Air Protein, a Bay-area startup, is using NASA-inspired fermentation technology to create an edible protein. The company, which recently received $32 million in funding, is the first to make “air-based” protein, farming carbon from the air with microbes.
The vertical fermentation tanks used by Air Protein combine carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen with water and minerals. “The final products is a protein-rich flour that can be used just like soy or pea flour,” writes the Mercury News. “This protein flour can then be made into a plethora of delicious and nutritious meatless meat products.”
Founder and CEO Lisa Dyson discovered the NASA research while searching for new ways to recycle carbon and address the global climate crisis. She says Air Protein’s technology will “create the most sustainable meat available and significantly reduce the burden on our planet’s resources that is being cased by our current meat production processes.”
Read more (Mercury News)
Scientists have found a sustainable solution for dealing with both food waste and soil health. They’ve discovered fermented food waste boosts bacteria that increases crop growth, makes plants more resistant to pathogens and reduces carbon emissions from farming.
“Beneficial microbes increased dramatically when we added fermented food waste to plant growing systems,” said Deborah Pagliaccia, the microbiologist who led the research at University of California Riverside (UCR). “When there are enough of these good bacteria, they produce antimicrobial compounds and metabolites that help plants grow better and faster.”
The UCR research team used two types of fermented byproducts: beer mash (byproduct of beer production) and food waste discarded by grocery stores; neither tested positive for salmonella or any other pathogenic bacteria.
Read more (Science Daily)
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.
Every year, the nation’s 50 state legislatures pass dozens of new laws that have an impact on fermenters. For example, some states amended alcohol laws to allow drink sampling for craft wineries, while others repealed outdated cottage food laws to help small producers operate and more loosened take-out restrictions to help small restaurants survive the pandemic.
Indicative of this year’s focus on the pandemic, laws were introduced but never debated as lawmakers focused on more pressing issues surrounding the coronavirus. The most common new laws passed in 2020 revolved around helping businesses survive — states called special sessions to aid restaurants, stop price gouging of high-demand products and provide emergency grants to small businesses.
Read on for key food, beverage and food service laws passed this year, most taking effect in 2021.
AB82 — Prohibits an establishment with an alcohol license from employing an alcohol server without a valid alcohol server certification.
AB3139 — Establishments with alcoholic beverages licenses who had premises destroyed by fire or “any act of God or other force beyond the control of the licensee” can still carry on business at a location within 1,000 feet of the destroyed premise for up to 180 days.
HB 237 — Eliminates old requirements that movie theaters selling alcohol must have video cameras in each theater, and that an employee must pass through each theater during a movie showing.
HB275 — Permits beer gardens to allow leashed dogs on licensed outdoor patios.
HB349 — Permits any restaurant, brewpub, tavern or taproom with a valid on-premise license to sell alcoholic beverages for take-out or drive through food service, so long as the cost for the alcohol did not exceed 40% of the establishment’s total sales transactions.
SR84 — Creates a Restaurant Reopening Task Force to help restaurants in Hawaii safely reopen that were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SR94 — Urges restaurants to adopt recommended best practices and safety guidelines developed by the United States Food and Drug Administration and National Restaurant Association in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
HB343 — Amends existing law to require licensing to store and handle wine as a wine warehouse.
HB575 — Allows sampling of alcohol products at liquor stores, which was formerly forbidden under law.
SB1223 — Eliminates obsolete restrictions on food products, to match federal standards. It repeals requiring extra labels on some imported food products, and repeals using enriched flour in bread baking.
HB2682 — Amends Liquor Control Act of 1934. Allows a cocktail or mixed drink placed in a sealed container at the retail location to be sold for off-premises consumption if specified requirements are met. Prohibits third-party delivery services from delivering cocktails or mixed drinks.
HB4623 — Amends Food Handling Regulation Enforcement Act, regulating that public health departments provide a certificate for cottage food operations, which must be displayed at all events where the licensee’s food is being sold.
HB2238 — Amends code regarding food stands operated by a minor. Bans a municipality from enforcing a license permit or fee for a minor under the age of 18 to sell or distribute food at a food stand.
HB420 — Implements Food Safety Modernization Act, authorizing a department representative to enter a covered farm or farm eligible for inspection.
SB99 — Amends alcohol laws for state’s distillers, brewers and small wineries. Eliminates the sunset on local precinct elections to grant distilleries, and allows distillers to sell other distiller’s products.
HR17 — Allows third-party delivery services to deliver alcohol.
HB136 — Makes adulterating a food product by intentional contamination a crime.
SB455 — Increases the size of containers of high-alcoholic beverages.
SB508 — Gives restaurants protection from lawsuits involving COVID-19. The public will be unable to sue restaurants for COVID-19-related deaths or injuries, as long as the restaurant complies with state, federal and local regulations about the virus.
LD1167 — Encourages state institutions to serve Maine food and Maine food products, increasing the visibility of the state’s local food producers.
