4 L (1 gallon) of de-chlorinated water (you can pour the water out the night before and leave it on your counter—the chlorine will evaporate by morning)
1 cup of sugar
1/2 – 3/4 cup starter (e.g., ginger bug)
foraged (edible!) ingredients such as: flowers, herbs, bark, leaves, needles, cones, seeds, berries, etc.
Notes on Foraging (aka., Wildcrafting or Gleaning)
Never eat anything you don’t know or recognize. Some plants are poisonous.
To ensure its health and longevity, and to share with others, take no more than 1/3 of each plant.
It is not recommended that you forage plants from along roadsides.
Forage plants from areas where people do not use pesticides.
The flavour (and colour) of your hike soda will change with the seasons. Experiment with flavours by combining multiple plants—it’s fun to figure out what plants taste good together…and which ones do not.
About a week before you make the soda, you’ll need to make a ginger bug. You can also get a ginger bug starter from a friend.
Go on a hike to gather your ingredients. You will want enough ingredients to fill 1/2 of your jar (that’s about 4 cups).
If needed, separate leaves/flowers from stems, roots, and other inedible parts.
Wash your ingredients, shake out excess water, then stuff everything into your jar.
Put 1 cup of sugar and 4 cups of water in a bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
Once sugar is dissolved, add the starter (ginger bug).
Add the sugar water, ginger bug, and the remaining water to your jar.
Stir everything together.
Cover the top of the jar with cloth and rubber band.
Place jar in a warm place to ferment. Active fermentation (seeing bubbles) should start within 48+ hours. Let the jar ferment for 2-5 days. The longer it ferments, the more bubbly and less sweet it will be.
Once it has fermented in the jar, strain the liquid through a sieve and compost your ingredients.
Pour soda into resealable bottles. Put in a warm place and ferment another 1-3 days.
Place bottles in the fridge to slow fermenting.
Enjoy within 2 weeks.
Caution: open bottles over a sink or outside. Hike soda often continues to ferment in the bottle so can become very explode-y.
Using wild ingredients to produce truly unique, truly local beers
IPA beers make me sneeze. The higher the IBU (international bitterness unit), the worse I get. My face gets flushed. My sinuses clog up. After a mere bottle or two I get nauseous.
I’ve come to realize I have an allergy—or at least a major sensitivity—to bitter beers. It dawned on me slowly. I’m a longtime fan of craft beers, which tend toward the bitter and hoppy. Sadly, as the quirky sneezing increasingly led to vomiting, I knew it was time to give up the bitter. I now watch bitterness units like calories; anything over 30 IBUs, and I have to take a pass.
At first, I was devastated. Giving up on bitter beers very nearly means giving up on all craft beers – IPAs, pale ales, extra special bitters. I decided to learn more about beer. What exactly is in it that makes me sneeze?
I was also motivated by economics. I’d just quit a well-paying job, and had started a small, urban farm. As a writer and farmer, I figured it’d be a good idea to cut costs, and beer was one of those costs. I was already growing most of my own food to shrink my grocery bill and my carbon footprint. How local could I drink? How much more money could I save by growing my own beer?
Beer, like all good things, is incredibly simple. All it takes is four ingredients: water, sugar, a bitter ingredient to offset the sugar, and yeast. Just boil your water, sugar, and bitterer, cool the resulting “wort,” then “pitch” (or add) your yeast, and let it ferment in an air-tight vessel for 10 or so days before bottling it. Wait a few more weeks, and voila, you have beer.
Practically all beer nowadays uses malt as its sugar, and almost all malt is made from barley. Sugar is key to the the most magical part of brewing beer; it’s what the yeast eats and converts into alcohol. I could have bought beer kits that included all the ingredients and detailed step-by-step instructions, but I wasn’t interested in kits. I was interested in making beer from scratch.
Age of the Alewives
Beer has been brewed for millennia. Practically every culture in the world has drunk some form of a fermented beverage. Some argue that when humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, they took up growing grain not primarily for bread, but for beer. Perhaps this says a lot about the origins of our civilization.
But beverages made with malted barley and hops have only been the de facto beer for a few hundred years. Before that, a variety of other sugars and bittering agents were used. And notably, women were the primary brewers. Now the beer industry is dominated by hops, malted barley, and men. What happened?
