Skip to main content

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Fermented Foods

The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Fermented Foods

The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder

Fermented Foods serves up the history and science behind some of the world’s most enduring food and drink. It begins with wine, beer, and other heady brews before going on to explore the fascinating and often whimsical histories of fermented breads, dairy, vegetables, and meat, and to speculate on fermented fare’s possible future. Along the way, we learn about Roquefort cheese’s fabled origins, the scientific drive to brew better beer, the then-controversial biological theory that saved French wine, and much more. Christine Baumgarthuber also makes several detours into lesser known ferments—African beers, the formidable cured meats of the Subarctic latitudes, and the piquant, sometimes deadly ferments of Southeast Asia. Anyone in search of an accessible, fun, yet comprehensive survey of the world’s fermented foods need look no further than this timely, necessary work.

224 pages | 76 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2

Food and Gastronomy

Reaktion Books image

View all books from Reaktion Books


"Baumgarthuber’s new book adds to the considerable output of the past 20 years on fermented food and drinks. It’s a field admitting of many perspectives: regional, scientific, how-to and cultural, social, and even intellectual history. . . . In sum, the book gathers and synthesizes, with useful figures, a tremendous amount of historical, scientific, and technical information on how gangs of microbiota produce provender for our daily delectation. The riot of resultant flavors and their associated traditions are fascinating, and the book is a welcome addition to the fermented-food canon."

Digestible Bits and Bites

"Sourdough starter kits certainly had their moment during the pandemic, but many people hopping on the trend may have no idea of the history of fermentation... Christine Baumgarthuber, a Pawtucket resident and culinary historian, has published [this book] for anyone curious about the science and history behind fermenting food."

Valley Breeze

“Main streets and farmers’ markets show off sourdough bakers, craft brewers, small winemakers, cheesewrights, soy sauce makers, and more. Such artisans reclaim fermented foods, which modern industry appropriated, compromised, and made mysterious. Now Baumgarthuber fascinatingly renews our acquaintance with the long list of ancient microbiological wonders achievable domestically.”

Michael Symons, author of "Meals Matter: A Radical Economics Through Gastronomy"

"How did the very foods that nourished and sustained humans for thousands of generations become increasingly feared and almost forgotten? Baumgarthuber shines a light on the nascent scientific understanding of microbiology and germ theory as it collided with the underpinnings of the early industrialization of our food system."

Kirsten K. Shockey, coauthor of "Fermented Vegetables" and "Miso, Tempeh, Natto and Other Tasty Ferments"


Though it remains unknown how humankind discovered alcoholic beverages, it was almost certainly by accident.

The first were fruit ferments, naturally; they needed no coaxing. Every wasp buzzing in an orchard or around a puddle of spilled soft drink carries in it countless yeast cells. Whenever it eats or defecates, it introduces these cells to the sugary substance. Before long their enzymes turn the sugars into ethyl alcohol.

Turning sugars into alcohol is an ability yeast developed some 100 million years ago. The prevailing theory holds that yeast cells suspended in tree sap began to mate. Their commingling set off a genetic eruption known as ‘whole genome duplication’. When it was complete it enabled yeast to turn glucose into alcohol. (This process of gene duplication is important for evolution because it allows the replicas of genes to take on new functions.) In one of those happy accidents that sometimes occur in nature, the same genome duplication happened to the Cretaceous ancestors of flowering plants that evolved to produce fleshy, sweet fruit preferred by yeast. Some 63 million years later, humans would find a source of solace and inspiration in the product of this meeting of food and feeder – alcohol – when a daring soul likely sampled some fermented fruit pulp and found the effect it wrought quite pleasant.

Others later observed that milk and water mixed with honey also fermented into intoxicating beverages. Through trial and error a process was developed over time whereby such beverages could be created more or less reliably. Grapes proved an especially suitable fermentable source, and thus wine was born. Development of beer, a more difficult beverage to make, would take longer; unlike fruit, milk or honey-infused water, cereal grains come wrapped in a tough husk and contain starches and sugars that yeast cannot access.

In time, human ingenuity prevailed. The key lay in converting grains’ starches and sugars from insoluble to soluble, which required the presence of an enzyme. Ptyalin, a starch-converting amylase, occurs in saliva, and the act of chewing serves as the means of introducing it to grain. To this day makers of South American chicha chew corn to ferment this beloved traditional beer. A second class of enzyme suited to the task, diastase, results from sprouting, or ‘malting’, grain. Heated in water in a process called mashing, the malted grain produces a sugar- and enzyme-rich liquid that readily ferments into alcohol.