LD1884 — Amends current laws regarding businesses that hold dual liquor licenses, which authorized retailers to sell wine for consumption both on- and off-premise. Retailers with the dual license can now sell with just one employee at least 21 years of age present, and adds that wine can be sold for take-out if food is part of the transaction.
HB1017 — Allows cottage food businesses to put their phone number and business ID on their food label, rather than their address as currently required by the Maryland Department of Health.
SB118 — Expands definition of “alcohol production” and “agricultural alcohol production.” The new definitions aim to give Maryland farmers and producers the ability to sell beer, wine and spirits to increase agritourism.
SB2812 — Expands alcohol take-out and delivery options during COVID-19 pandemic. Allows restaurants to sell mixed drinks in sealed containers alongside other take-out and delivery food orders.
HB5343 — Revises regulations on brewpubs and microbreweries, increasing the quantity of beer a microbrewer is permitted to deliver to a retailer during a year from 1,000 barrels to 2,000 barrels.
HB5345 — Amends the Michigan Liquor Control Code to delete the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) $6.30 tax levied on each barrel of beer manufactured and sold in Michigan.
HB5354 — Amends the Michigan Liquor Control Code to delete the requirement that a brewpub cannot sell beer in Michigan unless it provides for each brand or type of beer sold a label that truthfully describes the content of each container.
SB711 — Establishes new limited production brewer license for microbreweries at cost of $1,000 for license.
HB5356 — Amends the Michigan Liquor Control Code to ban the required $13.50 cent-per-liter tax on all wine containing 16% or less of alcohol by volume sold in Michigan.
HB5 — Authorizes emergency, small-business grants and loan funding for businesses affected by COVID-19.
HB4599 — Extends period of mediation for Minnesota farmers suffering economic difficulties to keep their farm.
HB326 — Amends outdated code to increase the maximum annual gross sales for a cottage food operation (from $20,000 to $35,000) before the producer would need to pay food establishment permit fees. Authorizes a cottage food operation to advertise products over the internet.
AB2371 — Requires large generators of food waste (like restaurants and supermarkets) to recycle food garbage rather than send it to incinerators or landfills.
AB3865 — Limits return of food from retail food stores during a public emergency.
SB864 — Prohibits sale of single-use plastic carryout bags, single-use paper carryout bags and polystyrene foam food service products, and limits single-use plastic straws.
SB1591 — Allows alcoholic beverages to be consumed from open containers in the Atlantic City Tourism District.
SB2437 — Limits service fees charged to restaurants by third-party food takeout and delivery applications during COVID-19 pandemic.
SB3 — Enacts the Small Business Recovery Act of 2020, which provides loans for small businesses suffering during the coronavirus pandemic.
SB8225 — Authorizes issuing a retail license for on-premise consumption of food and beverage within 200 feet of a church, synagogue or other place of worship.
AB8956 — Allows a licensed brewery or farm brewery to provide no more than four beer samples not exceeding four fluid ounces each.
SB1472 — Requires hospitals to offer plant-based food options to patients upon request.
SB7013 — Authorizes the manufacture and sale of ice cream or other frozen desserts made with liquor.
SB290 — The Alcoholic Beverage Control Regulatory Reform Bills, it allows distilleries the same serving privileges as wineries and craft breweries and reduces regulation on out-of-state sales.
HB160 — Aid for the restaurant industry to recover from COVID-19 pandemic, the bill doubles the maximum number of Designated Outdoor Refreshment Areas (DORAs) that can be created in a municipality or township. Also allows Ohio’s small wineries to sell prepackaged food without regulation from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, creates bottle limits for micro-distilleries and permits license holders to sell alcoholic ice cream.
HB4963 — Amends state alcohol code, allows licensed retailers to give wine samples in excess of 16% alcohol, cordials or distilled spirits, as long as they don’t exceed a total of three liters a year.
SB993 — Amends state alcohol code to allow a permitted winery to be eligible for a special permit to sell wine at off-premise events. Also increases the amount of beer a brewery can sell to an individual per day for off-premise consumption.
HB1073 — Authorize special event alcohol licenses for full-service restaurant licensees.
HB1081 — Allows colleges to teach brewing beer and wine classes on South Dakota campuses to students age 21 or older. Brewing must be held off campus as the education institution is not deemed a licensed manufacturer. Any distilled spirits, malt beverage, or wine produced under this section may only be consumed for classroom instruction or research and may not be donated or sold.
SB2423 — Allows alcohol sales at the Memphis Zoo.
SB1123 — Encourages farmers who produce raw milk to complete a safe milk-handling course.
HB134 — Legalizes the sale of raw butter and raw cream in Utah;
HB232 — An agri-tourism bill that allows farms and ranches to host events that include food that would not need to be prepared in a commercial kitchen. Farmers must apply for a food establishment permit to use their private home kitchen.
