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Growing the Culture

Author: Cerrissa Kim
February, 2015 Issue

Across our nation, fermented foods are becoming more popular than ever.

When I was a kid, my Irish-American father complained about the smell of kimchi permeating our house whenever someone opened the refrigerator door. The combination of Napa cabbage, ginger, garlic and red chili powder gochugaru created a pungent aroma that seeped through the lids of the gallon-sized glass jars housing Korea’s most popular foodstuff. It’s a well-known fact these days that my Korean mother’s creations were filled with probiotics, but back in the 1980s, my father had no idea the gently bubbling condiments with a unique odor were packed with nutrition.
Across our nation, fermented foods are becoming more popular than ever. Foodies and people interested in wellness and nutrition have found fermented products offer health benefits as well as great taste. Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years, serving as a means of preservation before there was refrigeration. And though safeguarding food from spoilage might have been the primary reason for fermenting food, people soon realized the process in which bacteria and yeasts feed on the natural sugars in food, creating the lactic acid that preserves it, also made their food more flavorful and easier to digest.
With the North Bay’s slow food movement and interest in quality food, it’s no wonder there’s a thriving fermentation culture that’s building momentum. A Farm to Fermentation Festival has been growing larger each year. Having outgrown the previous years’ venue, in July 2014, the festival took place at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa, with close to 65 vendors presenting their goods and 20 workshops with more than 1,200 people in attendance. The fifth annual festival is slated for July 2015.
Jeff Cox, the Press Democrat’s restaurant reviewer for 21 years, and author of 20 books on gardening, food and wine, wrote The Essential Book of Fermentation in 2013. Says Cox, “Fermented foods are the key to creating biodiversity in the body in much the same way as biodiversity is created in a wild landscape. Biodiversity is the foundation of good health.”

Alive & Healing Tempeh

A small business park tucked next to the Windsor Walmart is currently home to a number of food and beverage companies. Three of those businesses—Alive & Healing Tempeh, WildBrine and Revive Kombucha—are producing fermented products. Stem Kent, founder of Alive & Healing, moved his tempeh-making business to the park in December 2014 after outgrowing the shared commercial kitchen space he was renting. Alive & Healing is the biggest producer of artisan tempeh in California. Tempeh, a highly digestible source of protein made from fermented soy beans, has 20 grams of protein per serving; is high in calcium, iron, B12 and essential fatty acids; has no sodium; is low fat; and has no cholesterol.
Kent, who’s not a vegetarian himself, finds even meat eaters are looking for ways to supplement their diets with flavorful, protein-dense food sources. In college, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and, to treat his digestive issues, was prescribed allopathic medicine. That didn’t help, so he looked to his diet to help lessen his symptoms. He heard the naturally occurring probiotics in fermented foods might help, so he took a workshop with Sandor Katz, a leader in the wild fermentation world. Many of the foods he was introduced to in the workshop seemed “weird” to him at first, but it didn’t deter him from trying them.
The first time he made tempeh, he became fascinated with what he considers a “wonder food.” “It was fascinating to see how alive it was, I could really see it transforming,” says Kent. The tempeh he made was much better than the store-bought products he’d tried, so he kept making it at home. He made it for himself and appreciative friends but didn’t consider turning his hobby into a business. When he moved to Sonoma County in 2011, he was introduced to the commercial kitchen owned by Tierra Vegetables.
After talking to local restaurants and grocery stores to see if there was a market for his product, he decided to start a company specializing in artisan tempeh. Alive & Healing Tempeh took off, and Kent’s products are now sold in the freezer section at local markets, including Oliver’s Markets in Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa, and Community Market in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. It’s also featured in restaurants such as East West Café in Sebastopol, Backyard in Forestville and Gaia’s Garden in Santa Rosa. Currently, there are two flavors, maple herb and classic, but Kent is considering adding to his line and also making a nontraditional tempeh made with legumes other than soybeans.

