteaker. “About three of four years ago, we committed fully to fermentation. Now we produce kombucha, kraut, kimchi and other fermented vegetables and sell them across Alabama.” Now Harvest Roots Ferments is opening Birmingham’s first kombucha taproom. No longer traditional farmers (they source from local farmers, buying 75,000 pounds of produce since 2015), Harvest Roots Ferments is looking to build and connect to the Birmingham community that has helped their business grow. Halupka continues: “We love community in all forms—from the microbial community in action fermenting our products to the community found in our Southern forests and our human community across Birmingham—and we want our space to be a reflection of this.”
Read more (BHam Now)
Baltimore-based Wild Kombucha has grown massively since their founding almost five years ago, increasing sales 466 percent in the last three years. The founders hard work and the drink’s delicious flavor helped propel the brand into 1,000 stores in eight states and Washington D.C.
At Natural Products Expo East, Wild Kombucha’s three co-founders point to another factor in their success: the city of Baltimore.
“A big piece was telling people we’re a local kombucha company, it’s Baltimore made,” says Sergio Malarin. “People here are super focused on local, they really love it. A lot of the initial accounts we worked with didn’t even bat an eye about bringing us in. Eddie’s Market, Charmington’s, One World Café, all the healthier, vegan and vegetarian independently-owned grocery stores and cafes, they brought us in and started selling us, fast.”
Co-founders Malarin, Adam Bufano and Sid Sharma are all first-generation Americans raised in Baltimore. The trio (Bufano and Malarin are step-brothers – Sharms is a childhood friend) take great pride in their hometown, praising the locals as a factor in Wild Kombucha’s success. They started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in February 2015 as a side gig, brewing in the evenings after their day jobs. They officially left their former careers for Wild Kombucha in August 2016, the day Whole Foods agreed to sell Wild Kombucha.
Today, Wild Kombucha employs 21 people and is brewing 10,000 bottles and 50 kegs of kombucha each week. They’ve moved to a 13,000-square-foot brewery and taproom in Baltimore. They will release their new flavor — a CBD kombucha flavor — in October.
“We’ve focused on how to educate the community around us on the health benefits of kombucha,” says Bufano. “So many people come to our demo tables and say ‘I don’t like kombucha, but then they try ours and they buy a bottle because it’s very approachable.”
Below is a Q&A with Bufano, Malarin and Sharma, who spoke with The Fermentation Association at their booth during Expo East.
Q: How did you start Wild Kombucha?
Bufano: Sergio and I are stepbrothers. Our family brewed kombucha when we were younger; our parents taught us when we were like 10 years old. And then I continued to brew from then basically until now, perfecting the recipe every time. I started selling it to my friends and then, at a certain point, I was trading it for rent. I was selling it to Hopkins students (John Hopkins University of Medicine). I had this big group of Hopkins students that would come to my house, grab a six-pack and bring me the empty bottles, I’d sanitize and refill them. And then I reached a point where I had to start charging people a little bit more to make it an actual business. That’s when Sergio and I hooked up and came up with a plan to expand and make it a little more legit. Sid is a childhood friend of ours, so we brought him on, too.
Q: You started with your parent’s kombucha recipe. Where did this kombucha recipe originate from?
Malarin: Our parents learned about fermented foods was from this woman, Sally Fallon, who wrote this famous book called “Nourishing Traditions.” She is a best-selling author, and my mom actually became one of her top volunteers and became friends with her.
Bufano: So we would make like sauerkraut, kefir…
Malarin: Water kefir, milk kefir, sourdough…
Bufano: And it went beyond fermentation. Our fridge was pretty crazy.
Q: Sounds like your parents were very health.
Malarin: Yes. They were super into fermented foods.
Bufano: And this was in the ‘90s, before it was cool.
Q: Where did your kombucha recipe originate from?
Bufano: My parents learned from Sally Fallon how to make it, but they really made it their own. I used their recipe, which wasn’t very good at that point, and improved it.
Q: What makes Wild
Malarin: It’s a lot more approachable than other kombuchas. So the taste, but also the package. Our mission is to make kombucha approachable and available to everyone. So not necessarily the Whole Foods crowd, we want this something the average joe in Baltimore can grab.
Sharma: It has a fresher flavor profile. So because of that, we also have lower sugar, so really the fruit comes out so you don’t need to add sugar after the fact.
