Women entrepreneurs lead WNC’s exploding fermentation industry

POPULAR CULTURE: Shanti Volpe, owner of Shanti Elixirs, handles a SCOBY, the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that helps transform green tea and honey into her company's jun beverages. An interest in holistic health motivated her to start the business three years ago. Photo by Erin Adams Photography

Fermentation is as old as human history. In 2018, researchers credited 13,000-year-old beer residue found in a cave in Israel as being the oldest archaeological evidence of humans using fermentation.

Asheville’s economy and popularity with tourists owe a lot to fermentation since that’s the process behind brewing beer. But a handful of female entrepreneurs is helping Western North Carolina become a hot spot for fermented goods beyond just suds. WNC is home to Shanti Elixirs, the largest jun-making operation (jun is a fermented drink made with honey and green tea) on the East Coast, as well as Buchi, one of the largest kombucha (fermented black tea and sugar) brands in America. Female-led fermented food companies are also making names for themselves and experiencing substantial growth, including Smiling Hara, which produces the first hemp-fortified, soy-free tempeh and has been awarded two Whole Foods loans.

Asheville has often been on the front end of national food and drink trends and is again an early adopter when it comes to embracing the growing fermentation movement. In fact, The Fermentation Association national trade organization launched in 2017, and its first conference will take place in 2020. Yet the third annual WNC Fermenting Festival takes place Sunday, Nov. 3, organized by Meg Chamberlain, owner of Fermenti in Marshall.

Fermenti jars living, probiotic-rich foods, including beets, carrots, pickles, krauts and lemons along with hot sauces and minced garlic. Chamberlain’s mission is to educate folks on the health benefits of fermented foods, maintaining a full workshop and educational outreach schedule, including regular appearances at six area farmers markets. “I think the fermentation community is just starting to, well, ‘ferment,'” she says. “What started with beer and cider is blooming into charcuterie, kimchi, sauerkrauts, cheeses, tempeh/hempeh, shrubs, vinegars, sourdoughs, teas, chocolates and more.”

Instead of calling Asheville Beer City, she muses,  “Why not Ferment City? I think we have a lot of incredible makers learning their craft now. Our fermented future is bright here in the mountains.”

‘Preserve, put away and celebrate’

The powerhouse ladies behind Buchi, Jeannine Buscher and Sarah Schomber, aka the Buchi Mamas, deserve a lot of credit for helping educate and expose WNC residents and visitors to fermented products beyond alcohol. After founding their beverage company in 2009, they quickly caught the attention of Whole Foods and were awarded two of the grocer’s local-producer loans as well as being featured by American Express for a minidocumentary series titled “The Journey.”

“Fermentation is all about the alchemy of ingredients normally found in the hearth and home where, for centuries, women have been the keepers,” says Schomber. “We believe fermentation is the expression of a natural tendency, the human spirit’s way of giving itself permission to heal and inviting all of us to extend beyond our own immediate mortality. It’s normal and natural for humans to want to preserve, put away and celebrate.”

Like Fermenti, Buchi encourages customers to become home fermenters and is the only kombucha brewer to include on its labels simple instructions for DIY brews. “We believe that when you brew and ferment for yourself, wonderful moments of connection emerge. They bring together life, death and transformation,” Buscher says. “Think about it: As things begin to ferment or decompose, they are born anew into an entirely different medium. In our case, we take simple ingredients, add time, and watch as kombucha and kefir emerge as a result. We do this with our own hands. It’s powerful.”

Another local fermenting star is Shanti Volpe, founder of Shanti Elixirs. Much as Buchi introduced kombucha to the region a decade ago, Volpe is introducing many people to jun for the first time. In just a few years, the company has grown into the largest junery on the East Coast, all while Volpe still works as a nurse by day. The company earned two major prizes this year at the 2019 Artisan Flave Awards, taking first and second place in the kombucha category with its pineapple turmeric and blueberry basil flavors, and its drinks can be found in more than 100 area restaurants, breweries and shops.

Focus on health

For Volpe, showing people how important gut health is to overall health is the driving force behind her work. “Our health really begins with the gut, and according to research, our gut makes up about 80% of our immune system,” she says.

An interest in gut health was also the origin of one of the newest fermentation companies to sprout in Asheville, Yoga Bucha. Owner Rosie Mulford started brewing kombucha at home after a bad case of heartburn led her to research the connection between fermentation and digestive health. “I really don’t like to cook, but fermenting gave me great pleasure,” she says.

She credits Asheville’s health-conscious culture as opening the doors for businesses like hers. “It may be my own small world, but a lot of people I know harvest wild edibles as a mainstay and ferment their own food here in Asheville,” says Mulford. “We are known for growing our own gardens and for trying to eat natural foods.”

Carole Bowers, owner of Booda Kombucha, credits Asheville’s thriving herbalism culture for supporting her fermentation businesses and others. She says she thinks women are drawn to fermentation from their innate nurturing tendencies. Bowers predicts that fermented foods will continue to grow in popularity and that “Asheville is poised perfectly to lead this growth with our thriving Beer City, foodie culture that has a focus on quality and creativity.”

Lori Collins Jenkins, owner of Sister of Mother Earth, a maker of herbal fire ciders, honeys and tinctures, echoes Bowers’ sentiments about women leading the fermentation charge in WNC. “As women, we inherently want to nurture and take care of those around us. We want to have a hand in the preparation of feeding our families and our own bodies. We know the importance of eating fresh, organic and local food,” she says. “With all of that being said, it is no wonder that women are taking the forefront in offering more locally prepared foods. They are a force of nature in their own healing influences.”

The good news for anyone interested in starting a fermentation business is that the industry shows no sign of slowing down. Forbes reported earlier this year that the consumption of fermented foods went up 149% in 2018, and Sarah Archer, owner of Serotonin Ferments, says she has seen that play out locally.

“The local and regional fermentation scene has been bubbling up steadily the last 3 1/2 years I’ve lived here. It’s really been exciting to be a part of it and see it catching on and growing,” she says. “The love of beer has definitely influenced the population and made the idea of homebrewing and fermentation more ubiquitous.”

And Volpe, citing a recent study from the University of California, says women may be particularly suited to jumping into the fermenting business.  “Women’s brains are actually made for quick, intuitive decision making,” she says. “Women often start with a feeling and then later back it up with research. This intuitive sense combined with the fact that women have been preparing foods and caring for the health and well-being of their families for centuries, leads to the blossoming of women-led companies with an emphasis on health here in Western North Carolina. That and the fact that we live in a community that is so supportive of local small businesses make for fertile ground for women entrepreneurs.”


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2 thoughts on “Women entrepreneurs lead WNC’s exploding fermentation industry

  1. Local Customer

    Has anyone actually had success with making kombucha from a bottle of Buchi? Research into this has pointed to it not being feasible, and my home trials have resulted in absolutely no SCOBY formation. Seems like more of a marketing ploy than an actual boon to the consumer.

    • Catherine

      I have successfully made kombucha from a bottle of store bought kombucha. I attempted this 7 years ago and my SCOBY lives to this day. I chose a kombucha bottle that looked like it had a tiny membrane floating inside of it. I added the contents of the bottle to a large jar in which I had 4 – 5 cups of black tea (4 tea bags) in which was dissolved 1/2 cup of sugar. I covered the mouth with a paper towel secured with a rubber band and then wrapped the jar in a towel to prevent light from entering the sides. Within a week to ten days I saw bubbles along the sides and a SCOBY beginning to develop. The process goes on of course but this start was all I needed. Room temperature was around 75.

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