Long before quarantine compelled droves of students to try their hand at making sourdough from scratch, Dr. Anne Gloster, a dietitian and food scientist, was teaching students the ins and outs of fermentation. 

In her seminar class at the UW last fall, she guided students through the fermentation processes of kimchi, yogurt, kombucha, bread, and beer. It’s scientifically complex, but in class, Gloster likes to keep it simple.

“Yeast eats sugar and pees out alcohol and farts out gas,” Gloster said. “Whereas bacteria eats sugar and pees out acid and farts out gas.”

Back in North Carolina, Gloster was in charge of kitchens in hospitals and nursing homes and a big part of the job was emergency preparation. If a hurricane hit, patients still have to eat. On the West Coast, the fear is earthquakes, but now during the pandemic, Gloster is wary about how COVID-19 may impact farm workers or truckers and how it may disrupt our food system.

“I don't know what this year is going to bring,” Gloster said. “Fermentation is an ancient way of preserving food and making it extend long past your harvest, so having these skills is really important nowadays.”

Fermentation and self-sufficiency go hand in hand. A symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, also known as a SCOBY, is used to ferment kombucha and regenerates by itself. All it needs is a dark, room-temperature place to do its thing.

In her own home, Gloster and her husband ferment just about everything: beer, cheese, kimchi, soy sauce. Their sourdough starter is 100 years old. They use milk from their own goat to make cheese and yogurt. 

“It’s a different way of thinking,” Gloster said. “Most people don’t cook from scratch. We do.”

Good vibes and spicy guys

Recent UW alum Clare Jacobsmeyer has a box of respirators and gloves in her West Seattle kitchen. They’re not for the pandemic though, they’re for all the spicy peppers she ferments and uses for sauces. 

Jacobsmeyer got into fermentation when she was a sophomore, but the idea to ferment peppers came later, from an eccentric wiry-haired man on YouTube. On his channel, “7 Pot Club,” Rob Coleman keeps his 9,000 subscribers up-to-date about his super hot peppers. Sometimes he sings about them.

“He’s just the coolest dude,” Jacobsmeyer said, showing off her many pepper plants: a Trinidad Moruga scorpion, some reapers, and the infamously NSFW peter pepper (aptly named after it’s pornographic appearance).

Besides peppers, Jacobsmeyer also ferments sourdough and kimchi. Although all of her fermentation projects could sustain her and her two housemates for a month, it’s more of a hobby than a self-sufficiency thing for her.

“Baking bread is a very comforting thing,” Jacobsmeyer said. “You get to start out by kneading dough which is all warm and kind of soft, and you get to take out some frustrations on it, beating it against the table.”

Plus, she can trade sourdough starters with her friends. Since the starter collects wild yeast from the air, each one is unique. And just like plant moms sing to their saplings, Jacobsmeyer likes to put good vibes into her starter. 

While fermenting on her windowsill, her starter has plenty of company: a stuffed pig dressed for Lunar New Year and a fox version of Link from Zelda. 

“That’s where he lives while he’s fermenting,” she said.

Jacobsmeyer’s tip for first-time fermenters is to not overhype botulism, an illness that can lead to paralysis and death. The toxin is so serious that it was used as a bioweapon in the ‘30s.

“I was surprised by how many people were concerned that I was going to get it,” she said. 

Botulism is caused by a specific bacteria, and yes, fermentation requires bacteria. In 2016, botulism sickened 20 people via bootleg alcohol made in prison. But if you have access to proper sanitation, and if you’re following your recipe, botulism is a non-threat.

The Ranch

The fear of dealing with bacteria may be common for fermentation newbies. But UW freshman Arlo Liddel says fermentation is “in his blood.”

He’s always fermented things with his parents: kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, lager, and wild blackberry wine. For Liddel’s family, it’s just one way to prepare. They’ve also stockpiled other emergency materials.

“We have my body weight in rice and beans, we have fresh water and shit like that all stashed in the woods,” Liddel said.

Self-sufficiency is a family value for Liddel. In the summer, he says about 30%-40% of what they eat is homegrown. 

But that’s nothing compared to his extended family. East of the mountains sits what Liddel calls “The Ranch,” a self-sufficient homestead that’s far off the grid.

Where is it? Liddel can’t say to be exact, since you have to navigate through rock structures to get there. Liddel describes The Ranch as solar powered, stockpiled, and “prepper to the fucking max.” Out there, fermentation is just a part of survival. The massive amount of kombucha produced on The Ranch is just how Liddel likes it: vinegar-forward and aggressive.

“I’ll be honest, the kombucha in Seattle is pretty garbage,” Liddel said. “I don’t like any of it because it’s really weak and super sweet.” 

Liddel’s favorite recipe doesn’t even use sugar, the typical additive that the SCOBY processes. Instead, it relies on natural sugars in fruit or the tea itself. But even though fermentation is a way to survive, that doesn’t mean Liddel’s family doesn’t have fun with it. His dad is a chef, and they like to play around with their recipes. One experiment gone-right was a dicon and jalapeño fermentation. 

“Jalapeño, when it ferments, gets a really funky texture, but it’s still spicy,” Liddel said. “It was kind of like a Mexican kimchi; absolutely bangin.”

Last summer, Liddel helped his mom pick 15 pounds of wild blackberries to make a kind of wine. The final product was 23% alcohol. It was too intense for Liddel’s taste; a shame, since it took months to ferment. 

But when Liddel eventually moves out of the dorms and into his own place, he plans on keeping the fermenting family tradition alive. He will be joining the countless young people now fermenting alone in their apartments. 

“I’ll definitely do kombucha, I’ll probably do kimchi, because it’s fucking fantastic, I really want to try my hand at beer because my dad has always made it,” Liddel said. “Once I have a place, I’m gonna be fermenting out the wazoo.”

Get your fermentation on

It’s Alive! With Brad Leone — Brad teaches you how to take care of your mother (your SCOBY mother that is…)

7 Pot Club ferments peppers — Featuring kahm yeast, a melodica, and a spicy song

The Ultimate Sourdough Starter Guide — Food influencer Joshua Weissman (2020, what a time to be alive) gives helpful run-down

Kimchi’s Labor of Love — Chef Deuki Hong on how to make kimchi with just the right amount of ‘funk’

Reach writer Claudia Yaw at pacificwave@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @yawclaudia

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