Fermentation: A History

At eatCultured, we find fermentation fascinating, which is why this post is all about the history of fermentation and why you should care about it too.

Fermentation or culturing, as it's also known, is all down to microbes. Microbes can be found everywhere on Earth, including the soil that grows your foodyour home and inside your own body! While some play a role in causing disease, many do good things and protect you from illness. The key is getting the balance just right.


Stretching back as far as human history itself, the origins of fermentation are hard to track down. However historians have traced signs of fermentation in food and beverage preparation dating as far back as 7000 BC.

A Process As Old As Humanity Itself
The term fermentation comes from the Latin verb ‘fervere’, which means "to boil." It's likely this term describes what happens when yeast converts fruit juice (for wine) or malted grain (for beer) into alcohol, among other bi-products.

clay potsAlmost every culture and geography appears to have embraced fermentation for millennia. People have been teaming up with natural microbes for much longer than we know!

However we also have evidence that other cultures, like ancient Chinese dynasties, were using fermentation for other grain based beverages like rice wine as long ago as 4000 BC. 

How that all started is lost to time. We know that one microbe, yeast, has been around for at least 80 million years.

How Did Fermentation Start?

It's likely fermentation as we know it started spontaneously, maybe with a wild yeast or other microbe landing in a bowl of food, a jug of grape juice or was already present in some freshly milled flour or grain, then found an opportunity to do its thing when the surrounding temperature and environment was just right (ideally between 40-70ºF).

Domestication of Microbes

Early humans then began to embrace this partnership with microbes because of its benefits, namely: more digestible food, food that kept longer, was less likely to make you sick (as in the case of fermented beverages compared to water until the turn of the last century) or simply tasted better than unfermented foods. 

Slowly techniques emerged among different cultures across the globe for working with their local microbes. Humans welcomed microbes into their homes as they made food and beverages to keep their families fit and healthy.

Early dairy farmers learned, for example, that by fermenting milk they could store dairy products for much longer than they would in its raw state. Cheese was born!

miso poured in bowlOther cultures discovered fermentation produced products with a range of health and preservation benefits like kimchi, tempehmiso or even fish. The core ingredient varied according to whatever the local culture had to hand - as well as whatever local microbes liked to eat!

Microbes have been helping us to get nutrition from a variety of substances that would be harmful or hard for us to digest, which is why fermented grains and dairy can be tolerated more easily than their unfermented equivalents. 

The Science

Now we know more about the science of fermentation and what a variety of microbes do, each specializing in different aspects of the end to end fermentation process. 

Fermentation, or more specifically of certain kinds of food, is called culturing. Essentially communities of microbes, or "cultures", colonize a food. As they start to convert naturally occurring sugars in the food into energy for themselves, microbes cause spontaneous fermentation in the surrounding food or beverage. 

That science is officially known as zymology and is really a study of naturally-occurring microbes, the family of organisms that play a role in fermentation. 

microbe architectureDuring fermentation, these small organisms consume available biodegradable material - like the sugar in dairy or grains - without the presence of oxygen. This process is known as anaerobic digestion.

Anaerobic digestion creates a range of bi-products, from the bubbles in a bubbling bottle of kombucha to the textures and flavors of cheeses, dairy products, fermented vegetable products like sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), kimchi (cabbage again...) and of course, Cultured Coffee!

Key Figures in Fermentation

We know about microbes thanks to the work of a handful of scientists.

Starting in the seventeenth century, two scientists who were members of the Royal Society in England and Holland discovered microbes. 

German scientist Ferdinand Cohn discovered there were different kinds of bacteria in the nineteenth century. His counterpart Robert Koch continued to explore the role of bacteria in causing human diseases until the early twentieth century. 

Finally Louis Pasteur, a nineteenth century French biologist, is known as the "father of microbiology" for his pioneering work uncovering the role microbes play in fermentation as well as less desired outcomes like sickness and food spoilage. His invention, pasteurization, is still used today to kill microbes that could cause sickness or cause food and drink to spoil. 

    Fermentation In Cultured Coffee

    coffee beansAt eatCultured we "control ferment" our coffee, which is a new scientific breakthrough.

    Control fermentation means using a consistent collection of microbes, specifically selected for their health and flavor benefits and compatibility with coffee, in a consistent way. 

    Cultured Coffee therefore is, quite literally, a cultured product. In fact, depending on how our coffee beans are harvested, they may have been fermented twice. Unlike wild or spontaneous fermentation, the result is a controlled level of fermentation, flavor and health benefits in every batch of Cultured Coffee.  

    Relearning to Love Microbes

    Humans have been teaming up with microbes for as long as we can remember. However recently modern practices, from industrial farming to food processing, have treated microbes like the enemy. We find that hard to digest.

    hand holding soilBy consuming a range of fermented foods and choosing organic products that promote good soil health, we all have a part to play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem for our own health and that of the planet.

    As advocates for the benefits these tiny organisms have brought to human civilization for millennia, we think it's time to think - and treat - microbes like the superstars they are.  

    We hope this article will inspire you to find out more about fermentation and microbes. Here's to that journey!


    Learn more about eatCultured's first healthy fermented product: Cultured Coffee 


    1 comment

    Ann Madland

    Thank you for this article, it was a fascinating read. I love that you care for the planet & added that bit in the end. If I liked coffee I would buy some of yours.
    Thanks again, Ann

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