Malarin: What really differentiates us as a company is we are one of the few cause-driven kombucha companies. We donate 1% of our sales to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – that’s what makes us Wild Kombucha.
Q: Why did you decide on the Chesepeake Bay Foundation?
Malarin: Since we were kids, we’ve gone swimming on the Eastern Shore. For us, it’s super important. It’s where we live, it’s a huge ecosystem. We really feel our community goes beyond the people in it, it extends to the ecosystem and the wildlife as well.
Sharma: We want to put resources back into the place where we’re using the resources.
Malarin: For us it’s very important to be more than a bottom line. We want to be a business that gives back in many, many ways in the community. We are located in Northwest Baltimore, which is a bit of a food dessert. We opened a taproom out there and we’ve been hosting yoga classes there, we’ll do a speaker series soon. We want the community to be able to participate and be a part of wwat we’re doing.
Q: Tell me how important that was to be in Baltimore. You moved a few years ago from Baltimore to the suburbs, and now you’ve moved back to Baltimore.
Bufano: We tried to stay in Baltimore at that time, but in order for us to push ourselves forward, the only option for us was to move to this space that we found in the Timonium area outside of Baltimore. Just moving back into Baltimore was a huge thing for us. We’d been looking for a space for a while, anticipating our move back. We feel a connection here, we want to support the city. A lot of businesses are moving out of Baltimore, so Baltimore really needs support right now.
Q: Why does Baltimore need the support of local businesses like Wild Kombucha?
Malarin: Baltimore is getting a lot of negative attention in the media. From Freddie Gray and all the craziness that came out of that as well as just the stuff Trump has been saying, and there’s been a big focus on the violence. A lot of other big cities have a lot of negative things too, but you don’t hear people saying those things about, like Chicago. People say the sausages are good in Chicago, the jazz and blues music are good, but there are a lot of murders in Chicago, too. The media doesn’t focus solely on the negative in other cities like in Baltimore.
Sharma: There’s this unfortunate migration out of the city. And there’s a wealth gap, this poverty gap that exists within Baltimore. By employing people in the city, we’re able to make a difference there. By putting local products into the economy, we keep the dollars inside Baltimore as well. It’s about helping the people around us, helping the people who have supported us and allowed us to grow, and paying it forward.
Q: Your sales have skyrocketed since your start in 2015. How do you think you’ve grown so much?
Malarin: A lot of hands-on work on our part. We very much went out and met people and talked to people and shook hands and pounded the pavement and made real connections instead of going through a broker. We didn’t cut corners. Another reason is our product is delicious and approachable. And finally, the last reason is kombucha in general, it’s the fastest growing sector of the non-alcoholic beverage industry, so we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve gotten to ride that wave a little bit. We don’t have a lot of natural competition where we are. Kombucha is still a lot of west coast companies, and shipping is really expensive across the country. So we’ve been able to compete very directly in terms of price point with these multi-million dollar companies that are backed by Coca Cola and Pepsi.
Q: That’s impressive you can compete with the big brands.
Bufano: We started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in 2015. We were in Whole Foods in August 2016.
Malarin: We were selling at the side of a juice shop, initially. We didn’t have any starting capital. We were a bunch of 24 year olds, so no bank wanted to give us loans. We found a way to get around a lot of the licensing from the health department. We went to an active juice shop that had all the licensing, and we were able to circumvent all those costs by operating through a sublease from them. We initially rented a space that was tiny.
Bufano: We were making enough kombucha that we couldn’t fit it in the fridges we had, so we actually had to sell them when they finished fermenting, on the same day, since it needs to be refrigerated. So when the fermentation day was done, we’d immediately have to put the kombucha in our cars and drive it around to stores.
Q: Most new food brands I talk to have to start at a farmer’s market to get their name out there. You guys were able to get Wild Kombucha into local stores very quickly.
Bufano: We didn’t really go the farmers market route. We area in some now, but it’s really been in the last year that we started doing the farmers market thing because we felt like we weren’t connected as much as we liked to be to the community, we felt we took a step back in the wrong direction after a certain point. that’s why we started the farmers market program so we could be back in it.
Q: Your production and offices are on the same site; you’re not using a copacker. Why was that important to you, to have everything on site?
