Fermentation: An Ancient Process for Yumminess
Wednesday, Mar 8, 2023
It’s an iconic, all-star lineup: Yogurt. Beer. Pickles. Soy Sauce. Wine. Bread. Kimchi. Cheese. Pantry staples we know and love. Fermented food is a foundational part of cuisines worldwide and a cornerstone of American food culture. The fermentation process itself is one of humanity’s oldest forms of food processing, having been used for millennia to preserve foods. What’s the history of fermentation? How does it work, especially to make cheese? And how is a modern application of this ancient process helping to revolutionize how cheese is made (while massively reducing greenhouse gas emissions along the way)? We’re glad you asked.
Moments in fermentation history
Since ancient times, humans have tapped the powers of fermentation to produce beer, bread and wine. In fact, as early as 7000 BCE, farmers were crushing fruits with their bare feet and then leaving the fruit in containers, leading to some of civilization’s earliest wines. While stepping on the fruit, microorganisms (i.e. yeast) feed on the yummy grape sugars, kicking off the fermentation process. That’s right, you might just have dirty feet to thank for your favorite glass of Pinot Noir. What these farmers stumbled onto was the metabolic process of breaking down sugars and carbohydrates (from the fruits, in this case) into alcohol and other compounds.
Fast forward almost 9000 years to Switzerland. In 1905, a Bulgarian microbiologist named Dr. Stamen Grigorov discovered the bacteria that makes yogurt, which became the foundation for his scientific research into the health benefits of fermented foods. He concluded that the Bulgarian diet, full of fermented milks, helped generate a healthier mix of gut microbes and strengthened intestine walls, leading to a longer lifespan.
Another fermented food - one that we love in particular at New Culture - is cheese. It’s no secret that cheese has a long and storied history. While its official birthday is unknown, some turn to the story of a Middle Eastern merchant who stored his milk in a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach as he was roaming the sweltering desert. The rennet (enzyme) in the lining of the animal’s stomach pouch – heated up by the desert’s blazing sun — caused the milk to separate into (cheese) curds and whey proteins. And as legend has it: the merchant found his accidental concoction not only quenched his thirst, but tasted delicious.
Practiced for centuries, cheesemaking is a multi-step process that transforms milk into the gooey, melty, stretchy, crumbly goodness we know and love. First, starter cultures (bacteria) are added to milk, which jumpstarts the fermentation process: lactose (a type of sugar) in milk is converted into lactic acid. Then, the enzyme rennet is added and combines with the lactic acid to curdle the milk. (Nowadays, rennet is actually produced using “precision fermentation” instead of mammalian stomach lining - cheesemaking has come a long way since the wandering merchant! More on precision fermentation in a sec.) Once the milk has curdled and separated from the remaining watery liquid, “ripening” occurs, during which unique flavors and textures appear, leading to recognizable varieties of cheese from cheddar to parmesan. The longer a cheese ages, the more lactose is consumed by the bacteria. So, by the time a funky, aged cheddar or parmesan is ready to eat, there’s hardly any lactose left.
Precision fermentation: Same same but different
Besides the pantry staples - wine, yogurt, cheese - fermentation is now used to make a much wider array of products. For instance, precision fermentation produces natural flavors for fizzy drinks, pharmaceuticals such as insulin, biofuels for our cars, and enzymes for everything from breadmaking to laundry detergent. While the art of fermentation has been around for millennia, the process continues to evolve thanks to technological advances.
Those advances have enabled the development of a specific type of fermentation: precision fermentation. It is this targeted use of fermentation that is already used to create countless products that, otherwise, would have been created using animal inputs. For instance, insulin for people with diabetes is now made using precision fermentation without needing any animal inputs, as is rennet for the cheesemaking process. Precision fermentation also holds the keys to making animal-free proteins and fats that are identical to and just as tasty as those from livestock.
The benefits of using precision fermentation go beyond animal welfare, though. As we face critical environmental threats from climate change and pollution from industrial food manufacturing, precision fermentation offers significant sustainability opportunities. By replacing the use of animal inputs, precision fermentation produces consumer products with a fraction of the environmental impact. For instance, a burger from Impossible Foods (powered by precision fermentation) uses 96% less land, generates 89% less of the greenhouse gasses that cause global warming, and uses 87% less water than a beef burger. Perfect Day’s whey protein made from precision fermentation produces 91% fewer GHG emissions and utilizes 96% less water.
Fermentation x New Culture
Here at New Culture, we use precision fermentation to make casein protein, the hero ingredient in cheese. Casein is what gives cheese its characteristic stretch, melt, stink, and ooze. Basically, all the warm fuzzies we get from cheese are because of casein protein. Thanks to our use of precision fermentation, we can indulge in all the same cheesiness but with a fraction of the environmental footprint. Since it’s completely animal-free, our cheesemaking process radically reduces greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use. And, without the use of any animals, our cheese is lactose-free, cholesterol-free and humane.
The process that we use is very similar to brewing beer. First, we train microbes to produce the casein protein we want. Then, those microbes are placed into large steel tanks that are filled with sugar and other nutrients, and the fermentation begins. The end result of the fermentation process? Our target casein protein in a cloudy liquid. We then separate out and dry the casein, leaving us with animal-free casein protein powder. We mix the powder with water, salt, plant-based fats, some plant-based sugar and minerals to make a milk analogue, which we can turn into any cheese of choice. First up: our melty, stretchy, delicious mozzarella for pizzas.
Thanks to fermentation - this millennia old technology - we’re able to craft tasty, animal-free cheeses standing on the shoulders of this ancient art. Bon appetit!