Fermentation Fest: A Celebration of ‘Controlled Rot’

What do tangy sauerkraut, fiery hot sauce, salty smoked meats, and cold beer have in common?

They’re examples of fermented foods, and people tasted and drank their way through all of them on Monday night at Lagunitas Brewers in North Lawndale during “Fermentation Fest Chicago.” The event previewed the 6th annual Fermentation Festival: A Live Culture Convergence, running from October 1-9 in Reedsburg, Wisconsin.

“Fermentation is about abundance and transformation. Whether you’re talking about grain to beer, or milk to cheese, or cabbage to kimchi, this process of what is essentially controlled rot not only adds shelf life to the abundance of the fields, but also adds nutrients, strong flavors, and sometimes, altered states of consciousness,” said Donna Neuwirth, executive director of Wormfarm Institute, the Reedsburg-based nonprofit that organizes the festival.

The festival brings together artists, farmers, and fermentation enthusiasts from all over the country for nine days of classes, workshops, tours, performances, art installations, and of course, food, in order to celebrate “live culture in all of its forms,” Neuwirth said.

The highlight of the festival is a The Farm/Art DTour, a 50-mile self-guided drive or bike ride around scenic Sauk County, in southwestern Wisconsin. The tour is punctuated by 42 sites and stops, which include art installations in the fields, pasture dance performances, roadside poetry recitations, music performed in cornfields and hayfields, as well as food truck stops and stands hawking local, seasonal food.

“When a performance happens in a hayfield and there’s harvesting going on behind and cows moving around, it’s this 360-degree cross-section experience that really can’t be described. So you send people off on an adventure and then everybody gets something different out of it,” Neuwirth said about the tour.

The event may sound a little peculiar, but the festival, especially the DTour, is very popular, with around 20,000 people participating last year.

Most of the attendees at Lagunitas on Monday night, however, were less concerned with art and farming and more interested in improving their fermentation skills.

Kat Adler and Elias Player traveled to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama, for a wedding, and swung by the Fermentation Fest on their way back home. “She wants to become a master fermenter—a fermentress,” Player said about Adler.

Adler, who described herself as “obsessed” with fermenting, recently attempted to ferment beets, pickles, cauliflower as part of a weekend-long fermentation spree. Afterwards, she ended up with about a dozen bottles of moldy vegetables in her closet, so she came to the fest to try to troubleshoot her technique. She may have added too much salt, she said.

Attending to support a friend who was involved with organizing the event, David Ester, an MBA student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, came to the fest with no prior experience in fermenting or even interest in the process. But he ended up leaving with a jar of chilies in brine, which, if he nurtures properly, will eventually ferment and turn into hot sauce.

Ester noted that he will need to be responsible and take care of the jar of chilies as he would any other living thing. In particular, “I need to remember to burp it,” he said, which is what fermenting aficionados call the process of unscrewing the bottle’s lid briefly in order to let some air seep out. The process allows carbon dioxide to escape, preventing the container from exploding.

 

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MBA student David Ester learns how to make his own hot sauce.

 

Other than the almost 50 classes the festival offers, which feature names like “Advanced Kombucha Brewing,” “From Bean to Barn: Farming Fine Chocolate,” and “Kimchi and Pickles,” the festival has some larger goals. These include connecting rural and urban communities, raising awareness about agricultural lifestyles, building a sustainable future for agriculture and revitalizing the town of Reedsburg.

How much people at the preview connected with these lofty goals remains to be seen. But at the very least, the event gave people an opportunity to share stories about moldy vegetables in closets, what happens when someone forgets to burp their hot sauce and how to best harness the natural powers of bacteria.

As hot sauce brewer Lou Bank, who will be teaching three classes at the festival in October, described the transformative nature of his first experience at the event, “I went to the fermentation festival and found my people.”

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