This Food-Conscious City Embraces a Variety of Methods for Fermentation.
Between the yogurt commercials promoting a flat belly to the numerous health claims made by physicians and holistic practitioners, you have no doubt heard about probiotics—or the “good” bacteria—found in fermented foods. Some research says that these good bacteria, particularly those in our gut, may improve digestion, promote gut health, boost immunity, and help prevent heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Lacto fermentation is the process in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid. This process not only preserves the food, but also creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics. Natural fermentation also helps break the food down into a more digestible form.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, they’re utilizing a variety of fermentation methods to create traditional as well as innovative fermented foods. These businesses are keeping the tradition (and the cultures) alive in the process.
Who: The Brinery
Ferments: Raw Sauerkraut, Kimchi, Pickles, and Hot Sauce
The Brinery creates traditionally fermented foods that are raw and unpasteurized. They specialize in sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, and hot sauce.
The Brinery was founded in 2010 with a small batch of sauerkraut meant to preserve a surplus of fresh cabbage at Tantré Farm in Chelsea, MI. Owner and Chief Fermentation Officer, David Klingenberger, went on to make more and more small batch ferments with the abundance of local produce, scaling up the operation at an exciting rate. The Brinery now processes over 200,000 pounds of local family-farmed vegetables per year and employs 12 people.
The Brinery’s fermentation process is the same time-honored way our ancestors did it—with no starter culture added. They shred the vegetables, mix with salt, pack into barrels, put a weight on the top to keep the kraut submerged, and let it sit. After a couple months, the barrel is fully fermented and ready for packaging.
David explains the benefits of fermenting foods: “The benefits of fermenting are numerous! Our ancestors did it mainly to preserve food. Vegetables will not spoil, decay, and rot when fermented. They stay safe to eat in the acidic pickled environment. Another reason is for health. Fermented vegetables are full of beneficial bacteria that aid digestion, boost the immune system, and prevent illness. Lastly, but most importantly, we ferment for flavor. Every human culture has fermented foods as part of their heritage. We crave the complex and delicious flavors brought on by fermentation!”
“The human body has 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells. We have truly co-evolved. The single-celled organisms (yeast, bacteria, mold) that are responsible for fermented foods are a part of us, this world, and our food!” David says.
Ferments: Kombucha Tea and Beer
At Unity Vibration Kombucha they use organic, fair-trade black tea and cane sugar to make kombucha tea and kombucha beer. They use a multitude of roots, fruits, and herbs in the various kombucha products. All of their kombucha products are made authentically and simply, just as you would make kombucha in your own kitchen.
After drinking too much of the best-selling brand at health food stores, owners Rachel and Tarek Kanaan started experimenting and brewing their own in 2007. Their friends and family loved it and requested it at gatherings and holidays. This demand resulted in a regular brewing schedule. They experimented with formula and flavors; Rachel says it became a sort of delicious obsession. With creativity, faith and inspiration, they took a leap to create unique and delicious Kombucha Beers that are gluten-free, vegan, organic, bottle conditioned, and raw. The beers have been lovingly fermented similar to a Lambic in oak-barrels with hops and whole fruits.
Their traditional kombucha fermentation method takes 2-4 weeks to complete. The process involves inoculating a kombucha culture with organic sweet tea and water. The beer involves an additional ferment with yeast and is dry-hopped with fruits, herbs, and/or roots. The tea is completed by adding hand-pressed raw fruit juice to the finished product.
Ferments: Cocoa Beans
At Mindo Chocolate Makers they put a unique spin on chocolate by fermenting the cocoa beans. Only the best quality chocolate is made from fermented cocoa beans. It takes more time and a little finesse to ferment cocoa beans properly but the result is a mellower and much less bitter and astringent chocolate. The vast majority of cocoa beans used to make chocolate are not fermented.
Owners, Jose Meza and Barbara Wilson, say it all started with a 53-pound bag of cocoa beans (which seemed like a massive amount at the time) and a tabletop juicer. It resulted in a rustic-style chocolate, a primitive first batch that led to many, many more. As their chocolate business grew, Barbara and Jose devoted more and more time to cacao processing. They searched for farmers growing the fine-flavor Nacional variety of cacao in an environmentally friendly way. On their property in Mindo, a small town nestled in the cloud forest of the Andes Mountains, they set up facilities that allowed them to ferment, dry, roast, and winnow cacao.
In 2009, Mindo Chocolate Makers opened in Dexter, Michigan. Almost by accident, the two entrepreneurs had set up a bean-to-bar chocolate making business that spanned international waters. Jose and Barbara split their time between Mindo and Dexter, keeping both sides of the operation in direct contact with each other.
