Bow & Arrow Brewing in New Mexico is part of two small but growing groups in the U.S. — it is both female- and Native American-owned. 

Bow & Arrow locally sources their traditional Native American ingredients (blue corn, Navajo tea, three-leaf sumac) for their seasonal sour beers. The hops they use — subspecies neomexicanus — were used for their antiviral properties by the Navajo people in the Southwest,who put them in teas and salves. The brewery owners — Missy Begay and Shyla Sheppard — forage for hops in the mountains near Albuquerque. They also give their spent brewing grains to a local Native American family for use as feed for their livestock. 

Begay, pictured left (who is Diné [Navajo]) and Sheppard, pictured right (a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes [Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara]) met at Stanford University in 2000. They took different career paths, but both fell in love with craft beer and homebrewing. They opened Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. in 2016.

“There is a sweetness to the land here, and all of this is sacred. We hope, as Native American women brewery owners, that people understand the story we have to tell,” Begay says.

Read more (Outside)

Cacao would never obtain its rich flavor profile without a traditional food processing technique: fermentation.

“I feel like fermentation adds about three-quarters of the flavor to the finished chocolate. I think it is the most important step in the entire tree-to-bar process for the flavor of the chocolate, and the chocolate makers have been taking too much credit for the flavor of their chocolate,” says Nat Bletter, PhD and founder of Madre Chocolate. 

Chocolate makers “can definitely take a great grown and fermented cacao and make it shine, but it’s really hard to take a badly grown and fermented cacao and make a good tasting chocolate and that’s why so much of the world’s chocolate is loaded with milk and sugar to try to cover up some of the bad fermentation flavors.”

Bletter joined Max Wax (vice president of Rizek Cacao) and Dan O’Doherty (principal of Cacao Services) in sharing their expertise during a joint webinar, The Fermentation-Flavor Connection in Chocolate., co-hosted byThe Fine Chocolate Industry Association and The Fermentation Association.. 

The three speakers work in different size chocolate operations. Madre Chocolate is a small-scale chocolate making company in Honolulu that uses cacao from small Hawaiian farmers; Rizek Cacao is a producer and exporter of cacao and cacao products based in the Dominican Republic; and Cacao Services (also in Honolulu) s an agricultural and scientific consulting company that specifically focuses on cacao production systems.

Complex fermentation

Cacao fermentation is among  the most complex of food ferments because it utilizes three families of microbes and 5-10 species in each. “It is a little bit hard to control since it’s not just one single species of microbes that you’re trying to support a good ecosystem,” Bletter adds. 

Wax attributes less of chocolate’s flavor to fermentation. He says there are flavors produced by the metabolism of the plant itself, “so genetics is probably No. 1, then comes the terroir that comes with fermentation. We shouldn’t be dogmatic on fermentation but on the contrary open to this fantastic dialogue between wisdom and science.”

A chocolate maker is responsible for studying the effects of yeasts on their cacao ferment, Wax adds. They should ask: How does the naturally occurring yeast change flavor? What’s the metabolism rate? Is there a possibility of naturally inoculating the cacao for a different flavor? 

“It is absolutely true that you should not inoculate something using either commercial yeast or yeast from grapes or other types of culture, or even from different environments,” Wax says. “But it is also true that the variety of yeast that is naturally occurring, not all of them give the same taste profile. … Nobody wants the same flavor and the same cacao forever, just as we don’t want the same wine or the same cheese or the same yogurt or the same beer.” 

Rizek Cacao employs 32 varieties of yeast in their chocolate.

Sensory Cues

O’Doherty, who works with cacao farmers, says it’s possible to ferment cacao without any kind of quantitative measuring devices.

“If you’re an experienced fermenter and you really know what you’re looking at, you use all your senses,” O’Doherty says. A fermented cacao bean will be plump and juicy; the color will be reddish-brown (a pale bean is  under-fermented) and the bean’s scent will change depending on the stage of the fermentation process. 

“If I only had one sense to go on for cacao fermentation, I think it really would be aroma,” O’Doherty continues. The scent sequence will begin as fresh and fruity, transition to a strong yeast fragrance, next to wine , then to ethanol  and, finally, the sharp vinegar scent will fade to a fruity vinegar.

