One of the biggest hurdles in the food and beverage industry is getting a product to market — an even bigger challenge for fermented food and drink brands featuring live bacteria.
“Fermented foods in general are still relatively new in the commercial marketplace. When we started, most beer distributors knew nothing about it. And that’s still a big challenge, how to communicate what you have. What is a fermented food? Why should people care about it?” says Joshua Rood, co-founder and CEO of Dr Hops Real Hard Kombucha. Rood shared his advice during a TFA webinar, Launching a Fermented Brand.
Rood officially began Dr Hops in 2015 with co-founder Tommy Weaver. They met in a yoga class, and turned their passion for health and great hops into a kombucha beer they started brewing in Rood’s kitchen.
At the time, there was a lot of variety and craft beer and kombucha, but hard kombucha was unheard of. “You don’t have a lot of focus on health in alcohol,” Rood says.
Rood went to investors with a pitch deck that outlined why traditional alcohol products don’t appeal to a health-conscious consumer — craft beer is made with gluten, cider is high in sugar and hard alcohol is too strong for regular use. Dr Hops, meanwhile, is gluten-free, low in sugar, unfiltered, made with organic ingredients and full of active probiotics.
“We have a passion for creating more delightful, health-conscious alcohol, and really pushing the envelope with that,” Rood says. “One of our biggest challenges is still how to communicate that into a very tiny amount of time to consumers, retailers and distributors.”
Starting in a category that didn’t yet exist, figuring out licensing took years. Dr Hops began with $13,000 raised from a Kickstarter campaign, then crowdsourced another $10,000 the following year. By 2017 — with labelling, alcohol licensing and product stability figured out — investors pledged $115,000, enough to start small-scale commercial production. Dr Hops officially went to market in 2018, self-distributing and selling at street fairs and beer festivals.
“Part of the key to selling stuff without a huge marketing budget is focus,” says Alex Lewin, webinar moderator, Dr Hops advisor and TFA Advisory Board member. “Dr Hops started in the Bay Area, and won over relationships we had with some retailers — we had some real advocates. Don’t do a national launch if you have no budget.”
Rood stresses education is a key piece of marketing for the fermentation category.
“How much is the whole community speaking about and educating the world about and celebrating the value of live fermented foods? The more we’re all doing that, the more it works to sell these products,” he adds.
Test audiences, consumer feedback and word-of-mouth marketing have been key to Dr Hops success.
“The fact that we were able to grow our business almost three times in 2020 even in the pandemic with no marketing is one of the best things we have to say about what we have. People want this,” Rood says.
Highlighting strengths helps Dr Hops distinguish itself in a newly-competitive field of hard kombucha brands. Dr Hops’ product line includes flavors that compare to well-known alcohol beverages. Their Kombucha Rose flavor is a substitute for wine, Ginger Lime for a cocktail, Kombucha IPA for beer and Strawberry Lemon for a mimosa.
“While people might not understand hard kombucha, they pretty much already have a preference between beer, wine, cocktail and champagne or spritzers,” Rood says.
Health is core to Dr Hops, but higher-alcohol drinks are also higher in calories. Seltzer has been a key competitor to hard kombucha because seltzer’s calories are low.
“But it’s not interesting,” Rood says. “If you really love alcohol or food or beverage in general, you want something more interesting than that. At this point, we’re willing to gamble on enough people who care about transparency and authenticity that if we put the nutrition label on there and list all the ingredients, even if it doesn’t compare very well on a calorie level, there’s enough else to it that people are going to try it.”
Chefs and home cooks are using miso in innovative ways, experimenting with contemporary dishes inspired by traditional Japanese techniques.
“It’s becoming pretty ubiquitous in people’s kitchens now. It’s been a great creative outlet for people trying different misos,” says chef Kyle Connaughton. He joined chef-author Hiroko Shimbo and chef-educator Kirsten Shockey in a TFA webinar organized and moderated by chef (and TFA advisory board member) Robert Danhi Miso: Traditional Flavors with Modern Application.
Connaughton uses Saikyo miso as a salt and seasoning in the kitchen at SingleThread, enhancing the natural flavor of the vegetables and meat used in the 11-course tasting menu. SingleThread is a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, inn and 24-acre farm Connaugthon opened with his wife, Katina, in Healdsburg, California.
“I think chefs and food companies will continue to innovate in new ways and new directions because there are benefits that come way beyond creating a trendy dish,” Connaughton says. Using miso instead of dairy creates a less fatty, more nutritious dish, and miso can be used as a more sustainable substitution for less environmentally-friendly ingredients.
SingleThread’s culinary style is inspired by Japan (where Connaughton lived and trained for years) mixed with the local terroir of California’s wine country. Miso is used frequently , and he shared pictures of “how we go beyond miso soup and miso ramen.” Dishes included a roasted pumpkin puree with miso as a cream base instead of milk, duck liver parfait cured in miso, porridge made with wagyu beef and caramelized miso and a chocolate ganache made by blending in miso for extra umami flavor.
