PICKLE POWER: Home fermenter Victoria Schneider. IMAGE: Darryl James

Some things just get better the longer you let 'em sit around and rot—OK, ferment. Get it right and your friends yeast and bacteria (plus time) can turn grapes into wine or cabbage into kraut. Get it wrong and it'll turn innocent foods into festering, rancid buckets of ooze. This Thursday, the city gathers to recognize the trials and triumphs of home fermenters at the first ever Portland Fermentation Festival—a one-day event at Ecotrust created by David Barber, co-owner of Picklopolis and Three Square Grill, together with home food scientists Gretchen Westlight, Laleña Dolby and George Winborn. Lauded writer and teacherSandor Katz, a fermentation fetishist who lives in a queer intentional community "deep in the wooded hills of Tennessee," will speak (and pickle) at the fest, along with at locals who've signed up to share tasters of everything from fermented bread to wine and kefir. "I'm going to be doing a ghost pickle—a white cucumber that makes a really incredible pickle," Barber says. "I was going to bring kombucha, but everybody is bringing kombucha." In preparation for the fest, WW grilled a few of the event's fermenters on their slow-food love.

Cultural revivalist, fermentation teacher and author.

What was your fermentation gateway drug?
Sauerkraut, 1993—after I started gardening and realized that all the radishes and all of the cabbages are ready at once. That first kraut tasted so alive and powerfully nutritious! Its sharp flavor sent my salivary glands into a frenzy and got me hooked on fermentation.

Best fermented or pickled thing you ever ate or drank.
Oh my God, I love it all. It all started for me with sour pickles. But I love mead, wine and beer, cheese, bread, miso, tempeh, natto, prosciutto, all the vinegar-based condiments...chocolate. I love it all but I remain devoted to sauerkraut.

Have your ever fermented something that you really, really shouldn't have?
Sometimes I've left [things] too long or without adequate protection against flies and had maggots crawling out.

Look around your kitchen. Name something you could make into an alcoholic beverage that you wouldn't think could ever be turned into booze.

Recently quit day job at Ecotrust.

Fermentation gateway drug?
Kombucha, about five years ago. The tea itself was delicious and tasted as it should, a bit fizzy, hinting at vinegar. The kombucha mother was another story. Seeing it grow for the first time helped me to instantly realize the great mystery on the world. I once tried biting the mother just to see if it tastes as weird as it looks. It does.

Best fermented or pickled thing you ever ate or drank.
My homemade cabbage kimchi that David Barber of Picklopolis says is in no way real kimchi, because I didn't ferment it long enough.

Have your ever fermented something that you really, really shouldn't have?
I can't, for the life of me, get kraut right. Always mold on top. Always stinky, in the wrong way. A waste of time and money and beautiful cabbage, but no illness at least; no way would I put it in my mouth.

Assistant to the General Manager at Food Front Cooperative Grocery. Barters/sells kombucha and water (nondairy) kefir to neighbors and friends, teaches classes on how to make both of them and wild honey wine at Tryon Life Community Farm and other venues.

What was your fermentation gateway drug?
A neighbor gave me a kombucha culture in the dead of winter 2004. I was afraid to touch it or handle it, to taste the kombucha as it fermented (how will I know when it's done!?!?), or to deviate from the recipe in any way.

Best fermented or pickled thing you ever ate or drank.
Homemade kombucha still takes the cake for me—it's SOOOO much better than anything I can buy commercially. I control the flavors, the balance of tart/sweet, and the quantity I make. To make a gallon of kombucha (heat the water, cost of tea and sugar, dedicated equipment) probably doesn't even cost what a pint of commercial brand does. My husband has liked all the kimchis (except the fruit one—I got to eat all of that).

Have your ever fermented something that you really, really shouldn't have?
The night that my recently bottled mace honey wine decided to explode at 11 pm. It was very dramatic—first a puddle of honey wine all over the dining room floor, followed by a 2-inch circle of foaming wine on the kitchen ceiling when we moved the unpopped bottles in there and neglected to cover them. It was the first time I added a flavor to the honey, and I learned an important lesson about the unpredictability of chemical reactions, plus the fact that for many spices, a little can go a really, really long way. I let my flavored wines stay in the airlock a lot longer now. And then there's the batch of dandelion wine I'm currently making. Do you know how long it takes to pick a gallon of dandelions? And then how long it takes to process them? Or how long your hands will be stained brown from doing that? Answer to all the questions: a long, long, long time.

