The Fermentation Files

It's easy to lose touch with a healthy work/life balance when you're part of a small business. You think about work while you're at work, you think about work when you're away, and even when you go to sleep, your dreams take place in fermentor-laden settings that very much resemble a brewery. Of course, there are also those strange nightmares in which Regis Philbin is trying to kill you and mysteriously there's no '9' button on your phone to call '911' (and in that case I offer no wisdom and neither do the dream books I've consulted), but I think you catch my drift. Separating your brain from your work can seem like some sort of insurmountable, new-age, pagan spirit quest -- and I'm definitely not that enlightened yet.

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that some of us brewers have been dabbling in some very interesting at-home experiments in fermentation. The natural assumption here would be home brewing, which several of us do enjoy as a hobby, but we're not talking about fermented barley today. Instead we shift our focus to bread, kimchi, sauerkraut, mead, and ginger beer. Although working with these sorts of fermentations isn't direct training to become a brewer (for that I recommend shovelling spilled, frozen, spent grain off the curb and into green bins), it gives you a greater understanding of yeast and the multitude of variables that will affect healthy fermentation. And if Yvan De Baets was right when he said that "it takes your whole life to know your yeast", then we're probably all behind in our studies.

BREAD For us, the Tartine cookbook has been pretty life-changing, and the bread we're churning out each week will likely lead to a pesky 4-6lb weight gain has been so good I can't even be modest about it. You begin dubiously by mixing flour and water together to form a wild starter, 'feed' it each day, and before you know it you've got the foundation for delicious bread. Because the process and recipe require what seems like 3000 steps, we definitely recommend you buy the book if you want to try your hand at bread. The book is unlike any others I've sourced, with a lot of the descriptions focused on what each stage should look, smell, and feel like. Of all our experiments this one has been the biggest learning curve.

HONEY Mead is a pretty simple beverage to make, but not a simple beverage to make taste good. We can't say that we've nailed every batch, but we're getting better, and coming closer to the right balance between sweet and dry. The term "honeymoon" is believed to be linked to mead, because in the olden days (not sure which olden days) new married couples were given copious amounts of the stuff in the hopes that babies would come of it. Honey + water + yeast + lots of time = mead. Sometimes we chuck in fruit if we feel like it!

GINGER This is another recipe that requires a wild yeast starter, which is achieved by mixing minced ginger, sugar (some food for your yeast), and water. The starter gets viscous and foamy, and you only need a small portion to begin fermentation in a large batch of what will eventually become a fantastic soda pop. We found several great internet tutorials on how to make ginger beer (we like this one), but essentially you're mixing the starter, a large quantity of water and sugar, and bottling the whole shebang. The yeast will consume the sugar in the bottles and carbonate naturally.

CABBAGE We began with a classic German-style sauerkraut recipe (which we'll share below), and quickly moved on to kimchi for a little more kick. Although we didn't follow the recipes in The Art of Fermentation directly, it's a fantastic resource and reference as you experiment. We can't recommend this book highly enough.

For the kimchi you'll have to sleuth out a few less-common ingredients, like korean chilli powder and/or fermented shrimp paste (we opted not to use the shrimp in favour of a vegetarian recipe), but PAT on Bloor is an excellent resource. The basic process here is an initial salty brining stage for the cabbage (in which you kill off bad bacteria), and then a secondary stage where the lactobacillus -- the same bacteria that's involved in making some of our beers sour -- is set up to thrive. The variations and opinions on what comprises proper kimchi are plentiful and debated, but suffice to say that you can do your own thang.

*A note about at-home fermentations: Make sure all your equipment is very clean because you're going to be encouraging bacterial growth, and you don't want to also encourage rotting.*

CLASSIC SAUERKRAUT RECIPE (made with the help of our ferment-focused kitchen staff)

1 large head of cabbage (regular, not nappa) 2.5-3% salt based on the weight of your cabbage (ie, 1kg cabbage would require about 30g of salt) Water (might not be necessary)

Thinly slice your cabbage, and if you're a shot-caller slice it on a mandolin. Mix the cabbage and water, working to pack it well into a crock with a water channel (if you have it) or a large jar with a homebrewer's waterlock in the lid. The compression will force water out of the cabbage, creating the brine that will prevent your sauerkraut from rotting. If you find that you don't have enough brine to cover your cabbage mix up a 2.5-3% by weight salt and water solution and top it up. Put a weight on the top of the cabbage, and affix the lid.

The sauerkraut is ready when it tastes good, usually beginning a couple days after you make it and continuing for several weeks. Check on it to make sure that the cabbage is always submerged, and keep in mind that in warmer conditions the process will be more rapid, and slower in cooler.

On now, ferment your hearts out.