Shimbo, a world-renowned authority on Japanese cooking and author of “Hiroko’s American Kitchen,” showed off miso-based dishes from her home kitchen. These included different miso soups, a pastry where miso is mixed in with the flour and a pizza topped with a miso-based tomato sauce.
“Miso culture in Japan is diverse and wonderful,” Shimbo says. There are 16 miso techniques in Japan, each flavor originating from a different region in the country. “This extended geography with associated climate variations contributes to creating regionally unique food culture.”
Miso can vary in sweetness, aroma, saltiness, uses and production processes. Shimbo detailed the flavor, culinary tradition and modern applications of three types of miso: Sendai, Saikyo and Mugi.
“Not all the miso sold at the food stores are made equally or worth purchasing,” she adds. Miso made at the factory level can be cheap, with alcohol added to stop the fermentation. “We can’t expect food flavor or nutritional value in this type of miso.”
Kirsten Shockey, author of “Miso, Tempeh, Natto & Other Tasty Ferments” (and TFA advisory board member) agreed with Shimbo. When purchasing miso, study the source. Unpasteurized miso will provide the most benefits. Shockey studies the traditional uses of any ferment, and says miso should never be cooked beyond 140 degrees because it will kill the nutrients. In Japanese kitchens, miso soup is never brought to a boil.
“The knowledge of the people who were using these foods forever is also important,” Shockey says. “Think about how they’ve been used to keep people very nourished through centuries.”
Shockey shared different types of colorful miso pastes from her home kitchen. She also let viewers peek inside her 5-gallon cedar vat, where she makes long-aged batches of miso.
“Miso is this beautiful collaboration of microbes, enzymes, time, and all of this acting upon grains and legumes. And it creates something super delicious and, in a lot of ways, more than the sum of its parts,” Shockey said. “Miso is magical…I think of it as a top-level ferment because everybody’s involved, all the microbes.”
Modern society needs fermentation now more than ever, as the food system becomes industrialized and unsustainable, says Meredith Leigh, farmer, activist and author. Consumers are far removed from farmers and the land, and food produced in factories hurts the environment.
“People are eating more fermented foods. The experience of food is not a quantity thing anymore, it’s more of a quality/complexity thing.” Leigh shared her insights into meat fermentation and creating a food system connected to the land and animals during a TFA webinar, From Soil to Salami: Fermentation, Life and Health.
“The punch and umami and funk is really becoming more understandable to people. That’s really promising, specifically when it comes to protein. Smaller portions, more complex flavor over big chunks of flesh that are ultimately not in service of thrift or sustainability,” Leigh continues. “My hope is that the funkier the better because we really need people to be able to stretch their palate understanding in order to get specifically meat products in a better, more sustainable, ethical situation within the food system.”
Leigh started in the food industry as a farmer, raising vegetables and animals. Concerned with how much money she was losing to the meat processing sector, she streamlined her business by opening a whole-animal butcher shop and restaurant. Leigh served only regional meats and meat products to a local audience, but found the farm-to-table business model too complicated for the general public — folks were not ready to walk into a butcher shop and buy a whole animal.
So Leigh pivoted to educating, consulting with farmers, restaurant chefs and home cooks. She also authored two books, “The Ethical Meat Handbook” and “Pure Charcuterie.” [ADD LINK?]
Charcuterie often gets overlooked in fermentation conversations because meat preservation is a “vast umbrella” of fermented and cooked meat.
“Uncooked, salt preserved meat items are very much a beautiful culmination of a lot of different culinary fermentative processes that humans harness. It very much belongs on the docket of fermented superfoods,” Leigh says.
The fermentation of meat, though, can be shocking to chefs accustomed to cooking in relatively sterile environments. When making a salami, for example, the meat becomes swollen, smelly and drippy, fermenting in a humid room.
“It’s not exactly a beautiful process. If you zip down to the microscopic level, there’s a lot of death happening, there’s a lot of engorging. It’s a sugar battle,” Leigh says. “It’s a sugar feeding frenzy and some of them are actually eating so many sugars that they’re exploding and the enzymatic soup of these explosions is part and parcel of the flavor we associate with fermented foods.”
“I tell people, ‘Close the door, it’s none of your business because you’re fermenting.’ That advice is disarming because it’s amusing. But also it’s really true. You’re in there tinkering and you sort of have control over this process, but you sort of don’t. And that’s a good thing that you’re not totally in control. You’re surrendering to nature.”
Adds Kirsten Shockey, author and educator (and TFA advisory board member who moderated the webinar): “You’re much more of a microbe shepherd. You’re trying to herd everybody, but you have no control. Each of those microbes [is] out for themselves.”
Modern consumers and even commercial fermented food producers are often far removed from farming. Leigh says that, to reclaim our food systems, we need to look at the indigenous practices that founded the sustainable agriculture movement. Commercialized food erases the land ethic and the traditional farming and fermentative processes of indigenous people, especially indigenous women.
