How to get started with ferments in the bar (the Bulletin Place way)

The various fruit wines, cordials, kombuchas and lacto ferments that Bulletin Place is experimenting with. Photo: Christopher Pearce

If you have even a passing interest in health and eating well, you would know that there’s a vogue right now for all things microbes and gut flora and microbiome.

We don’t pretend to know what that is all about with any level of expertise — they’re not really traditional bartending words after all — but we can say that it has something to do with bacteria.

Bacteria get a bad rap. So does yeast (no-one wants to hear the words yeast and infection sitting alongside one another, and less so in a bar). And sure, bad bacteria can kill you. (Okay so perhaps the rap is deserved). But there’s a whole host of bacteria which doesn’t kill you. Some of them are very good for you. According to Sandor Ellix Katz’s book, The Art Of Fermentation, there’s something in the order of 100 trillion bacteria in our human bodies, outnumbering our own cells by 10 to 1. Bacteria are such an essential part of who we are as humans that some geneticists, according to Katz, argue that humans are a composite of many species.

Thankfully some bacteria make things that are delicious— they’re a large part of a couple recipes we have here. And yeast, well, without yeast they’re ain’t alcohol, so you can thank yeast for your employment.

For this month’s How To, we spoke to Evan Stroeve, the bar manager at the much-lauded Bulletin Place in Sydney. Stroeve has been playing around with different fermented drinks for a while now, since his days at Shady Pines Saloon.

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“I started doing it for commercial consumption about 18 months ago, and it started as kind of educating yourself and wanting to learn — that’s what it was born from,” says Stroeve. “And now it’s got to the point I feel pretty comfortable teaching other people about it.”

The basic stuff

First up, when you’re dealing with microbial organisms you’ll need to be clean — very clean. You are, after all, creating an environment where yeasts and bacteria, both good and bad, want to live, and it’s only the good stuff that you’re after. What you need is a sterile environment, some knowledge, and a willingness to learn and be patient. Says Stroeve: “The best example of that window of opportunity and that potential for infection is an analogy that you are the bouncer to a club, right? And you’ve got all these customers trying to get in — some of them are going to be lovely, they’re going to have a great time, they’re not going to overdo it. And you’ve got a bunch of people who are going to overdo it, they’re going to get pissed and cause problems. It’s those bad people who are the bad bacteria, and those good people who are the beneficial bacteria. So your role as the person who ferments things is to allow those people in and reject those other people.”

Buy yourself The Noma Guide To Fermentaton book — which Kurtis Bosley has written about before here — and Katz’s The Art Of Fermentation, as a handy reference to get started — this story is just to get you acquainted with the ideas.

Whatever you do, don’t foist your experiments on your guests until you know they’re up to scratch.

Kombucha

Kombucha — it’s very popular in Bondi and Byron Bay, right? But just what is kombucha?

We’ll ask Stroeve to explain. “It’s a combination of tea, and something called a SCOBY — symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” he says. “So rather than just straight yeast consuming sugar and creating alcohol, you’ve got the yeast doing that and vingear bacteria, acetic acid bacteria, consuming the alcohol and turning it into vinegar.”

For kombucha, the mother (or SCOBY) grows on top of the liquid where it interacts with oxygen, so a wide-mouthed vessel is best to use. To get the mother happening, you can buy commerically made kombucha with a live mother in it (get one that is unflavoured), pour it into a wide jar and cover with a cloth. Your mother should begin to grow a skin on the surface of the liquid and hey presto, your SCOBY is here.

Once you’ve got that, take Stroeve’s recipe for his Bad & Boochy for a spin.

Evan Stroeve at Bulletin Place eyes off their Lacto Macadamia Honey. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Lacto ferments

This is the stuff you’re going to hear more about, says Stroeve, thanks in large part to the the Noma book. And it’s with the lacto ferment at Bulletin Place where the smart stuff happens. 

“It’s probably the most accessible [fermentation] both for bartenders and for consumers,” says Stroeve. “Essentially what it is, it’s yoghurt whey, macadamia milk, coconut water, some almond, and raw sugar. And basically all the lactic acid in the whey converts the sugar into lactic acid — it’s a lacto ferment. You combine it all in an anaerobic environment — which is an oxygen-free environment — like a vacuum pack, and you give it a couple of days and watch it slowly expand. That’s the CO2 that’s the byproduct of that enzymatic conversion.”

And what is smart about this is how they use it.

“What we do with it, was take a raw honey which you’d normally dilute with water, and what we did was dilute it with [the lacto ferment] so that you have a lacto macadamia honey syrup. Pop a bit of gin and lemon in that and you’ve got a Bees Knees with a bit of funk to it,” Stroeve says.

Essentially they’ve hacked that one ingredient which you’ll see behind many bars, honey, and added extra complexity to it by getting this work done behind the scenes. 

You can take a look at their Bee Sting here, and adapt their Lacto Fermented Macadamia Honey recipe for your own purposes.

Next steps

So you want to take a crack at fermentation? You’re going to need some equipment. At Bulletin Place they’ve got the kit, things like a refractometer for measuring the brix or sugar levels in their liquids.

You’ll want the aforementioned books, and then the time to experiment. But most of all, if you’ve only just begun bartending, know that this probably isn’t for you just yet. “Like all things that are a little bit out there and different and new, you have to master your craft before you expand on it,” says Stroeve.  

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