One of the topics mostly frequently raised by cacao producers, says  O’Doherty,is how to modernize their operations. He points out that most cacao farmers still ferment using boxes and heaps.

“In general, cacao cultivation and processing is centuries behind,” he says. Most cacao farms are run by small shareholders who don’t have the money for barrels or stainless steel equipment. “Sophisticated fermentation vessels are not really an option for consideration. Truth be told, well executed, both heaps and wooden box fermentations can produce some absolutely fantastic cacao.”

O’Doherty concludes: “The larger question about commodity cacao and the incentives or lack thereof is the reason that I have a job helping farmers with fermentation. Although there may be traditions, there’s no feedback mechanism. There is no incentive for good quality and, typically, there’s really not a penalty for bad quality, unless it is actually decomposing…a lot of the work I do is linking these producers that I assist with their harvest and process to chocolate makers that will pay double or triple the typical commodity price. I still don’t think that’s enough but it’s moving the needle in the right direction.”

This is the first in a series of articles that TFA will be releasing over the next few months, analyzing trends from our Member Survey

Though fermentation brands overwhelmingly reported substantial sales gains during the Covid-19 pandemic, they’re not breaking out the champagne. Now, nearing fall 2021, many are starting to see sales flatten. This trend is consistent with sales for the food industry at large, which started to plateau in March 2021.

Most fermenters reported struggles meeting demand — packaging shortages (38%), costly and time-consuming Covid-19 sanitation protocols (30%), distribution delays (29%) and ingredient and labor shortages (both 28%). Then there’s the challenge of keeping a fermented product in stock with constantly changing sales demands.

Jared Schwartz, a TFA Advisory Board member, is founder of fermented sauce producer Poor Devil Pepper Co. and director of operations and quality for Farm Ferments (a facility in Hudson, N.Y., that is home to Hawthorne Valley Farm). He says forecasting has been especially difficult for a refrigerated fermented food with a processing cycle more delicate than that of its shelf-stable counterpart. 

“While these spikes in sales are incredible, they also depleted our on-hand WIP [Work-In-Progress],” Schwartz says. He would project barrels of fermenting vegetables to provide adequate inventory for a certain length of time, but peak pandemic demand depleted stock. Finding new ingredients is difficult because everything is sourced locally. “With fermentation, there is of course a much longer lead time on a finished product as the process can’t be rushed. So these challenges left us extending our production season and looking to source from the spot market, which is generally out of our norm. We generally source 95% of our ingredients from New York State and base our projections around the trajectory aforementioned.”

Sales Flatten After Record Year 

While predicting sales has been difficult — especially as many states are again increasing Covid-19 restrictions because of the Delta variant — some brand leaders were prepared for a decrease in sales in 2021. 

Kheedim Oh, founder of Mama O’s Kimchi (and also on TFA’s Advisory Board), said sales doubled in 2020. But, this summer, they fell dramatically from that peak. “July was terrible,” Oh says, but they “anticipate a boost in the fall since summer months are typically slower.” 

Revenue almost tripled in 2020 for hard kombucha brand Dr. Hops, but sales have since started to flatten. The company had secured new distribution before the pandemic, then redesigned their product line this year. “We would have likely done much more… if we had been able to do all the field sales and marketing we had planned,” says Joshua Rood, co-founder and CEO of Dr. Hops Real Hard Kombucha, 

Hawthorne Valley is seeing a similar downturn. Sales from March to April spiked about 50%, with overall year-over-year growth at 46%. But “things have definitely plateaued for now,” Schwartz says.

Supply Chain Nightmares 

Small packaging supplies — like the tiny plastic caps for glass kombucha bottles — caused huge production issues. Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International, says this was the biggest challenge for brewers. “It’s had a massive impact,” she says. 

Twenty-four percent of survey respondents said they anticipate production constraints will continue to be a challenge throughout 2021.

And though sales remain strong for Bubbies pickles according to John Gray, owner of Bubbies (and TFA Advisory Board member), “glass shortages have affected the entire industry. Sales are strong, but shortages persist,” as he describes the pandemic’s double-edged sword facing many fermented brands.

