Fermentation is cloaked in mystery for many — it’s bubbly, slimy, stinky and not always Instagram-ready. In The Fermentation Association’s recent member survey, this lack of
understanding of fermentation and its flavor and health attributes among consumers was cited by 70% of producers as a major obstacle to increased sales and acceptance of fermented products.
“We get so many questions from our readers about fermentation. People are very interested, but have very, very little knowledge about it,” says Anahad O’Connor, reporter for The New York Times. O’Connor has written about fermented foods multiple times in the last few months, and those articles were among The Times’ most emailed pieces of 2021. “I think there’s a huge opportunity to educate consumers about fermented foods, their impact on the gut and health in general.”
O’Connor spoke on consumer education as part of a panel of experts during TFA’s conference, FERMENTATION 2021. Panelists — who included a producer, retailer, scientist, educator and journalist — agreed consumer education is lacking. But the methods of how to fill that gap are contested.
How to Tell Consumers “What is a Fermented Food?”
There are differences between what is a fermented product and what is not — a salt brine vs. vinegar brine pickle, or a kombucha made with a SCOBY or one from a juice concentrate, for example.
“I can tell you that the majority of our customers do not even know [what is a] fermented item,” says Emilio Mignucci, vice president of Philadelphia gourmet store Di Bruno Bros., which specializes in cheese and charcuterie. When customers sample products at the store, they can easily taste the differences between a fermented and a non-fermented product, Mignucci says. But he feels the health benefits behind that fermented product are not the retailer’s responsibility to communicate. “I need you guys [producers] to help me deliver the message.”
“Retailers like myself, buyers, we want to learn more to be able to champion [fermented foods] because, let’s face it, fermented foods is a category that’s getting better and better for us as retailers and we want to speak like subject matter experts and help our guests understand.”
Now — when fermentation tops food lists and gut health is mainstream — is the time for education.
“This microbiome world that we’re in right now is sort of a really opportune moment to really help the public understand what fermented foods are beyond health,” says Maria Marco, PhD, professor of food science at the University of California, Davis (and a TFA Advisory Board Member).
Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) created a Code of Practice to address confusion over what is or is not a kombucha. KBI is taking the approach that all kombucha is good, pasteurized or not, because it’s moving consumers away from sugar- and additive-filled sodas and energy drinks.
“That said, consumers deserve the right to know why is this kombucha at room temperature and this kombucha is in the fridge and why does this kombucha have a weird, gooey SCOBY in it and this one is completely clear,” says Hannah Crum, president of KBI. “They start to get confused when everything just says the word ‘kombucha’ on it.”
KBI encourages brewers to be transparent with consumers. Put on the label how the kombucha is made, then let consumers decide what brand they want to buy.
Should Fermented Products Make Health Claims?
Drew Anderson, co-founder and CEO of producer Cleveland Kitchen (and also on TFA’s Advisory Board), says when they were first designing their packaging in 2013, they were advised against using the term “crafted fermentation” on their label because it would remind consumers of beer or wine. But nowadays, data shows 50% of consumers associate the term fermentation with health.
“In the last five to six years, it’s changed dramatically and people are associating fermentation as being good for them, which is good for my products,” he says.
Cleveland Kitchen, though, does not make health claims on their fermented sauerkraut, kimchi and dressings. Anderson says, as a small startup, they don’t have the resources to fund their own research. They instead attract customers with bold taste and striking packaging.
“We’re extremely cautious on what we say on the package because we don’t have an army of lawyers like Kevita (Pepsi’s Kombucha brand), we don’t have the Pepsi legal team backing us here,” Anderson says. Cleveland Kitchen submits new packaging designs in advance to regulators, to make sure they’re legally acceptable before rolling them out.
O’Connor says taste is the No. 1 driver for consumers. This is why healthful but sticky and stinky natto (fermented soybeans) is not a popular dish in America, but widely consumed in Japan.
“Many American consumers, unfortunately, aren’t going to gravitate toward that, despite the health benefits,” he says.
Crum disagrees. “Health comes first,” she says. As more and more kombucha brands emphasize lifestyle, and don’t even advertise their health benefits, she feels they are doing a disservice to the consumer. “Why pay that much money for kombucha if you don’t know it’s good for you too?”
In Japan, one family has been making funazushi — the ancient, fermented predecessor to modern sushi — for 18 generations. Instead of using raw fish, funazushi uses fish aged for three years.
The funazushi-making process at Kitashina — which opened in 1619 in the small Japanese town Takashima — is labor intensive. A chef removes the fish’s scales and, without cutting into its flesh, removes the gills and innards through its throat. The fish is then packed with salt, layered in a wooden tub, weighted with over 65 pounds of stones and left to cure for two years. Then the fish is rinsed, dried in the sun for a day and fermented for another year before being ready to eat.