Mashing remains alive and well among the peoples of Africa. The variety of beers brewed by them range from fizzy liquid to a runny gruel. Yet despite differences in consistency they all contain a mixture of acids and alcohols, by-products of the yeasts and lactic acid bacteria present during the process. The pito of the Nigerian Bini people, for example, derives from malted maize and sorghum, which are sprouted in baskets lined with banana leaves. The sprouted grain is ground, boiled, cooled, strained and left overnight to ferment. Once fermented, it is boiled a second time in order to concentrate its liquids, to which is added starter from a previous batch. The liquid ferments a third time before it is ready to drink. The resulting brew is dark brown in hue and bittersweet in taste, and its alcohol content by volume hovers around 3 per cent.

Every African locality boasts a signature fermented alcoholic drink. Beer anchors communal life, aiding in ceremonies, reaffirming customs and making occasions more festive by promoting good humour, relaxation and nourishment. To know that this is so we need only look to the fact that one-eighth to one-third of grain crops in Africa are consumed as beer.

Scholars have speculated that, although the advent of beer may have owed to a search on humankind’s part for easier ways of making bread, beer quickly took precedence over other foods. Recent findings suggest that beer may even pre-date bread. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen in 2018 unearthed fireplaces in northeastern Jordan. The fireplaces, which they estimated to be 14,200 to 14,400 years old, held breadcrumbs that dated to a time before that of grain cultivation, which appeared in history some 4,000 years later. The fireplace owners would therefore have had to wild-harvest any grain they used. Because the difficulty of the task would have discouraged the use of grain in bread merely for eating, the Danish researchers concluded that the crumbs came from loaves baked with the intention of fermenting them with water into alcohol.6 The findings further suggest that the region’s pre-agricultural inhabitants appeared to have judged a nice buzz ampler reward for the trouble of gathering wild grain than mere nourishment. (Another recent excavation in Haifa, Israel, unearthed a brewery some 13,000 years old.)

Knowledge of beer and its heady rewards travelled with nomadic peoples in their wanderings and came to settle in the cities of Mesopotamian civilization. Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians all baked loaves of malted barley and wheat. These loaves were covered with water to form a mash, which they placed in an earthen vessel to ferment. And they all kept a portion of the mash in reserve as a starter for the next batch of loaves. Long repetition of this process cemented humankind’s relationship with the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and all sorts of attendant customs and observances grew up as a result.

Ancient Mesopotamian art offers an indication that beer drinking took place as a social activity much as it does today. Seals of the period depict human figures from whose mouths project straws into communal vessels. The straws suggest a beer that is unfiltered and filled with sediment. Emmer, barley, spelt and any number of other grains lent themselves to brewing the dark, cloudy stuff, though spelt alone went into premium beer and barley alone into beer of the lowest quality. Whatever the grain or grains, beer often contained various spices. Some drinkers watered down their aromatic brews; others tippled them at full strength. Pungent and sour, ‘small’ and refreshing, mixed with wine and honey, served straight up – ancient beer came in an impressive array of choices.

The miracle of alcohol and its powers over humankind naturally attracted the interest of the powerful. Various deities oversaw the production of beer. Because she supervised Sumerians as they brewed, Ninkasi earned the epithet ‘the Lady who fills the mouth’. Residing on the fictional Mount Sâbu (‘the mount of the taverner’), she spawned nine children, each of whom she named after an alcoholic drink and its signature intoxicating effect. One went by ‘the boaster’; another, ‘the brawler’. As one might expect of a patroness of booze, Ninkasi inspired great devotion. ‘You are the one who handles the dough with a big shovel,’ reads a hymn to her from 1800 BCE or thereabouts; ‘you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats.’ Subsequent verses detail further steps in the beer-brewing process before ending with a note of praise on the goddess’s fittingly abundant generosity. ‘Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,’ it reads: ‘it is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.’

Whereas Ninkasi played a role in beer brewing, other deities of the era contented themselves with enjoying the final product. Indeed, beer could win their favour, or at least blunt their wrath. ‘In honour of the goddess, beer, red with Nubian ochre, is poured in these days of the Feast of the Valley,’ reads an inscription on the Egyptian deity Mut’s gate at Karnak, ‘so that, having been different from the usual aspect of beer, it would appease the anger in her heart.’ The goddess Hathor likewise demanded beer – vast quantities of it, in fact – as did Bes, a dwarfish long-tongued god who watched over pregnant women. Images on scarabs depict him in the act of quaffing from a large vessel. The gods’ earthly representatives in the ancient Near East exacted their share of beer as well. Jars of it were tendered to Babylonian priests for the performance of certain rites. And many temples in Egypt had their own breweries.

Though undoubtedly popular, beer took a back seat to wine among the elites of ancient Near Eastern societies. The earliest evidence of winemaking in the region appeared at two sites in present-day Iran’s Zagros Mountains.12 The evidence came in the form of a yellowish residue found in six clay jars, each of which could hold 9.5 litres (2.5 U.S. gallons). The residue turned out to be the remains of grape juice and resin. Archaeologists took this as proof that as early as 8,000 years ago peoples of the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea drank a wine that reportedly tasted much like Greek retsina.

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press