For potter Jeremy Ogusky, the roots—or germs, if you will—of his foray into the science of food fermentation began with a childhood love of his grandmother’s borscht. Made from fermented beets, the soup is one of Ogusky’s earliest culinary memories.
A few years ago, Ogusky, who lives in Boston, tried his hand at making his own sauerkraut. Soon he was making kraut for friends, and designing a ceramic crock for fermenting the cabbage followed. It wasn’t long before he started selling his crocks to a burgeoning community of DIY cooks and professional chefs. He’d gone from one batch of sauerkraut to a business, and a pretty brisk one at that. He was selling boatloads of crocks, and he even organized a festival celebrating fermentation.
At home, he’s fermenting far more than just cabbage now. But while Ogusky is caught up in a wave of pickling brine, he’s adamant that nobody’s inventing anything new in this most recent microbial revolution.
“We’re just reviving old techniques,” he says. “People are interested in older practices.”
The renewed interest in fermenting, combined with Americans’ growing interest in local and artisanal foods, is driving a cottage industry for both gear like Ogusky’s crocks and fermented foods. Other entrepreneurs, such as David Klingenberger of Ann Arbor, Mich., are also cashing in on the “krautvolution” at the grocery store. Klingenberger, a former farmer, has been interested in fermenting food since the late 1990s. In 2010 he started The Brinery, which sells an assortment of pickles, krauts, and other fermented foods.
“I farmed here for many years and developed a lot of social capital with farms, restaurants, and stores,” he says. “I’m a simple guy and wanted to do something simple. The alchemy and simplicity of turning a cabbage into sauerkraut or kimchi was a natural extension of feeding people that’s near to my heart.”
In the four years since it opened, The Brinery has been selling to 100 stores and restaurants throughout the Midwest, doubling its revenues every year. Klingenberger says it will gross $500,000 next year.
The expansion of this segment of the food industry is seen in the numerous small businesses that will be exhibiting and speaking at the upcoming Boston Fermentation Festival. Eleven fermentation-centric businesses, including Ogusky Ceramics and The Brinery, will be involved with this year’s festivities on Sept. 27.
Fermentation may be the oldest human food preservation technique, but the current rennaissance comes at a time when science has its microscope focused on the health benefits of the microbes found in fermented foods.
This new generation of picklers is bolstered by an emerging field of scientific research that is diving into the tiny, fascinating world of microorganisms that live in and on us—and abound in things such as kraut. In addition to preserving food, fermentation creates lactobacilli, the immune-boosting bacteria found in yogurt. The Human Microbiome Project, launched in 2007 by the National Institutes of Health, studies the trillions of microorganisms that occasionally make humans sick but primarily live in harmony with us and improve our health. Eating fermented foods introduces microorganisms into the gut and allows many nutrients and vitamins—especially vitamin K—to be absorbed more easily, aiding digestion. Probiotics may have become a health fad of late, but Ogusky says “eating fermented food is the natural version of that.”
For others, eating local pickles is less about good health than sticking it to the man.
“We’re reacting to large-scale farming and big agribusiness, and people are wanting to take things into their own hands and grow their own food and preserve it themselves,” Ogusky says. When people can’t do it themselves, the crop of new businesses such as The Brinery are more than happy to serve the growing interest in fermented foods.
Besides serving his customers, Klingenberger says his business is spurring economic development in other ways.
“I really see us being another economic avenue for local growers,” says Klingenberger, whose first batch of sauerkraut came from a bumper crop of local cabbage. “There have been a lot of small farms popping up in the last 10 years, and a lot of those farmers are going after the same farmers markets and stores. New businesses like ours are another economic avenue for local growers.”