Bufano: Company culture to us is really important. Creating a team of people that all have a common goal that we’re all working towards, you really feel more unstoppable in that sense. If you separate people – we noticed this with some of our offsite sales people that were in Philly – we felt disconnected. We always had trouble making them feel like they were a part of the team. We wanted to make them feel a part of the team as much as possible. We want to keep everyone as close as possible. A lot of our demo team actually works out of our facility and we pay for them to travel farther away to do demos and come back to the Baltimore office.
Malarin: With the copacking, or lack thereof, we produce everything in house. It’s been really important because, initially for us, it was very important to have full control of the product. Learning how to scale up and how to control it. At the end of the day, if you’re not making your own product, you’re just the middle man. We saw that go into effect in very negative ways for people that we’re friends with, people at other local companies. Once the copacker realized they were doing well, they’d raise their prices.
Bufano: Just relying on someone like that for your whole company and your whole product, that’s too big of a risk for us. Quality control is super important to us. We are right there all the time, making sure everything is how we like it.
Q: That enables you to be out on the production floor, too, monitoring brewing.
Bufano: Oh yes, I am right there. Watching the mother kombucha, singing to the cultures.
Q: How did you get funding to start Wild Kombucha?
Bufano: It was about $5,000 a person that we just put in.
Malarin: Shortly after, we signed a lease for a new space, but we did not have the money for it. We needed like $30,000 in the beginning. So we entered a business competition and the top prize was $30,000. So we signed the lease, then we went to the business competition and we won. It was called the Shore Hatchery at the Salisbury University Perdue School of Business, it’s a one-minute timed pitch, “Shark Tank” style. But they don’t take any equity, they just give you money, a grant. The most you can get it $45,000, but the most you can get at one time is $30,000. So we came and got the other $15,000 during the next competition.
Bufano: If that didn’t happen, we would have had to pull out of that lease. We would been a very different company.
Q: What would be your advice to other entrepreneurs wanting to start a fermentation brand.
Malarin: Don’t do it alone.
Bufano: I’d agree. Having the three of us was so amazing. If one of us was having a tough time, we could lean on the other person. You really feel lonely if you do something alone especially up to this caliber, you sacrifice your social life. Have a partner, give them some equity, do it together.
Q: Where do you see the future of the fermentation industry?
Malarin: It’s only going up. Soda sales have been tanking for a better part of the decade, if not longer, and there’s a lot of things coming in to fill the void. This whole expo is a testament to that.
Bufano: The awareness for kombucha seems to be growing faster than the industry is growing, the market share doesn’t seem to be getting smaller even with more companies popping up. More people are getting educated about kombucha.
Malarin: A lot of the other kombucha companies on the market help us, if they’re doing it the right way. Because they educate people on it, then those people, when they come into our area, they’re much more likely to try our product.
Bufano: It’s between 5 and 10 percent of the U.S. population that doesn’t know what kombucha is.
Sergio: Very few people know about it still, so there’s a lot of room for growth.
Q: What challenges do you think fermented drink producers and kombucha producers face?
Bufano: It might not be as big as an issue anymore, but just educating the government agencies about what kombucha is, that’s been a huge hurdle for us. Especially in smaller cities if you’re the first fermented beverage company that opens there. Educating them about it, especially the health department, that was huge for us. You have to create a whole other category for yourself.
Malarin: It will be nice too when there’s more regulation on labeling kombucha. Right now, people throw kombucha on whatever they want and it’s not kombucha at all. Its misleading and it’s confusing to people.
Bufano: We look forward to the day that kombucha is labeled correctly, so you can see what is authentic kombucha and what isn’t.
Q: What strengths do you think kombucha producers bring to the industry?
Malarin: I feel like a lot of kombucha producers in one way or another are very tied to the communities they produce in. Much more than these huge conglomerates, so I think it brings this much more dynamic side to business that a lot of these huge corporations just can’t have. It’s changing the whole way business is done, reverting to something a little more personal.
Bufano: What I’ve seen from other kombucha companies, they treat their employees really well, at least what we’ve seen so far. I think that’s kind of been a norm in the industry, which is pretty cool.
LA Times shares the story behind Health-Ade Kombucha, one of America’s top kombucha brands that will sell more than 4 million cases this year. It’s hard to believe the mega kombucha label began at a farmers market in 2012, with labels attached to bottles with scotch tape. Health-Ade struggled at the start, getting evicted from their apartment for brewing kombucha and racking up parking tickets when they drove kombucha around for distribution in their own cars. CEO Daina Trout said the company’s founders “were ‘success at any cost’ types of people.”
