With Numerous Health Benefits, We are not so Sour About the Gut-Friendly Fermented Food Trend
Did your grandma make sauerkraut and store it in a large crock down cellar? For her generation, and preceding ones, homemakers around the globe fermented vegetables to survive the winter. Before refrigeration, fermentation was one method used to preserve food for several months in a cool place.
Fermentation is a natural process whereby the sugar molecules in a food break down to form lactic acid. Beneficial bacteria transform the food, creating its signature sour taste and crisp texture. The fermentation process not only prolongs the shelf life of the food but adds certain health benefits. Boosting the nutritional value by increasing levels of key nutrients like vitamins A, B, and C is one benefit. Increasing the population of friendly intestinal flora is another.
According to Dawn Story, herbal practitioner and owner of Farmstead Ferments in Scottsville, people are paying attention to bacteria and the science proving it plays a beneficial role in both our soils and our bodies.
“A huge spike in digestive and immune disorders has been sending folks to healthier foods,” she says. “They are realizing that food in a box has no life.”
In 2015, the Whole Foods Market Newsroom predicted a culture craze as one of the 2016 top 10 food trends. They were right. In fact, in more recent predictions, gut-friendly foods came out on top of all food trends in 2018. The current fermented foods landscape is much more than your grandma’s sauerkraut. Recipes for everything from kimchi (a spicy Korean cabbage) to miso (fermented bean paste from Japan) to kombucha (a fermented black tea) are flooding the internet, and Virginia foodies are catching this wave not only as consumers but as producers of fermented foods.
Friends urged Ethan and Kate Zuckerman to start Blue Ridge Bucha because their homebrewed kombucha was the best they had ever tasted. What started as a share program among friends and acquaintances eight years ago has grown into a producer with 80 points of sale in the mid-Atlantic region.
Blue Ridge Bucha, located in the Shenandoah Valley, sells their brew on tap. Their keg and refillable bottle model has saved more than 750,000 bottles from local landfills since 2010. While they do offer their core flavors year-round in refillable bottles, most folks bring their own bottles to fill from BRB’s kegs at the point of sale.
Besides the Nelson County and South of the James farmer’s markets, you can find BRB at grocers, breweries, health food stores and restaurants in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. In addition, they have their own taproom in Waynesboro. The first full-service kombucha taproom in Virginia, Blue Ridge Bucha serves tastings, cups or growlers of kombucha, as well as snacks in their family-friendly facility from Wednesday through Saturday.
Despite the health benefits of drinking kombucha, the top reason folks buy this fermented tea drink is taste, according to Doug Gellman, director of operations at BRB. “It’s a low-calorie, low-carb alternative to soda,” he said.
All of Blue Ridge Bucha’s products are certified organic, vegan, gluten-free and non-GMO. Their core flavors include everything from the ubiquitous Ginger to the more unique Elderflower Sunrise and Jasmine Grape. Seasonal flavors give BRB a chance to interact with the community. This summer, in exchange for a pound of wineberries, customers were given a growler of the wineberry kombucha when it was ready.
“Keeping in touch with our community is important,” says Gellman. “Even our name was crowd-sourced.”
Another low-carb, fizzy drink on the fermented scene is water kefir. Made from sugar water fermented with a granular culture, water kefir is flavored with fruit or herbs. And, according to owner Dawn Story, Farmstead Ferments in Scottsville is selling it as fast as they can make it.
Story started her fermenting business four years ago, although she’d been fermenting casually for 10 years. A native Virginian, she even loved the taste of fermented foods as a child. Also, as the owner of New Moon Naturals, a purveyor of herbal teas and aromatherapy products in Charlottesville, fermenting the vegetables she was already growing made sense. So, in addition to the water kefir, Farmstead Ferments makes sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles.
“I love, love, love tapping into the local farmers,” she says, referring to when she cannot produce enough cabbage, cucumbers or other greens to keep up with demand on her own few acres. Farmstead Ferments makes all their products by hand in small batches using locally sourced produce grown using biodynamic practices. And what started as a solo endeavor in 2010 has grown to employ six people today.