HB399 — Changes to the Alcohol Beverage Control Act, prohibits advertising that promotes the intoxicating effects of alcohol or emphasizes the high alcohol content of an alcoholic product.
HB5010 — The COVID-19 Cultural Assistance Grant Program, which appropriates $62 million for struggling arts, cultural and recreational organizations and businesses across the state.
HB6006 — In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the bill amends the Alcohol Beverage Control Act, delaying the expiration date of the retail licenses set to expire in 2020 for places selling alcohol. Also permits alcoholic beverage licensees at international airports to change locations if needed.
SB351 — A coronavirus relief bill which authorizes $36 million for agriculture and forestry sectors.
HB2217 — An update to Cottage Food Law eliminates the requirement that a home address must be put on a food label.
HB2412 — Increases amount of additional retail licenses for a domestic brewery or microbrewery from two to four, and directs health department to adopt rules allowing brewery owners to allow dogs on brewery premise
SB5006 — Allows sale of wine by microbrewery license holders.
SB5323 — A bill eliminating single-use, plastic carry-out bags
SB5549 — Modernizing resident distillery marketing and sales restrictions. Allows distilleries to sell products off-premise, similar to breweries and wineries.
SB6091 — Continues work on the Washington Food Policy Forum, including support for small farms and increasing the availability of food grown in the state.
HB4388 — Removes outdated restrictions on alcohol advertising, limiting the Alcohol Beverage Control Commissioner’s authority to restrict advertising in certain advertising mediums, such as at sporting events and highway billboards.
HB4524 — Making the entire state “wet,” permitting the off-premises sale of alcoholic liquors in every county and municipality in the state.
HB4560 — Permits licensed wine specialty shops to sell wine with a gift basket by telephonic, electronic, mobile or web-based wine ordering. Establishes requirements for lawful delivery.
HB 4697 — Removes restriction that a mini-distillery use raw agricultural products originating on the same premises
HB4882 — Allows unlicensed wineries not currently licensed or located in West Virginia to provide limited sampling and temporary, limited sales for off-premise consumption at fairs, festivals and one-day nonprofit events “in hopes that such wineries would eventually obtain a permanent winery or farm winery license in West Virginia.”
HB1038 — Bans customers from returning food items during a health pandemic or emergency, dissuading people from stocking up on too many supplies.
SB83 — Increases sales volume of alcohol by retail stores from four liters per transaction to any quantity.
SB170 — Allows minors to operate temporary food stands without a permit or license.
HB82 — Authorizes a microbrewery to operate at more than one location. The local licensing authority may require the payment of an additional permit fee not to exceed $100.00.
HB84 — Authorizes the sale of certain homemade food items that do not require time or temperature control. These include but are not limited to:
but is not limited to, jams, uncut fruits and vegetables, pickled vegetables, hard candies, fudge, nut mixes, granola, dry soup mixes excluding meat based soup mixes, coffee beans, popcorn and baked goods that do not include dairy or meat frosting or filling or other potentially hazardous frosting or filling;
“non-potentially hazardous” (no dairy, quiches, pizzas, frozen doughs, foods that require refrigeration and cooked meat, cooked vegetables and cooked beans). Allows someone other than the producer to sell the food, as long as food is not sold in a retail location or grocery store where similar food items are displayed or sold. Food must be labeled with “food was made in a home kitchen, is not regulated or inspected and may contain allergens.”
HB158 — Allows microbreweries to make malt beverages at multiple locations rather than one as deemed in current law.
Microbial fermentation is emerging as the “third pillar in the alternative protein industry,” alongside cell-culture and plant-based, according to the Good Food Institute. In 2020, protein alternatives made using microbial fermentation have attracted $435 million in investment capital. The institute released a 72-page report on fermentation in the alt protein industry and noted that its “potential is still largely untapped.” Nature Fynd CEO Thomas Jonas points out it takes years to grow animals, and months or years to grow plants, but microbes can double their biomass in a few hours. Are these novel fermentation techniques to produce animal-free meat and dairy improving our food system or too big of a departure from traditional fermentation?
Read more (Food Navigator)
There’s a void in scientific knowledge of fermented and pickled vegetables, and scientists are just starting to scratch the surface.
“We have a wealth of chemical compositions that we still don’t fully understand,” says Dr. Ilenyz Pérez-Díaz, PhD, a microbiologist with the USDA-ARS. Perez-Diaz presented on “Development of Pickling Technologies & Products” during a webinar hosted by TFA. “I honestly think there is still a lot to do in regards to the richness of the biological functions that are present in these systems. Every vegetable is different. … It will be fantastic to be able to comprehensively understand what’s really there and how we can use it for the benefit of not only processing but also for the benefit of human health.”
The purpose of the USDA-ARS is to find solutions for agricultural challenges, domestically and globally. In 2019, the 8,000 employees of the USDA-ARS researched 660 agricultural projects, filed 85 new patents, issued 65 new patents, received 51 new licenses and wrote 3,816 peer-reviewed journal articles.
