Fermentation Fest 2015 Part 2: Fear and loathing at the fermentation festival

A panoply of smells, at once full, fragrant and fetid filled the air. There was a general churning as attendees slipped to and fro past one another. It started off with the demonstrators setting up in the early Sunday morning hours and rather swiftly built to a climax at mid-day with thousands of individuals acting in concert to dish out, consume and metabolize all that was on offer. Put an airlock on this one: the 2015 Fermentation Festival was in full swing.

These days, palates are growing more sophisticated and there is a growing demand for knowledge that will fuel better, more unique and more reproducible fermented products. That demand, plus the timeless allure of free samples drew vast numbers of people to the Boston Public Market on Sunday. The fanfare was split between the Boston Public Market and the adjacent sidewalk along Surface Road. Despite semi-frigid temperatures, numerous attendees eagerly plunged their hands into towering piles of shredded cabbage in order to take part in the so-called “kraut mob”: a not-for-human-consumption demonstration of sauerkraut-making techniques.

Most of the outdoor space was populated by vendors of lacto-fermented foods. At times, I found myself wondering inwardly whether society could sustain such a large number of saurkraut purveyors. Setting those concerns aside, I ambled down Surface Road, sampling krauts of all colors and flavors. My favorite was one spiced with juniper and caraway. The krautmachers informed me that these spices gave it an “old-world” flair. I took that to mean that my personal taste is not so much outmoded as it is retro. Another booth attendant offered patrons samples of pickles that best matched the color of their sweatshirts. Despite the fact that my own sweatshirt was neon yellow and pink, there were plenty of choices available to suit me. Yum.

An avid fermentationist, I attended not only as a voyeur but as a demonstrator in the “Science Corner” as well. There, we set up a table alongside Ben Wolfe from Tufts, who was demonstrating the microbes found on various fermented foods and describing the work of his lab, which studies food microbiology. Further down the line, there were reps from Gingko Bioworks, showing off their bioengineered yeast that could generate fine fragrances, and AOBiome, which recently rebranded as Mother Dirt–a company that attempts to reintroduce ammonia oxidizing bacteria to the human skin microbiome. At Aeronaut’s booth, we demonstrated cultures of lactic acid bacteria and yeast, giving people a chance to see these microbes on petri dishes and under the microscope. We also discussed the science of brewing and both lactic acid and ethanol fermentation. I was astonished at how many people who attended our demo turned out to be microbiologists or bioengineers. While we were not allowed to serve beer at our table, we did have samples of lactic-fermented wort, which was sour but not alcoholic. The final product was only sampled in the legal and licensed surrounds of Hopsters Alley.

A day of tasting, learning, exploring and for some, competing in a pickle contest, eventually tapered off and everyone had to either go home or stay behind and enjoy copious amounts of apple cider donuts at the Public Market. Yes, the 2015 Boston Fermentation Festival came and went, but not without leaving everyone involved memories to savor until next year. And sauerkraut.