Production and distribution issues hit frozen pizza brand Alex’s Awesome Sourdough, too — packaging costs went up 10%, and freight expense nearly doubled. But these didn’t slow the company’s growth. They expanded massively in 2020, from 100 to 1,500 stores. An overall uptick in frozen food sales helped them as well, especially as competing pizza brands went out of stock.

“Sales are strong as pizza is a seasonal category and the end of summer and early fall are the beginning of peak season,” says Alex Corsini, founder of Alex’s Awesome Sourdough (and another TFA Advisory Board member). “We anticipate sales being even stronger if Covid protocols remain strict and restaurants continue operating at a limited capacity. Restaurants definitely take a piece of our pie (pun intended).”

Kombucha producers across the U.S. have organized an awareness campaign for the KOMBUCHA Act. The legislation — which was reintroduced into Congress this year for the 5th year in a row — would exempt kombucha  from excise taxes intended for alcoholic beverages.

The KOMBUCHA ACT Days of Action, organized by the trade organization Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), is from September 14 to 18. The act would raise the alcohol by volume (ABV) threshold for kombucha from its current level of 0.5% to 1.25%. Producers plan to lobby, emailing representatives, posting on social media and encouraging the public to sign a petition in support of the bipartisan bill. 

In a statement from KBI President Hannah Crum, she points out that kombucha is not an alcoholic beverage. The fermented tea rarely exceeds 0.5% ABV, while light lager beers contain about 3.2% ABV and most craft beers are 5% or higher. (Note: hard kombucha, an increasingly popular drink option, is specifically brewed to have higher alcoholic content and is labeled accordingly.). Here are some of the key paragraphs from her statement:

“Today, most kombucha sold in the United States contains trace amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation that occurs during production. The alcohol, a natural preservative, acts to protect kombucha’s live cultures, as well as the safety of consumers, from unwanted pathogens,” Crum says. “Traditionally made kombucha seldom tests above 1 percent ABV, as kombucha cultures are not suited to high levels of alcohol, so this level allows kombucha brewers to feel confident distributing their products by providing ample buffer room to shield them from the threat of this tax.”

“Nevertheless, for the purpose of assessing federal excise taxes on beer for its alcohol content, the Internal Revenue Code defines the term ‘beer’ in a way that encompasses kombucha, if the kombucha contains 0.5 percent or more of ABV.”

“For kombucha brewers, this federal law presents a real dilemma. While their kombucha may be leaving the facility below the 0.5 percent ABV threshold, trace alcohol can increase slightly – in some cases above 0.5 percent ABV – if the product is exposed to temperature fluctuations on distribution trucks or grocery store shelves after it has left the kombucha brewery.”

“Under the current law as written, kombucha brewers have a Damocles sword hanging over their heads. That is, their kombucha can leave the brewery untaxed, only for its ABV level to rise slightly above 0.5 percent once out of their control, thus becoming subject to the federal excise taxes.”

Hard cider makers waged a similar battle in 2015. Federal law had limited hard cider to under 7% ABV, but cider makers (particularly smaller producers) found it difficult to control alcohol levels because of  apple varieties and cultures. Congress passed a bill increasing the allowable alcohol content in hard cider to 8.5%.

Crum continues: “While hard cider is an alcoholic beverage and kombucha is not, the two products nonetheless share a similar issue: the alcohol level in each can vary naturally due to fermentation.”

“As with cider makers in 2015, this dilemma and the anxiety it causes kombucha brewers would be easily remedied through the enactment of a similar common-sense update: the bipartisan KOMBUCHA Act (H.R. 2124/S. 892) now being considered in Congress. The bill – sponsored by House Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) – creates an exemption in the tax code for kombucha, so long as the ABV level of the product is 1.25 percent ABV or lower.”

Crum says many kombucha producers limit growing their business “in order to protect themselves from this risk, as well as facing burdensome costs of testing to comply with the arbitrarily restrictive limit.” There are over 600 kombucha producers in the U.S. Kombucha has “garnered a cult following in the last 20 years for its unique taste and probiotic benefits,” she says, adding:

“We are hopeful that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and their colleagues on both sides of the aisle (multiple Republicans in various states have co-sponsored the bill) can succeed in getting this legislation enacted into law this year. If they do succeed, they’ll pave the so-far rocky path for a new and rapidly growing industry that promises to add thousands of jobs with benefits to the economy at a time when they are desperately needed.”

