Humanity came to understand fermentation the same way we do most things, by accident. A spoiled barrel of grapes transforming into a batch of primitive wine.

The process is actually quite simple. Enzymes convert the starch in plants into sugar, then into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Logically, what plant (or plants) are fermented determine what the finished product becomes. We get vodka from potatoes, mead from honey or beer from barley and hops.

Alcohol aside, if we hadn’t figured out how fermentation works, we wouldn’t have chocolate. When cacao beans are picked, farmers break open the pods and leave the beans (along with the white pulp they’re encased in) in a pile or a bucket. It becomes a sort of beany, vinegary sludge after a few days. Then, the liquid is dried out and they sit for another week or so. If this process were skipped, the beans would be bitter and the chocolatey aroma we’re all fans of would be missing. A similar process is done with coffee, although there are a variety of fermentation methods.

We’ve been fermenting things around the world longer than we’ve been farming or writing. We’ve mastered it in many aspects (exhibit: old, white cheddar). Why the cultural obsession? Humans are intuitive, it’s a fascinating form of food alchemy that’s natural and tasty. In more recent years, scientific research has shown that eating fermented products assists in cultivating healthy gut flora. Fermented foods are filled with beneficial bacteria that reinforce our intestines.

What we’ve come to discover about fermentation and the body is a rabbit hole of fascinating literature. There’s some scepticism, of course. It’s important to take into consideration that everyone’s body is different, let alone what fermented products they may choose to consume. The mishmash of microorganisms that live within your intestines will never, ever be the same as your friends, even if you’re drinking the same brand of kombucha.

Our immune systems and our intestinal health are absolutely interconnected. Anything that we eat (none of which is 100% sterile) is assessed by our gut before it enters our bloodstream. Recent research has even shown that microbes found in the gut play an important role in HIV disease progression. Two new studies are currently enrolling participants to determine if probiotics can alter this damaging process.

Our intestines are lined with mucus, when this barrier gets breached (something that happens devastatingly fast if you contract HIV), our microbiome leaks into our bloodstream. When this happens our immune system responds by attacking the microbes, which then causes systemic inflammation. Scientists believe that controlling “bacterial translocation” can limit the “seeding of viral reservoirs.” (Non-scientifically: a healthy gut could prevent HIV from becoming AIDS.)

pro for bio life

Fermented foods are laden with probiotics. According to the Journal of Applied Microbology, the benefits of consuming probiotics include,

“(i) improving intestinal tract health; (ii) enhancing the immune system, synthesizing and enhancing the bioavailability of nutrients; (iii) reducing symptoms of lactose intolerance, decreasing the prevalence of allergy in susceptible individuals; and (iv) reducing risk of certain cancers.”

Another recent study finds fermented foods can even help with social anxiety.

“It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favorably changing the environment in the gut, and changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety…It is absolutely fascinating that the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind.”

It goes beyond that, research has found that probiotic cultures can also reduce depression and chronic fatigue. Minds being interrelated to guts, it’s interesting that the enteric system is commonly referred to as a “second brain.” We literally have a neural network inside of our intestines, hence, butterflies in your stomach. If you get them constantly, it could indicate your gut’s out of balance and is affecting your mood.

If you’re interested in eating more fermented products, there’s a wide array to choose from. Starting with tempeh, tamari, miso, pickles or sauerkraut and working your way up to kimchi, kefir and kombucha. If you’re into dairy, there’s also a world of raw cheese and natural, probiotic yogurts to explore. The most satisfying way to explore with fermentation is doing your own alchemy at home.

An easy place to start is homemade ginger ale.

You can make your own fermented ginger culture, called a ginger bug, easily at home. All you need is big knob of ginger, a bottle of spring water and some golden cane sugar. (Limes for making your ale later.)

  • Grate two tablespoons of ginger and put it in a mason jar. Add one tablespoon of sugar and two tablespoons of spring water, mix well (don’t use anything metallic, this can kill the culture.)
  • Cover the mason jar with a coffee filter and an elastic. Let it sit in a cupboard overnight.
  • Do this for four or five days, until your bug/mixture has small bubbles forming when you swish it around. Now you’re ready to make ale.
  • I use an old beer growler jug to make a batch of ginger ale. You can measure out 7 1/2 cups and bottle it in swing-tops as well.
  • Boil the water (either measure it or fill your growler and dump it in a pot) along with about 2-3 inches of grated ginger.
  • Once the water is boiled add half a cup of cane sugar and a pinch of salt. Let it cool.
  • Add 1/2 cup of your ginger bug and the juice of 1-2 limes.
  • Bottle it and let it sit for up to a week.

That’s it. Use a teacup strainer to pour the bottled ginger ale out once it’s ready. Experiment with ratios of ginger, sugar and lime until you have your perfect flavour.

To ferment your own food is to lodge a small but eloquent protest – on behalf of the senses and the microbes – against the homogenization of flavors and food experiences now rolling like a great, undifferentiated lawn across the globe. It is also a declaration of independence from an economy that would much prefer we remain passive consumers of its standardized commodities, rather than creators of idiosyncratic products expressive of ourselves and of the places where we live, because your pale ale or sourdough bread or kimchi is going to taste nothing like mine or anyone else’s.

Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

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