Fermentation goes wild

Just a few doors down from Alive & Healing’s modest office and production facility, Wildbrine makes its line of highly probiotic, non-GMO certified, raw, vegan, gluten free and all-natural fermented sauerkrauts, kimchis, pickles and salsas. Wildbrine’s founders, Christopher Glab and Rick Goldberg, became partners in 1990, when the two businessmen with backgrounds in retail grocery sales started writing business plans with hopes of forming their own company. For their first venture, they made bagel and cream cheese sandwiches and sold them to Safeway, Raley’s and a number of vending trucks. From there, they moved on to the development and sales of award-winning hummus, salsas and cheese spreads under the brand names Meza, Sonoma Salsa and Goldy’s. In 1998, they outgrew their original facility in South San Francisco and moved operations to Sonoma County, selling their businesses in 2006.
“I was looking for a way to keep busy in retirement,” says Goldberg; he found his calling as a volunteer chef trainer for the Ceres Community Project in Sebastopol. The popular nonprofit supports mostly low-income people living with serious health challenges, such as cancer, by delivering free, nourishing, organic, locally produced and sourced meals. Goldberg learned the fermented foods being made for sick clients had immune and gut-enhancing properties that were beneficial not only for people who were ill but also for people who wanted to stay healthy.
Goldberg and Glab used their business acumen to help the Ceres Community Project sell its fresh sauerkraut to local markets. When the nonprofit decided to exit its commercial efforts, Goldberg and Glab decided to start Wildbrine using two of the Ceres Community Project’s sauerkraut recipes. They continue to support the nonprofit by donating a portion of their profits back to the charity.
“It wasn’t our intention to be a national label when we were helping Ceres,” says Goldberg, but once Wildbrine got going in 2011, making the products available to a wider audience quickly became a focal point. After attending a natural food show in Anaheim, Glab and Goldberg hired a broker and a sales team and expanded their line to include more flavors. They also added kimchi, salsa and pickles to their string of products. Wildbrine doesn’t use lab cultures or vinegars in its products. “We make food the old-fashioned way, how grandma used to make it,” says Glab.
The company has recently expanded from a 3,000-square-foot space to 10,000 square feet of office and production facilities to accommodate its growing needs. Wildbrine products are not only sold locally, they’re also available nationally and in Canada. Knowing how to work with distributors has been one key to the company’s success, another has been both men’s interest in food.
Glab and Goldberg regularly read food magazines and watch for culinary trends. They’re both intimately involved with Wildbrine’s quality control, especially when it comes to taste. Glab and Goldberg sample each 8,000- to 10,000-piece batch of product personally before it’s approved for packaging, and they’re always experimenting with new flavors and recipes. “Our Salsa Verde, with fire roasted flavors, is really good mixed with fresh avocado,” says Goldberg about a recent combination he created at home. He mentions that cooking fermented foods destroys the live cultures, so they’re best eaten raw.
“There’s a qualitative side that involves the culinary and creative aspects, and a technical side where we’re tuned into what’s safe. In the food business, your primary concern is food safety. You have the ultimate responsibility for what people are putting in their bodies,” says Glab. He notes that, for the last three to five years, fermented foods have been one of the top food trends—but both men believe fermented foods are here to stay. “It’s almost like back to the future: There’s simplicity in these foods. It’s back to basics with all the health benefits that eating natural foods bring,” says Glab.

