Fermentation, an ancient method for processing foods and beverages, is on the rebound in Sonoma County. Prior to modern conveniences such as refrigeration, supermarkets and industrial-scale farming, most of what we ate and drank came by way of fermentation. Today we tend to think of fermenting in relation to alcoholic beverages. In reality many other daily items like chocolate and cheese, pickles and yogurt, sourdough bread and non-alcoholic drinks are produced through the fermentation process. Health-conscious consumers are on the alert for alternatives to sugar-laden sodas and processed foods. To fill the demand, several unique local family businesses offering flavorful fermented products have sprouted in recent years.

The Shed’s Fermentation Bar
A popular place for visitors and locals is the Fermentation Bar at Healdsburg’s The Shed, founded by Cindy Daniels and husband Doug Lipton. When the couple met in college in Colorado, Cindy was an aspiring dancer, he a jazz guitarist. Both dreamed of one day living on a farm. Years later that dream became a reality; now they tend produce grown organically on 15 acres.

Things didn’t stop there. Cindy wanted a place to showcase the best aspects of a farmers market, a restaurant, a grange and a contemporary general store. Housed in a bright, architecturally impressive structure of recycled steel and glass, The Shed is that place. Everywhere food artisans are busy creating special things. Visitors can browse a selection of items for the home, kitchen or garden and sample delicacies in the café. In the center, the Fermentation Bar anchors the activity.

“I believe it’s the only place like it in the country,” said Cindy. “I didn’t want another wine tasting room. I wanted something different.” And different it is. Fermented specialty beverages include shims, mead, cider and small production local wines and craft beers on tap. For those preferring non-alcoholic drinks, there’s the popular shrubs, chilled kombucha or lemon-ginger water kefir.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Linda Berman of Attleboro, Mass. sat at a table with her family. “We came here at the suggestion of a relative,” she said. Beside her, son Jack consumed a shrub made with Muscat grape juice, lavender and sparkling water. When he finished, he set the glass down and smiled big time. “I can tell he wants another one,” his mother said, laughing.

Shrubs are not a new concoction. The drink, regularly served in the early 1800s as a thirst quencher for farmers working the hayfields, became known as the “haymaker.” Mead, or honey wine, was the drink of choice in medieval times. Some attribute its resurgence to the Harry Potter series, or from watching “Game of Thrones.”

“Patrons like the sparkling mead made by Heidrun Meadery on the Sonoma Coast,” said Nicole Clark, fermentation bar lead server. She poured the golden brew into a tall glass flute, and reminiscent of champagne, small bubbles rose to the top. Visitors to the bar range from traditionalists to the more adventurous, those seeking something new, a chance to try a beverage they might not find back home.
“A favorite drink is kombucha,” Nicole said. “We make it ourselves. Choices are black or white tea fermented with herbs and spices like tangerine, kefir lemon, dandelion or nettles.”

The drink originated in Asia centuries ago. Until recently it could only be found in health food stores. Now, with almost $500 million in sales in the US last year, it is no longer considered a novelty. Kombucha, contains billions of probiotics, is healthful, flavorful and low in calories with approximately 30 calories per serving— much less than soda. It has a slight effervescence and a sweet-tart taste. The Shed offers grange classes and workshops for those wanting to make fermented beverages at home. There is a Summer Shrubs workshop on July 30, and in the fall a Cheese and Cider pairing, and a class on Autumn Shrubs and Shims.

The Kefiry
Sebastopol’s The Kefiry specializes in water kefir, another flavorful fermented nutritional powerhouse. Tucked in a cozy complex of shops, the business is operated by owner/founders Tom Boyd and wife Deanna Dennard. Both are usually on-site to welcome visitors and introduce the uninitiated to the refreshing taste and health benefits of their beverage.

Kefir is an ancient word meaning “feel good.” And that’s what The Kefiry is all about. Many tend to think of kefir in relation to milk, but here it’s lactose-free and made from purified water fermented with a mother culture producing probiotics in the process. Probiotics means “life giving” and a 12-ounce bottle of water kefir has more of the beneficial bacteria than the standard serving of yogurt. Natural water kefir flavors at the The Kefiry include lemon ginger ale, triple root beer, jasmine pearl green tea, OMG chocolate and Hibiscus Maya, among others. Visitors can try a sampling of any two or purchase a flight for a minimal charge.