The microorganisms in the wooden tubs (called kioke) “naturally produce the fermentation that gives Kitashina’s funazushi its authentic flavour.” Mariko Kitamura (pictured), family owner of Kitashina , says those beneficial microorganisms would die if the tubs were ever emptied.
Though modern sushi includes ocean seafood, funazushi uses fresh water fish, particularly funa (carp). The fermented sushi technique is an adaptation of what has been used in China for thousands of years. The Chinese make narezushi using the freshwater fish that live in rice paddies.
Read more (BBC)
An interesting indication of how quickly and decisively fermentation is moving into the U.S. food mainstream is a recent online event organized and offered by American Express and restaurant booking service Resy, “A Fermentation Workshop with Noma.” For $50, one could sign up for an hour-long Zoom — introductions from Noma’s René Redzepi and Jason White, and demonstrations of making lacto-fermented tomatoes and a juice-based kombucha, all moderated by renowned food writer Ruth Reichl — and a copy of 2018’s “The Noma Guide to Fermentation.” The event sold out in minutes.
Redzepi (Noma chef and co-owner) and White (Noma’s head of fermentation) were in their fermentation lab at the restaurant, and gave concise, compelling comments on the long history of fermentation and its importance. They noted the healthful aspects of the process but emphasized its ability to produce delicious flavors.
“One of the most important things for me as a fermenter is definitely having a closer look at nature, and also being able to create new and interesting flavors that can have beneficial effects on humans, meaning it can make us healthier, it can make our dinners more exciting and also we can teach future generations how they can interact with nature as well,” White says. “The power of fermentation is a really good bridge to that because, in one way or another, in every culture, in every place on earth, there are people who have been doing it for thousands of years. I think it’s important for us to carry the torch. And I think carrying the torch of fermentation is definitely my biggest dream, to carry it for another thousand years.”
When Noma opened over 18 years ago, it was in the dead of winter and they struggled to deliver meals made from Nordic ingredients. “We were really desperate to find food,” Redzepi continues. By spring, they began foraging, “it grounded us and gave us direction.” A few years into foraging, they wondered how they could take the abundance of spring and summer ingredients and use it in the long winter season.
“That’s when we started dabbling into fermentation,” he says. “And from that moment on, a whole new world opened up for restaurant Noma. You could even say fermentation eclipsed foraging because we found out, through the yeast and the mold and the bacterias, we could simply create such new flavors that would transform our kitchens forever. We started tapping into the community worldwide of fermenters and traditional fermentations, adapting them to our ingredients and our region and thus creating a new set of tools that has really engrained itself into every single Noma dish. You don’t eat anything at Noma that doesn’t have ferments in them.”
“Instead of food waste, you can ferment it into something delicious,” he adds.
They made the recipes seem easy to execute (though I suspect the presentation of SCOBY might have put off some participants). And, to ensure at least a small dose of titillation, they proffered a container of one current project in the lab, “Reindeer Penis Garum.” They used this as an example of how fermentation can minimize waste by finding applications for what would otherwise be scrap or trash.
The detailed discussion of kombucha was illuminating, including an interesting contrast with vinegars. Noma makes numerous kombuchas, both for direct consumption and for use as an ingredient. Redzepi expressed his personal perspective, which helps explain why. He says he has yet to find a commercial product “that’s worth buying” — and it’s easy to make yourself.
It was great to see fermentation as a front-and-center topic, but there is still work to be done. The literature that was sent to all participants to accompany the presentation included references in the kombucha recipe to “backstop” and “backdrop” liquid — though they meant “backslop.”
“Human civilization simply would not have been possible without fermented foods and beverages…we’re here today because fermented foods have been popular for humans for at least 10,000 years,” says Bob Hutkins, professor of food science at the University of Nebraska (and a recent addition to TFA’s Advisory Board).
Hutkins was the opening keynote speaker at FERMENTATION 2021, The Fermentation Association’s first international conference. His presentation explored the history, definition and health benefits of fermented foods.
The topic of fermentation extends to evolution, archaeology, science and even the larger food industry.
“The discipline of microbiology began with fermentation, all the early microbiologists studied fermentation,” Hutkins says.
Louis Pasteur patented his eponymous process, developed to improve the quality of wine at Napoleon III’s request. The microbes studied back then — lactococcus, lactobacillus and saccharomyces — remain the most studied strains.
“What interested those early microbiologists — namely how to improve food and beverage fermentation, how to improve their productivity, their nutrition — are the very same things that interest 21st century fermentation scientists,” Hutkins says.
Hutkins is the author of one of the books considered gospel in the industry, “Microbiology and Technology of Fermented Foods.” He says that fermented foods defined the food industry. In its early days, it was small-scale, traditional food production that “we call a craft industry now.” At the time, food safety wasn’t recognized as a microbiological problem.
Today’s modern food industry manufactures on a large-scale in high throughput factories withmany automated processes. Food safety is a priority and highly regulated. And, thanks to developments in gene sequencing, many fermented products are made with starter cultures selected for their individual traits.