“If we as producers, curators and knowledge bearers of fermentation, if we’re not telling that part of the story to the people really into fermented foods, we’re not doing anybody any favors. We’re just making money and putting good food out there. Really connecting people back through fermented foods is one of the more hopeful ways we have of telling that story to people who will never touch soil or slaughter a pig or any of those things,” Leigh says, adding that the best place to start sharing that story is through social media. “The popular media conversation about fermentation is not doing that. Our production of these foods or curation of these foods is not only a way to elevate health, human health or flavor, but it’s also a way of commenting on and changing culture.”
The health attributes and unique flavors of fermented food and drink are becoming increasingly more important to consumers. But, for fermentation brands to succeed in the food industry, they must prioritize their labeling and marketing, and focus on their environmental impact, says international food industry expert Lisa Moeller.
“Hopefully, it will be as advantageous to attach ‘Fermented’ as it is ‘Fresh Pack’ to shelf stable pickle products at some point in time,” says Moeller, speaking at a recent TFA webinar: Global Fermentation: Today & Tomorrow. “Never in our history has the power of positive change been more possible and necessary. I think there is an inherent history with fermented vegetables and a trajectory that can only take them higher going forward.”
After receiving her master’s degree in food science, Moeller spent 25 years working with Mount Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina. She later started her own company, Fashionably Pickled, where she consults to food brands on methods – such as assisting with traditional fermentation technology – for crafting better products.
Fred Breidt, microbiologist with USDA-ARS and a TFA advisory board member, called Moeller “one of the premiere pickle people in the United States,” and praised her for working around the world on a variety of fermentations.
Moeller shared three forecasts for fermented foods.
- Health Concerns Become More Important
Consumers are more concerned about their health during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Folks are looking to boost immunity, reduce their weight and they’re looking for nutritious options,” Moeller says.
People are also cooking more at home during the pandemic. Restaurant dining had continually increased over the previous two decades and, in recent years, only half the food eaten in the U.S. was purchased from a grocery store. But when COVID-19 hit, “this 23 year trend was blown out of the water,” says Moeller. By April 2020, 65% of the food consumed came from a grocery store, with less than 35% from restaurants.
“I think this trend gives the fermented vegetable arena great potential,” Moeller says. “Fermented vegetables can increase the shelf life of produce, they’re nutritious, and they can be turned into a wide variety of flavors. And I think for a time, people are going to be more interested in having a supply of things in their pantry when they don’t feel comfortable going to a grocery store.”
Increased research will help promote fermentation as a viable health food. There are still consumers who are off-put by fermentation, leaving room for brands to educate.
“Though a large part of the pickle industry is still involved with fermented cucumbers, it is not the leader in the retail category at this time,” Moeller says. “We don’t label ‘fermented’ in America. Lots of times with the cucumber industry, the fermented kind of becomes the offshoot. It’s kind of the have-to-do so you can produce all the fresh pack that you want and still have a home for others.”
- Labelling and Marketing Are Crucial
Food product labels and marketing must adapt to their local markets. Brands must create different labelling, packaging and marketing plans, depending on the country.
“There truly is no such thing as global tastebuds. But there are successful product adaptations,” Moeller says.
Consider Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) as an example. There are over 23,000 KFC locations in 140 countries, and the restaurants adapt to regional flavor preferences, selling different styles of food depending on the location. Coca-Cola is another example. With 500 brands in 200 countries, a can of Coke will taste different depending on the country where it was sold.
“Labelling is even more important when selling your brand. Know what is important to the folks that are going to make the decision to add you products to their store shelves. Whole Foods is different than Walmart,” Moeller adds.
She advises to never make a label too complicated. Yogurt sales are projected to drop by 10% by 2024 “and this is partially because there are too many choices and the category has gotten too complicated.”
- Environmental Concerns Lead to Upcycllng
The environment is a big topic of concern worldwide, Moeller says.The global food system accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, 40% of the food produced is never consumed and 78% of global consumers are concerned about the environment.
Upcycling will be the new food trend. Brands like Toast Ale (beer made from old bread) and RISE + WIN Brewing Co. (who recycle grain scraps to make granola and sweets) are already making waves in the industry. During the pandemic, chefs reported using fermentation more than ever before to make use of uneaten produce.
“There’s not a vegetable out there that could be turned into something else,” Moeller says. “Turning food waste into alternative products…I think it’s one of the most wonderful ideas, (brands) need to partner with the folks that they want to get these byproducts from.”
Atlantic Sea Farms began 2020 with landmark accomplishments. Their food service partnerships were bigger than ever, providing ready-cut kelp for David Chang’s kelp bowl created for Sweetgreen restaurants, seaweed kimchi for B.GOOD restaurant’s burgers and a kelp puree for salad dressing at Western Pennsylvania restaurant Lil’ Bit.
Then the coronavirus pandemic business shuttered restaurants, and Atlantic Sea Farms — which had sold 90% of their Maine kelp to food service establishments — had to flip their business model. Their new fermented products (Fermented Seaweed Salad, SeaChi, SeaKraut) and frozen Ready-Cut Kelp and Kelp Cubes became the focus of kelp processing. Atlantic Sea Farms will end 2020 processing 900,000 pounds of kelp and selling their retail product in 800 stores.