Investors in alternative protein don’t see the market slowing anytime soon, but they do anticipate a shakeout. Alternative proteins are a mere 1-2% of the $1.4 trillion meat industry. The current giants of the alternative space — Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — are just the beginning. Industry investors predict the next challengers will come from fermentation, air and mycoprotein sources. 

“We saw the alternative milk market take 20% of that (dairy) market. We think that [in] the meat market, the same thing could happen,” says Darren Streiler, managing director of ADM Ventures. Streiler calls products utilizing precision-based fermentation, gas-based fermentation and fungi the “next wave of alternative proteins.” 

Utilizing fungi, also known as mycoprotein, involves fermenting the spores of specific mushrooms to produce protein-rich food. (Fungi on parasites and yeasts are also used, but not as frequently as mushrooms). “Flexitarian” consumers, Streiler adds, are seeking these hybrid food products.

Streiler was on a panel of investors discussing trends at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual meeting and expo, IFT FIRST. Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer and managing director of S2G Ventures, and Jeff Grogg, managing director of JPG Resources, joined Streiler. The three agreed that taste, nutrition, affordability and sustainability are key to succeeding in the alternative protein market. 

“I think we’re at the iPod phase and not even in the iPhone phase of this protein revolution,” Krishnan says. “That transition from iPod to iPhone I think is going to require more focus on taste, particularly the fat side of the equation, to get that umami feel of traditional protein. And I see a lot more opportunity to innovate.”

The alternative protein market is still dominated by plant-based options but, as arable land becomes more scarce, sustainably-produced protein will be critical.

Why Sustainable Protein?

It takes two years for a steak to get from farm-to-fork — raising cattle contributes significantly to carbon gases, pollutes water and requires a large amount of land. The world is facing an impending global food crisis: there will be 10 billion people to feed in 2050, requiring a 70% increase in food production. But the amounts of farming land and fresh water are declining, while greenhouse gases increase. Air Protein founder Lisa Dyson thinks fermentation can help mitigate these trends.

“We’re taking something that’s similar to fermentation — you can think about it as fermentation reimagined —  we’re taking cultures, but with the typical fermentation process, you actually emit carbon dioxide. We’re reversing that. We’re actually using carbon dioxide as an input instead,” Dyson says.

Dyson also spoke at the IFT event. Chef Carla Hall, who introduced Dyson, called Air Protein “the rocket science of food.”

Closed-Loop Carbon Cycle

Founded in 2019, Air Protein uses  a half-century-old food technology originally intended to feed astronauts on long space missions. In the sixties, NASA discovered microbes — called hydrogenotrophs — could harvest energy from carbon dioxide in the air and, in a matter of hours or days, turn it into nutrients. The process is completely carbon negative — astronauts in a spaceship breathe out carbon; that gas is captured and fed to cultures, which in turn create a protein. 

Culinary techniques can then be applied to that protein, mimicking the textures and flavors of a juicy steak or chicken breast. Dyson says innovators in alternative proteins  still call this food meat.

“It’s the new meat of tomorrow, the future of meat as it were,” she says. And hydrogenotrophs don’t require light or arable land to grow. The process, according to Dyson, is “immensely scalable.” An Air Protein “farm” could be put anywhere  you could build a brewery. 

“Imagine this process that is essentially super efficient, going from air to plant in a matter of hours, a matter of days, versus years,” she adds. “So this is a very fast process and it allows us to make food and feed the nations, the growing population in a way that uses minimal land, minimal water, and is actually carbon negative.”

The alcohol levels in wine have been rising over the past 30 years — and wine experts say the sugar content in grapes is to blame. 

Though a winemaker can manipulate sugar levels in the vineyard and alcohol levels in the cellar, a hotter climate is driving increased sugar content in grapes. California’s wine grapes have had a “substantial rise” in sugar levels since 1980. A study by the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) hypothesizes global warming is contributing.