With flavors like Tangy Turmeric Kraut and Ginger Carrot Pickles, you can purchase Farmstead Ferments in their mercantile in Scottsville, the Charlottesville City and Nelson County farmers markets, as well as retail establishments in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.
In Washington, D.C., you will find Number 1 Sons creating barrel-fermented foods from vegetables grown on nearby farms. After six years of selling their ferments, this brother and sister team say that business is going “really well.”
Yi Wah, a former U.S. Marine, and Caitlin Roberts, a William and Mary grad, started Number 1 on a whim after a late night pickle-making session with friends. They wanted to compare the difference in flavor between vinegared pickles and naturally fermented ones. Once convinced, his friends encouraged Yi Wah to start fermenting as a business.
Yi Wah and Caitlin grew up with every meal home-cooked. Their mother, of Asian descent, prepared meals heavy with vegetables. “We grew up with a taste for sour,” Caitlin says. For them, fermented foods are nostalgic.
“It’s beautiful,” Caitlin says, “when nostalgic foods are not carb or fat driven.”
Their business may have started with pickles, but they now produce krauts, kimchi, kombucha and other specialty items. They have a complete line of hot sauces and their Salsa So Verde, a fermented green salsa, is a cult favorite.
When possible, Number 1 Sons sources all their vegetables from local farmers at the markets they attend—28 in all, each week. That way, they know the farmers who grow their vegetables and can devote particular attention to the farm-to-barrel timeframe. Their markets are in the D.C., Virginia and Maryland area.
In the Fulton Hill neighborhood of Richmond lives yet another producer of fermented foods. Grant Collier and Bri McCarthy started Wild Earth Fermentation in 2016 after traveling across the country on bicycles with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
“It’s like couch surfing but on farms,” Collier says. The pair joined WWOOF to learn about the challenges of small farms throughout North America. Collier wanted to grow food but also wanted to make something with it. So, this opportunity exposed him to other fermenters around the country.
Partnering with local and organic farms, Wild Earth produces several flavors of sauerkraut, kimchi, chow-chow and hot sauce. So far, they sell their wares in a handful of farmers markets and retail establishments in Virginia.
At his first job after graduating from James Madison University, Collier remembers a snack room full of junk. “I was always relatively healthy,” he says, “but had stomach issues. So, I looked into a DIY approach to health.” And that led to fermentation.
So, Where is This Trend Going?
All of these producers started making fermented foods at home for their own use. A lot of folks are doing that now, which has led to a plethora of tools and equipment on the market. Specially designed fermenting lids to fit canning jars, fermenting crocks, airlocks and weights to hold the floating vegetables under the brine are all available to the home fermenter. But at the end of the day, many folks decide they just don’t have the time to devote to yet another task in the kitchen. That’s where these producers come in.
“How long will people continue to make the time to do this for themselves?” asks Collier. “Hopefully, they won’t just give up, they’ll come to folks like us.”
“It’s only natural,” says Caitlin Roberts, “that people will always want to eat natural foods. I have not seen any decline in interest.”
Collier agreed. “I don’t want to see it as a trend that comes and goes,” he says. “I want people to see that it’s healthy and delicious.”
Finding Fermented Foods in Your Area
-Find Blue Ridge Bucha on tap at more than 80 points of sale in the Mid-Atlantic region or visit their taproom at 1809 E Main St., Waynesboro. BlueRidgeBucha.com
-You can purchase Farmstead Ferments from their online store; at their mercantile at 330 Valley St., Scottsville; the Charlottesville City Market; the Nelson County Farmers Market; or at grocers, markets and restaurants listed on their website. FarmsteadFerments.com
-Number 1 Sons sells their ferments from their online store, at a handful of small local stores and at 28 farmers markets each week, rain or shine. Number1Sons.com
-Purchase Wild Earth Fermentation products from their online store and a handful of retail establishments and farmers markets in the Richmond and Williamsburg area. WildEarthFermentation.com