“But I would say that there’s been kind of a merging between these traditional and modern approaches to manufacturing fermented foods, where we’re all concerned about time sensitivity, excluding contaminants, making sure that we have consistent quality, safety is a vital concern and extensive culture knowledge,” Hutkins says.
Defining & Demystifying
Fermentation — “the original shelf-life foods” — is experiencing a major moment. “Fermented foods in 2021 check all the topics” of popular food genres: artisanal, local, organic, natural, healthy, flavorful, sustainable, entrepreneurial, innovative, hip and holistic. “They continue to be one of the most popular food categories,” Hutkins continues.
Interest in fermentation is reaching beyond scientists, to nutritionists and clinicians. But Hutkins says he’s still surprised to learn how many professionals don’t understand fermentation. To address the confusion, a panel of interdisciplinary scientists created a global definition of fermented foods in March 2021.
“Fermentation was defined with these kind of geeky terms that I don’t know that they mean very much to anybody,” he says.
The textbook biochemical definition of fermentation that a microbiologist learns in Biochemistry 101 doesn’t work for a nutritionist or clinician focusing on fermentation’s health benefits. The panel, which spent a year coming to a consensus, wanted a definition that would simply illustrate “raw food being converted by microbes into a fermented food.” The new definition, published in the the journal Nature and released in conjunction with the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), reads: “Foods made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components.”
Fermentation in 2022
Hutkins predicts 2022 will see more studies addressing whether there are clinical health benefits from eating fermented foods. The groundbreaking study on fermented foods at Stanford was important. It found that a diet high in fermented foods increases microbiome diversity, lowers inflammation, and improves immune response. But research like this is expensive, so randomized control trials are few.
Fermented foods could also make their way into dietary guidelines.
“Fermented foods, including those that contain live microbes, should be included as part of a healthy diet,” Hutkins says.
Nearly 300 individuals from around the world participated in The Fermentation Association’s first conference, FERMENTATION 2021. The virtual event included 35 educational keynotes, presentations, and panel discussions from more than 60 speakers over three days. Topics ranged from the science of fermentation to the art of fermenting to create flavor, from how fermented products are selling at retail to what’s next in the world of fermentation.
“I’ve been in this field for 40 years and, in all honesty, this is one of the biggest honors I’ve received, to be the speaker for this opening meeting of this really cool organization,” said Bob Hutkins, professor of food science at the University of Nebraska. Hutkins presented the conference’s opening keynote, Definition & History of Fermented Foods.
Over five years ago, John Gray, TFA’s founder, envisioned a trade show for producers of fermented foods and beverages, to make those artisanal items a more prominent part of the retail space. John connected with Neal Vitale, TFA Executive Director, and the organization was born out of their collective vision. TFA has grown, with a robust website, biweekly newsletter,a series of webinars and, now, an international conference. TFA has an Advisory Board that includes food and beverage producers, academics and researchers, and food and flavor educators and authors. TFA has formed working relationships with a number of other like-minded trade associations and organizations, and established a Buyers Council to create an active dialogue with food and beverage distributors, brokers and retailers.
“I have to tell you what a thrill it is to have you all here to witness and to participate in the beginning of a dream coming true,” added Gray in his welcoming remarks. Gray is the chairman and CEO of Katalina Holding Co., a food incubator and parent company of Bubbies Pickles.
FERMENTATION 2021 content paralleled TFA’s primary missions: first, help consumers better understand fermentation and its potential health benefits; second, work to improve health and safety regulations as they pertain to fermented products and third, connect the science and health research communities with producers, supporting scientific research and for a better understanding of the “state of the art.”
What made FERMENTATION 2021 unique is that it was the first event to bring together everyone involved in the world of fermentation — producers, retailers, chefs, scientists, authors, suppliers and regulators. The conference was not a how-to fermentation education event, as TFA feels there are numerous, effective resources for the person looking to, for example, make kimchi or learn about using koji.
“”We were delighted with how well FERMENTATION 2021 met — in fact, exceeded — our goals,” said Vitale. “While we were disappointed that the continuing impact of COVID-19 kept us from meeting in person, we were gratified by how all the participants responded, interacted, and engaged during our three jam-packed days. And, with recording of all our sessions now available online for our registrants, we expect that energy and excitement to continue.”,
“Fermentation is experiencing a major surge of interest in restaurants and kitchens around the globe,” says Amelia Nielson-Stowell, TFA Editor. “Our conference was a major milestone for the industry and we are already in the planning stages for FERMENTATION 2022 next summer. And, assuming we will be able to meet in person once again, we plan to host a tasting and sampling event for consumers alongside our conference.”
When Sandor Katz was asked to teach his first fermentation workshops in the early ‘90s, he figured it would have only niche appeal. Instead, people filled his workshops, begging for more information and calling on him to host similar events all over the U.S. “People [were] hungry for more information on fermentation,” he says.