Pérez-Díaz is assigned to the food science and market quality and handling research unit. There the team develops state-of-the-art, science-backed methods that improve the post-harvest processes, food preservation, food quality and safety and, ultimately, introducing nutritious products into the food system.
“What I love about the research that she’s doing is that pickling and fermentation are these ancient, traditional technologies that people have been using for hundreds and hundreds of years, and she’s really thinking about ways that we can advance those technologies using all the amazing sequencing and all the microbiology we have today,” says Ben Wolfe, PhD, associate professor of biology at Tufts University, and the TFA Advisory Board member who moderated the webinar.
Pérez-Díaz shared the USDA’s latest technologies to reduce food waste, lessen environmental impacts, improve water/energy demand and add more health value to preserved vegetables. Here are highlights from the research presented, focused on addressing two key problems:
Eliminate Salt in Cucumber Fermentation
PROBLEM: Sodium chloride is essential to fermentation, but the salt-rich (and sometimes preservative-filled) brine shipped from overseas producers can get into local freshwater supplies. There are no growers of small cucumbers (gherkins) in the U.S., so food projects that require small cucumbers must use overseas produce. But, in order for the cucumbers to be transported, they must be fermented or pickled. High amounts of salt, acid and sometimes preservatives are added, and these potentially can damage the water supply.
SOLUTION: USDA-ARS tested fermenting pickles using three popular spices: dill, cinnamon and mustard seed. But, though salt was reduced or eliminated, “the indigenious microbiota is always there,” Pérez-Díaz explains. “The salt is modulating the activity within this population. It tends to favor the lactic acid bacteria. But what I’ve learned is it is not the main factor modulating that microbiota. The ph and the production of that lactic acid and or acetic acid is really the factor in excluding the non desirable microorganisms and favoring the fermentative microbiota.”
Reduce Food Waste by Creating Foods
PROBLEM: In the U.S., between 30-70% of fresh vegetable produce is wasted. “Those are alarming numbers,” says Pérez-Díaz. “Even though they are estimates, it is necessary to look at ways to resolve the impact of such waste.”
SOLUTION: The USDA developed small-scale fermentation systems for use in restaurants, farmer’s markets and grocery stores. These vessels make fermenting excess food more manageable by allowing easy fermentation of smaller batches.
“We can convert what was waste or surplus or defective vegetables into a value-added product,” Pérez-Díaz says. “It will be a probiotic product, it will be fermented vegetables auxiliaries that can be used as sources of flavor, colors, ingredients in a number of recipes or even dehydrated for different applications.” [This project was near completion before the pandemic and is expected to pick-up soon.]
Fermentation, she emphasized, is needed to sustain a modern food system.
“These fermentations, if applied properly, they are very powerful eliminating the organisms that are not desirable or the organisms that are not of health significance,” Pérez-Díaz says. “I think fermentation will truly be an important component as we move forward to that new era.”
In the second piece to our two-part Q&A with fermentation guru Johnny Drain, he details some of his recent fermentation consulting projects, as well as how (and why) more chefs need to use fermentation to create a sustainable global food ecosystem.
Drain works as a consultant for restaurants around the world, like Akoko Restaurant in London. Pictured, Drain poses with the team at Akoko. Akoko serves West African cuisine like dawadawa (fermented African locust beans) with ogiri egosi (melon seeds), a dish that shares similarities to natto.
TFA: The Cub Cave, where you’re currently working for Cub restaurant, tell me about it.
JD: That’s my “perma-lance.” But unfortunately, last week, we announced the Cub restaurant won’t be reopening after COVID, post lockdown.
The Cub restaurant is part of the Mr Lyan Group. So Mr Lyan (Ryan Chetiyawardana), he’s sort of this brilliant guy who typically operates in this world of cocktails and drinks, but also had this restaurant at the inception of food and drink. And Cub was really made to examine the inception of food and drink. The menu there was really this free-flowing journey through food and drink. So sometimes you’d have just a drink as a course, sometimes a food and a drink. It was really trying to break down this idea of why, even in the very best restaurants, have a food menu and a drink menu and they’re very separated. It was examining that intersection but also examining this intersection between luxury and sustainability. Why do you have to typically sacrifice sustainability when you have luxury and why do you have to sacrifice luxury when you have sustainability? So part of my time there, I set up the Cub Cave which was this R and D space literally below the restaurant in the basement, and I worked with chefs and the bartenders to essentially use that food waste, one, and in a deeper way examine ways that if there was an ingredient the chefs and bartenders wanted to use but perhaps they knew there would be a lot of trim or a lot of waste from it, I would go in and use my science smarts and find a way to use that trim. Basically to maximize the flavor that we extract from that produce we bring it.
