In an unassuming basement tucked in the hills of the Berkshires, Maddie Elling and Abraham (Abe) Hunrichs rot vegetables and grow mold. As “partners in business and partners in life,” their company Hosta Hill is providing farmers’ markets and stores in Massachusetts with some of the finest vegetable ferments and tempeh in the region. In this Profile, I’ll share what I learned at Hosta Hill about taming tempeh molds, the challenges of artisan fermentation production, and the joys of growing raw materials for fermentation.
I have to admit that when I pulled into the driveway of Hosta Hill in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I was looking around for a hill full of hostas like this. I happen to be really into hostas (they are big-leaved plants that your grandma probably also loves). I didn’t see a single hosta plant, although I was told the hostas do exist somewhere. But that botanical disappointment soon faded when I walked into the newly built (thank you Kickstarter!) fermentation and production kitchen space in the basement of Maddie and Abe’s home. Abe, an incredibly warm and enthusiastic guy who clearly loves to geek out about microbes, greeted me. In a large room, huge bins were fermenting kimchi and various types of sauerkraut. A roomy kitchen contains an area for processing raw grains and a massive stove for cooking grains. A climate-controlled room off to the side, creating a perfect environment for mold growth, is where Hosta Hill’s tempeh is ripened.
Abe’s interest in fermentation came in part from an experience in an undergraduate microbiology class. “We made yogurt and sauerkraut and once I learned about the role of microbes in fermentation, I was hooked.” After spending over a year making Berkshire Blue cheese and dabbling with fermentation at home, the couple decided to jump into full-scale production of fermented foods. Nearly a year and a half after their successful Kickstarter campaign to build their current kitchen space, Abe and Maddie have been very busy with a high demand for their products at farmers’ markets. They’ve been carefully growing their business to meet this demand and recently started selling their product at stores throughout the region.
One reason I was particularly interested in visiting Hosta Hill is to observe small-scale production of tempeh, a rare enterprise in the US. Full disclosure: I am not a huge tempeh connoisseur. I love it as much as I love tofu (which I eat once and awhile, but don’t really ever crave). But I do love the biology underlying the production of mold-ripened foods like tempeh. And I love hanging out with people who grow mold for a living. Abe took me into their fermentation room, a warm and humid space filled with racks of tempeh. The mold Rhizopus is inoculated onto cooked grains (usually soybeans and other grains such as quinoa are mixed in). Within 48 hours, a thick mycelium binds together the grains to make tempeh. Most tempeh you can buy at the store is pasteurized, which can lead to a wet, sticky, and dense texture. Hosta Hill does not pasteurize their product, and Abe tells me that many tempeh-lovers are drawn to the fluffier texture of their product.
As a microbiologist, I am always interested in how food producers approach controlling the invisible organisms in their products. Abe said it’s really quite different with the vegetable ferments compared to the tempeh products. With the vegetable ferments, he and Maddie think a lot about the raw materials and salt concentration. Storage vegetables and fresh vegetables have different sugar concentrations which will impact the rate of fermentation. Sometimes, the same vegetables grown at a different farm or harvested at a different time of year will produce a distinct texture or ferment at a different rate. It’s not totally clear why, but perhaps the microbes that are present on the leaves of the vegetables that will ultimately do the fermenting may be different. Abe also has optimized salt concentrations for flavors of their product as well as the rate of fermentation.
With tempeh, Hosta Hill focuses on controlling the species or strain of the mold Rhizopus. Two main species are available for producers: Rhizopus oligosporus and Rhizopus oryzae. Because some strains of these fungi grow much more quickly and some seem to be better adapted to grow on different grains, Abe will select different molds depending on the timing of production as well as the composition of the grains. Controlling the environment is also key to getting the mold to grow properly: too much or too little humidity can cause the mold to switch from making that fuzzy mycelium (desirable for fusing the grain together) to making lots of spores (not really desirable, because it divests energy from making mycelium and looks pretty ugly). In the final stages of growth, the mold can go quickly (within hours) from beautiful fuzzy growth to overgrown and full of spores, so it’s really important to stop it at the right point in growth. Abe notes that “having the fermentation room in the basement of my own house is convenient when the perfect time to stop the mold growth happens to fall at 1am in the morning.”
Being a small artisan fermented food producer in a food landscape that is dominated by largely sterile and mass-produced foods has its challenges. It’s difficult for food inspectors to understand that with these microbial foods, you are intentionally letting beneficial microbes grow to help preserve the foods and add desired textures and flavors. For technical aspects of tempeh production, Abe has relied a lot on the excellent books by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. For help with food safety plan development, the folks at Cornell’s Food Science Department were incredibly helpful. Abe said that they appreciated and understood how traditional methods of fermentation can add value to raw materials, and he would recommend anyone thinking of starting a new fermentation business to seek help from them.
In addition to their delicious products, beautifully designed labels, and warm spirits, I am really impressed with how Abe and Maddie are interested in not just fermenting foods, but also in the production of the raw materials that they use. Abe told me that “relocalizing our economy is very important to us, so we grow about 40 percent of our raw material inputs.” They’ve partnered with The Adobe Farm CSA in New Lebanon, NY (right across the border from Hosta Hill), where they work several days a week and get vegetables for their fermentations. “I really love being outside, so being able to grow our raw materials is an amazing way to spend time outdoors and with other members of the local food community.” By having their hands in both production and fermentation, Hosta Hill can take care of their products all the way from the farm field to the fermentation vessel and ultimately to a jar in your refridgerator. Along the way, they carefully grow and manage an incredible mix of microbes, and the results are delicious.
Huge thanks to Abe for spending so much time chatting about microbes, agriculture, and many other things. I am sad I missed my chance to chat with Maddie – she was on her way to set up for a farmer’s market and I was very late. Check out their products at various farmers’ markets and stores throughout Massachusetts.
Post and photos (except where indicated) by Benjamin E. Wolfe.