Beer City: These Women Are at the Forefront of Asheville’s Explosive Fermentation Industry

Also known as Beer City, Asheville is home to more than 30 breweries as well as an urban winery and several cideries. However, fermentation goes far beyond alcohol in this city.
White Labs serves craft cocktails, wine, and 32 rotating taps of White Labs brewed and guest beers.
White Labs
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Asheville, N.C., is known as Beer City, the Land of the Sky, and even now as Music City, according to Rolling Stone. But could this Blue Ridge Mountains tourism hotspot and Beer City champion—home to more than 30 local breweries, a sake brewery, ginger brewery, urban winery, and several cideries—soon earn the nickname Ferment City?

A handful of local female entrepreneurs certainly think so, and Lisa White, vice president and cofounder of White Labs Kitchen & Tap, credits “the creative scene in Asheville” for the local fermentation industry’s fast growth. “The passion is contagious, and it’s fostered a real community that thrives off one another and pushes each other to do more,” she says.

Lisa White of White Labs Kitchen & Tap Room.
Shanda Crowe

In Foodtopia—dubbed in part for its James Beard–winning chefs—cynical locals, expecting tourists, and adventurous foodies alike need to be wowed for a food or drink product to stand out here, and White Labs makes for a great introduction to Asheville’s fermentation scene. In 2017, the yeastery chose Asheville as its expansion site, opening a multimillion-dollar facility to become the East Coast’s premier yeast provider. From the open kitchen, wood-fired pizzas are fermented with pure liquid yeast cultures.

A Margherita pizza fresh from the oven.
White Labs

“We’ll also be continuing our popular Fermented Pairings Series workshops [in 2020]. We’re partnering with some amazing artisans in the area to create some unique events, and we’re currently finalizing the details,” White shares. White Labs also uses different yeast strains in otherwise identical beer recipes so guests can compare the subtle differences side by side and will be hosting its second annual Fermentation Fest during 2020’s Asheville Beer Week next May 25–30.

The kombucha craze—a $1.5 billion market in the U.S. in 2018—has hit Asheville particularly hard, led by the self-described “Buchi Mamas,” Jeannine Buscher and Sarah Schomber of Buchi. For over a decade they’ve helped educate folks about the power of probiotics, creating one of the leading kombucha brands in America. Partnering with Rosetta’s Kitchen, they launched the Buchi Bar, an indoor garden oasis that serves Buchi flights and cocktails, like Dirty Roots made with bourbon, Buchi Earth, and Angostura bitters. “We see fermentation as a golden thread that connects humans to food, and food to nature. We came to this process through kombucha, in an effort to introduce healthier beverage choices to our families,” explains Buscher.

White Labs hosts its Fermented Festival with local vendors in Asheville, N.C., on May 26, 2019.
Shanda Crowe

Part of the reason fermented goods have taken hold in North Carolina’s art, cultural, and tourism hub can be traced to Asheville’s roots as a healing destination. Doctors began prescribing this small mountain town—population around 100,000 today—for its mild climate, biodiversity, and that special something that comes with being surrounded by perhaps the oldest mountains and river in the world. Yoga Bucha owner Rosie Mulford notes, “Western North Carolina had a reputation as a ‘healing’ place as far back as the 19th century. Asheville became one of the nation’s best-known locales for treating tuberculosis based on the ‘climatic theory’ that Asheville had the altitude, atmosphere, and climate to heal TB. So it is no surprise that we are leaders in healing today.” In fact, a handful of local wellness businesses have their sights set on creating a Wellness District downtown, which would likely incorporate Elements, known for its raw juice cleanses and avocado toast topped with pickled (a.k.a. fermented) purple cabbage.

Kombucha has become so popular in Asheville that two other women-led businesses have sprung up in recent years: Booda and Yoga Bucha. Like Buchi, both have aligned themselves with the yoga and wellness communities, and you can find Booda at the West Village Market & Deli in Asheville, which carries most locally fermented products. Want kombucha delivered? Yoga Bucha locally delivers half gallons, or take yoga led by Mulford at Asheville Yoga Center, where she’s been known to share samples after class.

White Labs serves craft cocktails, wine, and 32 rotating taps of White Labs brewed and guest beers.
White Labs

Another feather in Asheville’s fermentation cap is being home to the largest junery on the East Coast: Shanti Elixirs. Think of jun as kombucha’s sister; instead of fermented black tea and sugar, jun is made from green tea and honey. Shanti Volpe, the nurse, holistic practitioner, and perinatal educator behind the brand, hopes to one day open a brick-and-mortar. But for now, her fruit-forward juns can be found at nearly 100 local stops—a list that makes for a great fermentation guide too! Visit French Broad Co-op to find the full line of Shanti Elixirs, then try a jun-flavored ice cream at The Hop Ice Cream Cafe like Mango Habanero Jun Sorbet. Volpe says, “There is a strong fermentation culture growing here in Appalachia, and you can see that by visiting the more than 30 tailgate markets that exist in WNC,” where in the summertime, Volpe has been known to create jun slushies. She also recommends ferment enthusiasts check out Mother Earth News Fair, The Lake Eden Arts Festival, and Get off the Grid, events where her company offered jun brewing classes in 2019.

Fermenti Foods owner Meg Chamberlain.
Fermenti Foods

Like Shanti Elixirs, Fermenti Foods products can be found at practically all the area farmers’ markets and specialty food shops around town. Owner Meg Chamberlain encourages DIY fermenting to help grow a fermenting culture here and beyond, much like how homebrewing helped build the craft beer community. Chefs around town have begun to rely on Fermenti for a punch of flavor and nutrition, such as The Underground Cafe, featuring DoughP Doughnuts made with Fermenti glazes. Chamberlain is also the mastermind behind the WNC Fermentation Festival, which will celebrate its third installment on November 3. “I started the festival with the hopes of bringing our community together to create strength and diversity in our local food culture,” Chamberlain says. She frequently offers workshops and lectures and will launch “Farm to Ferment” dinners in 2020.

Fermenti Foods garlic pickles.
Fermenti Foods

To end your visit to Asheville on a sweet note, take a tour of French Broad Chocolate Lounge’s new factory in the River Arts District, home to more than 200 working artists’ and makers’ studios. Like coffee, cheese, and charcuterie, chocolate also comes to fruition through fermentation, and French Broad’s tour dives into this process, and tour-goers enjoy plenty of samples along the way.

And as you consider your health goals for 2020, perhaps heed the advice of Sarah Archer, owner of Asheville’s Serotonin Ferments, whose kimchi is featured at Dobra Tea in West Asheville: “Over 80% of the serotonin in our bodies is produced in our gut, and when we eat fermented foods, it increases our serotonin levels, helping us get happy! Most people know eating fermented foods is good for your digestion, but few know the extent of their benefits. Having a diverse gut microbiome affects all the systems of our body, including our mental health.”

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