Read more (Los Angeles Times)
As more people battle digestive problems, they’re turning to brands offering gut health solutions. Digestive health is the third most sought after health benefit in the latest International Food Information Council Food & Health Survey, behind weight loss and energy.
Though it’s a hot topic, it’s a space challenged with unsupported health claims and confusing ingredient additives. During a panel hosted by Food Navigator, four industry leaders shared insight into the growing gut health category.
“What we’ve learned is that many of our consumers come into our brand typically with serious, long term digestive health challenges. Bloating, regularity challenges, IBS,” said Mitchell Kruesi, senior brand manager for Goodbelly, which creates probiotic drinks and snacks. “They’ve tried supplements in the past, but weren’t super enthusiastic about them because often times taking a supplement felt medicinal to them. After that, they continue to seek out other probiotic options that are both effective, but also food-based so that it’s easy to fit in their routine.”
Plagued with health issues and fed-up with pills, consumers are desiring food brands that aid digestive health. Flavor, though, is key.
“That delicious taste…it sets up an everyday usage routine, which is critical with probiotics,” Kruesi said.
Probiotics is a confusing territory for consumers. Should probiotics be consumed in pills or as a strain added to food? How much should be taken?
Elaine Watson, Food Navigator editor, quoted GT Dave, founder of GT Kombucha: “In my mind, anything raw and fermented deserves to use the term ‘probiotic.” Watson asked the panelists if there’s a perception that all fermented foods contain probiotics because they contain live, active cultures – and should food advertising probiotics be verified by clinically proven studies?
“I think consumers are quite confused still around the whole topic, in all honestly. Live, active cultures are used to make fermented food beverages – but unlink probiotics, they’re typically not studied and shown to provide a health benefit,” said Angela Grist, Activia US marketing director. Really in order to be considered a probiotic, they would need to meet the criteria of survival and research-validated health benefits and also this point around strain specificity.”
Grist said probiotics need to survive the passage through the digestive track to the colon. Activia has five survival studies showing the benefits of probiotics.
Ben Goodwin, co-founder of Olipop, added he’s conducted genetic assays around the underlying culture banks of fermented food and beverages and “there have definitely been organisms in the culture banks which are deleterious for human health. So not everything that’s fermented is automatically good for human health, there’s all sorts of different biological modes that organisms can interact with each other and some become parasitic or become determinantal to your probiotic when consumed, so something to keep in mind.”
Note that the panel did not feature a raw, fermented food brand; the companies included on the panel all add probiotic strains to their food and drink product.
In a separate interview with The Fermentation Association, Maria Marco, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, said there is a lot of confusion around probiotics, even among industry representatives. Marco, though, agrees with Grist and Goodwin. She says clinical studies on fermented foods are necessary.
“Although it might be possible to separate out the individual components of foods for known health benefits (e.g. vitamin C), the benefits of many foods are likely the result of multiple components that are not easily separated,” Marco said. “Yogurt consumption is a great example of a fermented food that, through longitudinal studies, was shown to be inversely associated with CVD risk.”
In one of Marco’s studies at UC Davis titled “Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond,” Marco and her research associates concluded that fermented foods: are “phylogenetically related to probiotic strains,” “an important dietary source of live microorganisms,” and the microbes in fermented foods “may contribute to human health in a manner similar to probiotics.” The study adds: “Although only a limited number of clinical studies on fermented foods have been performed, there is evidence that these foods provide health benefits well-beyond the starting food materials.”
The panel said that the food industry is responsible for displaying integrity in their marketing on probiotic benefits.
“We believe it’s critical for leading brands in the space…to really educate consumers on, first, what probiotics are,” said Kruesi with Goodbelly. Consumers are seeking out probiotics for a specific health benefit, but most don’t know what strain they need to address their issue, he noted.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that aid the digestive system by balancing gut bacteria.
Currently, the demographic of consumers buying products geared toward gut health are millennial females in coastal cities. Both Activia and Olipop sell to more women than men (Activia customers are 60 percent female and 40 percent male; Olipop customers are 55 percent female and 45 percent male).