Industrialization happened. In his book Brew Beer Like a Yeti, Jereme Zimmerman provides some background: “By the 1500s, the types of beer-like beverages consumed in Europe and Britain were vast and diverse.” But these “gruits,” as they were often called, mostly disappeared due to social and economic changes in the industrial age, including state and church beer laws (the Reinheitsgebot in Germany), which “brought beer from the home and mead hall to the inn, alehouse, and tavern.” Authorities regulated not only the four beer ingredients we know today, but also the price – and the taxes.
Commercial breweries made as much beer as possible – and the hoppier the beer, the better it kept during export. India Pale Ales (IPAs), the staple of many modern-day craft breweries, was originally brewed for the British troops who occupied India.
Urbanization made brewing a necessity. As towns increased in population, drinking water became polluted. By boiling the water, adding herbs, and preserving it through fermentation, people obtained a potable liquid that was also medicinal. Homebrewing became a cottage industry for the “alewives,” who made large batches of beer in cauldrons, and hung brooms over their doors to indicate a fresh batch was for sale. Alewives doubled as community herbalists; people came seeking remedies for their aliments.
“Disgruntled men who ran the power establishments and superstitious peasants began associating the brewing cauldrons and brooms with witchcraft,” Zimmerman says. Soon, men took over brewing, and recipes were standardized. The alewives were not just put out of business, they were accused of being witches, and many were murdered. Burn the witch, kill the competition.
Until just a few decades ago, there was no alternative to the large breweries and the standard recipes. The craft beer explosion has been, in part, a response to the bland commercialization of beer. Small producers have pushed the standards, and have provided thirsty consumers with more choices. But there’s still a ways to go. While some brewers experiment with unique and local ingredients, the vast majority of the industry is still highly commercialized; the yeasts are developed in labs, most grains are imported vast distances, and the rows of craft IPAs at the liquor store are virtually identical. Plus, the majority of craft brewers and operators are men.
Discovering IPA’s roots in colonialism made it easier to stop drinking those bitter, sneeze-inducing beers. It also opened my eyes to craft beer’s sexism and racism problem. Not only does the industry lack women and people of colour, but its branding has been known to feature dehumanizing images of buxom serving wenches. IPAs have been referred to as “mouth rapers.” Bitterness is likened to angry ex-wives. Names of beers and companies favour masculine, settler descriptors: sons, uncles, brothers. Sir John A’s Honey Wheat Ale, produced by Gahan House in Charlottetown, is named after the man who forced Indigenous people from their land. And just last year, a craft brewery in Tusket, N.S., discontinued its Hanging Oak Red IPA after African Nova Scotians pointed out that the label’s image of a tree and noose evoked lynching. For me, homebrewing has become more than a way to save money; it is an act of de-colonization – a way of reclaiming the lost, feminine art of producing healthful, truly local beer.
In The Wildcrafting Brewer, author Pascal Baudar pours beer conventions down the drain, arguing for the use of ingredients you can grow in your own backyard. He explains how to make wild yeasts. He describes how to use honey, maple syrup, and even plain brown sugar or blackstrap molasses, and – best of all – weeds(much easier than barley, and free!) to brew beers comparable, or even superior, to commercial and craft beers.
“Essentially,” writes Baudar, “if the beverage tastes like beer, I will call it such, and I view hops as just one of the possible ingredients.”
Using Baudar’s book as my guide, I first brewed a beer with yarrow, spruce tips, organic brown sugar, cranberries, and wild yeast – everything, except the sugar, from my backyard or the seaside cliff a 10-minute walk from my house. It tasted more like a cider than a beer, but for a first attempt, it wasn’t bad – slightly boozy and yummy, too. It was also fresher than any beer I’d ever tasted. I was immediately hooked, and started devising ways to make the beer even more local.
The final frontier was sugar, and the most local sugar in Cape Breton is maple syrup. It all came together one day last spring while I was weeding the beds at the New Waterford Community Garden. Impressed by the fat, juicy dandelions I was pulling out of the ground, and inspired by the bright green tips popping out on the spruce trees, I realized that these were the makings of a truly wild, bitter, and refreshing beer – one that wouldn’t make me sneeze!
Not much maple syrup flavour remains after fermenting. This beer tastes a lot like a straightforward ale—dandelion is quite bitter. Experiment with sugars. I’ve substituted syrup for molasses, which resulted it a more porter-like beer.