“Humans didn’t invent fermentation. Fermentation is a natural phenomenon that existed before we did,” Katz says, speaking from in front of a wall of ferments and spices in his home kitchen in Tennessee. “Fermentation is an essential part of how people everywhere make effective use of whatever food resources are available to them. Food fermentation is not precious; fermentation is practical.”
Katz was a keynote speaker at the FERMENTATION 2021 conference. He shared his personal journey into the subject as well as his thoughts on fermentation as a natural phenomenon.
Fermentation as Trend
Katz says people are excited about fermentation for different reasons — some have memories of fermenting with their grandparents and want to try it at home, others are immigrants wanting to recreate dishes from their native countries, some are farmers hoping to preserve a surplus of produce, others are interested in the health benefits and some are foodies chasing the delicious flavor.
He hates equating fermentation with trends, preferring the term “fermentation revitalization” — the demographics of people currently making fermentation “trendy” again hasn’t really changed in the last 30 years.
“Fermentation has been so important to food traditions everywhere, and yet because of factory food production, one-stop shopping convenience foods, fewer and fewer people were practicing fermentation,” Katz said, recalling his workshops in the early days. “It was becoming more mysterious to people. Now there’s no denying that fermentation is trending. There’s a heightened awareness of fermentation, but people don’t realize the products of fermentation have been so integral to how everybody, everywhere eats. Without even thinking about fermentation, people have always been eating products of fermentation.”
The “War on Bacteria”
But there has long been fear around fermentation from some consumers. Katz says many people “project their anxiety about bacteria onto the idea of fermentation.”
“For people of my generation and older, we never heard anybody say anything positive about bacteria. The degree that bacteria were talked about at all, it was about how dangerous they are and how much they need to be avoided. I grew up in a period that could be described as the war on bacteria, this idea that bacteria are pathogenic, bacteria are dangerous to us, bacteria must be avoided and you know we have an arsenal of chemicals that we can use to kill bacteria as needed to keep us safe.”
The U.S Department of Agriculture has never had a case of foodborne illness from fermented food or beverages, Katz notes. “Statistically speaking, fermented vegetables are safer than raw vegetables.”
Facing people’s questions and fears motivated Katz to write his first book, The Art of Fermentation. This month, he released his 6th title, Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, Techniques, and Traditions from Around the World.
Fermenting the Future
Katz is an advocate for decentralizing food production, replacing a global supply chain with local, farm-fresh sources. Though this will raise the cost of food, it will put fermentation as a key means of preserving a surplus of seasonal crops, Katz notes.
Even as more and more chefs and producers apply different processes to different substrates and play with flavor, Katz says the fundamental processes remain the same. Nothing new has been invented in fermentation, which dates back 10,000 years.
“Fermentation of the future grows out of the techniques and traditions of the past,” he says. “Anything you can possibly eat can be fermented, so I’m never surprised when something is fermented.”
Katz shared his story of fermenting a goat on the rural Tennessee farm he lived on in the ‘90s. After the animal was butchered, he took the leftover pieces and fermented them for a few weeks in a mix of miso, yogurt and sauerkraut juice. When cooked, the meat released a strong aroma, a scent that became legendary on the farm. But, Katz says, “It was delicious. Like many things, it had a stronger aroma than flavor.”
Health Benefits Come with Warning Labels
When asked about the curative health benefits of fermented foods, Katz does not mince words. He wrote in Wild Fermentation that fermented foods were an important part of his healing when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. Since then, numerous media outlets have twisted his story, writing that Katz cured himself from HIV with fermented foods.
“I have become much more cautious about how I talk about this,” he says. “There’s a lot of highly speculative information out there…and I’ve never seen data that would suggest that.”
Katz says he’s careful to rely on reputable scientific studies for data on fermentation’s health benefits. He says he’s read articles claiming kombucha will prevent hair from going gray. Pointing to his full head of gray hair, Katz smiles and says “When I started teaching about fermentation, my hair didn’t look like this. Time marches on.”
“Food has profound implications for our health and well-being and for how we feel, but singular foods are very rarely the cure to specific diseases. …There are many benefits to fermentation, whether it is simply from pre-digestion of nutrients that makes nutrients more bioavailable and accessible to us or whether it’s from the probiotics or whether it’s from metabolic byproducts which can be extraordinarily beneficial to us.”
A two-time Finnish Barista Champion made headlines with his unique cup of joe at the World Barista Championship in Italy — a koji-fermented coffee.
Aiming to make better coffee than what’s available on the market, Kaapo Paavolainen (pictured) studied how he could maximize the flavor in coffee beans. “Sugar in beans is responsible for coffee’s inherent sweetness but the lack of it results in unpleasant bitterness. But the current methods can extract only 70% of available sugar,” he told Forbes.
After reading about koji in the books Koji Alchemy (by Jeremy Umansky and Rich Shih) and The Noma Guide to Fermentation (by Rene Redzepi and David Zilber), he realized koji can tap into the remaining 30% of sugar in beans.
