Aug 17, 2017 11:41AM ● Published by Alex Martinez
Those easy-to-love classics have been joined by a parade of new and sometimes odd fermented foods as I, and the nation, embrace probiotics. It’s amusing that ancient fare like water kefir, natto, kvass, and tempeh are undergoing a serious revival in the United States, perhaps the most germophobic country in the history of the planet. Our attempts to expunge icky microbes from our existence have actually harmed our health.
Meanwhile, Colorado is proudly on the cutting edge of gut ecology. Here, kombucha on tap is a common sight at grocery stores where growing cooler space is devoted to locally crafted live foods from pickles to hot sauce. Colorado State University is graduating classes from its Fermentation Science and Technology program, and a bevy of workshops are available for regular cooks. The home kitchen is where some of Colorado’s many fermented food entrepreneurs got their start, often sparked by a strong desire to improve their health.
Naturally occurring probiotics are touted for their ability to deliver probiotics, improve digestion and nutrient absorption, balance gut bacteria, and increase immunity.
Friends and local probiotic pioneers Mara King and Willow King (no relation) started playing around with live sauerkraut and kimchi in their home kitchens. “In the big picture, we are reintroducing live foods, picking back up where we left off. We could see how vital these foods were,” says Mara King.
They formed a company named Ozuké, which ships its kosher, vegan, and organic products—think: Umeboshi Plums; Kale & Collards Kim Chi; Citrus & Ginger Kraut—from Colorado to stores from Hawaii to New Jersey. The Lafayette-based company won a prestigious national Good Food Award this year for its fermented vegetables.
“Customers tell us our products are not just great flavors, but that they are energizing and make them feel better. We get a lot of notes that say ‘I am addicted to your kimchi,’” Mara says.
The public is still on a learning curve about fermented foods. “The word ‘pickle’ is confusing. People think they are cucumbers in vinegar with spices. Real pickles are made with brine, dill, garlic in an oak barrel. It’s a different kind of sour, a complex, layered flavor,” she says. Look on labels for the term “naturally fermented pickles.”
Asia Dorsey of Denver’s Five Points Fermentation Company set out to heal herself. “I started making fermented foods at home after I was clinically diagnosed with depression. I wanted to heal it without taking pharmaceuticals. I learned a lot about microbial ecology and how it affects mood and health,” says Dorsey.
“Fermented foods helped me, and I wanted to make sure they were available to everyone as foods, not as supplements,” she says.
Dorsey thinks she knows why there has been a rekindling of interest in probiotics. “Every single culture in the world has fermented food of some kind. We have a desire to return home and connect with history. We remember that grandma used to pickle and the live foods the family once ate. People are really feeling a lack of community and connection to traditional culture—culture you can’t buy from a store,” she says.
Five Points hand-packs simple, unseasoned Soul Kraut, Korean-style hand-cut kimchi, and an Indian chef in Denver helped develop Curry Kraut, a mix of pickled cabbage, cumin, coriander, fennel, black mustard seed, and turmeric. The products are sold through a few outlets including the Union Station Farmers Market.
One Five Points bestseller is “jun,” pronounced juhn, a probiotic drink Five Points brews from Chinese teas and local honey. “We import the tea and meet the bees and the beekeepers. That makes jun 10 times as expensive as kombucha, which is mainly made from white sugar and basic black tea. It’s also much easier to industrialize,” Dorsey said.
Five Points offers diverse classes that combine traditional recipes with modern food science in making fermented foods. The most popular workshop is Sacred Sugar, a workshop in making water kefir. “I teach a history of sugar and how it can be transformed by fermentation into a beautiful drink. I think of water kefir as a gateway probiotic beverage. It’s easy to make at home,” she says. Five Points has a policy of not refusing anyone at its workshops who cannot afford the fee.
Water kefir seems to be the hot new probiotic beverage on the block. Water kefir shouldn’t be confused with the very different milk kefir that resembles drinkable yogurt. It is made with water kefir “crystals” or starter and is ready to drink in a few days of keeping it on the countertop and feeding it sugar.
Stuart Dimson also started his fermented studies at home in Louisville. “I’m a licensed acupuncturist and a Chinese herbalist, and about 80 percent of my clients had some condition that came down to the gut. I was no different,” he says.
Dimson was familiar with kombucha but wanted to do something different. “My research led me to water kefir, which I hadn’t heard of,” he says. Dimson’s organic Doctor D’s Water Kefir in various flavors is now sold in 350 stores in 14 states.
“We do a live ferment and mix it with fruit flavors. If you make water kefir right, it’s just like drinking soda. Kids love it and it’s not so tart,” he says.
Dimson warns that making water kefir at home is hard to mess up and is drinkable in four to six days, but it is not for the irresponsible. “You’ve got to take care of water kefir. It’s like raising children. You can’t not feed them or go on a trip and forget them,” Dimson says. In other words, whoever waters your plants and changes the cat litter should also feed your water kefir while you’re out of town.
Take a class or, better yet, learn from a friend and be assured you won’t kill anyone with your home experiments on the way to a more biodiverse gut.
“We’re just starting to understand a very complex field. We have mapped the human genome but our understanding of microbes in the body is still very limited,” Ozuké’s Mara King says.
Keep your eye out for Ozuké’s new sugar-free fermented beverage similar to kvass, but less salty, as well as a green chile kimchi.