By Chris Heaney, Head Brewer @ Fix8
The ‘magic’ of fermentation first began with age-old civilisations
That tradition still shapes our drinks today and in turn how those drinks make people feel.
It never came as a surprise to me that theAncients sought to attribute fermentation to the work of the gods – to me, there has always been a touch ofsomething‘magic’ to it. Long before we knew that it was the work of micro-organisms that produced the aromas, the bubbles and the heady intoxicating compounds, mankind was learning how to harness and curate this process to add value and meaning to his existence…
Many years ago, I began to make beer; stemming partly from an interest in how it was done, but also just to make a tasty, (cheap!) beverage that I could share with friends. I am not alone in this; the story of many a homebrewer begins with similar origins. I couldn’t have known then that it would lead me here,toa career in fermented drinks and anongoingexciting journey into the world of independent food and drink culture.
As a ‘craft’ beer brewer I have been fortunate enough to share in a community of producers and creators from farmers and growers to chefs, bakers, cheesemongers, distillers, wine producers, maltsters and many more – a community which is on the whole hugely supportive, positive and curious about the work of fellow artisans. This is a great luxury and one that affordsgreat personalgrowth beyond the parochial limits of one’s own role or a particular industry. Through this I was able to nurture an already budding interest in food and drink in general – how it is marketed to and received by the public, the development of trends and the growing importance of transparency and authenticity in communication between those making something and those consuming it. I will return to this, butI ventured down this avenue of thought, as since becoming a kombucha brewer, I have become even morefixated(excuse the pun!) on this notion.
The rise of popularity in fermented foods has been huge of late – and rightly so! It is great to see the unique flavours they impart forming more of an integral part in people’s daily eating habits.Kombucha (like most ferments) is, in essence, a relatively simple and straightforward process.The substrate is sweetened tea (there is, of course, a whole other conversation to be opened on tea varietals and choice offermentables, but let’s keep things simple for now!).The fascinating work is all done by the symbiotic culture of micro-organisms, both bacteria and yeast – the SCOBY – working in concert to ultimately produce a complex profile of organic acids that contribute that tart and refreshing bite to the finished beverage. The process of producing a good kombucha is one of care and curation – providing and maintaining the right environment for your culture; knowing how and when to manage the micro-bio activity to achieve the desired results.Every culture is unique and proprietary to the producer or environment.Much like in mixedfermentation beer making, low intervention ciders and wines or processes involving ageing in wood or spontaneous fermentation from airborneyeast and microbes, the challenge is to succeed in harnessing the work of the culture and its constituent parts, without losing control and allowing them to runto extremes. This is to some degree based on constant sensory evaluation -both before and after flavouring or secondary fermentation with other ingredients. It takes time and dedication to hone and educate your pallet – but this is an adventure that is well worth having!
The process of husbandry is in part both much more difficult (and in some ways a little easier – thanks to technology) on a commercial scale. Unlike most beverages in the soft drinks marketplace, kombucha requires this time, energy and expertise to produce, but the result is a much more complex, nuanced and sophisticated product thancan be realised by simplycombining extracts and flavourings to carbonated water, an approach that proliferates in thismarket. A major challenge ofcourse, is conveying this value to the consumer, and here I return to my earlier point –something whichall of the makers I mentioned above have in common; an imperative to demonstrate value.From personal experience, I know well how a hard battle has been fought in the craft beer sector for many years against the insidious marketing of macro-conglomerates seeking to undermine and outcompete even in these niches. Margins are always tight for small producers and this isconsiderably more of a challenge for kombucha when competing in a space where non-alcoholic beverages can be produced for a fraction of the cost with incredible economy of scale – how do we persuade buyers that our product warrants its price point and that they are purchasing something much moresatisfying, exciting and positive than many alternatives? And indeed, when there are so many brands vying for space in a crowded and small territory, it is easy to see the competition as the enemy, particularly when the battle of price points and production costs continues apace and intensifies week on week.
But this is an unnecessarily negative way to frame the issue. It comes back to these pillars of authenticity and transparency; engaging with customers, showing the joy and enthusiasm for the process and the product and allowing them to share in this community of like-minded individuals who produce with passion and pride and want to expand people’s consumption horizons and habitual behaviour andtoelevateevery one of these experiences beyond the banal or perfunctory. Especially in the current climate, when many have the luxury of time to ponder and to select carefully what we consume, there is scope to explore and to treat oneself to quality, exciting produce.
This comes through collaborations and the support of others we admire across the food and drink industries and beyond.So for us, it is that ‘magic’ of fermentation that first began with age-old civilisations- how that tradition still shapes ourdrinks todayand in turn how thosemake people feel; where for others the creativitymay take other forms. The synergy is in the vocation to create, inspire and fulfil and the value that this offers to the consumer far beyond the functional; life is made up of endless choices and more and more people are choosing positively when it comes to our experiences with food, drink and lifestyle – after all, it is these that in so many ways define much of our daily existence.
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