We’re talking ‘culture’ as in, fermented foods full of healthy probiotics and bold flavors. Fermentation is on the rise in the Ohio Valley, thanks to early adopters.
By Karen Kahle
Fermentation is having a moment. In recent years, we’ve witnessed astonishing growth in Greek yogurt sales. Google Trends traces a steady rise in searches for “fermented foods” and “probiotics” and “sauerkraut” over the last decade. Amazon lists page upon page of cookbooks on the subject released in the last few years. Kombucha has its own section in Whole Foods now, with sales set to hit half a billion dollars this year. Cutting-edge microbiologists have recently become preoccupied with fermented foods, using them to get a handle on the dazzling complexity of the microbiome.
And it appears that these funky foods are fast becoming a staple of our local food scene, too, crossing cultures and cuisines without a care in the world. People are dabbling with microbes, playing with pickling, and creating all sorts of foods through the process of fermentation. Our embrace of local foods and our ability to create a self-sufficient food system, depends on a lot of small actors. And there are some pretty interesting actors on the local fermentation scene.
An Ancient Practice
Fermentation isn’t new; it has been a part of traditional diets across the globe. While the natural fermentation process precedes human history, the practice of intentionally fermenting foods has shown evidence of reaching as far back as 7000 BC. The process further evolved out of the need to preserve foods to subsist on during conditions and seasons where nourishment was scarce.
Fermentation is a natural process. Bread, yogurt, wine, and beer: They all go through a fermentation stage on their road to deliciousness. What is new about the current crop of ferments, however, is the dedication to the fermentation of vegetables and fruits in particular. And, of course, the exciting and innovative flavors being created.
At its simplest, the fermentation of vegetables works like this: Vegetables are soaked in salt water or, preferably, their own juice; this allows for the growth of the Lactobacillus bacteria, which eat the vegetable’s sugars and convert them into lactic acid, which has a sour/tart/funky taste, depending on pH levels and the eater’s palate. That high lactic acid content alsokills off harmful bacteria that could cause spoilage, which preserves the food for long storage.
This is called lacto-fermentation and is the most common type of fermentation.
“Lactobacillus bacteria is naturally forming, it’s even on your hands,” says Jen DeMarco, one of the co-founders of Fab Ferments. “When you submerge your vegetable in pure water or its own juice, this bacteria starts eating into the vegetable, the pH levels drop, the lactic acid levels go up, the bad bacteria can’t survive, and you’re left with these beautiful, tart flavors.”
A Business, A Movement
In 2008, just returned from spending her senior year studying abroad in Linz, Austria, DeMarco was introduced to Jordan Aversman when he stopped by her house one evening with some mutual friends. Aversman noticed the boiling pot of water, veggies, and bones on her stovetop. Aversman, drawn to organic farming and natural living during his college years, says he was “looking for a way to resist becoming involved in the fast-paced, computer-dominated society. I discovered how humans have strayed away from old traditions that had kept us healthy and happy for many millennia and I wanted to find a way to get back to those roots.”
Ask any chef, scientist, home fermenter, or entrepreneur working with fermentation, and invariably the enthusiasm traces back to one person: Sandor Ellix Katz. The author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Home Fermentation, Katz has been an indispensable guide and moving force behind reclaiming this ancient method of food preservation. Aversman was familiar with Katz and had been experimenting with making sauerkraut when he met DeMarco. After making a few batches of kraut together (their idea of a hot date!), she suggested they think about starting a business. In 2008 they registered Fabulous Ferments, Ltd. and started producing these foods for public sale in the beginning of 2009.
“We started Fab Ferments with a credit card and a smile,” Aversman recalls, as he slathers bright yellow paint on one of the walls of their new kombucha taproom in Lockland, OH. Kombucha, the fermented drink that's now widely sold in bottles next to other flavored teas and juice drinks, has become one of the lead horses in the Fab Ferments firmament of products. Although a kombucha taproom had been part of their business plan since the beginning, opening one came to resemble its own long fermentation process.
“We’ve never had investors or conducted a crowdfunding campaign,” DeMarco says. “We’ve had to move our production operation four times since beginning the business less than eight years ago. It takes a lot out of you to move your whole business while trying to maintain enough production to stay in business. “
The 1,000-square-foot kombucha taproom is part of Fab Ferments new 6,000-square-foot space in a quiet industrial park in Lockland. Their neighbors in the park include La Terza Artisan Coffee, and another fermentation freak, Rivertown Brewing and Barrel House. Kombucha, like coffee and beer, incorporates a lot of science into the process of producing beverages that bring a smile to your mouth—and like coffee and beer, kombucha is a true center point where science collides with artistic expression.