I like to add something slightly floral like spruce tips or yarrow or chamomile to offset the dandelion.
Pick dandelions just before the flowers open—though you can add a few flowers to the recipe, too.
So far I’ve found I haven’t had to prime before bottling as fresh dandelion residue continues to ferment once bottled.
Making fermented foods to preserve the harvest, while adding nutrients and zippy flavours
Monique Vassallo remembers asking her mom what Grandma Amirault had in the big crocks in the cellar. Under the wooden lid and heavy rock were vegetables: string beans and passe-pierre – wild Goose Tongue greens – that her Acadian grandmother had picked along the Petitcodiac River in Memramcook, New Brunswick.
“She put one layer of veggies in the crock, salted it, then repeated the layers. More would be added later,” Vassallo recalls. “Then the crocks were kept in the cool basement.”
Now a grandmother herself, Vassallo is describing a preservation technique called dry salt fermenting: vegetables are chopped, salted, squeezed, bruised or pounded, then submerged and soaked in their own juices. At this point, lactic acid bacteria (lactobacillus) takes over, converting sugars to lactic acid, thus preserving the vegetables and giving such ferments their sour, vinegary flavour.
Vassallo hasn’t done much fermenting herself, but the vegetables she and her husband Leonard grow at Blue Heron Farm in Gardiner Mines, Cape Breton, have been used in some of Brenna Phillips’ ferments. Originally from Truro, N.S., Phillips moved to Cape Breton three summers ago to manage the kitchen at a new inn called Salty Rose’s and the Periwinkle Café, in Ingonish. Several items on their menu feature the ferments that she makes as an independent business called Punch and Jingles. Examples include a red cabbage sauerkraut used in the restaurant’s smoked-meat sandwich, and a wild rose flavoured kombucha inspired by the name of the inn.
“I’m also working on a Cape Breton kimchi,” Phillips says. This Korean-style ferment will be made entirely from locally grown vegetables, including Napa cabbage from Blue Heron Farm.
Working 50-60 hours a week at the café, Phillips has little time to do her own ferments. “Punch and Jingles is a bit on the back burner until the off-season,” she says. Once the Periwinkle closes for the winter, she will return to her soup-and-bread-and-ferment club, a CSA-style take-out. Patrons indicate their food choices at the beginning of the week, then pick up their meals on Friday.
“I never had fewer than 12 customers,” she says, “which was exactly what I could handle.”
Phillips became interested in making fermented foods 10 years ago, but she’s been eating them since she was a kid. “My mom and I always had vegetarian tendencies, and she showed me, for example, if you go to a barbecue where the only option is sausages, and you don’t want to make a fuss, you just fill your bun full of sauerkraut and mustard, and no one will notice.”
When she was a young adult, Phillips’ peer group included food activists and vegans who often engaged in “dumpster diving” to scavenge discarded food. This led them to fermenting, as a means of protecting the found food from rot, and to add nutrients. Lacto-ferments such as sauerkraut are high in the B vitamins that are present in meat but lacking in many vegetarian and vegan diets.
“I would do just basic sauerkrauts, and I got a SCOBY (the jellyfish-like kombucha ‘mother’) that I’m still using nine years later. Then I started making weird things in my apartment, inviting people over for Scandinavian-themed meals. I became deeply obsessed with the flavour profile – the sour. It’s a way of cooking that I love so much: working with food, processing food, taking an ingredient and transforming it, getting to hang out with it for a long time, and eventually eating it. It’s the ultimate slow cooking – all intuition and observation. I jive with that so much.”
From the Ancients
Fermentation isn’t new. In fact, it’s very, very old. Before the development of refrigeration technology, humans depended on fermenting vegetables, fruit, and meat to survive cold months and lean times. But fermenting wasn’t just about survival. From the Greeks’ Dionysus to the Vikings’ Odin, Gilling, and Suttung, ancient myths attest to the near-worship of such mind-altering ferments as wine and mead.
“Sourdough is trendy from about 5000 BC,” says the renowned Irish baker and cookbook author Patrick Ryan. “The future in food and bread is about going back to the past. Your granny might have made soda bread, but your granny’s granny made sourdough.”