There’s a famous American scientist of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, and when he was talking about nanotechnology, things at the nanoscale which are things that are atomically slightly subatomic which was my focus when I was a chemist and physicist, he famously coined this term “There’s plenty of room at the bottom,” meaning that there were plenty more technological applications in chemistry and physics.I like to say “There’s plenty of room in the bottom when we look in our bins.” Often what we throw away, pardon my French, there’s still shitloads of flavor in much of the food that we throw away. And it’s such a crying shame. My real role working with people like Cub in the Cub Cave and a restaurant called SILO, which is the UK’s first zero waste restaurant, is to look at what we’re throwing away and see what flavors are left. Then, use science and fermentation techniques to extract all that delicious flavor. When we’re talking about flavor, we’re talking about all the hard work, passion and dedication that some farmer has put in, or with animal products, the life some animal has given up to provide this product. The shame is that, often in most restaurants and bars, we would throw away much of it. There is still lots of flavor in there and how do we extract that flavor? Typically using fermentation.
TFA: Tell me more about SILO. What are some of the sustainability goals there?
JD: SILO was founded by this incredible guy called Douglas McMaster. He won British Master Chef Jr. when he was like 20, worked in a few restaurants around the world, then he had this epiphany when he was out in Melbourne working with this guy Joost Bakker, this zero waste pioneer. Doug had this mad idea of setting up this restaurant that had no bin. Which is kind of haughty if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know how critical the bin is in a functioning restaurant or bar. The bin gets used several times a day. But Doug’s idea was to have a restaurant without a bin.
He set up a pop-up in Melbourne, then set up a brick and mortar restaurant in London called SILO. Really, Doug’s goal there is to be completely zero waste. A lot of that revolves around setting up relationships with the suppliers so that, when they drop off food or wine, either they drop off some type of pallet that goes back to get refilled or they drop it off in containers that can somehow be upcycled into some other product.
My goal in the SILO ecosystem is, if they do ever have trim, food trim usually goes to a composter, which is a viable and valuable use of food waste. But it’s a degrading, devaluing of the product. My role is to go in before the food has to go to compost, compost should be the last resort, and basically ferment it.
So we take things like dairy buttermilk when the guys make butter and we make this buttermilk garum, which is this incredible, golden-colored umami balm of a liquid, tastes of like blue cheese and toasted nuts, a little bit of caramel notes in there. We make this buttermilk garum and that goes on. Essentially buttermilk is a product that doesn’t have that great of value. But by fermenting it, the buttermilk garum has much greater value pound for pound than even the cream that started that process of making the butter. So we’re adding value back to the food chain and creating this phenomenal flavor profile that guests at the restaurants, even most chefs, no one has ever tasted because it’s a product no one else is making. The buttermilk, it went onto this slow cooked, aged dairy cow dish, and it also went onto this dish with brined tomato with sheep’s curd garnished with smoked grape seed oil, buttermilk garum and flowers. So we’re creating these incredible flavor profiles that blow people’s mind with this buttermilk garum which was born out of this necessity. How do we, if we’re going to make garum butter, which Doug wanted to do, we’re going to have lots of buttermilk. For every kilo of butter you make, you end up with about a kilo of buttermilk. It was born out of necessity and out of necessity, we’re creating this phenomenal, incredible, mind-blowing tasting ingredient.
TFA: Research shows that by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 10 billion, we won’t have enough food to feed the growing population. How is our modern food system going to need to adapt to sustain our growing population?
JD: I think the first thing to point out is it will have to adapt. The course the industrial agricultural complex is heading, it’s completely not sustainable. It’s been based on this model of artificially-synthesized chemical inputs and fertilizers. Post World War II that was a necessity. It was innovative and smart and produced incredible yields, but it’s created a situation where the quality of the soil globally has degraded rapidly because of this, and we need to find different ways to nurture soil and produce or yield curves will just drop off.
We need to find ways to nourish soils, nourish ecosystems and create more resilient ecosystems and move away from this modern agriculture. But modern agriculture has been the prevailing paradigm for the last 30, 40 years. Sustainability has to be one of those cornerstones of the way we move forward. Sustainability has to be a tenant in all parts of the food system. We’re talking about from seeds, to how we grow food to the restaurant side, how can we take the foods we use and process it in a more sustainable way. That comes down to consumers being more savvy. They need to ask “I’ve got some cabbages in my fridge that look a bit funky and are starting to smell a bit, how can I use those?” Fermentation is one of those ways.
This is why fermentation popped up in the history of mankind. It’s a way of preserving the glut of food you had in summer and early autumn over the winters. Or it was a way of preserving, let’s say, dairy milk products. Milk sours off in 3-4 days, pre-refrigeration times, how do you preserve the very valuable nutrition that’s present in dairy milk for longer than that? So people started making butter, they started making cheese.
We’re going to harness some of those fermentation techniques as a way to extend the shelf life of those products that we have access to.
TFA: MOLD magazine, tell me how that came about.
