Freestone Fermentation Festival 2011, Part 1: The Symposium

The Freestone Fermentation Festival just completed its third year. It seeks to propel the nascent movement to understand our relationship with “good bacteria” and to address, as its founder Micheal Strusser said, the “tremendous public yearning throughout the country for a healthier and wholer food system.”  I left the belly tall green grass of Mellonia and with this energy spent the weekend of May 20-21 in the Sonoma Valley of Northern California.  I will share some of my experiences in a three part blog, the Symposium, the Feast, and the Festival.

The Symposium
Fermentation in all its forms are part of our traditional foodways.  Across cultures we have beloved alcohols in variations beers or wines.  We have cheeses, breads, tempeh, miso, salami, black tea, coffee, and chocolate--clearly some of our collective favorite foods.  So why as a society are we deeply afraid of foods aged in the open environment and fluctuating temperatures of our kitchens.  My guess is it began with the discovery of pathogenetic bacteria in the time when modern allopathic medicine was in its infancy.  From this we got germ theory, which has its place, but somehow we have taken that to the extreme with anti-biotic everything, from tissues and soaps to in the fibers of some of our clothes.   In trying to keep safe and healthy in a “germ free” environment we are making ourselves sicker and sicker.  No form of life exists without bacteria and humans are no exception.

Only recently are micro-biologists discovering that the bacterial universe that is us is much more important than we have realized. Now humans are realizing we have lost much our “bacterial stores”, at no other time in history have we, as the society at large, had to think about repopulating the flora of our digestive systems.

 Friday afternoon’s symposium had 3 speakers.  Jenny McGruther, who uses social media from the hamlet of Crested Butte, CO  to reach a wide audience throughout the country. Much of this audience are mothers, who want to learn to eat in ways that improve their children’s health, sometimes radical with radical results.  Dr. Charles Bamforth, who is the Anheuser - Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science at UC Davis and known in Berlin as the “Pope of Foam”.  And Sandor Katz, who as the author of Wild Fermentation, believes that fermented foods have played a huge role in his good health status as a person living with aids.  He is the “rockstar” of the movement and drew a crowd around him throughout the weekend.

Jenny explained her thoughts on the how cognitive, emotional, and physical health are directly related to our gut.  We are born from the sterile environment of our mothers womb. Our journey through the birth canal delivers our “first gift” of beneficial bacteria.  This process has become interrupted since birth moved out of the homes and into the hospitals in the middle of the last century, about 3 generations ago.  Breast milk was replaced for the industrialized “superior” alternative of formula. The subsequent generations get a weaker dose of the bacteria and the progression of loss has increased leading to a whole population of people with gut dysbiosis (leaky gut.) She shared first hand stories of children with autism whose diet changes, which included many probiotic foods, where restored to a life of a healthy child.

Dr. Bamforth came to the discussion with incredible knowledge and information about beer.  As a young man he graduated as an enzymologist and took his first job at a Brewing Research Foundation in the UK, this defined his career.   He has worked across the world with brewers and his discussion was lively and interesting.  He shared how healthy beer actually is, for those who take the “middle” road.  It turns out beer is the richest source of easily assimilated silica available in the diet, which makes it a great drink to counter osteoporosis.  

Though I know that there are many different bacteria working at different times I have often wondered when the maximum concentration of “the good gut guys” or lacto-bacilli are in the ferment.  Sandor explained this is a progression in a process in which no single bacteria population is the best one.  So if you eat your krauts, in this case, at different points in the ripening you will in sense inoculate yourself with the different bacteria as they bloom in the series.

I think he means the lacto-bacilli have many different family members and I wonder if he includes the first few phases of this progression, which I wouldn’t be as keen to eat.  In my understanding when the vegetables are first submerged in the brine all the microorganisms that can are growing like mad, taking in nutrients and dividing. The plant cells and the bacteria are producing CO2 and that is replacing whatever oxygen that was present. Very soon the scales start to tip and the acid forming bacteria begin to take center stage. At each act of the fermentation play the lead actors change, the progression.  This is where I wonder if you really want to inoculate in all stages. In the very beginning the coliform bacteria produce gas, volatile acids and some lactic acid. As the peak and then fall into decline the next group of organisms begin to outgrow the first ones and acid continues to rise with the lactic acid though acetic acid, ethyl alcohol, mannitol, and carbon dioxide are being produced. In the final phase the lactobacilli continue producing acid but no CO2 as they feed off what sugars remaining and also the mannitol that was produced by the previous players.  I will note that this mannitol phase is a bit slimy, depending on the sugar content of the vegetables, in our experience parsnips turn slimy and metallic flavored, but once beyond this stage are great.

 He also said  “some microbiologists are starting to think that bacteria don’t have separate species, but are a super species that is genetically fluid, not unlike humans using tools.”  In other words the bacteria change as needed for different situations, and are able to change again.  As we may pick up a hammer to nail a board, then put it down and grab the shovel.  This gives us all something to think about, principally how little we know.

I read an article a few weeks ago, Gut Bacteria Divide People Into 3 Types, Scientists Report,  about our gut flora.  In short they are finding our flora is different for different individuals, much like blood type. And these differences are based on the regions where people are born, not race.  This links into Jenny’s talk on that “first gift” but also to the audience member that suggested that there are studies the DNA of bacteria is showing there has a terroir, stamp of place.  Which brings up back to our humble krauts produced in the Thompson Creek watershed, it appears that cultured vegetables also take on place, in the same way as we know wine and cheese do.