In the past three years, the production of fermented foods and beverages has increased by 300-400 percent in Nova Scotia. This includes everything from craft beers and ciders, to kombucha sold in grocery stores, to the increased presence of sauerkrauts and kimchis and kefirs at farmers’ markets. What gave rise to this resurgence?
Rick Kane, food safety and regulatory specialist with Perennia, cites local workshops by U.S. food writer Sandor Katz, a self-described “fermentation revivalist.” Kane also notes the increase in immigrants to the Maritimes from places where fermenting is more common, such as Asia and the Middle East, and a growing public interest in more diverse and healthful handmade foods.
It was the health and flavour factors that led Brendan Neima to fermenting foods 10 years ago. “I always wanted to make things from scratch,” he says, “to control the ingredients, like salt.”
Neima discovered Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, a seminal fermenting book, like Katz’s Wild Fermentation, that has inspired many fermenters’ passions, featuring standard recipes as well as unique ones such as fermented ketchup.
After working on a small farm in B.C., Neima moved back to Truro and started Good Clean Farm Ferments. His offerings – which include cortido, a spicy Latin American kraut – can be found at the farmers’ market and at Red Knot Bakery in Truro, as well as at the Earltown General Store. Seeking good, local ingredients for his ferments is actually what led him to start farming on his grandfather’s land in Salmon River.
“At my small scale, fermenting was easier than only growing vegetables,” he says, noting that the ferments account for more than a third of Good Clean Farm’s revenues.
Both Phillips and Neima acknowledge the benefit of partnerships in helping to develop their respective businesses. Not only have they worked with local farmers to obtain ingredients, but both have found that having access to a commercial kitchen was integral. In order to adhere to provincial food safety standards, Neima makes his retail ferments at Red Knot Bakery, Phillips at the Periwinkle Café.
And both have worked with Rick Kane at Perennia to have recipes approved and pH levels tested. In Nova Scotia, ferments are considered “Schedule B” foods and can therefore be processed at home and sold at farmers’ markets, but to be sold in retail stores, they must be made in certifiable kitchens and approved by government. This process can be time-consuming and costly; however, Perennia receives federal funding (via the Canadian Agricultural Partnership) to cover the analysis, product and process evaluation, and support for new agriculture-based businesses in the province – as long as their products are primarily composed of Nova Scotia food ingredients.
Many fermenters speak highly of the openness of the fermentation community. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fermenting process itself, which involves cultures comprising millions of micro-organisms working together beneficially. Even the term SCOBY – which refers to the starter culture needed to ferment tea into kombucha – is an acronym for “symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast.” Phillips can’t recall how many SCOBY “babies” she’s given to friends and acquaintances over the years. And due to popular demand, she now offers fermenting workshops through Punch and Jingles, when she isn’t busy at the café.
Eating “live” foods may seem intimidating, but fermentation is an extremely safe method of preservation. There have only been a handful of fermented food recalls globally. And there are several health benefits to eating cultured foods. Since they are already somewhat broken down or “digested,” they’re easier for our bodies to process. Making sauerkraut, for example, which Katz calls the “gateway ferment,” is a way of infusing a regular cabbage with extra beneficial vitamins. Probiotic consumption has been linked to treating and preventing diseases of the digestive tract, reducing incidents and duration of common colds and high blood pressure, and reducing anxiety. Often, ferment converts talk of feeling happier, of having clearer skin and shinier hair, and of improved gut health.
With more public awareness of these benefits, the demand for ferments is at an all-time high. Neima’s customers frequently tell him how tasty his sauerkraut is compared to the store-bought kind. He says it’s exciting to play a part in expanding the palate of Maritime consumers.
Phillips admits there would be no Punch and Jingles without the support of friends and customers who’ve become devoted fans of her ferments. “People with health concerns would ask me to make meals for their families. I started getting these little jobs, and I loved it. So I decided to learn it more officially.”
Two years ago Phillips attended Sandor Katz’s ferment residency at his commune in Tennessee. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she says.
These local leaders in the fermented food revival may be bringing back a part of our diet that we’ve been missing. Phillips says her ferments are even popular with children.
“Kids love sauerkraut,” she says. “They come in with their parents asking, ‘Can we have kraut?’ If you gave a kid a leaf of cabbage, they wouldn’t touch it, but they’ll eat a bowl of sauerkraut!”