Incredibly, this koji-based method was used on subpar coffee beans in experiments and still transformed the coffee. Umansky described the flavor as “deep, earthy and leathery. Depending on the roasting level of the beans, the flavor ranged widely from tropical fruits like pineapple and mango to chocolate and gingerbread. The mouthfeel was strikingly silky and luxurious like butter. The rounded, full-bodied texture made these tastes last very long.”
Paavolainen aims to scale the koji process with a partner farm in Columbia. This new coffee method could aid coffee farmers, many of whom are financially challenged and are struggling to maintain farms in the face of climate change.
Read more (Forbes)
Cacao is one of the most environmentally harmful and ethically dubious commodities produced on the planet. It plays a huge role in deforestation, uses an alarming amount of water and more than 2 million children work in cacao farms. Yet cacao hasn’t been reimagined the way other foods with similarly harmful footprints have.
“There’s a lot of ethical quandaries around the production of chocolate,” says Johnny Drain, PhD, co-founder of WNWN Food Labs. “Cacao is a huge contributor to climate change, and child labor and slave labor are hardwired into the supply chain.”
Drain’s nickname is the “Walter White of fermentation” because of his work helping pioneering restaurants and bars around the world incorporate fermentation into their food and drink. Now Drain can add “Willy Wonka of chocolate” to his resume. He is co-launching a cacao-free chocolate, next in the wave of alternative products designed to replicate flavor and texture without a harmful production cycle.
A Chocolate-Potato Connection?
WNWN (Waste Not, Want Not, pronounced “Win-Win”) happened by chance. About five years ago, Drain was boiling old, green potatoes, and leaned his head into the steam. He was surprised it smelled like chocolate.
“I had this light bulb moment where I thought ‘There must be some compounds within the skins that are also found in cacao and chocolate.’ I wondered — ‘Could I make chocolate from potatoes? What other weird and wonderful things could make chocolate?’” Drain says.
WNWN plans to release a small-run batch of their chocolate next month. Drain and co-founder Ahrum Pak, a former investment banker and fellow fermenter-turned-food-activist, are calling the product category choc.
WNWN’s choc ingredients are proprietary until its formal release but, as with traditional chocolate, they are plant-based and fermented. Drain describes them as familiar, whole ingredients that are common in an average person’s diet.
“It’s not a Frankenstein, lab-created product, mixing this potion with that potion. We take whole ingredients, we ferment them just as we would chocolate, then we end up with this delicious chocolatey paste that goes into a quite conventional chocolate-making procedure,” Drain adds.
WNWN also replaces cocoa butter — made from cacao pods — with plant-based oils. Cocoa butter is what gives traditional chocolate a silky, creamy texture as it melts in your mouth.
At the heart of choc’s flavor, though, is fermentation.
“Cacao is fermented to make chocolate in the same way our product is fermented. We use similar, friendly microbes to create complexity,” he says. “We’re recreating that flavour profile of chocolate that we all know and love using the same fundamental techniques that are used to make chocolate.”
High-quality chocolate contains roughly 600 different flavor and aroma molecules. Cacao fermentation involves lactic acid and acetic acid bacteria, along with various yeasts, to create its flavor.
“If you didn’t have that cocktail of microbes, you would end up with something that only tastes vaguely like the chocolate we know and love,” he adds. “At the heart of this is fermentation. The product that we have, if we produced it without the fermentation processes, it wouldn’t taste anything like chocolate, just like if you eat a raw cocoa bean or even a roasted, unfermented cocoa bean, it doesn’t really taste like chocolate. You have to have that very complex cascade of chemical reactions, made possible by the fermentation, to get the final chocolate flavour.”
The Next Big Alt Movement?
Drain is quick to point out WNWN is not the only company trying to create what he and Pak have coined “alt-chocolate.” Three companies — QOA, Voyage Foods and Cali-Cultured — all officially launched in the past three months.
Some of these companies have been operating in stealth mode for a number of years but made official launches once word of competitors began to circulate. QOA and Voyage appear to be using approaches similar to that of WNWN. CaliCultured is using a syn-bio precision fermentation route to modify yeast cells to produce lab-grown cacao cells that are genetically identical to those found in the wild.
Drain says he’s encouraged by the other companies.
“It’s exciting that there’s multiple people working in this space,” he says. “Look at the plant milk space or alternative protein space — there’s definitely plenty of room in this marketplace too, and collectively we are all doing this because we care about the ethical and environmental damage being wrought by the current cacao supply chain.”
European and American consumers historically dominate chocolate sales, but chocolate sales all over the world are increasing.
Drain and Pak feel that a shake-up in the industry at the top is needed. Huge international producers are responsible for the vast majority of global chocolate. Mars, Nestle and Hershey promised over 20 years ago to stop using child laborers, but reports say the problem continues.Similarly, these companies pledged a decade ago to source more sustainable chocolate, but negative environmental problems from cacao continue to increase.