“People are excited about what we’re doing. We’re fermenting seaweed, and it tastes really damn good. We have retail buyers even at a time when every store is limiting SKUs, and they want our product,” says Brianna Warner, CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms. “The seaweed people typically eat in the United States is imported dry, rehydrated, then dyed with all the same chemicals that’s in Mountain Dew. But we are making a fermented seaweed that’s fresh, healthy and has all the goodness that comes from fermentation and kelp.”
Atlantic Sea Farms launched nine years ago as the first seaweed farm in the country. The majority (98%) of seaweed Americans eat is imported from Asia dried and unnaturally dyed. American-grown seaweed is still a new concept. When Warner became CEO two years ago, she set big goals for the small company. She wants Atlantic Sea Farms to provide alternative income sources for Maine’s lobster farmers, clean the water to aid climate change and make healthy food. They’ve increased the amount of kelp they produce to 14 times what they did two years ago and, by 2021, they will be in retail locations all over the U.S.
Coming on the heels of numerous awards for their one-of-a-kind, fermented kelp-based products, Warner spoke with TFA about Atlantic Sea Farms.
TFA: Tell me how your work at the Island Institute (Maine’s community sustainability non-profit) introduced you to Atlantic Sea Farms.
Briana Warner: At the time, Atlantic Sea Farms was called Ocean Approved and they were basically just a farming company. They were growing seeds and farming and I’m a development economist by trade. I was in the foreign service for a number of years before I moved to Maine. And the big question that the Island Institute was trying to solve and why they hired me as their first economic development director is we’re so dependent on this natural resource, which is lobster. It’s a lobster monoculture, we’re one of the most rural states in the country, we’re the oldest state in the country as far as demographics go, and there’s very little else in many of these communities other than lobster. There just is no diversity.
At the same time in Maine, we’ve had 10 of the best lobster farming years in the past 20 years. But that is worrying. Why? We know the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of oceans worldwide, and we know that’s because there’s arctic ice melt that’s creating a confluence of currents that gives the best opportunity for lobsters to thrive here. But what that ultimately means is it will continue to warm. And it will continue to warm to the point that lobsters are no longer surviving at the rate than they’re surviving now.
So with my economic development background, the ultimate solution is to provide alternative supplemental sources of income now while people have the money to invest in it. This is a way to absorb some of the shock of that lobster volatility so that in 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years, whenever it is that lobster isn’t as secure as it is now. And it’s not secure now either — we know there will be lobsters now, we just don’t know where the price is, we don’t know where it will go, that’s some of the volatility, and all the eggs are in that basket.
The ultimate proof of concept is if we’re able to help people adapt to this kind of economic change and at the same time, mitigate some of its climate change effects. Because when you plant seaweed, you’re actually removing carbon and nitrogen from the water and reducing acidification locally. So it’s this incredible crop that’s off season to the lobster income.
I started working with fishermen to start getting them into seaweed, but the problem is there is no institutional buyers at scale in the entire country. We were the first commercial seaweed farm in the country, when I joined, they were just farming their own seaweed but not buying anything from anyone else. So we really had to think big about what could the supply chain look like? And how could we make this a viable alternative income for fishermen?
The answer to that is, first, make a good product that people want. Second, make sure that that money goes back to the fishermen. And that’s really what our entire business model is based around. Coming up with products that are really delicious, putting them out there in a way that’s accessible, because right now 98% of the seaweed that we eat in the United States is imported, Fresh seaweed is not something anyone has had in the United States. This is a totally different product from the very very cheap stuff that comes from Asia, and it’s a very clean product because it’s grown in the clean, cold waters of Maine by independent fishermen farmers. And it tastes good. Our supply chain that we’ve built from that narrative, we create all the seeds in house, we give them out to our farmers for free, then we guarantee purchase of every single blade of kep that they grow.
When someone is buying a jar of our Fermented Seaweed Salad, that money is going back quite literally into the pockets of fishermen because our whole supply chain is built around as much as we can sell, the more we can put in the water and buy. Then we can make the ocean cleaner, we can make the coast healthier from an economic perspective, and the products are really good for the consumer and taste good. So it’s sort of this five-legged stool that we’re constantly working towards.
TFA: How does kelp farming work?
BW: Our fishermen usually have four-acre farms, so you lease the water. You have to get a permit and a lease (from the state), which takes many months if not years. And we help them with all of that. We provide all the technical assistance for their site selection and leasing requirements. And then on four acres, they put two mooring balls at either end of about 1,000 foot of line, and they do this 13 times on the farm. They put it about 7-feet under water, so all you can see is mooring balls. They put it on these 1,000-foot, horizontal ropes and the kelp starts growing. Kelp grows up to 6-inches a day in the warmer summer months. So it really grows very quickly. We harvest what we call a baby kep because it’s so young. Because it’s at the top of the water column, its this incredibly high-quality food that allows us to serve it fresh in a way that wild harvest wouldn’t because wild harvest you don’t know if you’re getting a 4-year-old plant or an 8-year-old plant whereas, with us, we’re harvesting very young, very tender, very clean kelp that’s at top of the water column.