Pickles like Grandma used to make

A little farther up Highway 101, in Healdsburg, Sonoma Brinery is led by founder Dave Ehreth, who’s modified the popular Wine Country adage that life’s too short to drink bad wine and says, “Life’s too short to eat lousy pickles.”
Ehreth had always had a garden and made pickles from his homegrown cucumbers—batches he shared with grateful friends and neighbors, who always asked for more. He began the pickle company in 2004 while working as a consultant in the telecom industry. By 2008, Sonoma Brinery had grown to such a size that he decided to give it his full attention and left the telecom world.
“I couldn’t get a good Kosher pickle on the West Coast and there wasn’t a good reason why.” Ehreth prefers the cultured pickles of the East Coast—barrel fermented ones soaked in salty brine, not made with vinegar—so he made old-fashioned, fermented pickles. When he first brought his product to market, he’d load up his car and drive to 30 different retailers in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties, with an occasional trip to San Francisco. Grocers asked for more variety, so he went beyond his original Manhattan-style kosher dills to concoct regular and spicy bread and butter pickles, as well as a line of sauerkraut varieties, including a Latin American-style curtido. He now distributes his products in Mid- and Southwestern states and all along the West Coast, making his products available to consumers at thousands of stores.
Sonoma Brinery sources ingredients locally whenever possible and, like many other locally owned fermented food and beverage companies, the company prides itself on supporting the area by employing locals, paying them above minimum wage and offering better-than-average benefits. Sonoma Brinery also offers English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, knowing an educated workforce helps strengthen the community.

The Wild West in Western Marin

Maggie Levinger and Luke Regalbuto, partners in business and life, traveled to Eastern Europe in 2009, seeking out practices of fermentation and other food preservation methods. They wanted to explore the Old World methods for preserving food. Levinger developed an interest in the health benefits of fermented foods when her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2002. “The pinnacle of raw food nutrition is fermented vegetables,” says Levinger, who ran a raw food café in Humboldt County and has a background in nutrition.
She and Regalbuto returned from their European adventure and started making fermented food in their home kitchen. Neighbors soon asked if they could buy the couples’ concoctions, and before long, they were selling their homemade goods with a lot of support from their small community, where some very serious foodies live.
The next step involved bottling their fermented fruit sodas and packing their curtido, sauerkraut, kimchi, Moroccan beet salad and summertime pickles into containers and selling them at farmers markets. For three years, their company, Wild West Ferments, only sold its products at the San Rafael, Pt. Reyes and Napa farmers markets, but two years ago, they expanded into the retail market. They’re now featured in about 20 stores in the North Bay and San Francisco. Their products, all hand-made in small batches by a team of five friends and family members, are fermented in ceramic crocks imported from Germany. Their sauerkrauts are seasonally flavored with organic local produce and herbs.
“When we first started, we were on the fringe. Fermentation wasn’t as mainstream as it is now. We spent time educating people about fermentation and its benefits,” says Levinger, who, along with Regalbuto, teaches fermentation classes throughout the North Bay. Selling their products at farmers markets provides the team with the chance to connect with customers, many of whom have wild fermentation family stories. “People tell us about the seasonal kimchis their grandmothers make in Korea, or maybe someone of Russian descent will share memories of relatives who made sauerkraut with an ingredient we’ve never heard of,” says Regalbuto.
“Fermentation is a link to culinary heritage. Most cultures have some sort of traditional fermented food or beverage,” says Levinger, and it seems many people are interested in keeping that heritage alive—or at least revisiting it.

Fermentation made convenient

With so many options for purchasing fermented foodstuffs, it’s no longer necessary to wait weeks before a batch of homemade sauerkraut or pickles is ready to eat. You can pick up locally made food, chock full of vitamins and probiotics, that tastes as good as anything anyone’s grandmother used to make. These days, fermented goods are packaged in a way that makes the refrigerator smells my father once wrestled with a nonissue, too. That’s something he would have appreciated.

Cheers to Your Health!

Fermented beverages are not only refreshing, but they’re good for your health. Unlike beer and wine, fermented drinks like kombucha and kvass are alcohol-free (or very low in alcohol) and offer the same sorts of benefits as their whole food cousins.

