Microbes are everywhere, the good and the bad. A select few in the microbial community have been in a symbiotic relationship with human beings from the beginning of human evolution. Our synergy with bacteria, yeasts and molds may be new discoveries but they have long before shaped the way we learnt to coexist.
A great deal of modern food, for instance is a resultant of how we interacted and innovated around preserving, culturing and storing our food. We are talking all things fermented – foods and beverages that undergo a transformative action as a result of microbial activity. The very idea of fermented foods is a true reflection of human endeavours in the unknown territory, the microorganisms invisible to the naked eye, the magic ingredient that turn bland foods into piquant bites and bring a burst of freshness to the spread. The likes of kimchi, lemon pickle, yogurt, chaas, lassi are all but products of microbial action on food over a period of time.
Fermentation is as old as human civilization; it is one of the most common techniques used by humans to preserve food when there was a need. It is an art as much as science of transforming food into simpler elements by bacteria, yeasts, molds etc, resulting in formation of metabolites that extends the shelf-life, enhance taste and pump up nutritional content. The microbes eat the carbohydrates in the food and disintegrated them into simpler molecules of sugars, alcohols, acids, flavour molecules and other by-products. They change the food-chemistry at a cellular level but also on our palate as umami bombs or sour powered delights.
For a long time, they hid back in the kitchen cabinets, often tagged as mysterious and ancestral, their glorious revival puts our faith back in ancient food practices. They are debuting on our dinner tables more often than not. Some in old avatars and some packaged to please your eyes. The availability of fermented foods across the globe is seeing an upward trend: thanks to all the attention microbes are getting in our quest to attain optimal health.
Wild Vs Culture-based Fermentation
Just like fashion comes a full-circle, fermentation practices too are redefining themselves to suit changing flavours. All kinds of fermentation began as ‘wild’ culturing, meaning the already present bacteria and yeast (like in lacto-fermentation) in the produce were utilized to kickstart and sustain the whole fermentation process. The first ever kombucha brewed was by accident. It was the special bacteria and yeasts available in the atmosphere than inoculated the sweet tea with its species and multiplied, turning the tea into kombucha.
Wild or spontaneous fermentation is aided by the lactobacillus family of bacteria. They are present widely, on our skin, produce, air and water. We as fermentation facilitators create a conducive environment for the microbes to flourish and create fermentation by-products that are healthful for us. Fresh produce that is cut, chopped and packed with salt water is a perfect home for lactic-acid bacteria to multiply in the absence of oxygen. After few days to weeks, there is a considerable increase in the number and diversity of beneficial probiotic bacteria.
Specially propagated live-culture-based ferments are increasingly becoming popular as they offer ease and a spectrum of flavours that cannot be achieved otherwise. Chef’s around the world are fascinated with microbes, so much so that from a renowned restaurant and fermentation lab at Noma in Copenhagen to Momofuku in New York and Fig and Maple in India, chefs are exploring the potential of microbial cooking. However, with a boom in the category, mass produced versions of fermented foods are nothing but short-cuts like acidified vegetables in vinegar or pasteurized versions of live-fermented drinks.
Kombucha: The poster child of fermented foods
Year 2020 has been the year of sour power. Worldwide more customers are searching for fermented products and kombucha is topping the chart. It has come a long way from a discovered pot of stale tea in China to occupying prime brewery-space in the most happening cities of the world. Kombucha is a poster child of fermented foods. It arguably put traditional ferments back on the map and made them cool.
Kombucha’s staggering popularity across the globe put this ancient beverage at the centre-stage and drew conversations beyond fermentation – gut health, benefits, teas, brewing process, other possibilities in industrial application and much more. It wasn’t before when the beloved booch was just considered a mad-scientists home-brew experiment!
Kom-boo-cha is an ancient Chinese fermented tea discovered in in 220 B.C. It became a drink of the nobles and commoners alike and grew popularity in Japan, Korea, travelled via silk-route to Russia, Europe and the New World. Meanwhile it ‘came back’ to Asia while having left footprints all across the globe.
A cross between a beer and a tea, ‘booch’ is a bubbly non-alcoholic beverage which has somewhat, a mysterious history. There are kombucha brands mushrooming in all countries as we speak – From Ghana, Germany, to Sweden and Australia, fermentation enthusiasts are embracing the funky tea culture and making it their own.
Kombucha’s popularity also has to do with its intriguing mother culture aka the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) that turns sweet tea liquor into kombucha, a lightly sparkling sweet and sour refreshing drink loaded with antioxidants, beneficial acids and a pep. There is something it in for everyone, a health tonic, a non-alcoholic yet sophisticated brew for the connoisseurs, an adventurous experience for tea lovers, it brings together a whole lot of interest that any other drink.
Along with itself, kombucha drew attention of customers to the trifecta – the microbes, fermentation and gut health. Consumers are more interested than ever to look out for words like raw and unpasteurized, they are now better prepared to shop at perishable and refrigerated sections. They are swapping canned or pickles section vegetables with lacto-fermented, deli-style dill pickles, gherkins, hot sauces and sauerkrauts.
Science behind booch:
Unlike the traditional lactobacillus-led fermentation, kombucha SCOBY provides komagataeibacter species of bacteria to the brew that imparts it a crisp apple-y tasting note. In its unique oxygen-led ferment the SCOBY is able to encourage yeasts to consume the sugars in the tea, release alcohol and then allow bacteria to simultaneously convert that alcohol into acetic acid.
Kombucha fermentation process is one of the few methods of bacteria-led fermentation where oxygen plays a major role in carrying on the process (other being vinegar making). Kombucha is a not just a refreshing beverage, but it is also used as a preserving medium for fermenting other grains, vegetables et al.
But truly, keeping the fermentation practice going is an ode to civilizations who took the first step and sipped that stale tea, those who drank the curdled milks and discovered yogurt. Salute to the risk takers and brave souls who not only paved the way for food technologies of the future but also kept the basic human curiosity alive. For they trusted nature, long before the technologies that proved it.
Microbes may still be mysterious to us, but they are the future of how food and other areas will be revolutionized in the years to come, from koji-based plant meats to scoby for waste-water treatment, from finding solution to food wastage or sustainable packaging material, we can all but wait to see how microbes transform the world we live in.
By: Honey Islam, owner and brewer at Mountain Bee Kombucha, a Bangalore based speciality kombucha brewery. She is a fermentation educator, consultant and microbes-enthusiast.