Right now, we work with 24 kelp farmers. It’s owner-operator run, they have the license to fish and own their own boat. Our farmers work lobster season from June to November, plant our kelp seeds in November and December, then start harvesting them in April. Kelp is the inverse of lobster season.
TFA: Atlantic Sea Farms was just a kelp farm when you joined the company two years ago. Why expand to commercial products?
BW: We were growing 30,000 pounds of kelp a year when I came on in 2018, and now our kelp farmers are growing 900,000 pounds of kelp a year. We rebranded and came out with all these products in 2019 because 30,000 pounds is such a small scale. Nobody is going to make money from doing that, especially farmers. If we really want to make an impact on the coast, there’s a sense of urgency to build this quickly and make sure that we get the scale that we need so we can actually help absorb some of that shock.
Most lobster in America is actually sold to restaurants. But with COVID, people had absolutely no idea what kind of season they were going into this year. It was terrifying. But we were able to send out an email before kelp harvest season saying “There’s a whole lot to worry about right now, but us picking up is not one of those things. We will be there and we will honor every commitment we have.” And it was not easy. It was very, very challenging. And we did it. Because we know above all else, integrity along this coast is what we’re built on and what we’re doing this for. So if we can’t do that, what are we doing? So we picked up, by the last dollar we had.
We were mostly working in food service, that’s why there was such a big fallout. But we had these fermented products that were used in some food service locations but were mostly part of our regional brand we were building in New England. We have our jars, we have our frozen products. They were just in the region. And we really just turned it on its head and went after buyers of national chains for retail and switched our food service to retail. We’ll be launching in Sprouts in January with our frozen products, we’re in several regions of Whole Foods already and we’ll be in more starting in April, we’re in MOMS, Wegmans, all these places where there are ferments. We feel very blessed and very lucky, we’ve been working our tails off. I can’t quite say it’s worked yet. We’ve got these placements, now we’ve got to slam these out. In June we were in 100 stores but by January, we’ll be in 800 stores.
TFA: What does Maine kelp taste like?
BW: It’s very fresh, very vegetal, very light. For our ready cut, for our cubes and for our fermented salad, We blanche it so it knocks off the sort of low-tide taste. That also gives it the green color because, when you dip seaweed in hot water, it turns bright green, so we don’t ever use any dyes or anything. For our SeaChi and our Sea-Beet Kraut, we use it raw because people want those kick-in-your face flavors. If you like kimchi, you’re not going to be afraid of a pretty hard umami taste. It makes our SeaChi so good to have that deep, ocean flavor on it that you’d usually have to use fish sauce for. The blanched seaweed really tastes super mild. It kind of takes on the flavor of whatever you put in it. It’s loaded with calcium, potassium and iodine.
TFA: Have you seen Americans’ perceptions of eating seaweed change? Do you think their perceptions of fermented food have changed, too?
BW: Absolutely. With seaweed, two of the top importers of seaweed are Trader Joes and Costco. People are eating it. There’s nori sheets everywhere and there’s sushi restaurants in the farthest reaches of America. It’s everywhere. People have definitely gotten a taste for seaweed. It’s new for Americans to have it in a form that’s not dried. People want to know where their food comes from, they want to know the food they are eating is regenerative, which is what kelp is, it’s taking carbon and nitrogen out of the water. We don’t use any arable land, we have no fertilizer, we have no fresh water, it’s like this climate change diet dream, everything in it is better for the environment. People also want to know the people connected to it — all our products have the faces of our farmers on it — it checks all those boxes. Let alone it tastes good and it’s good for you.
That’s similar with fermentation. Years ago, fermentation might have been ripe to have it on the menu, but quite frankly, everything out there wasn’t that good. It was these plastic bags of sauerkraut that tasted like pork and sauerkraut. There wasn’t anything else out there. Then you saw some kimchi coming out in the market that you didn’t really know what it said because there wasn’t a whole lot of English writing on it. Then the branding started coming and it started being in more food. For fermentation, it’s been a slow but obvious move because it’s good for you and, again, it tastes good. We just have to take the intimidation factor out, and I think fermentation did that already, and now we’re trying to do that with seaweed.
TFA: Why ferment seaweed?
BW: Part of it is that’s the best way to store it. But the other part of it, the Venn diagram between people who eat kimchi and people who are excited about beet kraut and fermented foods and those who aren’t intimidated at all by seaweed is pretty overlapping. There are few people who say “I like fermented food — but seaweed, ew.” The low hanging fruit is so substantial. That’s kind of our first folks we can approach, they can be our true believers and then they help us advocate for what we’re doing.
TFA: How much time did it take to perfect these recipes?
BW: I’d been playing with them for years. SeaChi was something I was doing — buying kimchi and putting our kelp in it. And the Sea-Beet Kraut came from the fact that beets and kelp really go well together, they’re both very sweet and ferment well together. We spent months trying to figure out how to not make that sugar turn it into a mess of purple explosion.
