Kefir, kraut, kombucha
Deflated from working as a nurse throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Lisa Brown felt her enthusiasm bubble when brewing kombucha.
The longtime Phoenix resident who loves to garden naturally gravitated to fermenting “the flavor of the day” — homegrown vegetables, homemade wine and handmade cheese from goat milk she purchased.
Brown’s small batches of kombucha grew in significance with her adult daughter’s encouragement.
“It’s crafted; it’s creative,” says Brown, 54. “There’s an infinite amount of flavor choices.
”Strawberry-lavender, citrus-juniper and elderberry-grapefruit kombuchas are the signature flavors Brown sells at local farmers markets. She and her daughter, who works for a kombucha company in Northern California, dubbed their enterprise Moxie Brew and started dispensing their elixir from kegs.
“We sell out in the summer,” says Brown. “They love it; they come back every week; they bring their growlers.”
One of dozens of local businesses specializing in fermented foods, Moxie Brew caters to a widening circle of customers. A traditional form of preservation, fermentation has won more and more fans over the past decade as awareness has increased around its role in supporting human health. Modern-day studies credit consumption of “probiotic” foods and supplements with reducing cholesterol, improving immunity and assisting weight loss, among other benefits.
“The fermentation conversation is all over the map now,” says Kirsten Shockey.
The Applegate resident with five fermentation books to her credit also operates The Fermentation School, founded in spring 2020. Shockey’s authority developed over the past decade since she started selling krauts, pickles and other ferments at local farmers markets.
“When we were standing at market ... 10, 11 years ago ... we were really teaching people,” says Shockey.
As “probiotic” became a mainstream term in the health and wellness realms, demand for fermented foods followed. Long contained in such cultured dairy products as yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream and kefir, probiotics also reside in sauerkraut and some soy foods, including miso and tempeh. The latest surveys, says Shockey, show fermented foods are outpacing growth of the larger natural foods category to become a nearly $11 billion sector nationwide.
The price of high-quality fermented foods is just one factor that encourages consumers to start experimenting with their own recipes, says Shockey. More time for do-it-yourself dabbling during the pandemic, as well as the dual ethics of self-sufficiency and sustainability, are drivers of interest in fermentation. She cites fermented vegetables — kraut — and fermented tea — kombucha — as the two main routes through which people enter the field.
“It is exceedingly safe,” says Shockey. “You don’t even need to know how to cook to ferment something.”
Naturally occurring bacteria do the work of transforming fresh produce into highly nourishing preserved foods. All it takes is some salt, a container that keeps the food submerged in its own secreted liquid and some time.
The process tends to appeal to people who appreciate a “one-and-done” project, says Shockey. Once a fermented vegetable has reached its peak at room temperature, it can be transferred to the refrigerator, where it keeps for months.
Outside the home kitchen, more and more food-service professionals are practicing fermentation, says Shockey, adding that pickles, miso and hot sauces are seen on local restaurant menus and counterparts around the country. Farming operations, including Medford’s Fry Family Farm and Applegate’s Whistling Duck Farm, have built fermentation kitchens to maximize their profits and divert food waste, says Shockey. State agricultural regulators, she adds, are “friendly” toward fermentation.“
More small farms and businesses are adding fermented products,” she says. “You can take a great cabbage and, all of the sudden, add so much more nutrition to it.
”Unlike the bacteria that colonize sauerkraut, the microorganisms that yield kombucha are a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” — SCOBY — which must be kept alive between batches. The cultures can be purchased from fermentation suppliers but often are bestowed by kombucha brewers with excess on hand.
Feeding on sugar dissolved in brewed tea, the culture converts the solution’s carbohydrates to alcohol and carbon dioxide, culminating in kombucha’s sweet-tart flavor and fizzy mouthfeel. The longer kombucha ferments the more sour and alcoholic it becomes.
“Kombucha was hardly known,” says Shockey, “and now it’s really taken over the soda market.”
Anecdotally, her friends, colleagues and customers consider kombucha a wholesome alternative to sodas and fruit juices, says Brown. While Moxie Brew’s nonalcoholic recipes are sold at a local brew pub, restaurant and grocery store, Brown envisions her own tasting room for pouring alcoholic kombucha.
First, Brown plans to reach more customers by contracting to serve private events locally once her daughter, Alyssa, joins the business full-time this spring. In addition to bottling, the mother-daughter team will add vinegars and sales of SCOBY to their product line. If the response to Moxie Brew keeps surpassing Brown’s expectations, her work as a nurse could fizzle out.
“It’s just really changed my outlook.”