Fermentation Feels Like Home
And all that term entails.
Before the neighborhood had awakened from its Saturday slumber, the women and I would gather at the brewery, our breath condensing in the cold morning as we peeled layers off of our leggings and sports bras. We’d roll out our mats and begin to move while the sweet smell of fermenting grain filled our senses and the sun slowly filtered through the cracked garage door. When the bartender lined the countertop with glasses gleaming gold, amber, and brown-black, we knew class was almost done. All of it warmed us, body and soul, with the promise of malty calm and nowhere else to be.
My friend taught yoga and barre classes in breweries as part of a women’s and femmes’ beer group in Seattle, and these sacred gatherings helped get me through the painful post-divorce period. It’s no longer that time, I’m not in that place, and I’m not the same person now, but I carry the imprint with me: connections built over bottles and cans, pints and glasses, never so much about the substance as what it represents.
Any time I smell barley and hops before noon, I’m briefly transported back to that experience. Time travel, according to Nikola Tesla, is when past, present, and future exist all at once, and this is what happens when you tilt a roasty-sweet pint of Porter, let a leathery Bordeaux wash its tannins across your tongue, or drain a glass of raki while locking eyes with new friends in a liturgical “Ya mas.” The inherent here-and-now-ness of fermented beverages makes them downright DeLoreans: encapsulating, unspoken, so much memory and feeling. One sip, and millennia course through your veins to deposit you in the present moment, commanding sensory awareness and reminding you that you have a body here on this Earth plane.
Fermentation feels like Mama Gaia welcoming me into her embrace, and it’s literally true. “Mother” is another name for the starter that kicks off this magical metabolic process, giving life to food and drinks like beer and wine, coffee and cheese, sauerkraut and chocolate. There’s a reason so many of us, myself in particular, are fanatically, frenetically compelled to their evangelization and consumption.
But it’s easy to only talk about the beautiful parts. Fermentation also feels like home because it’s unpredictable; volatile; unreliable. When making fermented food and drinks, you can follow the process, but no two batches will ever be exactly the same; the smallest variables can change the whole equation. And the outcomes of our consumption are even more fraught with uncertainty, raising us up and smashing us down in the infinite interplay of light and shadow.
When the past comes rushing back to you, it isn’t always a good thing. What felt like a hug can quickly turn to a chokehold; illumination shifts to rumination, memories unrealistically nostalgic or impossibly bleak. Immersion in the present moment obscures the future, which can include the way you’ll feel after that next bite or sip. If fermentation is the mother, it is also so many of our fathers: setting soaring expectations for experiences that are only intermittently met, the promise of wrathful retribution always simmering below a brightly bubbling surface.
It’s unmistakable that fermented products, from beer to cheese, have centered most of my life’s most treasured personal and professional experiences. But I also have a complicated relationship with them. I’ve fallen prey to the myth of the tortured creator, that tired old trope: the idea that if you aren’t suffering, it isn’t art. Seeking self-destruction as fodder for story; confusing the medium with the muse. But even more, I’ve used these substances to silence the tape of traumatic patterns that used to run on a nonstop loop in my head, and which is still audible when I am triggered or my defenses are down.
My consumption of cheese and chocolate can easily rise to excessive, self-medicating levels. And alcohol has accompanied and directed me to depths unspeakably dark: brushes with death and sordid encounters that left me hopeless and helpless, ruined and stained. Anesthetization is a phenomenon especially evident here in the lands of my origins, the Kingdom united in emotional repression, and I am aware that I must remain aware.
For that sweet smell of new beginnings becomes the stench of death when it’s seeping sickly-sour from your pores, temples pounding as traces of encounters invade your consciousness: In whose bed did your senseless vessel place itself? Whose blood has soldered the bedsheets to your shins? What damage was done to your vehicles, and who was there to witness it? The only remedy is the snake eating its tail, taking the edge off fresh mistakes and priming you for the next round; muting the shame of decisions that can never be unmade, the epigenetic pain of self-sabotaging cycles.
I’m not that person anymore, either; I’ve healed those destructive patterns, identifying the sources of relationship drama with alcohol and rewriting the rules. Yet I continue to replay these kinds of dramas on small scales with comically low stakes, whether it’s eating too much chocolate or compulsively buying cheese. And as communities of food and beverage professionals, writers, and people, we don’t talk about these things enough.
But there is hope. Just as surely as old patterns were set, for many, they can be cleared; generations’ worth of trauma can be healed; we just have to use the right tools for the job. There is a vast panoply of treatments for trauma-affiliated afflictions, but the ones that really work involve looking at the truth, unflinching, from a safe space of objective observation. These include Eye Movement Desensitization Rapidization (EMDR); Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy; compassionate inquiry; and among the most powerful, psychedelic-assisted healing, from therapist-led LSD sessions to ayahuasca ceremonies and intimate journeys in the woods with psilocybin.
But I believe any consciousness-altering substance, even food and alcohol, can bring healing, approached with the proper intentions in a supportive set and setting. It’s all about bringing awareness to the ways you’re entering in. But healing from trauma, however you approach it, isn’t easy. To this day, every victory, every breakthrough, seems to be followed by some moment of setback or collapse, but that’s the way it works. What matters is what we do next; the choices we make to shift the energy.
I want to start a healing circle where food and drink are used as sacrament, the way our ancestors did: using them to connect to both humanity and divinity, to soften receptivity so we can open to love. There are people who are doing this, even if that isn’t what they call it, and I’m grateful to be discovering them all over the world, but we need to spread the gospel.
After all, fermentation is a faith-based practice, trusting things you cannot see to alchemically combine and bring forth new life. The beating heart of a beverage is yeast, and those strains commonly associated with fermented beverages—Saccharomyces cerevisiae and S. bayanus—share a common ancestor with humans, despite being a single-celled species. In fact, yeasts and multicellular mammals share almost all of the same chemical functions and organelles, the “little organs” inside cells that power them in infinite fractal repetition. It’s no wonder we form such deeply personal connections with these substances; in a very real way, they are us.
And all of us, whether unicellular or containing multitudes, are made of an equally complex mosaic of the light and the dark parts: equilibrium and volatility, effervescence and bitterness, life and death. To understand, we must look at the bigger picture, acknowledging our histories as they really are; including all of it.
When I think about those brewery mornings, I miss those women at that time—but the real question is what I was longing for, and what I can take with me. Cycles begin and end; one reaction kickstarts another; substance and form continually change into something new. Keep your nose to the wind, and allow the sweet smell of life beginning to lead you back home.