Creating a subculture around symbiotic cultures? That’s precisely what is happening in Western North Carolina’s fast-growing fermented food and beverage industries. Cultivating beneficial microorganisms to yield tasty drinks and foods that benefit the mind, body and spirit is being embraced as a business opportunity by an ever-increasing number of locals.
A trend that started quietly in Asheville a few years ago with success stories like Buchi Kombucha and Green River Picklers is now picking up steam. “There are quite a few other fermenters in town, and I think we’re all just starting to get to know each other,” says Janelle Lucido-Conate, whose business, Our Daily Kraut, specializes in kraut, kimchi and pickles made from locally sourced vegetables and herbs.
She is also in the process of expanding her product line to include ferments she has been making for her own family for years, including hot sauce, pickled carrots and pickled beets. Her favorite kraut flavor, she says, is Just Jalapeño, which uses only six ingredients — organic cabbage, jalapeño peppers, garlic, hot pepper flakes, sea salt and filtered water. Part of what she loves about her business is working with farmers and other local entrepreneurs to source what she needs.
“I think that’s a big part of why it feels good,” Lucido-Conate says. “For me, it’s like I created my dream job. I get to go to the farm and buy produce directly from the farm. I get to buy produce directly from the farmers market and meet people who live here. I get to offer people food that not only do they get to delight in and enjoy but is also going to heal them.”
Shanti Sunshine Volpe, owner of Shanti Elixirs, shares Lucido-Conate’s enthusiasm for collaborating with nearby growers. In making her Shanti-Jun line of jun, a fermented green tea and honey beverage similar to kombucha, she works with Western North Carolina producers including Haw Creek Honey, Jah Works Farm, Bear Necessities Farm, Myseanica Family Farm and Locally Good Farm. She also believes her fellow fermentation entrepreneurs are more friends that foes.
“I had the fortune of going to a kombucha international conference where we talked about competition versus support, and it seems like in the fermented beverage and food industry there’s a lot of support,” says Volpe, whose product is the first locally made jun offering to hit the market in the Asheville area. “I think that there is no need for us to have concerns or anxieties around competition. People will connect with the people and flavors that resonate most with them.”
Clare Schwartz, outreach coordinator of the French Broad Food Co-op, says fermented foods and beverages are hot with customers. The shop currently carries three lines of locally made ferments and is working on adding two more kraut vendors. The weekly French Broad Co-op Tailgate Market has its own sauerkraut vendor as well. “It is a more popular food right now,” she says. “I think people are realizing the benefits of the probiotics and the enzymes in there.”
Two product categories are especially in demand at the co-op — kombucha and kimchi. “Krauts have always been popular, but I think the kimchi phenomenon has definitely spiked in the last year for sure,” says Schwartz. Pointing to a cooler in the front of the store, she adds, “We can’t keep kombucha in stock; it’s bizarre. I mean that whole 4-foot cooler is all kombucha.” Among other lines of fermented beverages, the store features the locally made Buchi brand of kombucha as well as products from the Charlotte-based Lenny Boy Brewing Co.
In January, Consumer Reports listed fermented foods as one of the healthiest food trends for 2017. According to the article, “between 2014 and 2016, natural grocery stores saw a 50 percent increase in the sale of probiotics and prebiotics supplements — live bacteria and plant fibers that have been linked to a healthy microbiome. But you can get also get probiotics in fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut and yogurt.”
“People are aware of the benefits of probiotics, but they may not be aware that it’s best to get the probiotics in foods or beverages, and that your body will absorb them more easily, more readily, if you get them from foods and beverages,” says Volpe.
She also points out that some studies show that the microbes in fermented products can offer protection from toxins and disease. “The microflora that live in fermented foods and beverages basically help line the gut flora and protect the gut from pathogens, so you can really boost your immune system and strengthen your body with more antibodies,” she says.
“I just started brewing in September and selling at the farmers market on April 1, and already I’ve had so many people come back to me to say that their digestive system issues are being healed by these fermented beverages and foods, and it just feels really good to be a part of that healing process,” says Volpe, who began brewing Shanti-Jun as an add-on to her essential oils business. She says she has been pleasantly surprised by the new venture’s quick growth.
Shanti-Jun is available at Asheville City Market, West Asheville Tailgate Market and Asheville City Market South and will soon be available on tap at Avenue M. For details, visit shantielixirs.com.
Our Daily Kraut products can be found at Asheville City Market, Asheville City Market South, French Broad Food Co-op outdoor market and store, Hickory Nut Gap Farm Store and online at JanelleLucido.com.