“The way in which we consume food has to change. It’s unrealistic that millions of tons of mass-produced cacao is somehow ethically- and sustainably-produced,” Pak says.
Drain adds; “So, really, we’re not anti-chocolate, we’re anti-big-chocolate produced in unethical, unsustainable ways.”
Chocolate is merely the first challenge that WNWN wants to address. Coffee and vanilla are next, foods with similar human rights and sustainability concerns. The company is building a software system that can ideate fermentation pathways for creating sustainable, flavour-identical analogs to delicious – but unsustainable – products.
“When you really start looking at how most of the world’s food is produced and consumed, there are so so many cases where it’s produced in a really terrible and damaging way,” Drain says. But “the market wouldn’t have been ready for a product like this five years ago. People are becoming much more aware of where their food comes from. People are thinking about ‘How do I make my purchasing habits, my diet better for the planet in a way that I don’t have to sacrifice the flavors and taste that I love?’ There will be work to do. But people are more receptive now that fermentation is more of a household name than it was five years ago. I think the fact that more people want to remedy these challenges is brillant.”
Drain will be speaking FERMENTATION 2021 on “The Alt-Universe”
Melinda Williamson has always been fascinated by plants — she grew up watching her mother make baby food with produce from the garden, later studied medicinal plants in college and dedicated her career as an ecologist to researching microbial communities in soil.
So, when Williamson became extremely sick with an autoimmune disease eleven years ago, it was not surprising that she turned to plants. She began making green smoothies daily and, after a student shared a bottle of it with her, drinking kombucha.
“I became really conscious about what I was putting in my body, really focusing on where my food was coming from,” says Williamson, founder of Morning Light Kombucha in Hoyt, Kansas. “I started researching my illness, and found that a lot of stuff stems from the gut. It brought me into this world of ferments.”
The health-scare-turned-health-revival changed the course of her life. Mother of a then-young child, Williamson moved back to Kansas to raise her daughter closer to family. She took a language program job on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation reservation in her hometown, then spent her hours off work fulfilling a dream of running her own business. She perfected a home-brewed kombucha and began selling it at local farmers markets, gas stations and yoga studios.
The pandemic easily could have shuttered a small brewery like Morning Light which, prior to 2020, Williamson ran on her own. But she designed a website, opened an online store, started curbside delivery and launched a canned line — and sales grew by 25%. By the end of 2021, Morning Light Kombucha will start shipping nationally and, by the end of next year, they plan to break ground on a 4,000-square-foot facility on the reservation.
“What I really want to do is get my product into more native communities, so they can find healing just like I found healing,” says Williamson, head of the only Native American kombucha brand. “That’s more important to me than seeing my product on the shelf of Wal-Mart or Target. I’m not in it to be rich. I still plan on living in my little house here on the reservation close to my family. I just want to do something that has meaning and an impact.”
Below is an edited Q&A between Williamson and The Fermentation Association.
TFA: Where do you get your ingredients? You forage some of the ingredients yourself on the reservation.
MW: We go out and harvest wild blackberries, wild raspberries, chokecherries and pawpaws mostly on the reservation. There’s edible plants everywhere, it’s surprising the places you can find them. We just went to Overland Park, which is the city near us, to forage for pawpaws.
Some of the ingredients like gooseberries, those we find in small quantities. If we go out and we only get four cups of berries, we may not make any kombucha with it. But sometimes I’ll make a little five gallon batch.
Most of our ingredients, we partner with local farms in Northeast Kansas. It comes down to the importance of knowing where our food comes from. My goal was to always work with local farmers and source ingredients locally, I knew I wanted that as part of my business foundational value.
As much as possible, we keep sustainability at the forefront of everything that we do, being really conscious about our footprint. It’s really nice because, being in Northeast Kansas, people aren’t thinking about stuff like that. They’re more and more thinking about where their food comes from, but it’s been really nice to have those conversations with the community and get people really thinking about supporting the local farming economy, supporting local business.
A big part of it really comes down to what we’re showing our kids. Before my daughter was born, I had her when I was 23, I was eating a lot of fast food. I was like “I’m free! I’ve got a job! I can buy and eat whatever I want!” I was eating so much junk food. And then I got pregnant and wanted to feed her properly. I grew my own garden and started making my own baby food, just like my mom modeled for me. Food is so important, it’s a constant conversation in my life and in my business.
TFA: Do you make seasonal flavors then?
MW: We launched our canned kombucha line in February. Prior to that, we were doing about 100 flavors a year, so now that we’ve launched our canned kombucha line, we’ve had to whittle that down because we have to have four flavors constantly. Our rotations have diminished a little, but we’re still putting out about 60 flavors a year.
Our berry flavors are our most popular — blackberry lemongrass and strawberry. Seasonally, our smaller batches that people love are mulberry, that is a top seller. People also love the ginger and chokecherry flavors.