JD: MOLD magazine, the name is potentially a bit of misnomer because it’s not just focused on mold. Although the first edition was focused on the human microbiome. But MOLD started off as a website which was started by a woman, LinYee Yuan. She’s a native of Texas, but now lives in New York and she’s an industrial designer by background. LinYee set up MOLD as a website to explore basically that intersection of food and design and where those meet. Some people might think that’s a bit of a weird marriage. What does food have to do with design? But in terms of everything we eat and all the utensils that we use to eat and the spaces we eat from restaurants to cafes, how our food is grown and processed and how it makes its way from farm to table, there have been design decisions made in all of those things. This interaction between food and design is very rich. And there’s a very deep, profound overlap between those two.
LinYee wants to explore that. She set up the website and we were set up between a mutual friend at a seminar a few years ago. She was looking for someone to create a print version of the work she’d been doing with the website. We came up with the idea of MOLD magazine.
We basically had this idea we’d do six issues of MOLD magazine, we worked with this incredible designer, Matt Sam and Erica Ko, who are based in North America as well. It basically explores one theme every issue. We’ve explored seeds, the human microbiome, food waste. We really go deep and we explore it from all aspects of the food side, the design side. The visual language we use in MOLD is very rich, it’s led by these brilliant designers we work with. It’s created as this print magazine in this world where most media we consume is online and we really wanted to create an object that you would sit down and get to grips with and immerse yourself in the experience of reading. It’s a limited print run, approximately 3,000 of each issue. But we’ve won lots of pleasing claudettes for the work. We were mentioned in the New York Times as one to watch. And we’ve worked with lots of great people. Massami Batora and Dan Barber wrote an article for us, all these great chefs. The response in the food world and the design world and the food tech world has been very positive to the work we’re doing and the ideas we’re sharing.
One of our core principles is that we want to use MOLD to give a voice to people that often in these conversations don’t have a voice. We are passionate about giving a voice to people who are underrepresented, people of color, women, basically using MOLD as a vehicle to give underrepresented voices a voice within these very important conversations around the world of food.
TFA: You spent time at Noma, working in the Nordic Food Lab. Your focus was exploring whether you can age butter like you age cheese. What was your conclusion?
JD: How I ended up there was completely bonkers. I had just finished my PhD. At that point I had no kitchen experience. I started working in the restaurants starging, which is basically, in the chef world, a French word which is to go and work for free for a week or two. I had started emailing people at these high-falutin restaurants that had these R and D facilities. One of which was this thing called the Nordic Food Lab which, to a degree, has been airbrushed from the history of Noma because of various politics. It started off, it was on this beautiful, big, Dutch barge in front of the old restaurant, Noma 1.0, which you could sort of see from the dining room. It started off as this food lab and test kitchen, and it became this food lab, this not-for-profit thing. Its mission was to kind of research Nordic cuisine and really elevate and amplify the work that Noma had been doing and find ingredients that could then go back into its menu. Eventually they kind of separated, the point where I was working there, the food lab was still on the Dutch barge outside the restaurant. (The Nordic Food Lab is now part of Copenhagen University.)
It was this incredible opportunity to work at the food lab, at a time when Noma was No. 1, on the world’s 50 best restaurant list, two Michelin stars, seen widely for various reasons as the world’s best restaurant, doing incredible things. As this guy who had worked mostly in sciences labs, which are very different from kitchens, to then suddenly be thrust into this environment of a world’s best restaurant, anyone who hasn’t been lucky enough to go to Noma, it functions in this very eclectic, choreographed way. It’s kind of this cross between this sort of military operation and a beautiful ballet where everything works kind of seamlessly. It’s a very beautiful spectacle to see a restaurant working at such a high level. To witness that, to be a tiny cog of this body working side by side with the restaurant, was an incredible experience and very inspiring.
I think the food lab really was responsible for a number of really important things within restaurant culture in the last 5 or 10 years. Rene Redzepi, who has done wonderful things for not just Nordic food but the whole food industry, I saw him speak in person a few times and he’s this very inspiring guy, he has this very powerful way of leading people and an incredible vision.
To cut to the question “Can you age butter?” Yes, you can. Basically, you end up with something that tastes like blue cheese. So you have these fermentation processes, this breakdown of these lipids, these fat molecules, into what we call free fatty acids. They are basically what gives flavor to a 36-month aged parmesan, which we all know and love. If you do that to butter, if you age butter, you get some of those same flavor compounds, and they’re present in parmesan, in aged comte. If you do it at just the right level, you get these kind of aged, spicy notes of a blue cheese or a delicious aged parmesan.
Unfortunately, aged butter hasn’t taken off in a way I thought it might, but certainly people are aging butters in a way they were 10 years ago. Hopefully, my work has encouraged people to investigate that in some small way.
Johnny Drain is the guru for helping chefs around the world innovate flavorful dishes. A chemist with a PhD from Oxford and a passion for cooking, Drain found fermentation was the optimal intersection of food and science.