What makes kombucha unique among teas is its fermentation process, which uses bacteria and yeast. One result of that fermentation is the addition of alcohol to the beverage. This might not seem like a big deal, except that many kombuchas walk the line of what's legally considered an alcoholic beverage—a distinction that occurs once a drink passes the 0.5% ABV threshold. A lot is at stake when it comes to ABV, because once you’re making an alcoholic beverage, your products are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Fab Ferments operates its taproom under a brewing license from the state.
With their coffee and beer business neighbors, and with easy interstate access and other attractions like the Loveland bike trail nearby, DeMarco and Aversman believe their new spot has the potential to be a unique regional destination. “This is a really exciting move for us,” Aversman says. “It allows for natural synergies between three companies committed to bringing art to their craft. And being around other people who work hard motivates us to work even harder. We finally feel like we’ve found a permanent home.”
Fab Ferments also recently secured USDA certification. Big operations don’t have a problem paying for the extra record-keeping and inspections that go along with organic certification. But for small operations like Fab Ferments, the organic label is a significant investment. In the chilly, immaculately clean confines of one of two new 20-foot walk-in coolers, DeMarco paused in front of a wall of bottled kombucha and proudly pointed out the “USDA Organic” seal. “It was a customer-driven decision to go all organic,” she says, her breath trailing out of her like hookah smoke. “It shows not only our ongoing commitment to a healthy planet but assures our customers that we’re committed to their health.”
Many companies talk about their community of customers, partners, developers, etc. But in reality, how many of these cases actually describe communities that work with each other and share a common vision or purpose instead of being … well … just a group of people? DeMarco and Aversman are serious about being humble members of communities rather than building communities around themselves. The distinction is subtle, but important.
Their vision for their new space is for it to become a true community gathering spot. They hope to bring back the meet-ups they used to host, to teach basic fermentation classes, and to be a venue for others to use for their own creative endeavors. “There is this sort of wealth of knowledge and sharing of craft,” DeMarco says. “There are so many quality opportunities to connect with individuals or small groups everywhere we turn. You can wander into any place and discover something new.”
Local chefs have also discovered how the funky, sour tastes of ferments create new dimensions to known foods. Gary Leybman, co-founder of The Pickled Pig, says as a young boy he loved watching and helping his grandmother cook family meals in their homeland of Belarus. “I'm a big fan of pickled foods. I’ve been able to utilize my classic chef training to build new distinct flavors. The first product I developed was the Napa kimchee, which has become not only my favorite but is our top seller by far.”
As a small local business, the Pickled Pig has taken incremental steps to get to where they are, making small batches that they sell at a few farmers’ markets and retail stores like Dirt: a Modern Market at Findlay Market. They’re working on opening a storefront space in Walnut Hills in 2017. “I think most people are just learning about the health benefits of fermented foods that have been around forever, and certainly our bold flavors keep people coming back,” Leybman says. “We feel like we have a solid following and are looking forward to the journey of having our own shop.”
Good & Good for You
As for eaters, why are they lapping up fermented food? Two words: health benefits.
Our environment of chlorinated water, antibiotic drugs, and gimmicky antibacterial soaps has served as a kind of chemical warfare on an essential part of our makeup: our microbiome, the ecosystem of healthy bacteria that live in our bodies. Granted, these health benefits are often exaggerated. Still, the perception that bacteria are vitally important to our health has been confirmed by the studies that regularly pop up showing interesting connections between the microbiome and obesity, diabetes, mood, and much more. Ferments are easier to digest and help the digestive system run more smoothly. In that respect, eating fermented foods is a bit like having an oil change for your stomach.
Local chef Seel Wetherell, whose mother is Korean, points out that Koreans credit kimchi for their long lives and that statistically, Koreans boast one of the lowest cancer rates in the world. “Kimchi is packed full of antioxidants and has 1,000 times more Lactobacillus than yogurt, so it’s amazing for your gut and digestion,” he says. “We still have a lot of work to do to understand why this is happening, but there’s something going on.”
All parts of the fermentation process were attended to with prayer and reverence in every ancient culture that made use of it. They recognized that the process of fermentation not only preserves, but potentiates: makes stronger, more powerful, more potent. Fermentation was probably the first great moment in food science. Let’s hope its modern incarnation is a long, healthy one.