If you don't know what's going on in this photo, maybe you should attend the Fermentation Festival ...

GREAT BARRINGTON — Maybe you love kimchi, or you've discovered the awesome, soothing qualities of kombucha. Maybe you're a budding foodie who wants to learn more about the science that creates sauerkraut. Or maybe you've gone full on into hipster fermentation territory, trading SCOBYs and leaving mason jars full of veggies on the counter to do their thing.

If any of this sounds like you, good news: the Berkshire Fermentation Festival is Sunday, Sept. 17, at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. Now in its third year, the festival offers food demonstrations, local vendors, prepared food, live music and classes on making everything from chutneys to kefir.

Organized by Berkshire Ferments, a coalition of local fermentation enthusiasts, the festival was inspired by a similar event in Boston. After attending it a few years ago, "we were incredibly inspired, and really thought it could take off here in the Berkshires," said Michelle Kaplan, festival co-founder. And it did — last year, 1,500 people came.

You may be skeptical — years of conditioning have taught us to raise an eyebrow at food left out in the open air — but fermented food is pervasive. Beloved items like wine, chocolate and bread are fermented. Foods like kimchi and sauerkraut are also said to be good for you — beneficial to gut bacteria and good at fighting inflammation.

Plus, fermenting stuff is trendy as all get-out right now. Millennials' love of interesting, high-quality food is well-documented (cue those "millennials are ruining the chain restaurant industry" viral articles), and top restaurants all over the world are working fermentation into their menus.

"The unique, strong, compelling flavors — like when you sample lactic acid sauerkraut — hit taste buds that ultra-pasteurized vinegar sauerkraut doesn't do for me," said Kaplan, who's been fermenting food for years and has taught many a workshop on the topic. "There's also this huge empowerment issue. People like that they can do this at home, with no special equipment needed. It's reclaiming food, and it's very easy, and very safe. You don't need to be a consumer; you can produce these things, and create them in the comfort of your own kitchen."

"Just putting food in jars and preserving stuff is a really satisfying experience," said Maddie Elling, a festival co-founder, who with her partner Abe Hunrichs runs Hosta Hill, a fermented food production company and farm in West Stockbridge that makes sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh and more. "Like, `how is this not going to spoil?' There is that transformative piece that is fun, and magical."

The magic is actually science — take kimchi, for instance. Its flavor is owed to the natural creation of lactic and acetic acid resulting from salting vegetables, which raises pH levels, which keep bacteria at bay. Homemade fruit vinegars, like apple cider vinegar, get their start from wild yeasts, which turn sugars to alcohol.

If you're looking to get into the fermentation game, Elling recommends kombucha for beginners. Make a sugary black tea blend, add a SCOBY (a Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast — you can get one at the festival!), cover with cheesecloth and let sit for a week (look up a recipe for more details).

A pro tip: "There's a learning curve. You really have to taste it, and get to know it," Elling said. "It's a whole spectrum of flavor. It's not ever, like, `This is correct, this is the time.' There's a sweet spot, and I think to find that, you need to taste it often."

Both Kaplan and Elling understand why there's a bit of hesitation about fermenting, but they both emphasize that this process is safe and beneficial. (See for yourself and learn more at the festival.)

"Humans have been making these kinds of things for thousands of years," said Kaplan.


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