Something you can turn into booze:
Honey is always a surprise, especially because all you have to do is add water, stir, and leave it open for a few days to the yeasts floating in the air in your kitchen. You can have a tasty (sweet) wine in just over a week! That illustrates the beauty of fermentation: It's not all that hard to do.

Nutritional Therapist, teaches fermented food preparation classes and workshops on other health topics.

Fermentation gateway drug?
About five years ago I went to a kraut making workshop and was hooked! My first batch of sauerkraut was really great and I thought oh, this is a snap. But my second batch, which I grew all the 10 heads of cabbage, I did not measure the salt and it did not "turn over" and just sat there and rotted.

Best fermented or pickled thing you ever ate or drank.
I love beet kvass, which is a traditional beverage from Russia made from beets, water, salt, whey and time. The very first time I tasted it my body said "you have been looking for this your whole life!" If I drink kvass, I can work in the garden all day long and not get tired.

Have your ever fermented something that you really, really shouldn't have?
Any raw food (sometimes cooked) can be made into a healthy fermented food. It is only guided by your taste. Sauerkraut has something like 300 times more vitamin C than cabbage. These are super foods and restore healthy function to your digestive system, immune system and even your thyroid function. There is nothing I can think of that one should not try to ferment.

Day job: Creative Director, Grapheon Design; owner of Les Garagistes "winery."

What was your fermentation gateway drug?
I actually made beer for a while after college. I remember a mentor, half in the bag and lightly glazed, impart to me his sacred mantra: "Brew it strong. Drink it green." Which I faithfully did, but the results were, well, green, so I lost interest. A few months after I quit brewing I came across a few bottles I'd forgotten about. Chilled down, they were amazing, underlining the virtues of a little age on homebrew. But it was too late: I'd given away my equipment and there was too much good beer by real brewers out there to enjoy.

But the experience did open my eyes to the magic of fermentation, something which still engrosses me today. We ferment our wines with "wild" yeast, which means we don't add yeast, but let the critters that come in on the grapes, and have accumulated in the winery, swoop down and have their way with our must. It's tricky, because the wrong kinds of yeasts can take over and compromise your wine, but our theory is that we've been doing this long enough that the yeasts that have successfully made it through a full fermentation are predominant in the basement, so it's their turf, their rules.

The result is a more complex wine than you'd get if you added a single yeast strain. It's polyculture versus monoculture, but it's also magic. Now, don't get me wrong: when I hear that word associated with fermentation, I too think of McMenamins' over-wrought prose and fat, balding guys with ponytails sipping mead in their Birkenstocks. But as sullied as the word "magic" is, it's still frickin' true: that you can essentially leave some grapes around for a few weeks and get a transcendent liquor out the other side, well, what other word describes it better?

Best fermented or pickled thing you ever ate or drank.
You probably know that with wine at least, what you're doing has almost as much to do with your enjoyment as what you're drinking. That's why that first date wine never quite tastes the same again (sad!). So for me, wine memorability usually seems to correlate with eating and drinking into the night after we've done some winemake-y thing. We open older vintages of stuff we've made, some of it from world-class vineyards like Klipsun, and the wine becomes the soundtrack to a very, very good evening.

But in the past of most wine geeks, there is almost always an epiphany of some kind that takes wine out of one conceptual box (dude, let's drink some WIIIIINE!) and into another (holy crap, this is like chamber music with flavors). That happened a lot when I wrote the column as winemakers or distributors turned me on to world class examples of varietals that were completely new to me, but the first time it happened was probably in the early '90s.

A friend's father had given her a nice Bordeaux in college that she dutifully carried along as she moved from apartment to house to house. One night, as a friend of hers took possession of a particularly nice apartment, we hung out in the empty space and she decided to open this ancient gem. It was from 1982, I think, one of the best vintages of the century, and it was from the right bank (a Pomerol or St. Emilion, I think, but the name escapes me). I got one taste of that and I was gobsmacked. As my friends went about talking and drinking, I receded into a corner with my nose in the glass for the rest of the evening, spellbound as it changed, danced, evolved with each new sip.

Something you can turn into booze:
I have a hysterical book a friend found in a [D]umpster, written by a clearly shell-shocked Brit just after the second world war. In it he makes liquor out of just about anything: sugar, water, yeast and [you name it]. My favorite is his "Irish whiskey" knockoff, which I seem to recall uses carrots. Hmmm....

EAT: Portland Fermentation Festival takes place at Ecotrust’s Billy Frank Jr. Conference Center, 721 NW 9th Ave. 6-8 pm Thursday, Aug. 27. Free. All ages; open to the public. More info at pdxfermentfest@gmail.com.

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