The ancient practice of preserving foods through fermentation has recently become a hot trend, with items such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha finding themselves in the spotlight as the ingredient of the moment. High-profile writers and cooks — such as Michael Pollan, Sandor Katz and David Chang — have promoted the foods' usefulness and health benefits in books or lectures.
Meaghan and Shane Carpenter aren't exactly jumping on the bandwagon — she's been making fermented foods for many years — but they are opening their new shop in Belvedere Square, Hex Ferments, at what might be the perfect time.
"It's my art form, and it makes me happy," Meaghan says. "It's part of our mission to convert people into liking this stuff."
Although riding high in popularity right now, humans have been fermenting foods as far back as 10,000 B.C. Beer, wine and leavened bread are the most recognizable among fermented foods, but items such as pickles, yogurt, vinegar, cheese and cured sausages (think salami) are fermented as well.
Besides being delicious, fermented foods also help boost our immune systems. Kasia Kines, a licensed nutritionist and owner of Holistic Nutrition Naturally in Mount Washington, says that the bacteria in fermented foods provide benefits such as reducing the body's reaction to food allergies or other potentially inflammatory reactions. Fermented foods also have been partially broken down by the fermentation process, making them easy to digest.
"Research confirms that these traditionally fermented foods contain enough probiotics [good bacteria] for therapeutic effect," Kines says.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, for instance, found that the probiotics in fermented food improved intestinal tract health, enhanced the immune system and reduced symptoms of lactose intolerance. The Journal of Medicinal Food published a study last year that found that eating increased levels of the fermented food kimchi improved participants' glucose and cholesterol levels.
Fermented foods are a result of microorganisms, food and time. When making sauerkraut, salt is added to cabbage and left to ferment in its own juices over a period of time. Then lactic acid, which is produced in the fermenting process, preserves the vegetable and gives it its distinctive sour flavor. Without the help from its microscopic saviors, the cabbage would spoil.
It has been dedication to this ancient process that has led Hex Ferments from its humble roots of bartering wares with friends to selling at farmers' markets to opening up a storefront in one of Baltimore's more upscale gourmet markets. Always a bit more than a hobby, making kombucha is where the Hex story begins.
Meaghan loved to share kombucha, a fermented drink made from green tea, when she brewed a large batch of the fizzy elixir. "Some people just put it into bottles and drink it fresh, but we do a second ferment where we add in our flavorings and honey," Meaghan says. "Then we bottle it to build up that natural carbonation."
Working on recipes from their Mount Washington home, the Carpenters were getting more serious about making fermented foods when friends finally convinced them that they should sell their fare.
They did have some trepidation about starting a new business.
"We had been talking about starting something like this because there was nothing like this in Baltimore, but I had an administrative job and Shane owns ReadyLuck Photography, and we were content in our lives," Meaghan says. After much discussion, they decided to take a chance. "So I quit my job and started it," she says. "Shane's been helping out, and we've been working on it together."
That's when the real work started for the couple.
"We busted our butts and got legit quick" Meaghan says, recalling the genesis of her artisanal food career. After months of renting commercial kitchen space at the Hampden United Methodist Church, the Carpenters began looking for premises in November and signed on with Belvedere Square in December. Shane still owns and works at the photography business.
From an open storefront, Hex Ferments will sell its own items and also offer supplies for home fermenters.
The krauts at Hex are light years away in taste from the soggy and dull shreds packed in bags at your local grocer. Bright and crunchy with a wonderful sourness, the Hex sauerkraut is labeled as "a probiotic rich, living food". Because it's never been pasteurized, the kraut and all other Hex products retain the microbes that are created through natural fermentation. They feature flavors such as garlic-oregano, juniper and a refreshing blend called New Year's Resolution.
Drew Alfgren became a loyal customer of Hex Ferments after trying their kombucha at the Union Graze farmers' market in Hampden.
"I didn't really eat much [fermented food] before Hex. I eat lots more now. More because it's better flavor, fresher and her krauts are great on all sorts of things," says Alfgren, a reference librarian at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I like to make turkey and Swiss topped with the New Year's kraut. It adds just the right crunch and flavor to the sandwich."
Hex's tangy and spicy kimchi is made with miso instead of fish sauce, which makes it vegan. The Carpenters have started to make their own miso as well. "It's a quality-control issue" says Shane. "We also look forward to hopefully growing our own peppers for the kimchi to keep a consistent product."
Along with selling their creations, Hex will give classes on fermentation once a month.
"We want to teach people" says Meaghan, "There's a lot of power in learning how to make your own. It should be process that's shared and learned between people."
And while many food-trend list makers have spotlighted fermented food as the next big thing, the Carpenters say that was never their motivation. What drives them, they say, is a pursuit of the sublime, a chance to open minds and inform people by sharing delicious food that is also healthy.
"It's nice to see that the culture of food has been revitalized, but also a bit of our agrarian past also being revitalized," says Meaghan. "In the last 10 years, seeing Baltimore and the community transform as a whole and for us to be part of it has been remarkable."