Fermentation Luck photo by Jacqueline Schlossman

We are in a bacteria revolution. Yogurts are putting more focus on live active cultures, beer nerds pick or pan beers based on kettle soured versus traditional souring, and the art of food is having micro explosions backwards to a simpler time of local and artisanal. Craft Beer is just a dude approved name for artisanal beer. Sequatchie Cove Creamery, Rembrandt’s Coffee and Bread, and Embrace the Funk, all locally produced, lovingly cared for, and wouldn’t be possible without the millions of microflorae living in symbiosis with us every day.

But bacteria are bad, right? Some can be, but the war to eradicate bacteria from our hands, kitchen counters, and lives doesn’t have clear lines. The news scares us, and commercials prey on our fear to make our lives antibacterial. Sounds grim. But we all know that antibiotic drugs kill the good bacteria in our bodies, and that we need to replenish them, so we know that some bacteria are good for us. I met with the Wild Fermentationist, Sandor Katz to clear things up about our food, our bodies, our beer, and the good bacteria within it.

TG: How old were you when you became aware of the active nature of fermented foods?

SK: In my mid-20’s. I started a macrobiotic diet ( a dietary regimen which involves eating grains as a staple food, supplemented with other foods such as local vegetables, and avoiding the use of highly processed or refined foods and most animal products.) and noticed that my salivary glands were much more active after a few weeks, and started to read up more on how it affected my digestion. I’ve found that the mid-20’s is a really good age to talk to people about fermented foods and gut health.

TG: Fermentation can preserve food, like cheese, sauerkraut, pickles, etc… In a land of preservatives, why don’t people eat more fermented foods?

SK: They do! Bread, cheese, beer, wine, coffee, chocolate, and vinegar based sauces are all based on some microbe breaking down molecules into other things. None of these foods would be possible without fermentation. It’s rarer for someone to NOT consume fermented foods. It’s an important part of people’s lives, even if they are not aware.

TG: What do you think about how craft beer is unfolding in Tennessee?

SK: I’m really inspired by the craft beer movement. There’s so much more exciting and interesting beers available to me. I love the varieties being produced, and love more and smaller breweries. Also, I’m way into sour beers. Before Louis Pasteur, all beer was “wild” beer. Whether breweries are controlling cultures or just letting nature take its course, sour beer has become much more interesting and compelling.

TG: Love me some sours. What microbial fermented benefit do we get from beer?

SK: Tons of B Vitamins, the same antioxidant benefits you can get from wine, and silicon helps with your bones. It’s not a cure all snake oil though. Nothing cures everything.

TG: So, Cannon County, Tennessee isn’t New York City. Do you get push back when you try to educate people in more rural areas?

SK: I’ve never met a multi-generational farm family who doesn’t make sauerkraut. Preservation is a huge part of farming. Keep in mind, I’m not at the supermarket belittling consumers, or telling people that they are wrong or right. I don’t push an agenda. In truth, I have to be careful about being absorbed into other people’s agendas. I just help inform that the byproducts of fermentation help in digestion and immune function in the body.

TG: So, for someone looking to get into more fermented foods, what would you recommend?

SK: Start with making your own preserved fermented veggies and sauerkraut. You can change the recipe up once you’ve done it a few times. (IE: Low salt, or extra garlic, or spicy) The same goes for beer. Make a recipe, then tweak it to your own tastes. The problem is when these family recipes are lost, or consecutive generations losing the interest to keep it going. So much wisdom has been lost. So, develop your recipes and involve your kids. Make it fun and pass the recipes on.

TG: But what about people who afraid of food not made by big FDA approved corporations?

SK: I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from sauerkraut. The preservative nature of the fermentation keeps bad bacteria out by creating an environment that is hostile to them. The fear is real though. Corporate products have waged a war on bacteria that has a lot of people convinced that all bacteria is bad, and that only commercial products are safer. IE: Regulatory processes are there to protect people. A lot of the misconception is brought about by the limitation of people’s ability for and access to agriculture, affecting what they can make at home.

TG: My wife loves the probiotic supplements, but wouldn’t eat my homemade goat cheese. (Gauntlet thrown)

SK: The problem is that there’s a lot less research done on fermented foods than probiotic supplements, and the gummies come in a bottle that’s easy to buy and consume. Fermented foods provide a biodiversity for us, with the potential for some terroir to the organisms responsible for it. Similar to how local honey is better for your allergies because it’s made with the local flowers that trigger your allergies. There’s plenty of cases out there of how fermentation makes things safer. The beer in Mexico is safer than the water, the bitter cassava plant contains cyanide, fermentation breaks it down into safer compounds, Bunion nuts in Australia are toxic before fermentation.

TG: Do you want to slap the hand sanitizer out of people’s hands?

SK: Not really, the alcohol based sanitizers are ok. Triclosan in antibacterial soap is the real issue. It kills all the low-level bacteria, and that allows resistant strains (superbugs / MRSA) to thrive.

TG: The transition of humanity from nomadic to cultivators has been attributed to bread, beer, cheese, mead, all forms of fermented foods. What are your thoughts on that?

SK: Agriculture is impossible without fermentation. Extra crops were preserved for eating during the non- harvest seasons. Fermentation, drying, or salting were the ways of life until canning and refrigeration.

TG: Thoughts on Louis Pasteur and pasteurization?

SK: Pasteur gave us tons of insight into fermentation. The whole world owes a huge debt to him. It was an edgy belief when he came up with his ideas for heating up wine to kill the souring bacteria, then cooling it and introducing the yeast to make wine more delicious. The whole milk pasteurization thing was another scientist just using his methods. Microbiology is so much more exciting and advanced than it was in his time.

TG: What do you think about the term “overfed and undernourished?”

SK: Probably describes a lot of people. Fermentation can unlock a lot of nutrients in food. Factory made versus homemade with natural yeast process will yield a lot more iron and calcium due to nutrients unlocked by, and byproducts of, microbes.

Mr. Katz is a wealth of knowledge and we are lucky to have him in Tennessee. You can catch him every now and then doing speaking engagements and teaching people how to live a wilder life, beer-wise as well as food-wise. If you don’t have time to go visit one of his sessions, I highly recommend you go buy his books, available at http://www.wildfermentation.com or on http://www.amazon.com.

Lots of great tips and a more thorough understanding of fermentation if you are a sour ale brewer or looking to become one.

By:  Tony Giannasi, Craft Beer Manager at Carter Distributing of Chattanooga