DENVER — What will Denver bed-and-breakfast owner Milan Doshi do with the 1,500 pounds of Thai peppers growing in the garden across from his old house? The rows of oregano? The purple carrots?
He will force them to funk.
He will clean and cut the vegetables, stick them in drums, add salt. He will prod them toward a certain helpful decay by simply waiting until it's time to pack them in jars. He'll slap Five Points Fermentation Co. labels on them, and put the food — kimchi and curtido (an El Salvadoran kraut) — up for sale.
Doshi, a self-described fermentation freak, is not alone. In locations from Denver home kitchens to farmhouse barns to industrial warehouses, people are taking cucumbers, watermelon, milk, wheat, tea, pork shoulders — and a whole lot of other foodstuffs — and letting bacteria do their thing to them.
Bacteria have gotten a bad rap for years, because this group of living things includes nasties like E. coli and listeria, things that kill people. But bacteria is also key for food digestion. And it nurtures a unique flavor — yes, a funk — that just doesn't come from a mere sprinkling of herbs or a splash of lemon.
"Lactic acid is a gift from God," said Doshi. "We need to embrace it. When we use bacteria to help us, that's when we are at our healthiest."
Doshi is so taken with the process he plans to open a fermentation cafe in the Five Points neighborhood, a space for classes on the topic and fermentation-celebration feasts. At his family's business, the Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast in Denver, he uses fermented batter for the crepes and rye pancakes, serves his company's krauts and even piles plates with uttapams, traditional Indian pancakes made from fermented beans and rice. He is expanding his line of krauts, and in the fall will start making tempeh — a fermented bean product often used in lieu of meat — from Western Slope pinto beans.
He began experimenting with fermentation about a decade ago, inspired in part by his grandmother's kitchen in India, with its wall of leftover farm vegetables turned into a cornucopia of pickles: mangos, limes, tomatoes, okra. He also studied under Sandor Katz, the author of the just-published "The Art of Fermentation," as well as the classic "Wild Fermentation." Katz is recognized as a national leader on the topic.
"I think our connection to fermentation is innate," said Doshi. "It's the second-oldest human tradition. After we built tools, we cured food."
Without fermentation, Colorado's ocean of beer wouldn't make a single wave. No Haystack Mountain goat cheese. No High Country Kombucha, Il Mondo Vecchio beef bresaola, Infinite Monkey Theorem syrah, Trompeau Bakery baguettes, or Zuke dill, caraway and cabbage sauerkraut. And none of the unheralded home-made goodness happening all over the state.
That goodness is so important that Colorado State University this fall, for the first time, is offering a for-credit class on the topic, called "The Science of Food Fermentation," with sections on meat, dairy, soy, vegetables and grains, which covers bread and beer.
But the university is in the planning stages for an entire major: Fermentation Science and Technology.
"We have created nine new classes, all starting over the next couple of years," said Laura Bauer, a Ph.D. student in the department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Bauer will co-teach this fall's fermentation class. She said the department introduced a brewing science course a few years ago that has been extremely successful. That course's triumph, combined with the pop-culture trend toward fermented foods, persuaded CSU officials to begin delving more deeply into the age-old craft.
The craft can be exquisitely simple — classic sauerkraut is just shredded cabbage submerged in a brine — and somewhat tricky. Fermented dairy, for example, demands exacting temperatures.
Either way, fermentation is the art of using good bacteria to eat carbohydrates and create lactic acid, which keeps away pathogenic bacteria. The good bacteria can be said to do some of the digestion-work for the eater before the food plummets into the stomach. Once there, those helpful bacteria keep up the good work.
"When you can something, you heat it up and kill everything, and the one bug that can survive is botulism," said Mara King, one of the owners of Boulder kraut maker Esoteric Food Company. "But with pickling (fermentation), you invite everybody in and create an environment where the good bugs beat the bad bugs. It's a different approach."
Those nice bugs taste yummy.
A kraut of seaweed, beets and kale? You betcha. Esoteric Food Company's is ambrosial on eggs.
Taste helps explain why the Boulder restaurant Shine relies so heavily on fermentation. Even the restaurant's salsa is fermented. But health is key, too.
"To me, the foundation of nutrition is fermentation and probiotics," said Jessica Emich, head chef and one of the triplets who launched the restaurant last year. "If your body can't digest food, it doesn't matter. We like to nurture people from the inside."
The restaurant even relies on an "alchemist" to create Shine's fermented beverages. Beer? Sure. But the menu also includes a variety of "tonics" and "elixirs," fermented beverages similar to kombucha but using honey, herbs, and flowers.
Kombucha — a fermented blend of tea and sugar — has taken off along the Front Range, with bottles of the stuff for sale everywhere from Sprouts markets to Whole Foods (which now has kombucha on tap).
For Edward Rothbauer, the president and chief executive officer of High Country Kombucha in Eagle, kombucha is a livelihood. He started making his own after a fall paralyzed him. All that sitting in a wheelchair upended his digestion. He said that soon after he started drinking kombucha, his digestion improved dramatically.
Now he walks with a cane. He doesn't credit a fermented drink with his recovery, but he believes it helped.
"People drink it, and get a little education," he said. "It might be a shock to their taste buds, but in 15 minutes they might say how good they feel."