But we started working with this wonderful company called Chi Kitchen Foods based out of Rhode Island, and they make kimchi and vegan kimchi. So we basically took the recipes as far as we could take it, then we brought it to Minnie (Minnie Luong, founder Chi Kitchen Foods) and basically begged her to help us figure it out. Our speciality is in kelp. We do all the kelp, and then they make the kimchi. They basically helped us commercialize our fermented products.
TFA: Tell me about being a female CEO. Females often make the purchasing decisions for the home. What perspective do you bring to the table?
BW: On top of female CEO, female CEO in seafood. That’s been rarer. Seafood is a white male-dominated category. Most of the fishermen we work with are men — we have one woman.
We have an absolutely broken food system. Things don’t work. People aren’t making more money who are producing the food. The good food is not getting cheaper, and the bad food is getting cheaper. Food is one of the biggest polluters to our planet. Our priorities in what we eat and how to get the food to our table are completely off center and completely broken and creating a massive devastation both on our health and on the health of the environment.
This is not to slight my male counterparts, but that thinking happened under the leadership of men. So instead of taking the same thinking and trying to slightly adjust it, let’s absolutely rethink how we look at our food system. That’s going to take different minds, and it’s going to take different approaches. And I think women are in the best position to do that. We want to feed our children and we want to feed our planet. We look beyond five years in the future. Our plan is our grandchildren and the health of our families and the health of us. While that may be a vast generalization, I think we really need to look at who broke the system and how we can fix it. And that’s going to take all types of thinking.
TFA: Where do you see the future of fermented products?
BW: The future of fermented foods is wide open. We’ve seen, there’s been such a shift in the past year or two in branding, flavor. It used to be sort of this niche thing of a few sauerkrauts and kimchis that all varied in taste only slightly. Then everyone started doing a bunch of cool stuff with those products in their home kitchens or in restaurants. But you couldn’t find those cool things on the shelf. I think we’re starting to see people looking beyond cabbage and recognize that fermentation can happen in so many forms. Just like the homebrewers spurred craft brewers. People are realizing there’s a lot of innovation to be had and buyers are realizing the fermented category isn’t limited to just health food people anymore. It’s people who really want to get those probiotics but also the flavor of the fermentation in the first place. Kombucha has shown us that, obviously. There’s a lot of different forms of fermented stuff out there right now that people are going to simply because it says the word fermented. The possibilities, I think we’re just at the beginning.
When Kirsten and Christopher Shockey moved onto their southern Oregon farmland 22 years ago, they envisioned starting a cidery. The century-old apple trees on the property produced perfect cider apples with an optimal mix of tannins and sugar. Cider ignited their love of fermentation.
“Really our fermentation journey started here on this place,” says Kirsten, author and fermentation educator (as well as a TFA Advisory Board member). She and her husband spoke at a recent TFA webinar Cider 2020: The State of the Art of Cidermaking, and talked about the state of the industry today.
This year has been full of surprises for cider producers. Sales had begun to flatten in 2019, as drinks like hard seltzer pulled from their market share. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic took root this spring, consumers started buying large amounts of cider, hoarding it along with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Regional brands in particular have netted strong growth, some seeing gains of up to 30%. But this short-term growth spurt has created an odd, contradictory situation in the industry.
“We’ve got this real interesting dichotomy,” Christopher says. “Cider sales are up over 12%, but when you talk to orchards, farmers, cideries, especially small ones, you get a different picture. A lot of our friends in the cideries are cutting back their production, they’re not buying as many apples. Cideries are cutting back their apple orders.” The Shockeys theorize that these recent sales have been filled from existing inventories, while producers remain cautious about sales projections for 2021 and beyond.
What does this all mean for you as a cider producer, as well as for the future of the industry? The Shockeys shared their recommendations, observations and predictions.
- Pick a niche. What is your cider brand’s defining characteristic? Is it your background story? Where do you source your apples? Differentiate, Christopher advises.
- Focus on target demographic. Different age groups purchase alcohol differently. Millenials and Gen Z, for example, avoid wine. How can your cider cater to your target age group?
- Respond to consumer movement. People are leaving the city for the country, as more and more work remotely and are no longer tethered to an urban office location. This migration will affect distribution and sales patterns as consumers relocate around the country.
- Find unique marketing opportunities. Though many tap rooms are currently closed, cider clubs are finding success providing the latest flavors to customers 4-6 times a year. These are guaranteed sales, and help cideries sell out of kegs rather than bottles.
- Embrace unusual flavors. The Shockeys detailed the differences between traditional cider (apples only) and modern cider (using other fruits and botanicals). Christopher’s favorite is a persimmon cider, while Kirsten loves one made with manzanita yeast that produces a Christmas spice flavor. In 2020, pineapple-flavored ciders have sold particularly well.
- Understand there will be less business spending. Restaurants, hotels and conferences will not be reliable sources of income for cider makers until the coronavirus pandemic is over. Even then, it may take a while for these outlets to recover.
- Explore home delivery. Regional brands implementing home delivery are seeing big sales.