Read more (Decanter)

Fermented Fungi Forge Forward 

The alternative protein industry continues to explode in growth — and fermented mushrooms are leading the pack as the preferred meatless protein. In a recent article, the World Economic Forum highlighted mycoprotein, the protein-rich, flavorless “foodstuff” made from fermenting mushrooms. Companies creating alt proteins with fungi “are starting to sprout almost overnight,” the article notes.

Mycoprotein has a big advantage over plant-based proteins, as it has a meat-like texture that can then be flavored to taste like animal meat. Plant proteins must go through further processing to replicate a meat-like texture, and many plant proteins retain the taste of the original plant.

The mycoprotein production process was developed and patented by UK brand Quorn in 1985. But their patent expired in 2010, and  the food technology is now available for all.

Read more (World Economic Forum)

More specialty coffee producers are developing unique approaches to their coffee bean fermentation, isolating native microorganisms to create a flavorful cup or  working closely with rural farmers to utilize fermentation control techniques on small-scale operations.

“Practically all the coffee we drink has been fermented in one way or another. But there is huge room for improvement, innovation and development in the realm of coffee fermentation,” says Mario Fernández, PhD, Technical Officer with the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). The SCA partnered with The Fermentation Association for the webinar The State of the Art in Coffee Fermentation

Fernández continues: “Coffee is produced by millions of small coffee producers around the tropics that have very little capital to invest in fermentation equipment. Oftentimes, the price is too low for them to add fermentation controls as part of the cost equation. Therefore, for perhaps 99.9% of coffee in the world, it undergoes wild fermentation, in which the microbes grow on the mass of mucilage in a wild fashion and the coffee producer only controls certain parameters, such as the length of the fermentation.” 

Two industry experts on the forefront of coffee fermentation technique and technology joined Fernández — Felipe Ospina, CEO of Colors of Nature Group (multinational specialty coffee trader) and Rubén Sorto, CEO of BioFortune Group (a coffee, upcycled and food ingredient manufacturer based in Honduras). 

Post Harvest Processing Technology

Sorto is adapting fermentation technology to coffee, mapping the microbiota of the bacteria and yeasts that are present at Biofortune Group’s farms.

“We realized that fermentation was one of the key aspects of the coffee production that hadn’t been addressed,” Sorto said, noting fermentation is controlled in industries like dairy, wine, beer and bread but not in coffee. “We learned that our soil, our water, our coffee trees, our leaves, our [coffee] cherries, had a large compendium of bacteria and yeast that were involved in the posterior fermentation process…some of the yeasts and bacteria were definitely beneficial and were urgently needed during the fermentation but some of them were not.”

To maximize flavor, they focus on that complex array of bacteria and yeasts, preferably indigenous to the countries of origin. These microorganisms thrive in their local environment, reflecting altitude and temperature. To control the fermentation of those bacteria and yeasts, Biofortune reduces the variables, including monitoring pH levels, alcohol content and container contaminants.

“If you are able to control the fermentation, you are also able to offer a higher-quality product, a consistent quality product…and that’s what the market is looking for, consistent quality in a cup,” Sorto says.

Educating Coffee Farmers

Ospina, meanwhile, is researching fermentation techniques accessible to small-holder coffee producers and training them. The goal is for them to understand the role of each microorganism, discover how to use it in fermentation, then scale that knowledge to small-scale operations, so they can produce incredible coffees. 

At La Cereza Research Center, the Colors of Nature facility in southern Colombia, they are experimenting with fermentation processes. Some alcoholic fermentations result in coffees that produce coffees that taste of whiskey, cognac, champagne, sangria or even beer. Lactic fermentations might produce coffees with flavors of banana, mango, papaya, grapefruit or even cacao. “This is showing us the potential is humongous,” Ospina says.

“Wild fermentation is the ultimate expression of the terroir and it’s very important for us because the terroir produces unique coffees,” Ospina says. “The thing is, we don’t understand wild fermentation yet, but I’m very against demonizing wild fermentation. Why? Because we have seen hundreds and hundreds of outstanding, amazing coffees from all over the world that have been produced with wild fermentation.”

