Bigger than Beer

This entry is part 12 of 22 in the series May - 2015

Bigger than Beer

By Beth Lipscomb

When you hear the word “fermentation,” what comes to mind? For just about any Coloradan, the image of a cold, frothy beer is probably foremost, perhaps closely followed by wine. Of course, the process of fermentation is the key to beer — but it’s also leveraged across an incredibly diverse range of foods and beverages. Cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, salami, and sourdough bread are just a few among many.

How Does Fermentation Work?

Dr. Greg Casey, a brewing science educator and an American lager brewing industry historian, speaks worldwide
on this topic and begins every lecture
by saying, “We don’t know everything.” Yet archaeological records show that fermentation has been in use for thousands of years.

“People figured out that when grains were mashed up and broken down to expose the starch inside, one way or another, nature had a way of converting that grain into alcohol,” says Casey. But until Louis Pasteur conducted in- depth research on fermentation in the mid-1800s, no one knew that this was fundamentally a biological process.

The basics of Pasteur’s fermentation discoveries remain the same: Bacteria eat their way through a particular medium — whether it’s barley, flour, meat, or other ingredients — and leave behind carbon dioxide and other byproducts. Depending on the type of bacteria and the medium in which they’re working, these byproducts then contribute certain qualities to the end product, like texture and taste.

For instance: that distinctive flavor you get only from Swiss cheese? That’s due to the specific type of bacteria used to ferment the milk it’s made of.

Why Have Fermented Foods Become So Popular Lately?

The Artisan Movement

Dr. Dawn Thilmany, professor and agribusiness Extension economist at CSU, says the growing interest in fermented foods is really two-fold. “The first trend is toward artisanal foods — things that are small-batch or hand-crafted,” she says.

For consumers across the country, the draw of buying artisanal is the ability to purchase from their local food producers using locally sourced, natural ingredients. “For products like wine, beer, and cheese, the artisanal movement is especially big — and all of these categories are seeing increasing consumer demand, pricing, and market share,” says Thilmany.

She notes that this particular trend has also been guided by market accessibility for the businesses themselves. “Things got so scaled-up that market access became a real challenge. So when people came to us with business ideas, we’d often say that if they didn’t have a pretty differentiated, niche market, they’d have to be pretty huge to compete,” she says. As a result, small cheeseries, microbreweries, and even farmers found themselves innovating and adapting
to meet the needs of a very
particular audience.

Functional Foods

The second key trend, according to Thilmany, lies in the increasing demand for “functional foods.” These are foods and beverages that are shown or perceived to have health benefits.

Because bacteria pre-digest ingredients during the fermentation process, these foods are often more easily digested by people. That’s why you may find yourself loving yogurt, even if drinking a glass of milk causes your body some distress.

In particular, fermented products that boast live cultures and probiotics — yogurt being the most famous of these — have been regularly cited in recent years for promoting overall gut health by adding good bacteria to the digestive system. The benefits of that, evidence suggests, could include anything from better absorption of vitamins and minerals, to reduced inflammation, or even improvements of symptoms related to autoimmune disease.

One big player in the functional foods category is NextFoods, Inc. of Boulder, Colorado. The company was the first to release a probiotic beverage to the U.S. market. Today, sales of its GoodBelly brand are growing at a rate that outpaces many traditional, well- established drink categories.

Dr. Armin Salmen, vice president of research and development and quality assurance
at NextFoods says, “We receive dozens of unsolicited testimonials from consumers every month, describing the benefits they’ve experienced from drinking GoodBelly. Besides receiving reports about reduced gastrointestinal issues, many consumers say they simply feel better and more energetic.”

Controlling the Process

Since the understanding of fermentation as a biological process is relatively new, food and beverage producers are continually learning more about how to actually control the process to get the results they want.

Birgit Halbreiter, owner of MouCo Cheese Company in Fort Collins, says that when bacteria are added to milk to make cheese, “You have to make sure that they’re in a growth stage.” When lactic acid is produced as one byproduct from the bacteria, the pH of the milk is lowered. “With the help of an enzyme – called rennets – you then get a yogurt-like consistency.” At this point, yogurt- makers are close to their end product.

But at MouCo, the process continues on for making cheese. The milk continues to ferment until it can be cut into cubes. Halbreiter says, “With cubes, there is more surface area. The bacteria keep working on all surfaces, and these cubes contract more and more to create whey.” After the whey is drained off, the still-live
bacteria continue to work until, eventually, the resulting curds actually grow back together. The soft cheese is later formed, cured with a saltwater solution, and ultimately aged until it’s ready for customers to take home.

Because of the biological nature of fermentation, team members need to know
how to respond to changes, to keep the cheese flavors consistent. As Halbreiter points out, “We notice a big change in the spring, usually in May, and again in mid-September when the temperature changes. It takes a batch to change your formula and respond to that since you can’t predict exactly when it will happen. The process goes faster or slower, and you can’t react at the time that it’s occurring.”

Preparing Students

Colorado State is making great strides to position students for success in the food and beverage industry with its new Fermentation Science and Technology major. As part of the program, CSU is committed to forging partnerships that can provide added value for students.

Molson Coors, for instance, is actively involved in supporting the program via the design of a student-run brew pub, providing input into the development of the internship program, and through guest lectures. In addition, Jeannie Miller, vice president of global technical governance and innovation for Molson Coors (see p.20), sits on the program’s advisory board, along with Halbreiter and Casey.

Practical Application

Miller noted that the fermentation course of study has many applications in the real world.

“Not everyone that graduates will be the brewmaster. There are only so many of those roles, but there are many other roles to be filled: purchasing materials, figuring out how to package products, and more. I myself have worked in the areas of research and development, quality assurance, logistics, and even new business development all over the world.”

With this in mind, she says that one of her hopes for the program is to ensure that it will offer training across many aspects of the industry.

Dr. Casey echoed that sentiment, saying, “There are so many different disciplines that you have to be competent in – science, hygiene, business administration, and so on. It makes sense to offer this a major.”

Casey added that industry growth is creating more demand for this expertise, and that companies need people who have the knowledge to troubleshoot and make conscious decisions on the job.

Dave Davis, quality assurance and research and development manager at Noosa Yoghurt, majored in food science himself, and he agrees saying, “Fermentation
science is a great major right now and for the future. It sets students up for the general food industry, while targeting a good proportion of the industry, which utilizes fermentation. The career options are broad, including dairy, beer, wine, meat, and soy processors. And students also get a wide range of science classes that will set them up even outside of the food industry.”

Where Passion and Knowledge Meet

Fermented foods and beverages have been gaining market share for years — and industry projections anticipate continued growth for both artisanal and functional foods. As awareness of health benefits expands, along with a desire for unique and richly flavorful products, the industry needs educated leaders to take on a variety of roles.

But perhaps just as important as the fascinating science behind fermentation, there’s a singular quality that these foods — from delicious yogurt to sour beers to locally baked breads — have in common. Dr. Casey points it out: “It’s not just about the growth of the industry. This consumer base has an extraordinary degree of passion. That’s not going to go away. Beer certainly has that… but it’s similar with many of these other foods. And that passion needs to be nurtured through competent, trained people who produce quality products.”

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