TFA: How do you sell your small batches? Are you selling them retail or filling kegs on site?
MW: We sell direct-to-consumer, like at the farmers markets and events. We don’t have a brewery that’s open to the public. We do curbside pickup, that was something that was developed in response to the pandemic. We could no longer sell directly to the consumer, so we just started doing doorstep delivery, then the curbside pickup. Basically, people just have their empty bottles in their trunk and call us and we come out and grab their bottles, and swap them for new, filled bottles. It’s contactless, but we still got to see our customer and wave. We’ll probably continue to do that, we’re still in this pandemic, and the most important thing is to keep our community safe and our elders up here safe. We will continue taking all precautions to protect people around us until we hit a safe spot.
TFA: A portion of your sales goes back to the native communities. Tell me about that.
MW: We donate where we feel like the money would be used best, things that we’re passionate about and things where we see we can make a difference. For example, we just recently donated to one of the residential school survivor nonprofits. We’ve taken clothes to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe where they were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, we’ve donated to our Boys and Girls Club here on the reservation, we’ve donated to our youth soccer teams, we’ve donated to First Nations programs in Canada.
TFA: Morning Light Kombucha is a trademark American Indian Food product. What does that mean?
MW: So that trademark American Indian Food falls under the Inter-Tribal Agricultural Council, which is a subset under the USDA. The program really highlights American Indian food producers. You apply and then the program supports you in different ways. We’re able to network with other American Indian food producers, brainstorm together and talk about what we’re experiencing and try to make movements when it comes to distribution. The program is really big with international exporting, so all the American Indian food producers have the opportunity to attend large trade shows internationally, they’ll fly us there, ship our products and give us the opportunity to have a booth and get our product in front of people who are interested in American Indian food products. I’m not ready for something that big, I am so small, but I’ve gone to a domestic show through the program. I went to a food show in Chicago and got in front of a lot of people who are interested in my kombucha. We have really big plans in 2022 to expand our facilities, and hopefully expand domestically.
TFA: What are Morning Light Kombucha’s plans for 2022?
MW: I just bought 10 acres here on our reservation. My plan is to break ground and build a production facility. It will be three times the size of what we’re in now, which will be really, really nice. There’s a pond on the side, we’ve got a creek, timber, a lot of foraging areas. The plan is to build an off-the-grid brewery, too, so it will help us provide more jobs in our community and it will allow us to do some of the things that we haven’t been able to do.
I mentioned sustainability is a big part of what we do. We compost 100% of our brewery waste, but I have to truck it to my house to my compost pile because, where we’re at now, we just can’t compost large quantities at our site. The waste water from our water filtration system, it’s totally usable water, but we don’t have any place to store it currently. Our waste water is not like gray water, it’s clean water that’s just wasted during the filtration process, it’s usable. For every one gallon that’s filtered, there’s three gallons that’s wasted. It’s so insane, it killed me when I found that out. Once we are in our new facility we can begin to recycle it on property. We have this dry pond. Our plan is to see if we can get it lined, divert the waste water in there and start filling the pond.
TFA: Scaling will be big for you in 2022.
MW: I know, I just hired three employees recently because it’s just been me for the past few years. I work part-time for our language department, and my kombucha business has been my side hustle. In the past year, I’ve realized the potential. People really like my brand and they’re noticing it and requesting it. So I thought “Maybe I could grow this brand into something bigger.”
TFA: I am beyond impressed — you have been building a kombucha brand by yourself?!
MW: Family is always there for me. My boyfriend is at the market, my nephews help with anything I need, it’s a family affair even though I never really had anybody on my payroll until recently. Now I’m getting to a point where I need help all the time. I hired my sister as my brewery manager, she keeps a tight ship. It’s allowed for me to really work on expansion while she’s running operations at the brewery.
TFA: Yours is still the only Native American-owned kombucha brand.
MW: With my business, I like to think that I’m also giving a voice to native issues. I would never want to be an authority on native issues, but there’s a lot of things going on in Indian country that people don’t see in the mainstream media and mainstream social media. If I can build a brand that can also bring awareness to these things, that’s really important to me.
TFA: You have a background in academia. What got you interested in ecology before switching to kombucha?
MW: I’ve always loved science, I’ve always loved the outdoors, I’ve always been super eco-friendly, I’ve always been conscious about our impact on the earth. I love animals, I love nature. I was taking some of my general ed classes at Haskell (Indian Nations University) and took an ethnobiology class. I just fell in love. I ended up transferring to Kansas State and got my degree in environmental biology (then a masters degree in rangeland ecology and management from Oklahoma State University.) I went with my boss from K State to Oklahoma State and ran the grassland ecology lab for years.
TFA: Where do you see the future of fermentation?
MW: There’s an explosion. I see it continuing to grow and expand and people are coming out with really innovative ways to bring fermentation to the table. Like Wild Alive Ferments out of Lawrence, Kansas. We’re a part of a local CSA with them. The owners just came out with an apple kraut flavor, an autumn harvest with spices that is so amazing.