There are challenges. Food safety is a big concern. Ospina teaches the use of disposable gloves at the farm level to prevent contaminants, and to put a new plastic bag in the bioreactor for each batch of beans to avoid cross-contamination. 

The cost of implementing fermentation technology can be high. Sorto recommends to start by buying each farmer a pocket pH meter and a refractometer to closely monitor the fermentation.

“Translating science and technology to small farmers with very little investment will help them increase the possibility of a higher income because if you are not able to control fermentation, you are risking the effort of a one year harvest,” Sorto advises.

Tea consumption globally is increasing. But consumers don’t want a cheap, poor quality tea bag. They’re buying premium teas — and increasingly, dark, fermented teas. 

“What’s trending right now seems to be authentic tea, tea that has great flavor, more closely married to the terroir. People are beginning to understand that it’s just fine to have tea. You don’t have to have coloring in it, you don’t have to have a lot of bits and pieces of fruit and flowers, there’s a genuine benefit to just understanding the terroir and keeping it simple,” says Dan Bolton, the founder, editor and publisher of Tea Journey. Bolton and two tea experts discussed two lesser-known fermented tea varieties in the TFA webinar Beyond Kombucha: Pu’erh, Jun and Dark Tea. “Tea just isn’t as good as it could be, without fermentation.”

A new study on tea demonstrates how important fermentation is to tea quality, Bolton says. Researchers from the Anhui Agricultural University in China recently studied the effect of surface microbiomes on the quality of black tea. The results found microbial fermentation in non-sterilized control tea samples produced complex compounds and more flavorful teas than with sterilized tea leaves. The results  were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry

“It’s a remarkable finding because, certainly for the last century or so, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether fermentation plays a role in the production and processing of tea,” Bolton says. The study proves “black tea is actually a result of both fermentation and oxidation.”

Pu’erh Tea

Jeff Fuchs — author, Himalayan explorer and co-founder of Jalam Teas — shared details of pu’erh tea. Pu’erh is a tea style from a strain of camellia leaf cultivated and produced in the Yunnan province. Fuchs spent over a decade living in there and is the only Westerner to have traveled the Tea Horse Road through Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet.

“Pu’erh is a tea that certainly I think it’s been deliberately mystified to some degree,” Fuchs says. “It’s interesting that you have this very simple, raw material green tea that is now arguably one of the great  boutique commodities.”

Fuchs stresses consumers need to research tea sourcing. Where is the tea coming from? How was it stored? Who stored it? Older tea cakes are being sold for large amounts of money, but can have questionable provenance.

“Young teas I think are making a big assertion in the tea world right now because they represent a closer line to the terroir, a closer line to the origin point,” he says, adding dark teas are becoming more popular in North America. He sees more bartenders experimenting with dark teas, playing with flavor compounds. “I think dark teas will come into the sway more and they’ll remain.”

Jun Tea

Jun is another tea style making waves in the fermented beverage market. It is a type of kombucha, but the base is green tea and honey instead of black tea and sugar. Brendan McGill shared his experience making jun — he is a chef and James Beard nominee; he owns the Hitchcock Restaurant Group in Seattle and  the newly-launched Junbug Kombucha.

“Jun is a very special style of kombucha,” McGill says. “It’s shrouded in mystery, where these cultures originated. What we do know is how they’ve been developed and manipulated in fairly recent history. One of the joys I’ve had with this is just being extremely creative because i found that while the fermentation isn’t necessarily a delicate process, it has allowed us to modify and use a lot of different inputs that it’s actually a pretty robust fermentation process.”

McGill began making kombucha over a decade ago, as a replacement for beer and wine. He liked jun for its similar flavor to alcohol, the additional bioactive compounds that create a more nutritious drink and it’s made with honey instead of added sugar. 

Junbug Kombucha uses filtered water, organic green tea, wild honey and, of course, a SCOBY. In the secondary fermentation, fresh herbs, berries and even mushrooms are added. Junbug flavors include Chaga Root Beer, Chili Raspberry and Maui Mana. 

