The fourth annual Fermentation Fest runs Oct. 4-13, 2014, in and around Reedsburg.
Reedsburg's fourth annual Fermentation Fest, Oct. 4-13, is a unique joining of arts and food fare, centered on the transformational magic of fermentation. Event sites spread into the nearby countryside on the eastern edge of the Driftless Area to nearby LaValle, Valton, Ironton and Lime Ridge. There's even a guided paddle down the Baraboo River (Oct. 11), complete with a catered picnic of fermented edibles.
The bedrock of the fest, though, is a robust roster of classes focusing on DIY fermentation from beer to bread, kefir to kraut. More unexpected forms of fermentation appear on this year's class schedule. Take, for example, an instructional on fermented hot sauces and a sampling of open-air fermented mezcals from Mexico, both led by Chicago-based fermentation enthusiast Lou Banks.
Banks started his affair with fermentation when he read Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz -- "that book started most people I know," he says -- and launched wholeheartedly into fermenting his own vinegars. After working with a Michigan onions and chili pepper farmer with the idea of making barbecue sauce, Banks latched onto the idea of fermenting the peppers for hot sauces. While salsas and barbecue sauces generally are not fermented, common hot sauces such as Tabasco and Sriracha are.
Banks began experimenting with fermenting different peppers about two years ago. Some fermentation processes don't work with certain kinds of chilis, he explains --insufficient salt or acid in the mix can result in a yeast infection -- but he is now using several that work beautifully, including lacto-fermentation, which the class will center on, and which he says is the easiest method.
Though fermented hot sauces are not uncommon, says Banks, "it is uncommon to make them at home." But doing so creates "a whole different level of complexity of flavor." Banks also notes that large-batch, store-bought sauces inevitably contain preservatives -- something that's easy to avoid when making small batches yourself. Banks has made multiple batches of his hot sauce and will bring them so participants can witness what changes take place over the 45-day process. Students will also make their own hot sauce base to take home and begin fermenting.
Banks' other class at Fermentation Fest concerns artisanal mezcals made in Mexico, in rural communities by families who've been doing it for generations. Tequila is made, as is mezcal, from agave, but it's a commercialized, lowest-common-denominator liquor, says Banks. No, what he is interested in is mezcal made from agave fermented in the open air by wild yeasts, in vessels like wooden tubs or leather bags. It's a chance operation; "These could turn to vinegar before they can be distilled," Banks says.
With the current surge of popularity in these small-batch mezcals, earning opportunities are returning to some of these small Mexican villages.
Banks will be pouring samples from five artisanal mezcals, either not available or hard to obtain in the United States. Proceeds from this class will be donated to a project to build a library in Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Above all, Banks is excited to return to Fermentation Fest to take other people's classes. Attending last year, I fell in love -- I found my people," says Banks. "I'm looking forward to seeing people as nuts about fermentation as I am." He's also gearing up to visit the gift shops (at 46 E. Main St., Reedsburg, and 200 W. Main St., LaValle): "There are amazing potters making all kinds of fermentation vessels."