- Fight for fridge space. People are not getting bigger refrigerators and they’re not drinking on-premise during the pandemic, so cider makers must figure out how to compete for their share of consumer purchases.
Attending Cider 2020 was a range of individuals, from master cidermarkers to DIY home brewers. The Shockeys shared tips for hobbyists as well as professionals. They also offered further advice through a chapter that didn’t make it into their recently-published The Big Book of Cidermaking but is available here: www.storey.com/cider-business.
For anyone interested in purchasing The Big Book of Cidermaking, or in any of the Shockeys’ four titles on fermentation – a fifth, on vinegar, will be released next year – please visit the Shockey’s Amazon store.
Former Noma chef David Zilber is partnering with Chr. Hansen, a global supplier of bioscience ingredients. Denmark-based Chr. Hansen has 40,000 microbial strains used as natural ingredient solutions for food, nutrition, pharmaceutical and agricultural products. Zilber said: “Fermentation is undergoing a democratization, and that’s something we both want to help accelerate.”
Zilber adds: “At Noma, I felt like I had accomplished everything I had set out to and more. Also, the pandemic really made me think about the shape of the world from a new perspective. I wanted to take the values and tenets that I believe in to the next level and scale them up to affect real change in the food system. And Chr. Hansen is already such a powerhouse within that world. A powerhouse in the realm of good microbes, a realm where I can put my skills to use, helping to create delicious and healthy solutions. I want to apply some of the ideas I have in mind to problems on a massive scale and try to do as much good as possible in the process. There’s a common mission we’re both striving to accomplish. And because of that, this really feels like a perfect match.”
Adds Laurent Hubert, vice president in FC&E, Head of Food & Beverages at Chr. Hansen: “David is someone who can address a wide and diverse audience in a very thoughtful way, sharing his innovative insights on fermentation. Teaming that kind of personality up with a company who has been in the fermentation business for almost 150 years hopefully delivers a fruitful mix of drive, scientific knowledge and purpose. It is a partnership born out of passion for fermentation. Coming from arguably one of the world’s best restaurants to join one of the world’s most sustainable companies, David can contribute together with us to a resilient and tasteful food system. This will be a major asset to develop our two lighthouses: This will be a major asset to develop our two lighthouses: Bioprotection (food cultures against food waste) and Fermented Plant Bases, which has just been introduced as a lighthouse. We are looking forward to a constructive collaboration.”
Read more (Chr. Hansen)
Fermentation is more than just a food processing technique. Sandor Katz, today’s “godfather of fermentation,” expounds on the metaphorical significance of fermentation in his new book “Fermentation as Metaphor.”
“Fermentation is such a fascinating lens through which to look at the world and the incredible practicality of traditional cultural wisdom,” says Katz, fermentation author and educator, during a webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association. “In the English language, there’s a long tradition of describing things as fermenting that are not foods and beverages. We talk about a period of great musical fermentation, artistic fermentation, political fermentation, culture fermentation, we’ve applied it very widely. This book is really an exploration of that and a reflection of that.”
Katz spoke with his friend Mara King, chef and food professional, and they shared thoughts on how fermentation can be an unstoppable force for change.
“Fermentation is really teaching the world to embrace weird and funky things,” King says. “Take natural wines as an example. There’s a big movement in the world of wine making for using older techniques, using less chemical filtration and clarification methods. What you’re left with is a product that changes year to year and a product that has subtle notes of animal or leather, things you wouldn’t find before. We’re realizing a little bit of horrible is quite wonderful.”
Until the 19th Century, all wine was natural, Katz points out. Winemakers relied on organisms on the skins of the grapes for the flavor. Beer used to be a similarly natural product, but that’s changed as brewers today add yeast strains.
“It’s so much more interesting and complex of a flavor than the mass-produced beer where just a single organism is introduced. Fermentation really encourages people to expand their palates,” Katz says. “Funk is good. Funk makes things interesting. Funk is complexity. What I’ve learned by working with fermented tofu in food, working with natto in food, working with sumbala, the West African condiments that are natto-like, working with fish sauce, is [these ingredients on their own] might taste awful to you, but a little bit can introduce this je ne sais quoi into the flavor of a dish. Complexity is good and even flavors on their own that people might find scary or intimidating.”
The photography featured in “Fermentation as Metaphor” is unique — magnified microbes used in the creation of fermented food and drink. The images, captured with a scanning electron microscope, show the complexity of these microorganisms. Each structure is supported by a smaller structure, with membranes that are highly permeable.
“There continues to be a magic to fermentation, maybe in some ways even more so as fewer people have direct contact with their food. As there’s less wine making, cheese making, [or] baking in our lives that people actually see, these processes become more and more mysterious. [Mystery] has always been an aspect of fermentation because, until very recent times, there was never a clear, rational scientific understanding of what is going on. They were always seen as divine processes with lots of ceremony and ritual attached to them,” Katz adds. “Fermentation takes this neutral, plain food and gives it this really discernable, compelling flavor.”