Goodwin said Olipop is hoping to tap into the rapidly declining soda market. Soda is a $65 billion industry, with 90 percent household penetration. But more consumers are turning to healthier options than unnatural, sugar-filled soda.
“We’ve tried to take on the extra responsibility as a brand of formulating something that’s spun forward, delicious and really approachable so that we can meet a real health need in a way that’s actually supported by research,” Goodwin said. “(Olipop) is not only low sugar, low calorie, it also has this digestive health function but obviously doesn’t taste like vinegar because it’s not a kombucha.”
Solving Digestive Stress
Products by Activia, Goodbelly, Olipop and Uplift Food (the fourth panel member) are “meant to be a mass solution for the lack of fiber prebiotics and nutritional diversity in the modern diet,” Goodwin said. Fiber contains prebiotics, which aid probiotics.
The USDA’s dietary guidelines recommend adult men require 34 grams of fiber, while adult women require 28 grams of fiber (depending on age). The reality, though, is that most Americans get about half the recommended fiber a day, only 15 grams. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 60-70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases.
Compare that to the diet of hunter-gatherers, who eat about 100-150 grams of fiber each day and maintain incredibly healthy guts or microbiome. The microbiome is the community of commensal microorganisms in our intestines, fed by fiber, probiotics and prebiotics.
“As it stands now, basically we’re putting in a starvation system for a lot of the microorganisms currently in your gut,” Goodwin said. “The average industrialized consumer has about 50 percent less diversity and abundance of beneficial microorganisms than the hunger-gatherers alive on the planet tonight.”
Future of Gut Health Products
Grist with Activia said probiotics need to be consumed in adequate, regular amounts to provide health benefits, or else probiotics will not consume the digestive track.
Kara Landau, dietitian and founder for Uplift Foods which makes prebiotic foods, added that each individual has a unique bacterial make-up, and providing diverse food to support the microbiome is critical.
Landau said the future of gut health probiotics will be selling a specific probiotic strain, one that a consumer can target for their desired health benefit. Prebiotics – “the fuel for the probiotics” – are also key, and a new part of the digestive health puzzle that brands need to communicate and simplify for consumers.
“Prebiotics are still very much in their infancy when it comes to consumer understanding,” Landau said. “Seeing them alongside probiotics enhances the clarity of their benefits.”
Thanks to new state law, “Maryland is fermenting as a rising powerhouse in the craft beer brewing industry,” writes the Baltimore Sun. Breweries in Maryland have an economic impact of over $910 million. As multiple breweries across the nation still face restrictive laws that keep them from operating at full capacity, new legislation in Maryland increased the number of barrels a brewery can sell from 500 per year to 5,000. After the local municipality of Carroll County changed zoning to allow breweries in industrial zones, there are now seven breweries in the county. Brewery Fire co-owner Jesse Johnson said: “The mayor and council laid out the rest carpet for us.” A brewer for 10 years, Johnson said counties are usually horrible to work with when opening a business brewing and selling alcohol, but Maryland’s lawmakers have “been a dream to work with.”
Read more (Baltimore Sun)
“Everything cultured, fizzy-fied and aged is old-but-new again,” writes Dallas Morning News in their feature on the rising popularity of pu’er dark teas. Known as aged, vintage or post-fermented teas, dark teas are made from leaves that have undergone microbial fermentation. The article continues: “Fermented tea leaves reportedly started as a happy accident, with teas transported in travel-friendly pressed cakes through the humid, mountainous regions of Tea Horse Road, China’s ancient trade route to Tibet. The moisture created a breeding ground for microbes, which turned the leaves into something complex, earthy, smoky and entirely alluring and sought-after.”
Read more (Dallas Morning News)
The creative genius behind Noma’s Fermentation Lab, David Zilber says one of the best parts of fermenting is “to get very nerdy and go really deep and taste the whole Patheon of flavors that the microbial world produces.”
Zilber, author of “The Noma Guide to Fermentation” with Noma founder René Redzepi, spoke to Science Friday about his extensive knowledge of the food science craft. When Zilber started at Noma in 2014, he had extensive experience working in high-end restaurants. He had made kimchi working in an Asian restaurant and cooked with amazing soy sauce imported from Japan, but he never gave a second thought as to where the ingredients came from. At Noma, Redzepi noticed Zilber “had a knack for science…I was usually the gut that had the far too detailed answer,” Zilber says laughing as he describes answering colleague’s food questions. Redzepi movied Zilber to the fermentation lab, a world-famous lab that has helped secure Noma’s Michelin ranking as the 2nd best restaurant in the world.