The Kefiry is a true craft operation. Water is hand-processed, herbals hand-extracted, ingredients hand-mixed, fermentation is manual, and bottles hand-labeled. “It’s a labor of love,” Deanna said with pride. “We have many repeat customers. After trying the 12-ounce bottle they come back for the large family size. Kids love the root beer and kefir popsicles. The root beer tastes like the classic, but with little sugar and plenty healthy.”

Sandy Polishuk of Portland, Oregon, in town for the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, stopped by with a friend. She bought a bottle of Tulsi Rose. “Love the soothing flavor,” she said.
The Kefiry’s water kefir is available at The Shed’s Fermentation Bar and at other outlets in the Bay Area. Their Sebastopol location is open Thursday through Sunday.

Tilted Shed Ciderworks
The Tilted Shed Ciderworks is taking Sebastopol back to its apple roots—literally. The husband and wife team Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli began in 2011 by planting a hundred apple varieties on their farm. Ambitious and dedicated, the couple hopes to again elevate the fruit to prominence and preserve Sebastopol’s apple heritage.

Scott, the cider maker and orchardist, trained with experts in the U.K. The cider business is all about apples. In addition to the familiar Gravenstein, many of the varieties used at Tilted Shed are rare, providing the cider with depth, structure and richness. Some of the varieties include old English, French and American types bred over centuries for making hard cider, in contrast to apples grown for eating and cooking.

Unlike most wines, cider is better as a blend. One of the most popular of the Tilted Shed ciders is the 2014 Graviva! Semidry. It is made with 50 percent Gravenstein, Sonoma County’s heritage variety, and 50 percent organic heirloom and tannic apples, including the rare Nehou, a French bittersweet originally from Normandy. The Graviva! has an earthy taste, with notes of overripe apple, apricot, peach sorbet, pineapple, papaya, kiwi and white pepper.

“Cider is a natural pairing with pork, charcuterie, and seafood like Dungeness crab and salmon,” said Ellen.

Another favorite is the 2014 Barred Rock-Aged Cider stored in Kentucky rye whiskey barrels for four months. Clear with a light golden hue and some effervescence, it mellows with age. Its light smoky flavor enhances the taste of a rich creamy cheese or a fruit-based dessert.

A recent Tilted Shed innovation is the Luminaries Club. Restricted to 30 members, the lucky participants receive two to three bottles of experimental micro-production ciders three times a year and can provide taste input into the new product process. The initial club series shipment included the 2014 Wickson, awarded five stars by the respected “The Cider Journal.” Out of hundreds tasted, Wickson was one of nine ciders ever to receive full star treatment.

While Scott is busy making high quality cider, Ellen successfully sells the product. Their cider is now available at many restaurants and stores throughout California, Oregon, New York and New Jersey. The Tilted Shed welcomes visitors to their tasting room and cidery on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Biotics Beverages
An interesting newcomer to the local fermented drink scene is Biotic Beverages makers of kvass. Twenty-six-year-old entrepreneur Adam Johnston and his father, Michael, who came out of retirement to partner with his son, founded the company three years ago. “I didn’t want to miss the fun,” Michael said, standing in the industrial-size kitchen ready to work.

The pair started out introducing the carbonated beet, ginger and turmeric beverages at farmers markets. Now with a loyal following, Biotic kvasses can be found on the shelves at Whole Foods in Santa Rosa and Petaluma as a well as other community markets. It all began when Adam did a college semester-abroad program. Having had his fill of beer brewing in California, he was keen to try the non-alcoholic beverages in the countries he visited. In Northern China he courageously sampled kvass. “I thought it interesting,” he recalled.

Kvass can be traced back to biblical times and is still quite popular in Slavic countries. Back home in Occidental, Adam whipped up a batch for his friends and family. It was an instant hit. The beverage is made from fermented beets, or carrots with ginger or turmeric. The taste is crisp and fresh and flavorful. All produce used is locally sourced.

Kvass has no refined sugar and Biotics proudly touts it as being healthier than kombucha. Doctors are encouraging patients to shift to diets with low or no sugar and high in probiotics. “Kvass fits perfectly in that space,” Adam said. Though most Americans are still unfamiliar with the drink, Adam and Michael are on a mission to change that.

The Shed, The Kefiry, Tilted Shed and Biotics Beverages will be at the Farm to Fermentation Festival on Saturday, August 27, at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa. Stop by, meet the makers and try their special drinks.  SD