Revive Kombucha

Sean J. Lovett was bicycling 40 to 50 miles per day when his wife, Rebekah, suggested he try kombucha to help with hydration and muscle recovery. As someone who used to drink a lot of soda, Lovett found kombucha aided his digestion and helped with the weight challenges he was having at the time. Kombucha also gave him energy without the caffeine spikes he was used to from other pick-me-up beverages.
In 2010, Lovett started his own company, Revive Kombucha, selling his product first at farmers markets in Sonoma County and then providing his craft brewed and fermented raw kombucha to local retailers. His symbiotic cultures, a blend of yeast and bacteria, are the primary fermenters in his popular brew, which contains enzymes, probiotics and energetic organic acids among its other health benefits. Revive Kombucha has experienced 100 percent growth each year since Lovett formed the company. In the same fashion he makes kombucha, he’s been growing his enterprise in organic and sustainable ways.
One of the hallmarks of Revive Kombucha is its bottle exchange program. Even though it’s labor-intensive and costly to retrieve and clean the bottles, the company’s reuse model is effective and earth-friendly. Another benefit of the bottle exchange is the system metrics provide for customer retention, and retailers love the data around the return customers. The average exchange rate for the 64-ounce bottle is 78 percent, and it’s 71 percent for the 16-ounce bottle. Though the bottle return model has made expansion into other regions challenging, Lovett remains committed to the integrity of his reuse component and the sustainable growth of Revive Kombucha.

Biotic Beverages

Adam Johnston, president of Biotic Beverages based in Occidental, makes sourcing from locally grown produce a priority for his family-owned, father-and-son, company. Biotic Beverages makes kvass in flavors such as beet, ginger and sweet potato year round, along with a rotation of seasonal varieties depending on what produce is available. Kvass is an ancient probiotic drink, made as long ago as 5,000 years in Russia and the Ukraine. It’s long been popular in Russia and was sometimes used as a way to make contaminated water drinkable. No added sugar is used in the fermentation process, which relies on the natural sugar from the produce as the fermentation agent. The result is a smooth, lightly carbonated drink that often ends with a slightly tangy flavor. It’s a low-sugar beverage filled with live bacteria, beneficial enzymes and bio-available nutrients.
Based on consumer demand, Johnston launched a 12-ounce bottle line for retail last month and hopes to expand availability at Marin and Sonoma County farmers markets in the coming months. “Kvass appeals to a wide range of people. One regular customer tells me when he gets indigestion, drinking our kvass settles his stomach,” says Johnston. He’s talked to individuals who feel there’s a movement away from traditional soda and finds many of his customers are people looking for an alternative to sugary beverages.


The only fermentation bar in the country is located in Healdsburg at SHED, a multipurpose architectural masterwork designed as a gathering spot, café, marketplace and quality goods shop. The operation is the brainchild of owners Cindy Daniel and Doug Lipton, and their fermentation bar includes house made kombucha and two flavors of Revive Kombucha on tap, as well as Enlived Beverages water kefir from The Kefiry in Sebastopol.
It also makes drinks, called shrubs, containing syrup made in-house from locally sourced, seasonal fruit that’s macerated, sweetened and left to ferment. Vinegar is added after fermentation for flavor enhancement. The syrup is mixed with sparkling water (also made onsite) and served over ice with fresh herbs, making for a mildly sweet and extremely refreshing beverage. Local wines are featured at the bar, too, and served from barrels on tap. No wine bottles equals a small ecological footprint.
There’s a punch card for the fermentation bar, where regulars share bar stools with visitors, and the conversation often turns to the intricacies of making fermented food and drink. Gillian Helquist, food and beverage manager and a trained chef and pastry chef, makes the in-house kombucha and shrub syrups herself. “There’s a supportive community that’s been built around fermentation,” says Helquist. SHED also promotes DIY fermentation, selling fermentation crocks, glass jars with valves for small-batch fermentation, kombucha kits, and SCOBYs (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), the starter needed for making kombucha. SHED’s marketplace also features house made kimchi and sauerkraut, and sells locally made miso. It’s also offered classes on making kombucha as well as other diverse topics related to farming and making food.




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