Courtesy of ecofriendlymag.com
In the dimly lit basement of University of Oregon student Andrew Hitz, rows of empty beer bottles of various sizes stand neatly against the wall. Next to the bottles loom three large carboys on a table. Placed in the darkest depth of his basement, one carboy filled with a double IPA batch ferments at room temperature. A closer observation shows this exact process in motion. Yeast is eating away at fermentable sugars, swirling inside the vessel.
Upstairs in Hitz’s room, he has also set up a station for a fermented tea called Kombucha. More than a dozen empty store bought bottles of Kombucha are aligned underneath his desk. Two large jars are wrapped with cheesecloth to allow oxygen to a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, or a SCOBY. Hitz prefers to let his green tea Kombucha sit longer for a stronger sour taste, which he then plans to refrigerate after about five days.
“It’s cool to see how things change after you put them in a controlled environment,” Hitz says. “After you let a strain of yeast or bacteria takeover, it’s cool to see how things change on a flavor level.”
Hitz has been fermenting at home for two years. Starting through homebrewing websites and simple guidebooks, Hitz became attracted to crafting his own microbrews. He later moved to other types of fermentation like Kombucha and kimchi.
“Fermented products have a lot of pretty awesome benefits,” Hitz says.
Kombucha for example, has essential B vitamins and organic acids. He adds soy in its unfermented form carries evidence of estrogen and isoflavones. But he says, “When you take that soy and ferment it into something like tempeh or tofu, you are tying down all those bad things.”
Fermentation is enjoyed across the Northwest as a low energy preservation method to transform flavors. It reduces the need to rely on commercialized goods, which fits into the Northwest’s sustainable lifestyle. With the allure of creating a personalized product, fermentation is gaining momentum for its health benefits and cost effectiveness. Foods such as wine, beer, cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut and pickles are fermented to bring out essential nutrients that nourish the human body. Whether focusing on homebrewing or different types of fermented foods as a hobby or profession, the movement provides a rewarding experience.
“In the Northwest, we are particularly meant for this activity because there’s this whole idea of trying to do-it-yourself and getting out of the industrial food system,” says Jennifer Levin, Adjunct Instructor of Literature at the UO and food blogger at Culinara Eugenius.
Levin has been fermenting types of jams and pickles for five years. After completing courses on food preservation at the Oregon State University extension program, Levin learned a more “stable and predictable way of doing preservation.” Her approach to pickling and jams blends aspects of safe practices and certain traditions of fermentation.
“I’m always thinking about ways to make things safe – cleaner surface and sterile pickle jars,” Levin says. “And then letting the natural process does its work.”
When preparing a fermented product, knowledge of sanitation practices helps improve efficiency. The natural process of microorganisms to thrive on selected foods and beverages runs a risk of bacterial contamination. This can lead to spoilage or producing harmful molds. Maintaining food safety practices – pre-boiling water for homebrewing and sanitizing all equipment before inserting foods – can improve chances in both taste and nutritional quality.
For pickling, she explains the process of allowing a fresh produce like cabbage cure in a bath of salt. The lactic acid will start to break down the cabbage, resulting in a sour and crunchier taste. Preserved cabbage transforms into a “sweet, juicy cell wall,” she says, and develops a change in its chemical composition over time. Levin pasteurizes her fermented pickles in a low temperature boiling pot, which removes any remaining pathogens and readies them for canning.
“Canning is very quick, efficient and regulated manner to make foods shelf stable.” Levin says. “You put it into a little jar and can see it, and that aspect of food safety is really neat.”
Fermentation is popular because it allows total control over an environment for microorganisms to grow. Combined with the importance of food safety, enthusiasts experiment with a larger variety of fermented foods, adding certain amounts of preservatives for dietary needs. Whereas grocery stores typically have limited selections with unknown quantities of preservatives, fermentation opens a creative side of making unique products. And depending on the growing season, fermented foods can have a different taste and texture every time.
“We make [foods] go bad in a controlled way,” says Jason Carriere, owner of Valley Vintner & Brewer. “In a way that turns into something we want through the microorganisms of our choosing to act on it.”
In the case of homebrewing, a specific style of beer depends on yeast selections, sugar compounds and the ratio of grains and hops. Valley Vintner is a local homebrewing shop in Eugene, aiming to educate new brewers and winemakers. Carriere, also a researcher in the biology department at the UO and in the toxicology department at Oregon State University, is a 13-year veteran in beer, mead and wine crafting. He works to give the community basic information in fermentation techniques and beer recipe kits.
In “Homebrewing: A Marriage of Science & Art,” his Powerpoint presentation to interested student clubs on campus, he says different types of yeast make different beers. Carriere believes a certain level of experience isn’t necessary for craft brewing. However, understanding how to pitch yeast strains is a good starting point for beginners wanting a certain flavor and alcohol percentage.
Carriere’s Powerpoint explains the stage of adding a starch-filled seed called barley before fermentation. The starch is converted to sugar through mashing a combination of barley and milled grain under a heated temperature. The mash feeds on yeast, which produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. This can vary in alcohol level based on the amount of fermentable sugars. Depending on the style of beer, a perfect blend can contribute to body, head or foam, and mouth feel.
Take for instance, the popular North American ale yeast. After fermentation, the beer is “lighter, golden and fruiter,” Carriere says. German ale kolsch yeast, he adds, produces a more malt forward beer with sulfur that disappears over age, leaving a lager like taste.
At Valley Vintner, Carriere says, customers can get recipes with suggested yeast strains. “But you’re not bound by that,” he says. “That’s how you figure it out – experimentation.”
For Hitz, experimentation allows him to explore new styles of beers and anything fermentable. Just a practical understanding of metabolizing sugars and converting yeasts to carbohydrates and alcohol, he says, allows for endless possibilities of fermented foods. Hitz has adapted fermentation to his daily life, now substituting a morning coffee for a fresh Kombucha.
But within the community of fermentation, sharing nutritious foods or beverages to others brings a wealth of enjoyment.
“It’s kind of something just cool to hand someone your stuff and say that you made it,” Carriere says. “More often than not, people are pleasantly surprised at what they create.”