“Fermentation was this focus of this venn diagram that incorporated food with some necessity to understand biology but also chemistry,” Drain says. “Fermentation was this sweet spot where I could apply my background in science with this passion and knowledge and aptitude for cooking, flavor and taste. I realized if I wanted to apply this rich educational history that I was fortunate to have access to, fermentation was this ideal sphere where I could do that.”
This cross-section is where Drain finds his diverse career — as an in-demand food research and development consultant. He’s currently advising chefs in renowned restaurants all over the globe and serving as co-editor of MOLD magazine.
The Fermentation Association spoke with Drain, who is based in London. Below is the first of our two-part Q&A with Drain. Part 1 focuses on his interest in fermentation, and how he sees fermentation transforming the culinary world. Part 2 features some of Drain’s recent fermentation consulting projects and his drive to use fermentation to create a sustainable global food system.
The Fermentation Association (TFA): What got you first interested in fermentation.
Johnny Drain (JD): I am a scientist by background. I did chemistry as an undergraduate, then I worked for a company in finance, which I don’t really talk about. It was on the cusp of the financial crash, 2006-2008, so it was quite an interesting time to be working in that sector. During my lunch breaks, I was reading recipe books and reading restaurant reviews and looking at the world of science. I was thinking about doing a PhD, and I ended up quitting finance because I realized this was not how I wanted to spend my life, for 12 hours every day. I went back and did a PhD in something called material science, which is a cross between chemistry and physics. Still nothing actually to do with food, I was looking at how atoms interact in types of steel, and building computer models of how to understand that and how to apply that to making car chassis. So still, it was very far away from the world of making food, but always I had this dream of becoming a chef or maybe having a restaurant at one point in my life.
At the end of my PhD, I was fortunate to study in Oxford in this very beautiful place in the heart of England in this very rich academic history surrounded by all these very clever people and beautiful buildings. I realized, instead of becoming an Oxford don with maybe a tweed suit and patches on my elbows, I would sack that all in, having climbed up a few rungs of that ladder, and basically start staging (unpaid restaurant internship) and working in kitchens for free. I even worked as a pot washer in one kitchen in London. I really jumped back in at the deep end and pursued this dream of becoming a cook or a chef.
I did that for a little while and realized first, becoming a chef is a young person’s game. And second, I’m 6’2’’ and have a bad back and, as a chef, you’re standing on your feet all day and that was not going to be a physically viable way for me to make a living. I had to combine my scientific nouse (intellect) with my passion for food.
For me, the interesting thing is I never see these things as mutual exclusive, they’re all related and interconnected. I ended up doing what I do now, which is helping restaurants and bars and food brands, consulting and teaching restaurants and chefs how to understand these things. As I see it, I’m unlocking their artistry and storytelling ability through this understanding of science. All of these things are interconnected. And fermentation is this particularly excellent example. It has to do with flavor and food, but it also has to do with people and tradition and culture, it has to do with artistry and storytelling, you can’t really do one without the other. Science, that biology and chemistry, is really integral to unlocking the creative, artsy-fartsy elements to these types of food.
TFA: When you partner with these different chefs and kitchens, what expertise are they looking for from you?
JD: Especially these days, it’s different from five years ago when I first started doing this type of work. Five years ago when you’d go into a kitchen, people really wouldn’t know what fermentation was. And often they wouldn’t be interested in it, or they wouldn’t understand why might a scientist be able to help me make better, tastier food or drink. But now, most people I work with, they know that and they’ve already dibbled and dabbled a little bit with some of these ferments. Let’s say they’ve made some kimchi or sauerkraut or some kombucha. Really what they want now, especially the high end places, they’ve dibbled and dabbled and they want to make sure that, A, what they’re doing is safe and isn’t going to kill anyone, which is very sensible. But secondly, they want that kind of X factor, they want the ability to unlock that real deep magic. That’s when I go in.
I was just in Lithuania last week working with this really great restaurant called 1918. Michelin doesn’t cover Lithuania, give it two years I expect, and they’ll get at least 1 star, possibly 2. It’s really high end, great quality food. And they’re trying to play around with egg yolks and koji, which is basically this aspergillus, this war horse of Japanese food culture that’s also present in Chinese and Korean cultures as well. They want to be able to have that scientific rigor and have someone to come in “Pick that lock,” as I describe it, and be able to unleash their creativity so they can put this into action in their dishes. They’re wanting to tell these stories about Lithatian food culture and use this food they’re growing on this farm about 50 minutes outside the capital.
TFA: That sounds very rewarding, to help different restaurants create new dishes.
JD: It is. My role is this enabler, picking that lock, unleashing people’s creativity and helping these chefs. Really, fermentation is just a tool. In many ways, the way we see knife or a chopping board, it’s a tool. If you try and cook without those tools, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. You’re limiting what you can do, you’re limiting your creativity. Fermentation really is just another example of a type of tool. In five or 20 years, people will just see some of these fermentation techniques just as the way they see a knife. It’s just this tool. And by empowering these chefs with these tools, I’m helping to unleash that creativity. When you unleash people’s creativity they get very excited and very passionate.