Katz is already working on his next book, a fermentation travelogue book highlighting what he’s learning about fermentation in his worldwide travels. Katz and King previously filmed a series “The People’s Republic of Fermentation,” sharing the fermentation traditions of southwest China. They were supposed to travel to Taiwan and eastern China earlier this year, but the trip was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Next on Katz’s “to do” list — exploring the fermented cuisine of West Africa.
LA Times focused on kimchi in their October 4 food section entirely dedicated to the subject. Articles included a feature on kimchi making with Emily Kim @maangchi (the chef dubbed “YouTube’s Korean Julia Child”), must-try kimchi spots in the L.A. area and a history of kimchi in Korea. The article reads:
“A keystone of the Korean diet, kimchi is an unmistakable star that rarely commands the spotlight and is instead relegated to side-dish status. But its absence is always glaring.
“If I run out of kimchi, I’m lost,” said Emily Kim, better known to just about anyone who has ever searched online for a Korean recipe as Maangchi. For 13 years, Kim has helped bring Korean cooking into countless home kitchens through her cookbooks and her popular YouTube channel, Cooking Korean Food With Maangchi, which has nearly 5 million subscribers.
On days she prefers to keep it simple at home in the kitchen, Kim sticks to the basics: kimchi, rice and soup.
“Sometimes, depending on my mood, I’d make more protein, like bulgogi,” Kim said. But kimchi is the linchpin of her meals. “Even if I have meat and I can make bulgogi, if I don’t have kimchi, I’m like, ‘What should I eat?’”
Such is the fervent faith many Koreans have in their culture’s iconic dish. There’s a willingness to believe kimchi can save — be it a meal or the spirit — because it has come through so many times before.
“As long as I have kimchi in my refrigerator, I don’t worry much,” said Kim.”
Read more (Los Angeles Times)
Koji — the mold-innoculated grains — has become one of the superstars of the American fermentation scene, thanks to chefs experimenting with it in unique ways. Dubbed “Japan’s mold,” koji has been a cooking staple in Asian countries since the 1800s. In a webinar with Chelsea Green Books titled “Breaking the Mold: A Conversation with Fermentation Fanatics,” Sandor Katz, Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky discussed how koji can be used for fermenting foods.
“I think one of the fascinating things is to see these microbial sets start to be viewed through different cultural lenses across geographic locations,” says Umansky, co-author of the book “Koji Alchemy” with Shih. “We’re honestly starting to see food the world has never seen before. It’s a really exciting time to be fermenting, to be growing koji and making the foods that are being made from it.”
Applying ancient fermentation techniques in new ways is a “game changer” to a dish, Shih added.
“You don’t need a lot to make it really mind blowing,” Shih says. “When I started thinking about how little of these umami-blasted product I added to make it delicious.”
“I think one of the coolest things that I discovered about working with koji is it’s just that little bit of breakdown that creates that umami that really brings the product to life. You need such a small amount of protein to make a big difference,” Shih adds.
Mold has a bad reputation as the fuzzy invader that grows on old food. But, Shih points out, everyone has tried mold. Koji mold is a driver for soy sauce, one of the most popular condiments worldwide.
“When people start, they have a perception of what mold is and this perception that it’s not good for you, it’s bad, and it should not be part of food,” Shih says. “Mold is a wonderful thing and it creates all these wonderful condiments and drinks that allowed us to be here today, to survive those times when it was tough and preservation was necessary.”
Katz, who is releasing a new book on fermentation “Fermentation as a Metaphor,” joined Umansky and Shih for their conversation (TFA is hosting a webinar with Katz and Mara King on October 7.). A fermentation author and educator, Katz has taught hundreds of workshops on demystifying fermentation.
“All three of us would say: experiment. You can grow koji on virtually anything,” Katz advises.
Today, there are powder koji starter cultures available to purchase for cooks to create koji dishes. Until the 20th century, there were no koji starter cultures, Katz points out, as cooks used mold spores in the air.
“We can order cultures to make this happen today. It’s very very much in our reach,” he says. Addressing Umansky and Shih: “You guys figured it out just by playing in your kitchen. None of this is that hard.”
However, Katz says koji is not a first fermentation project. Koji requires a controlled temperature environment and humidity. Vegetable fermentation is a beginner-friendly fermentation project because it merely involves vegetables and salt.
“There is a small, minute risk that something may go wrong,” Shih says. “We always encourage people when they’re first starting and thinking about growing koji in this fashion is to grow it in the most controlled way possible to be successful.”
Umansky encourages those ready to start fermenting with koji to buy a starter from a reputable producer. Especially important is purchasing spores from a location in the geographic area where the kojis were domesticated. In researching the book, Umansky found there is only one of seven companies left in Japan that still produces koji spores, Higuchi Matsunosuke Shoten Co., Ltd. Owner Koichi Higuchi is the head of the 7th generation company. Higuchi has a vault with hundreds of variations and specialties of different koji species.
“These are people that are really, really driving the preservation of kojis worldwide,” Umansky says. “Supporting them drives the preservation of this…they’re working really hard to protect the biodiversity that’s important for their individual cultural identities.”