A Brief Introduction To Fermentation In Wisconsin

University Place: Food Scientists Seek To Give State A Value-Added Edge
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Wisconsin is a leading producer of soy sauce.

Food scientists around Wisconsin are building on a growing interest in fermentation to help both craft brewers and multinational mega-breweries improve their beers. But their work isn't just about the state's alcoholic beverage producers, it's about boosting Wisconsin into a more competitive position when it comes to all manner of food and drink products. The broader picture is all about harnessing the powers of yeast, bacteria, and fungi to metabolize sugars into alcohol and other substances. Events like the annual Fermentation Fest, held in Reedsburg every autumn, indicate a bubbling fascination in the process and its products that extends to the local-foods movement, artists and the general eating public.

University of Wisconsin-Madison food science professor James Steele is one of many academics in the UW System and Wisconsin Technical College System taking part in a loose but vigorous collaboration they're calling the "Wisconsin Fermentation Initiative." In a March 20, 2015 talk at the Wednesday Nite @ the Lab Series on the UW-Madison campus, he offered an overview of the different Wisconsin-made food products that depend on fermentation for their form and flavor. The talk was recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place, and was the second to cover the growing interest in fermentation science around the state. A Dec. 3, 2014 talk by UW-Madison food science lecturer Hans Zoerb focused on how the genetics of yeast is one key focus of this research.

Steele's overview included some of Wisconsin's significant but less iconic fermented products — Japanese soy-sauce maker Kikkoman's first North American plant was in Walworth, and over the years the company has funded food and water research in the UW System.

Steele also discussed how partnerships between academics and industry go beyond the basic science of fermentation. In addition to studying the biology of microorganisms responsible for fermentation, the initiative aims to develop processes that will help food processors, brewers, and wineries turn out more consistent products with greater efficiency. The combination of all these efforts, he said, could brew a stronger future for Wisconsin's economy.

Key facts

  • Food scientists at UW-Madison have spent a lot of time with Wisconsin food processors over the past 20 years trying to make Wisconsin agriculture more competitive by focusing on value-added products. In recent years, they've been extending that strategy to the beer, wine and cider industries.

  • Fermentation is key to producing soy sauce, of which Wisconsin is a leading producer. Soy-sauce giant Kikkoman operates a long-running plant in Walworth.

  • Tempeh, a soybean-based protein, is one of Wisconsin's fastest-growing fermented products.

  • About 8 percent of beer consumed in Wisconsin around the time of the talk was craft beer, but some places have much higher market penetration of craft beer — in Portland, Oregon, that figure is about 50 percent. That differences indicates a lot of room for Wisconsin craft brewers to grow.

  • Wisconsin has about as many wineries as it does breweries. However, wine has far less of a history in the state and the reputation of Wisconsin-made wines is spotty.

Key quotes

  • On the general importance of fermentation in Wisconsin: "Fermentation plays a key role in the industries of the state as well as the cultures of the state."

  • On the process of making soy sauce: "Soy sauce comes from soybeans, and it is one of the most interesting fermentations that there is. That fermentation is initiated by a mold. The reason for the mold is that the mold is going to produce the enzymes that are then going to degrade that soybean — the proteins as well as the carbohydrates — to produce fermentation substrates. That then is going to be transferred into a salt brine — so, very high salt concentration — where a salt-tolerant yeast is going to start the fermentation as well as the lactic-acid bacteria."

  • On making fermented products consistently: "All fermented foods that we eat really is spoilage that has gone well. As a fermentation scientist, [the goal] is to try and control that spoilage so that we make the right product every single time. It's not nearly as easy as it sounds."

  • On the economic importance of fermentation: "Is Wisconsin the most cost-effective place to make milk? No, honestly it's not. The weather isn't that conducive ... so how do you compete if you're in Wisconsin? We can try to compete by making barrel cheddar cheese that's going to end up in processed cheese, and there's still plants that do that. The industry can try to compete by producing mozzarella cheese, which is a commodity that will end up on pizza. Or, because we're going to lose that, and we're going to lose those battles to Idaho, we're going to lose them to Arizona, we're going to lose them to states that simply are able to make milk more cheaply. Or you can try to make a value-added product … the economics completely change. Small farms can make it. Small processing facilities can make it. The impact on the Wisconsin economy goes up dramatically.

  • On the multidisciplinary approach to making Inaugural Red, a red lager created in collaboration between UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Brewing Company: "We've involved students from the business school in terms of marketing, computer arts for developing the label, engineering, food science, as well as all the basic sciences. We believe in making them work as a group."
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