We all know the feeling after opening that pack of milk or juice that has been standing at the back of fridge for too long. Giving it a taste was definitely not a good idea – but what actually happened? The process responsible for making many products expire way too quickly – fermentation – can actually be quite useful – under the right conditions.
Checking a dictionary will tell us that fermentation is defined as “a metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, gases and/or ethanol” So far, so good. If one keeps researching, it is learned that the process occurs mostly in yeast and bacteria – basically as a product of their diet.
From Dairy & Alcohol to Biotechnology
Let’s quickly get past that moment of concluding that alcohol is actually microorganism excrement. Because, more interestengly, fermentation has been used by humans for almost ten thousand years, without knowing the molecular mechanisms behind it – mostly for producing (alcoholic) beverages.
In the meantime, implactions have become so manifold and diverse over the last few centuries. Health benefits of fermented foods like sauerkraut or yoghurt – “probiotic powerhouses, boosting the good bacteria in your digestive tract.” – have been common knowledge for quite a while. Still, until about 150 years ago the process responsible remained a mistery.
In fact, Louis Pasteurs discovery that fermentation is caused by microorganisms was in every way a game changer. Finally, uncovering the metabolism of yeast and bacteria as responsible lead to advances in biology and technology which have continued steadily up until the present. As in every industrial application, processes have been engineered to be higher-yielding and more tolerant – but that’s only one side of the medal.
Home Grown Beer
The other side stands for the plentiful options for microbrewers and DIY-fermentors alike. The necessary scientific knowledge is very basic, the ingredients easily found. So far, the trade of home grown beer makers has had the biggest impact on ourculture. Micro- or craft breweries are typically characterized by their emphasis on quality, brewing technique – and diversity in flavours.
Markus Wurzer, who co-organised the Craft Bier Fest, says that they „distinguish themselves completely from the main stream of beer flavours. They are very exceptional, some might even appear strange. But craft-brewers don’t care – they brew what they like themselves.” If you’re still wondering what this is all, just have a look at the beer flavor wheel!
Those who missed craft beer festival – which took place last weekend at the Anker Brot Fabrik and brought a wide variety of national and international microbrewers to Vienna – still have the chance to get one of those unique beverage delicacies in various pubs around town. Check out this list – and if you can’t find a place closeby: why don’t you brew your own?
A similar story in terms of DIY fermentation (not beer, however) is the tale of Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi. They were sat down together after they approached New Harvest – seperately, yet simultaneously – with the same idea: making milk with yeast, without animals.
The idea soon started to materialize. The project now goes by the fitting name Muufri. Applying the means of modern biotechnology and genetics, Pandya and Gandhi were able to “teach” the yeast cells what they needed to produce to make milk: 6 proteins for structure and function, 8 fatty acids for flavor and richness. In different ratios, these components give us cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or even buffalo milk. Some may applaude, others may be more hesitant. It is for certain, however, that thanks the principles of fermentation, Muufri will taste and functions like animal-produced milk. Not only does that rule out any animal cruelty, they can also choose to leave out lactose – which is at least partially indigestible by 75% of adults,
From dairy products, across alcoholic beverages and up to specifically designed production of pharmaceuticals in yeast and bacteria – the applications of fermentation are multi-faceted and plentiful. Digging deeper into the mechanics of a biological process that has defined our culture for many centuries could prove quite useful: you may never have to complain about the quality of some products again – you can just brew your own.
Sandor Katz’ The Art of Fermentation is a great read if you want to learn all the details, while the mobile application Ziggy the Beer Yeast is focused on a more playful approach to educating DIY-brewers.
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