The Art and Science of Fermentation

by Samantha Suarez 

What do pickles, sauerkraut, and yogurt have in common? You might not have guessed if it wasn’t already in the title: they’re all fermented foods.

In recent years, kimchi has found a place on the menus of the trendiest restaurants and has even replaced relish as a topping for hot dogs at some food trucks and market halls. Kombucha is stocking the shelves of both local grocery stores and yoga studios. Artesian, the award-winning bar at the Langham Hotel in London, even serves a hipster-friendly cocktail with kombucha, gin and citrus. You get the gist: sauerkraut is sexy now. Welcome to the wonderful world of fermented food.

The Science: Bring on the Funk (y) Food

Most people understand fermentation as a method for preserving food. Strictly speaking, it isn’t preservation in the same way freezing or canning is; it’s the biological transformation of food or drink by bacteria and other microorganisms. Our ancestors have been fermenting food for hundreds (if not thousands) of years in different cultures around the world, even if they didn’t fully grasp the science behind it.

For them, it was an easy way to preserve fruits and vegetables beyond their usual shelf life before the days of refrigeration and pasteurization.

The most common way to ferment vegetables is through lacto-fermentation, wherein they are soaked in either salt water or their own juice, allowing for bacteria to grow and eat the vegetables’ sugars. As a result, lactic acid flavors go up, and the food develops a sour, tart and somewhat funky savory taste — a flavor profile chefs and foodies call umami. While heating a veggie can deplete it of nutrients, fermenting retains vitamins and produces probiotic bacteria. Pretty good deal, right?

Waiter, Bring Me a Jar of Your Stinkiest, Slimiest Sauerkraut

“If it’s in the brine, it’s fine. If it’s in the air, beware,”  David Klingenberger, Chief Fermenting Officer for the Brinery in Ann Arbor, said regarding the shelf life of fermented foods. The Brinery specializes in lacto-fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and sriracha sauce. While their products are sold all over Michigan, you may also recognize them for their large presence in Zingerman’s Delicatessen.

Their most famous sandwich, the Zingerman’s Reuben, uses generous amounts of The Brinery’s sauerkraut.

“I think that any meal benefits from a heaping forkful of sauerkraut,” Klingenberger remarked. “It’s sour, salty and tangy, and pairs well with meat, fish, other vegetables, or even with a cheese plate full of fresh fruit, figs, some jam and crackers. And it’s good for you! The probiotics in it are a digestive aid.”

Of course, there’s more than one way to approach fermentation. Other products, like kombucha (a fermented tea beverage), are made with the addition of a starter culture of microorganisms, in this particular case, a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeasts). David Wentworth of Prospectors Specialty Beverage (parent company of kombucha brewery Bloom Ferments) told us, “I think there’s a big trend moving toward healthier beverages, cleaner labels and simpler, less-artificial ingredients. That opened up kombucha to the forefront of that specialty beverage movement. Plus, it really does taste good, on top of being good for your gut — like a healthy soda.”

Fermentation Frenzy

But why now? What made kimchi go mainstream? From a consumer standpoint, one big appeal is the health benefits. People are growing more and more aware of their health and wellness experts are constantly raving about how these funky-smelling probiotic powerhouses. After all, they boost the good bacteria in your digestive tract, which helps with health issues like IBS, and even assists in weight loss and boosted immunity. Pro-tip for the health-conscious: Not all fermented foods are as nutritious as others. The healthiest ones are kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, organic probiotic yogurt (or coconut yogurt), kefir, miso and tempeh, to name a few.

Today, handcrafted and locally-sourced foods are at an all-time high in the culinary scenes of major cities. Food appreciators and healthy eaters alike avoid mass-produced food whenever they can help it. They desire individuality and variety in their food and want to connect with it and know the story behind it, even if it’s just for a craft beer or a side of sauerkraut. Mass-produced foods tend to be lackluster because they have to please everyone at once. This means it can never be too spicy, too salty, too bitter or too sweet.

Food that is handcrafted by passionate chefs or by DIY enthusiasts experimenting at home is more flavorful and unafraid to be bold.  It also leaves your tummy feeling cleaner and happier.

Additionally, there is the appeal of adventure and trying new things. One study by Harris Group found that 72 percent of millennials prefer to spend more of their money on experiences over material possessions. Another report by Nestle found that millennial diners enjoy trying new flavors and going on culinary adventures. Certainly for some, sauerkraut is an acquired taste. For others, however, fermented foods offer a unique twist on classic flavors. What foodie wouldn’t tell their friends about that awesome kimchi taco they got from a food truck?

The Art of Kombucha: Don’t Kill My Vibe

From a chef’s perspective, fermentation is the ability to create exciting, new flavor profiles. Using microbes to make tasty food reflects human culinary innovation at its best. Klingenberger was an organic vegetable farmer for many years and describes his journey with fermentation as “an enlightening experience.”

“Back in the day, our ancestors did it out of necessity and then it developed into a significant identity in different food cultures,” he elaborated. “Fermentation now is us carrying on the traditions of our ancestors while creating new flavors.”

In other words, fermentation has gone from a preservation technique to a culinary tool that’s every bit as essential as herbs and seasonings. We’re pretty sure this old (but rediscovered) trend is here to stay,  but perhaps we should let it ferment for awhile.


Sam was born in Chicago, grew up in the Philippines, attended college in Australia and is now living in Grand Rapids. She loves cheese, video games and music, and will quote a movie or TV show every chance she gets.


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