Fermentation 101: The Fundamentals
10 Minute Read
They’re praised for an abundance of health benefits and delicious flavor profiles, and with a rise in popularity, it’s now easier than ever to find them. You’ll see kombucha on tap in bars, sourdough bread loaves piled high in local cafes, and more varieties of yogurt and sauerkraut than you can count in the grocery store.
And while we all love scooping kimchi on our sandwiches and sipping on our favorite kombucha flavors, for many, the science behind and the benefits of fermentation are somewhat of a mystery. If you find yourself in the same boat, hang tight, because you’ve come to the right place! We’ll walk you through the why’s, how’s and what’s of fermentation.
Without going too far down the science rabbit hole, we’ll give you a simple breakdown.
Fermentation is a metabolic process that takes place in an anaerobic environment (without oxygen.) A mighty army of microorganisms (yeast and bacteria) convert carbohydrates into natural preservatives like acids and alcohol. What you’re left with are foods that have been changed into more nutritious versions of themselves and are able to be stored for much longer time periods without spoiling. This process also inevitably changes the flavor of foods giving them stronger, tangier, and more sour flavors. That’s why some of our favorites like beer, yogurt, sauerkraut, sourdough, pickles and kombucha all have sharp, distinctive flavors — it’s a result of different kinds of fermentation processes.
Yes! In fact, there are three main types of fermentation processes. Here’s the rundown.
If you want to do a little science experiment in your kitchen, leave raw apple cider at room temperature for a few days and watch it as it begins to ferment. After a few days, wallah! You’ll have some pretty potent apple cider vinegar on your hands.
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Since kombucha is our favorite fermented food (not surprising, right?), we wanted to touch on its fermentation process. While its fizzy personality and flavor is a big part of the reason why we love kombucha so much, the science behind how it’s fermented is a close second. Kombucha is fermented in a two-stage fermentation process. It’s unique because kombucha uses a starter culture known as a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) combined with sweet tea to kick start two processes.
First, there’s alcoholic fermentation, where the yeast converts sugar to alcohol under controlled conditions. After that, the bacteria convert most of this alcohol into acetic, gluconic, glucuronic and other organic acids. During both of these processes, the yeast and bacteria feast and multiply. And there you have it — delicious kombucha!
Stretching as far back as human history, the beginnings of fermentation are a bit tricky to track down. However, historians have discovered traces of fermentation in foods and beverages as far back as 7000 BC. Since then, nearly every civilization in history has incorporated at least one fermented food into its culinary heritage — from Korean kimchi and Indian chutneys, to sauerkraut, yogurt, and cheeses. It’s even a well-documented part of select Chinese empires’ practices with grain-based beverages like rice wine.
Now, fast forward 200 years to the modern era, and we’ve learned so much more about fermentation. And the great thing is, we’re still learning!
So while humans in different cultures across the globe have enjoyed delicious fermented foods for centuries, it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that people started to understand the reason why their food was fermenting. We owe this discovery to French chemist Louis Pasteur who connected yeast to the process of fermentation. This crowned him as the first zymologist (someone who studies the science of fermentation.)
Fermentation. is. AWESOME. Not only does it provide incredible benefits to the nutritional value of the food and drink we consume, but it’s also an essential part of how our bodies produce energy and maintain a healthy livelihood. And as kombucha lovers here at Buchi, we sure can’t complain about the flavor it adds to our lives either.
So while we could go on and on about the purpose of fermentation and the value it brings us daily, we’re going to spare you from a potentially very lengthy saga (because we love this subject so much) and keep it to three key takeaways to remember.
Firstly, fermentation breaks down hard-to-digest nutrients so the body is better able to absorb them and convert them to energy.
Secondly, fermentation has the superpower of preserving food. Today we have the luxury of refrigeration, but long before this invention was even a mere thought, fermentation was crucial to survival during long winters or food scarcity. And even though it’s not a survival necessity today, we still love fermenting foods at home to eat, because they’re just scrumptious.
And last but not least, fermentation boosts the natural, beneficial probiotics in foods and beverages which are known to help with digestive and mental health. In fact, a growing body of research shows that your gut and brain are linked through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. And here’s another fun fact. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that’s responsible for making us feel happy, is actually produced in the gut. Amazing, right? So keep chowing down on your fermented food favorites!
If you’re one who appreciates a direct answer, here it is: Fermentation keeps us healthy!
Here’s what we mean by that: One of the best ways to get more healthy bacteria in our lives is by eating fermented foods. Because most of us live in urban areas, we have minimal exposure to bacteria — a lot less than we did during the agricultural era when humans were constantly interacting with soil and animals. This reduced exposure is a result of our use of chemicals and antibacterial products, less interaction with nature, and our modern food system. These shifts in lifestyle have removed the healthy and mighty microorganisms from our diets and lives and left us in a breeding ground of health issues.
The bottom line? We NEED fermented foods. Our guts appreciate and love them!
In 2022 we took some time to reflect on where we’ve come and where we want to go. As with any business, there are areas where we shine, and areas that are a bit challenging and might not serve us as they once did.