In the radio interview, Zilber details the fermenter’s roll as a scientist, gives advice on preventing mold and shares why he thinks everyone should have a koji started on their counter. Below are highlights from Zilber’s interview with Science Friday host, Ira Flatow.
What is fermentation?
Zilber: The most succinct way I can define fermentation, in Layman’s term, is it’s the transformation of one ingredient into another by way of a microbe. If you imagine you start out with cabbage, then you get lactic acid bacteria to grow in and alongside your cabbage, in two or three week’s time, you end up with sauerkraut. It’s not the same as it was going in. You’ve cultivated — cultured really — this microorganism in your container with your cabbage. And low and behold, this transformation has taken place.
The Noma book says there’s a fine line between rot and fermentation.
Zilber: The rest of the analogy is that, as a fermenter, there’s actually three people in play in the definition of fermentation: the ingredients, the vegetables or the food stuff, the microbes, but also the person whose acting on that situation and actually wiling the ferment into existence. As the fermenter, you’re kind of the bouncer outside of the nightclub. The guy with the velvet rope, the big muscly dude, and you’re deciding who gets into the club and makes a great evening where everyone is sipping champagne and beautiful people all around and all the drunkards and rowdy boys stay outside. So that velvet rope that you use as a fermenter, those are all sorts of control points. Whether that be salt or access to oxygen or temperature or PH and acidity levels, these are all things you have at your disposal as a fermenter to make sure you’re actually fermenting and not rotting. Rot’s a club where everyone gets in; fermentation is where the party is popping.
Take us through lactic acid bacteria and fermentation.
Zilber: Fermentation, it’s one of the simplest processes you could undertake. By adding a little bit of salt to let’s say were talking like sauerkraut. You have your cabbage, you shred it to rupture the cabbage cells, and it makes it easy for bacteria to get inside there. Now lactic bacteria are all around us. They live on your skin, they’re on the skins of fruits and vegetables, they’re basically ever present in our environment. And as you add salt to that shredded cabbage, you’re making sure that any malevolent microbes — things that might cause the mixture to rot — are kept at bay. Salt is a really great anti-microbial, but lactic acid bacteria have a little bit of resistant to it, they can tolerate salt up to a certain point. So, you kind of clear the playing field for lactic acid bacteria to do their thing. They start consuming the carbohydrates and sugar in that cabbage and in doing so they leave something else behind, and that something else is an exclusionary chemical. That’s lactic acid. It sours the mixture and then makes it even harder for different things to grow. And overtime, that fermentation process peters out, they consume as much sugar as they can, the PH drops because of all the lactic acid they’ve produced, you have sour cabbage literally translated from German sauerkraut.
What’s the difference between pickled and fermented?
Zilber: Anyway you break it down, a pickled product is fermented. Now there’s two routes to picking — you can either do a quick pickle, which is making vinegar and then boiling your vinegar with a bit of salt and sugar and spices and then pouring that over your vegetables, or you can sour your vegetables into a pickle. Now the difference is there’s two different acids at play in there. With a quick pickle, a vinegar pickle, you’re using acetic acid. But with a sour pickle, you’re using lactic acid. So, a vinegar pickle, you have to first make the vinegar, and that is the sugars of fruits first transformed into alcohol by yeast and then another fermentation process happens. You have acetic acid bacteria, another ever present bacteria that is floating on dust in the air that will settle on an open bottle of wine and eventually sour it into vinegar. That gets poured over your vegetables, whether that’s carrots or radishes or cucumbers, and the PH drops so much so that its effectively preserved.
Lactic acid fermentation, the sour pickle, that’s the process I just described with sauerkraut, you’re getting it all to happen at once, you’re getting that bacteria to grow in and around the vegetable you’re looking to ferment, and it sours the brine, it sours the plant matter itself, and in one shot you have a pickle you can keep in your fridge for months.
Does fermentation always produce alcohol as a byproduct?