Barbara explains the process for fermenting cocoa beans: “As soon as the cocoa beans are harvested, they must be quickly removed from the pods and put into fermentation boxes made from special types of wood that promote good fermentation and are strong enough to withstand many years of fermenting. The flavor is greatly changed if the fermentation is not begun within hours of harvest. From 500 to 1500 pounds of beans with the fruit on are put in the wooden boxes and left there for 5-7 days, depending on the variety and size of the cocoa beans.”
Because cocoa beans are bitter and astringent, Barbara says fermentation reduces the bitterness and astringency in the bean so they can make better tasting chocolate.
Who: Bigalora Cucina
Ferments: Sourdough Pizza Crust
The pizza crust and bread served at Bigalora Cucina are made with sourdoughs—bread products that are leavened with wild yeasts. Chef Carrie Walker says they do not add any commercially derived yeast to their pizza dough.
To create the sourdough, Carrie combines flour and filtered water together to harvest the natural yeasts in the flour and in the surrounding environment. Cold fermentation begins with one day on the starter, and then four more days of cold fermentation on the dough before it is cooked.
Using wild yeast is a slower process than using commercial yeast, Carrie says. “During fermentation, the natural yeasts have time to feed on the grains of flour, breaking them down into more elemental components which can be more readily absorbed by the body. When you eat a sourdough, your body does not have to work to break down the flour first, so sourdoughs are more easily digested than commercially yeasted breads and pizzas.”
Another benefit of sourdough versus commercial yeast it that when you use a wild yeast starter in pizza, no sugar is needed. The sauce, cheese, and crust at Bigalora Cucina are free of any added sugar. Carrie says, “We care about our food and only serve food that we would serve our family.”
Who: Zingerman’s Creamery
At Zingerman’s Creamery, they produce cheese from local cow and goat’s milk. One of the first steps in their style of cheesemaking (known as lactic) is getting fermentation started. Emma Boonstra, the Marketing Coordinator, says, “So most of the cheese that we produce—there are a couple of exceptions—are a fermented food.”
The fermentation process starts when they add bacteria, usually referred to as “starter cultures” in the cheese industry, right after they pasteurize and cool the milk at Zingerman’s Creamery. Over the next 18-24 hours, they allow the starter bacteria in conjunction with rennet (an enzyme used to coagulate milk) to acidify and curdle the milk. This acidic environment is inhospitable for many “bad” bacteria that can cause disease in humans, helping to make cheese safe to consume.
Acidity is important in producing texture in the cheese by determining how large the curd structure is. More acidity produces a finer, flakier curd whereas a lower acidity produces a larger, moist curd. The texture of the curd helps to determine the texture of the finished cheese. In addition to developing texture through the formation of the cheese curd, the lactic bacteria also helps develop flavor in the cheese. Different flavors can be produced, depending on what lactic bacteria cultures are added to the cheese during the making process.
“Fermentation (as cheesemaking) has been used since around 4000 BC as a method of preserving milk,” Emma says. “The highest production of milk occurs during the spring and summer when ruminant mammals have access to the widest diversity of plants and grasses in their diet, and they are feeding new baby animals. Fresh milk has a very short shelf life before the naturally occurring bacterial start to convert the lactose sugars into lactic acid, “spoiling” the milk. Cheese is a much more durable storage method and takes up less room in storage as well.”
Ferments: Grains to Distill Spirits
Ann Arbor Distilling Co. uses the age-old process of fermenting fruits and grains to convert sugars into ethanol. Via the fermentation and distillation processes, they turn grains into vodka, gin, bourbon, and rye whiskey. Fruits are used to make various brandies.
Phil Attee, Brand Ambassador in charge of Product Development & Special Projects at Ann Arbor Distilling Co., explains the process, “Grains like corn, rye, and barley are mostly made of starch, which is comprised of simple sugars linked together. In large stainless steel tanks, we use heat, water, and enzymes to break down the starches to simple sugars, at which point the yeasts can convert those sugars into alcohol over the course of about five days. After the fermentation, we distill the mixture, separating the alcohol from everything else.”
The fermentation process, as they use it, allows them to utilize the natural reactions between yeasts, water, and grains to create their award-winning spirits.
Phil points out that all commercially-produced alcoholic beverages utilize the fermentation process—beer, wine, spirits, and everything in between. He says, “Fermentation is one of the most ancient forms of food preservation, and some scientists believe that fermentation of fruits and grains for use as an alcoholic beverage dates back almost 7,000 years.”
Here’s a recipe for Spicy Southwestern Saurkraut if you’d like to try fermenting at home.
Watch this short video where Chef Carrie Walker explains the sourdough process.
Jill Dutton is the publisher of Evolving Magazine. Three years ago, she started traveling the United States by train. Find her most recent travel guide, The Best of Kansas City: 3-Day Itinerary on Amazon or through the publisher at www.Unanchor.com. She is currently writing the first of 12 train guides, Ride the Southwest Chief: 5-Day Itinerary, which will be available in March. Follow Jill’s travels at www.USAbyRail.blog.
Originally published in the February 2018 Evolving Magazine.