TFA: Why do you think fermentation has become such a bigger interest among chefs?
JD: The funny thing about fermentation is we all eat fermented products, but we don’t realize it. You could read off a list that lasts five minutes. Bread, all booze, chocolate, coffee, vinegar, etc. It’s just that most of those products, we’ve become so used to them because there are these staples of everyday life that we don’t realize they’re fermented. Also partially because the way the food systems now work, that work of creating our own bread or beer or cider, it’s now been outsourced for most people in much of the world to some other party. So we’re not making these products at home where our grandmothers, our grandfathers, would have been. My grandmother would have understood that bread, wine, cider was a fermented product because she was making those or her grandmother was making those. Whereas I grew up in a household where we bought all of those things and somebody else made it. All those steps had already been performed.
First, there’s this awakening of realizing much of the food we know and love is fermented. And second, from a chef, foodie world, there’s been a renaissance in fermented food because they offer this exciting flavor profile that chefs always want. Chefs are looking for the new. Especially in the last 20 years, with that modernist cuisine movement, people reached science to kind of process foods. That’s where the novelness came. In the sort of last 10-15 years, we saw this move towards what new ingredients do we have on our doorsteps, foraging, this local-vore movement of people rediscovering what incredible food products are on their doorstep. Now people are asking “Where can we discover new flavors that are on our doorstep that are new, now that everyone has foraged everything. Where is the newness? Where can I reach out to access this incredible, novel flavor profile?” Fermentation is this toolkit that gives you access to these incredible new flavors. It’s the other frontier.
When you talk about what’s on our doorstep, we get into this idea of microbial territory.
What microbes are unique to Britain or unique to France or unique to Argentina? Actually, the microbes are as unique and defining of place and of the food culture in a place as the grapes that grow or the cheeses that we make or the strains of wheat varietals that might grow in a place. Microbes are sort of this hidden category of food that have shaped the food that we eat in the place that human beings live as much as any other kind of meat or dairy or fruit or vegetable.
TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation in the culinary world?
JD: So the focus now is very much on people within the food industry looking for what produce they have in their backyard or in their country or their culture and how do they ferment those? I think, currently, the sort of toolkit of fermentation is dominated by a couple of prevailing techniques or cultures, microbiological cultures.
I think there is so much to learn from slightly undiscovered fermentation food cultures in the world. Ones that really haven’t had a bright light shone on them — like the Japanese, fermentation has had quite a bright light shone on them. And that’s amazing because Japanese fermentation culture is amazing and incredibly rich, so lots of people around the world have learned a lot from it. I think the next frontier for me is going to be people looking at fermentation in Sub-Saharan Africa, fermentation in the Indian sub continents. And those fermentation cultures are currently not that well understood, certainly by people outside those cultures, and they’re not documented in clear and concise ways in much of the way now that that Japanese food culture and Western European fermentation food culture has been documented. I think people are realizing there’s all these incredible, beautiful, rich ferments that we just don’t know about and don’t understand in Sub-Saharan african and the Indian subcontinents. I’m currently working on projects with people who are from those countries and cooking the food of those cultures. There’s just so much for us to learn. People like Sandor Katz, he grew up somewhere in Africa, he obviously documents some of those techniques and ferments, but there’s so much for all of us to learn from people cooking the food from those cultures and the people living in those places.
TFA: What’s been the wackiest or funkiest food thing you’ve ever fermented?
JD: On the menu at one point at Cub (restaurant in London where Drain worked in research and development), we had a pest season where the head chef was trying to base the menu around things that are perceived as pests or invasive species.
In the UK we have this animal called the Reeves’s muntjac. It came originally from India. This guy called Reeves visited India as this colonizing force and came back and had, as a rich guy, a bunch of these species of flora and fauna as pets and novelties, one of which was this Reeves’s muntjac. It’s a very small, muscular deer. It’s bigger than a bulldog, but as muscular, then with a head of a deer and these horns. You see them driving along British country lanes at night and they look very scary, they basically look like devil dogs. They look like the harbingers of the apocalypse, sort of like something very bad is going to happen as you’re driving down the fog down this dark, British country lane. They’re very weird, scary and other worldly. They’re a pest and they outcompete the native species. So they are hunted to control their numbers.
So we made a muntjac garum. Using this technique of garum, which is a Roman word for fish sauce, we created this umami-rich, meaty garum. And that got used to dress these various, wonderful, meaty dishes. We did deer faggots. A faggot in the culinary sense of a word is the the offal of meat wrapped in the coals, part of the intestines, and basically pan fried. It’s a very traditional British dish. We made these deer faggots and dressed it in this muntjac garum.
That was quite a weird but delicious example of that whole 360 idea of sustainability in not just the techniques that we use but the produce we’re using. How do we use invasive species?