Zilber: No, it does not. There are many different types of fermentation, and some types of fermentation have nothing to do with alcohol at all. Now a biochemist might say, technically, that’s wrong because the very strict, textbook definition of fermentation is the transformation of glucose into ethanol in an enzymatic pathway by yeast. But, in the real world, in the much broader sense, as I said there’s all sorts of different metabolites or byproducts that you end up with in fermentation. Sometimes its sugar or MSG, the actual flavor of umami. Sometimes its alcohol. Other times it’s acids. So there’s a whole plate of different end products in the world of fermentation. And the more you understand it, the more you can kind of paint with these flavors and really tweak the world of food to your will.
What are are your recommendations for someone getting into fermentation?
Zilber: For the novice, start with the things you like eating before you start making things you’ve never really had before, before you try and get into the first half into the process of making soy sauce, start with something you really like eating, if you love pickles on your hot dogs, make pickles for the first time. It’s really easy. It’s something you can do on your kitchen counter, you can watch it happen before your eyes. For a citizen scientist who wants to go a little deeper, I think it’s really fun to take like craft brewing and really try to understand the world of yeast, which there really are like tens of thousands of different varieties that all have these different flavor profiles.
And the coolest thing about fermenting at home, and really getting into it and getting really nerdy with it, is you almost get to taste places on earth in your own garage or in your own apartment. You can get yeasts from Belgium and taste a piece of history because these yeasts have been cultivated in the rafters of abbeys that Belgian monks are famed for making their beers in. So it is really cool to get very nerdy and go really deep and taste the whole Patheon of flavors that the microbial world produces. But that’s one of the funest parts about fermenting. Once you start making fermenter friends, people are just sharing culture and having a good time and you get to taste a little big or someplace else.
What are you excited about in fermentation?
There’s a lot of things that people in the world of fermentation know really well, that’s because all of these ferments that we consume on the regular — whether it’s chocolate or coffee or pickles or wine — these are all very traditional products that have been passed down through generations over hundreds of years, that’s why we still make them today. But in the same way that that makes fermentation amazing, I also think of the way pharmaceutical companies send out teams of scientists into the Amazon jungle to find a rare type of mushroom that might produce some type of miracle drug that will change the face of the pharmaceutical industry. I wish there was someone like that in the world of fermentation, looking for that rare microbe that would produce a flavor no one has ever tasted yet.
What exactly is kombucha?
Zilber: Kombucha is a sweet and sour microbial tonic, I guess you could call it. But folklore goes back to an ancient Korean physician that would travel around Asia, again I don’t even know when in history this would have taken place, but that this physician would brew this drink and kind of heal people with it. Kombucha is basically sweetened tea that is then fermented in a symbiotic way by yeast, which converts the sugar into alcohol, and then acetic acid bacteria that convert that alcohol immediately into acetic acid, the acid that you taste in vinegar, like white vinegar. Now if you drink kombucha and you buy it off the store shelf, sometimes it might taste really vinegary and that is probably because, in my opinion, it’s over fermented. The thing you have to understand about fermentation is fermentation is cooking, it’s just cooking that happens much more slowly. So just in the same way you can overcook a piece of chicken by roasting it in a pan for too long, you can also over ferment something like a kombucha and make it too sour by letting it ride out on your kitchen counter for three weeks instead of two. And sometimes if you taste a kombucha and you’re like “Oh, this it a little hard to get down,” try making it yourself with some of the guidelines in the book and you might find that’s its really, really pleasant to drink.
Are there live probiotics in kombucha?
Zilber: There can be. Kombucha can be pasteurized, just like you know milk can be pasteurized or canned goods can be pasteurized. You can heat it and kill everything in it and not really affect the taste that much. If they say that there are live cultures in it, it means that it was fermented and nothing was really done to it after it was put in a bottle. Now there’s a lot of conflicting information about kombucha out there. And I’ve read a lot of pretty hardcore studies that say, well, a lot of this is a bit bunk. But at the end of the day, I’d probably say that drinking kombucha is probably better for you than drinking a can of Coca-Cola.
How do you handle prevent mold in sauerkraut?