Fermented foods are produced through controlled microbial growth — but how do industry professionals manage those complex microorganisms? Three panelists, each with experience in a different field and at a different scale — restaurant chef, artisanal cheesemaker and commercial food producer — shared their insights during a TFA webinar, Managing Fermented Food Microbes to Control Quality

“Producers of fermented foods rely on microbial communities or what we often call microbiomes, these collections of bacteria yeasts and sometimes even molds to make these delicious products that we all enjoy,” says Ben Wolfe, PhD, associate professor at Tufts University, who moderator the webinar along with Maria Marco, PhD, professor at University of California, Davis (both are TFA Advisory Board members). 

Wolfe continued: “Fermenters use these microbial communities every day right, they’re working with them in crocks of kimchi and sauerkraut, they’re working with them in a vat of milk as it’s gone from milk to cheese, but yet most of these microbial communities are invisible. We’re relying on these communities that we rarely can actually see or know in great detail, and so it’s this really interesting challenge of how do you manage these invisible microbial communities to consistently make delicious fermented foods.”

Three panelists joined Wolfe and Marco: Cortney Burns (chef, author and current consultant at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, a farmstead restaurant), Mateo Kehler (founder and cheesemaker at Jasper Hill in Vermont, a dairy farm and creamery) and Olivia Slaugh (quality assurance manager at wildbrine | wildcreamery in California, producers of fermented vegetables and plant-based dairy). 

Fermentation mishaps are not the same for producers because “each kitchen is different, each processing facility, each packaging facility, you really have to tune in to what is happening and understand the nuance within a site,” Marco notes. “Informed trial and error” is important. 

The three agreed that part of the joy of working in the culinary world is creating, and mistakes are part of that process.

“We have learned a lot over the years and never by doing anything right, we’ve learned everything we know by making mistakes,” says Kehler. 

One season at Jasper Hill, aspergillus molds colonized on the rinds of hard cheeses, spoiling them. The cheesemakers discovered that there had been a problem early on as the rind developed. They corrected this issue by washing the cheese more aggressively and putting it immediately into the cellar.

“For the record, I’ve had so many things go wrong,” Burns says. A koji that failed because a heating sensor moved, ferments that turned soft because the air conditioning shut off or a water kefir that became too thick when the ferment time was off. “[Microbes are] alive, so it’s a constant conversation, it’s a relationship really that we’re having with each and every one on a different level, and some of these relationships fall to the wayside or we forget about them or they don’t get the attention they need.”

Burns continues: “All these little safeguards need to be put in place in order for us to have continual success with what we’re doing, but we always learn from it. We move the sensor, we drop the temperature, we leave things for a little bit longer. That’s how we end up manipulating them, it’s just creating an environment that we know they’re going to thrive in.”

Slaugh distinguishes between what she calls “intended microbiology” — the microbes that will benefit the food you’re creating — and “unintended microbiology” — packaging defects, spoilage organisms or a contamination event. 

Slaugh says one of the benefits of working with ferments at a large scale at wildbrine is the cost of routine microbiological analysis is lower. But a mistake is stressful. She recounted a time when thousands of pounds of food needed to be thrown out because of a contaminant in packaging from an ice supplier.

“Despite the fact that the manufacturer was sending us a food-grade or in some cases a medical-grade ingredient, the container does not have the same level of sanitation, so you can’t really take these things for granted,” Slaugh says. 

Her recommendations include supplier oversight, a quality assurance person that can track defects and sample the product throughout fermentation and a detailed process flow diagram. That document, Slaugh advises, should go far beyond what producers use to comply with government food regulations. It should include minutiae like what scissors are used to cut open ingredient bags and the process for employees to change their gloves. 

“I think this is just an incredible time to be in fermented foods,” Kehler adds. “There’s this moment now where you have the arrival of technology. The way I described being a cheesemaker when I started making cheese almost 20 years ago was it was like being a god, except you’re blind and dumb. You’re unleashing these universes of life and then wiping them out and you couldn’t see them, you could see the impacts of your actions, but you may or may not have control. What’s happened since we started making cheese is now the technology has enabled us to actually see what’s happening. I think it’s this groundbreaking moment, we have the acceleration of knowledge. We’re living in this moment where we can start to understand the things that previously could only be intuited.”