Hex Ferments, new in Belvedere Square

Mount Washington couple sells kraut, kimchi and kombucha

March 18, 2014|By John Houser III, For The Baltimore Sun

It's sometimes difficult to know when to call the act of cooking an art or a craft. That's especially true of Meaghan and Shane Carpenter, owners and self-proclaimed "alchemists" at Hex Ferments, a new shop opening this week in Belvedere Square.

Located behind Atwater's, Hex sells items such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. Fermented foods like these have found themselves in the spotlight as the ingredient of the moment with many high-profile writers and cooks — such as Michael Pollan, Sandor Katz and David Chang — touting their usefulness and health benefits in books or lectures.

Fermented foods may be a hot new trend, but they aren't exactly a new thing. Humans have been fermenting foods as far back as the 10,000 B.C. Beer, wine and leavened bread are the most recognizable among fermented foods, but items such as pickles, yogurt, vinegar, cheese and cured sausages (think salami) are fermented as well.

Besides being delicious, fermented foods also help to boost our immune systems. Kasia Kines, a licensed nutritionist and owner of Holistic Nutrition Naturally in Mount Washington, says that the bacteria contained in fermented foods provide benefits such as reducing the body's reaction to food allergies or other potentially inflammatory reactions. Fermented foods also have been partially broken down by the fermentation process, making them easy to digest.

"Research confirms that these traditionally fermented foods contain enough probiotics (good bacteria) for therapeutic effect," Kines says.

Fermented foods are a result of microorganisms + food + time. When making sauerkraut, salt is added to cabbage and left to ferment in its own juice over a period of time, and lactic acid, which is produced in the fermenting process, preserves the vegetable and gives it its distinct sour flavor profile. Without the help from its microscopic saviors, the cabbage would have spoiled.

It has been dedication to this ancient process that has led Hex Ferments from its humble roots of bartering wares with friends to selling them at farmers markets to opening up a storefront in one of the Baltimore's more upscale gourmet markets. Always a bit more than a hobby, making Kombucha is where the Hex origin story begins.

Meaghan loved to share kombucha, a fermented drink made from green tea, when she brewed a large batch of the fizzy elixir. "Some people just put it into bottles and drink it fresh, but we do a second ferment where we add in our flavorings and honey," Meaghan says. "Then we bottle it to build up that natural carbonation."

Working on recipes from their Mount Washington home, the Carpenters were getting more serious about making fermented foods when friends finally convinced them that they should sell their fare.

They did have trepidations about starting a new business.

"We had been talking about starting something like this because there was nothing like this in Baltimore, but I had an administrative job and Shane owns ReadyLuck Photography and we were content in our lives," Meaghan says. After much discussion, they decided to take a chance. "So I quit my job and started it," she says. "Shane's been helping out and we've been working on it together." That's when the real work started for the couple.

"We busted our butts and got legit quick" Meaghan says, recalling the genesis of her artisanal food career. After months of renting commercial kitchen space at the Hampden United Methodist Church, the Carpenters began looking for premises in November and signed on with Belvedere Square in December. Shane still owns and works at ReadyLuck Photography.

From their open store front, Hex Ferments will sell their own items and also offer supplies for home fermenters.

The krauts at Hex are light years away in taste from the soggy and dull shreds packed in bags at your local grocer. Bright and crunchy with a wonderful sourness, the Hex sauerkraut is labeled as "a probiotic rich, living food". Because it's never been pasteurized, the kraut (and all other Hex products) retains the microbes that are created through natural fermentation. They feature flavors such as garlic-oregano, juniper and a refreshing blend called New Years Resolution.

Drew Alfgren became a loyal customer of Hex Ferments after trying their kombucha at the Union Graze farmers' market in Hampden.

"I didn't really eat much [fermented food] before Hex. I eat lots more now. More because it's better flavor, fresher and her krauts are great on all sorts of things," says Alfgren, a reference librarian at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I like to make turkey and Swiss topped with the New Years kraut. It adds just the right crunch and flavor to the sandwich."

Hex's tangy and spicy kimchi is made with miso instead of fish sauce which makes it vegan. They have started to make their own miso as well. "It's a quality control issue" says Shane. "We also look forward to hopefully growing our own peppers for the kimchi to keep a consistent product".

Along with selling their creations, Hex will give classes on fermentation once a month.

"We want to teach people" says Meaghan, "There's a lot of power in learning how to make your own. It should be process that's shared and learned between people."

And while many food-trend list makers have spotlighted fermented food as the next big thing, the Carpenters say that was never their motivation. What drives them, they say, is a pursuit of the sublime, a chance to open minds and inform the people by sharing delicious food that is also healthy.

"It's nice to see that the culture of food has been revitalized but also a bit of our agrarian past also being revitalized. In the last 10 years, seeing Baltimore and the community transform as a whole and for us to be part of it has been remarkable."

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