Zilber: That is something you are constantly trying to fight back, especially when you lacto-ferment in something like a crock. There are so many variables that go into making a successful ferment. How clean was your vessel before you put the food in there? How clean were your hands, your utensils? How much salt did you use? How old was the cabbage you were even trying to ferment in the first place? Every little detail is basically another variable in the equation that leads to a fermented product being amazing or terrible. It’s a little bit like chaos theory, it’s a little bit like a butterfly flapping its wings and Thailand and causing a tornado in Ohio. But with lots of practice, you’ll begin to understand that, if it was 30 degrees that day, maybe things were getting a little too active, maybe the fermentation was happening a little bit too quickly. Maybe I opened it a couple times more than I should of and it was open to the air instead of being covered. So there’s lots of variables. But I would say that, if you’re having a lot of trouble with mold, just up the salt percentage by a couple percent. It will make for a saltier sauerkraut, but it will actually help to keep those microbes at bay.
In the book, you say koji is indistinguishable from magic. What is koji?
Zilber: It’s the biggest microbe you’ve never heard of it. Koji is responsible for everything tasty that comes out of east Asia. From China to Korea to Vietnam to especially Japan, it is a mold, a helpful mold called aspergillus oryzae. It is responsible for turning the starches in rice and barley and all sorts of grains into sugar. And it’s turning the protein in those same grains into the flavor umami. It’s responsible for soy sauce, for sake, for rice wine vinegar, for miso and it can be used in all sorts of novel and inventive ways as well. But you never see it as a finished product because it usually is kind of the first step in that process. I liken it to the step of molting barley when you make beer or whiskey. That’s basically how ancient Asia’s civilization came about that process of turning grains into something sweet that you can then ferment with yeast. They found a mold instead of finding the process of molting, and it’s absolutely remarkable for the flavors it brings to the table themselves.
How do you get koji?
Zilber: There’s a line that I say when people ask “How do start growing koji.” All life comes from life, all life comes from cells. At the end of the day, everything living on earth today has been an unbroken chain of succession for three and a half billion years, and koji is no exception. If your kid wants a golden retriever puppy for Christmas, you have to find a golden retriever mom. And it’s the same for koji, you’re going to have find a koji breeder and actually get some spores from them. We buy ours from a laboratory in japan, and we have them shipped over to Copenhagen.
This morning, you probably had a cup of one of the most popular fermented beverages: coffee. The Growler magazine article “Science of Coffee: the changing chemistry of coffee beans from farm to cup” details how coffee makers have embraced fermentation in recent years “to take maximum advantage of beans’ unique potentials. … The fickle nature of fermentation’s microfauna plays a bigger role in coffee than even many coffee industry people understand.” One coffee company founder shared the story of buying a unique variety of Colombian coffee with incredible flavor. When he bought the brand a year later, the flavor wasn’t as good. The reason — the bean grower started making good money off the coffee, and upgraded the wood fermentation tank to a stainless steel tank. “That totally changed the coffee.”
Read more (The Growler)
Fermentation traces back to many Ancient cultures, Korean and European the most publicized. Here is a fascinating look at fermentation in India from the newspaper “The Indian Express.”
From the article: “Fermented foods are a staple in the Indian diet, with most meals incomplete without a bevy of lacto-fermented achaars that add a healthy kick of flavours, from sweet-and-sour to spicy and tangy. These household staples are made by immersing fruits and vegetables in saltwater brine, releasing microbes that generate a natural preservative, in turn amping up the vitamin quotient and nutrition levels of your favourite pickle, whilst enhancing the complexity of flavours savoured with each bite. …
South Indian staples from idlis to appams and dosas feature fermented rice-and-dal batters; in the North, fermentation has led to probiotic drinks suited to the regional climate from the creamy lassi to the tart-and-salty kanji, featuring antioxidant-rich black carrots, mustard seeds, water and black salt, with the potent concoction preserved in ceramic jars and left to ferment in the sun for as long as two to three days before being strained and served. In fact, when you get down to it, even your favourite snacks involve an element of fermentation, with fluffy tea-time dhoklas (a Gujarati speciality) made with a fermented batter of besan or chana dal, curd, water, baking soda and turmeric.”
Read more (The Indian Express)
Starbucks Japan has a new drink: Lemon Yogurt Fermented Frappuccino. The inventive flavor contains three different fermented ingredients – can you guess what they are? Yogurt, cheese and amazake, a fermented rice drink. The yogurt is in the drink’s base, the cheese is in the shortbread topping and the amazake is in the lemon curd sauce. Writes Japan Today: “Fermenting is a process which has deep roots all over Japan, and Starbucks hopes this beverage can act as a little tribute to that tradition.”
Read more (Japan Today)