In the U.S. especially, we have a lot of people who are sick with illnesses or cancers and autoimmune issues and I think we’re starting to see more people look at what they’re putting in their bodies. They’re realizing the importance of gut health, the importance of ferments, and that it affects so much more than just your gut. It’s a movement — and I’m really excited about it.
While more chefs and cooking enthusiasts are experimenting with fermentation, they’re skipping the basics and jumping straight to complicated dishes. The foundational steps of cooking are fine-tuned only with time and patience, with hours spent mastering the simple recipes first, according to Jason White, director of the fermentation lab at Noma restaurant.
“It’s just as important for you to make a delicious pickle and a wonderfully balanced kombucha as it is for you to make an incredibly long-aged batch of miso,” White says. “We can never forget that, whenever we start approaching these biological processes and these fermentation processes, that we also take advantage of the beginning stages of learning each individual step along the way. I can’t tell you how important it is for a person who’s emerging into the art of fermentation to stop and pause for a minute and take the opportunity to connect dots. Each microbe that we’re using to ferment things has some kind of mechanism, and an ingredient that we’re going to ferment has a composition that benefits that microbe.”
White spoke at Harvard University’s Science & Cooking Lecture Series, on the topic Fermentation: A Springboard for Modern Gastronomy. He began his director role at Noma last year and has since helped the world-famous restaurant earn its third Michelin star in September.
In his lecture, White stressed observational skills — honed in the early years of learning to ferment — are one of the most important qualities for a fermenter. The best way to “really understand what an ingredient is and what it has to offer a microbe” is through the senses. When you cut into the ingredient, does it feel dry? Does it smell of essential oils? Does it taste overripe?
“Fermentation is one of those weird occurrences in nature where humans intentionally create something only to watch it decompose, and when it decomposes it produces something that’s more valuable to us,” White says. “I am not a chef, I am not a scientist, I am a dreamer and I am a fermenter and my life journey is going to be dedicated to the act of microbial processing.”
From Texas to Denmark, Fermenting with Local Agriculture
A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, White began a career as a fermentation consultant for restaurants and distilleries in Texas. He worked for two years at Noma before returning to the U.S. in 2019 as head of the food research lab at Audrey restaurant in Nashville.
The early days of his career in gastronomy weren’t spent in beautiful, state-of-the-art kitchens like those at Noma. White’s first experiences as a professional fermenter were spent cooking in a small wooden shed in the Texas heat.
Environment is a critical element to fermenting. Texas is vastly different from the areas that are the globe’s cornerstones of fermentation — Japan, Korea and Taiwan — and which had inspired White. Texas, for example, doesn’t have a huge variety of mushrooms or produce — but it does have chilies and lots of grains.
“I found a lot of joy adapting traditional recipes into something that was based off Texas agriculture,” White says. Much of his fermentation in those days was driven by koji, which grows well on the grains common to Texas.
White learned a key lesson that he incorporates in his cooking: use the local ingredients and agricultural systems available in the area.
“Every single ingredient on earth, you’re going to find something that is valuable to a fermentation process,” White adds. “Even if we can’t consume it as humans, you can use the fermentation process to make it more delicious.”
Respecting the Past, Propelling the Future
Fermentation has been around since the beginning of humanity. When we ferment, White says, we’re recreating the environment and the processes traditionally used where the ferment was first discovered and practiced.
“And, as fermenters, we are also carrying the knowledge of these practices through the generations,” White says. “And where we are with fermentation, it’s kind of like emergent pop cultures. It’s cool to be a fermenter.”
White characterizes his fermentation style as “somewhere between a control freak and a naturalist.” Fermenters have a “huge sense of responsibility” to maintain food safety, carry on traditional processes and teach new fermenters. …We are protectors of knowledge, we are protectors of ingredients and we are protectors of history.”
Whether fermenting at home for personal use or in a production facility for consumers, “We are all still changing the way microbes are evolving and we’re all still participating in the ancient act and it is truly beautiful….if anyone in this room wants to ferment, you are literally the future of fermentation.”
During his presentation, White demonstrated how to ferment persimmons. In Texas, local farmers would bring persimmons to the restaurant where he worked. They were hard and unripe, not flavorful enough to eat raw, so White soaked them in amazake, a fermented rice beverage. During his lecture, White sliced bright orange persimmons for an amazake bath.
“The beauty in this whole entire thing isn’t how complex it is,” White says. “Fermentation doesn’t have to blow your mind, you don’t have to be like ‘Oh my god, it’s completely transformed, it’s something I don’t even recognize and it makes my palate explode with flavor.’ No. Fermentation could also be something that respects an ingredient and leaves it as is. But enhanced fermentation is something that can make something that is not as valuable as it should be more valuable again. You can turn something that would maybe go in the trash…into something very delicious.”