REEDSBURG — Fermentation Fest is the Comic Con for fans of fermentation.

“It’s a fest celebrating fermentation so it brings out all the geeks like any festival,” Vanessa Tortolano, co-founder of Ness-Alla Kombucha in Madison, said. “It brings out the geeks of that culture (pun intended).”

With the ever-growing interest in local food, the process of fermenting is becoming a passion for many in Madison and southern Wisconsin. Even for those who don’t partake in fermenting themselves, there is a fascination in where these processes come from and how they can improve the human body.

Cultures have always practiced fermentation; it’s about taking an abundance and making it last — increasing its value and purpose, said Donna Neuwirth, co-founder of the Wormfarm Institute, which hosts the festival.

“The thing that excites us isn’t just the nuts and bolts of fermenting, but the metaphors of taking the abundance from the season whether it’s grain to beer or milk to cheese or cabbage to kimchi,” she said. “By applying ancient practices and almost magic it turns into another thing.”

Neuwirth said the Reedsburg festival, which attracted 22,000 people last year, is one of only two fermentation festivals in the country along with a one-day festival in Portland, Oregon.

Since fermentation has seemingly always been around, it’s hard for its supporters to justify it being coined “a fad.” As time goes on and people learn more about it, the popularity is growing, Tortolano said.

And that interest growth might not taper off anytime soon.

It’s simply old culture coming back after society tried shaking off the old ways in support of new “more Americanized” ways of living, said Tortolano, whose business produces a fermented tea drink called kombucha.

“People were trying to live a more modern lifestyle,” she said. “Processed foods were a new thing and a way to adapt to American modern culture. They were letting go of the older, traditional things and now, I think, we are coming back around to them because we are realizing how good they are for us and how good they are for our diets.”

Growing art

Fermentation Fest, in its seventh year, isn’t a celebration just for foodies. Its focus is on culture in all of its forms.

Wormfarm is primarily an arts organization dedicated to exploring the links between urban and rural communities while integrating culture and agriculture through arts residency programs.

Neuwirth said they bring artists to the farm to help with the crops thus providing a mutual feeding in which the artists “feed the garden which feeds the artists and then feeds their artwork.”

The festival runs Friday through Oct. 8 and Oct. 13-15.

In the past, the festival included the Farm/Art DTour which involved a 50-mile/42-stop tour of the area.

Visitors could see various farms, partake in food and experience a multitude of art installations. However, the program is large and more difficult to manage so it will now be biennial and reappear next year.

Although the DTour is taking a break this year, visitors will still have a chance to experience what Fermentation Fest has come to stand for.

“It’s a broad live culture convergence,” Neuwirth said. “It’s live culture in all its forms from dance to yogurt and from poetry to sauerkraut.”

The festival marketplace, City Park Food Chain, 222 N Park St., Reedsburg, will feature food, beer, art and some small-scale workshops that are free and don’t require registration.

Jay Salinas, co-founder and director of special projects for Wormfarm, said Food Chain is akin to a condensed version of DTour.

Anyone expecting “good food and culture and things happening” can find it at City Park, he added.

Unexpected fermentation

For the foodies who prefer beer to kombucha or regular cabbage to kimchi, there is also a lot to be learned about some foods that might not immediately come to mind when thinking about fermentation.

Like chocolate.

In the first years that Lisa Nelson, founder of Roots Chocolates LLC out of Wisconsin Dells, attended Fermentation Fest, people weren’t sure why she was there.

That was when she would pull out a demonstration cacao pod and explain to attendees how the cacao beans she purchases are fermented.

“A lot of people don’t know that chocolate is a fermented food,” she said.

As is common with Fermentation Fest vendors, Nelson takes joy in educating people about the thing she loves. The fest gives vendors a chance to further appreciate their crafts and see them as an art form.

Chocolate is a living piece of art like any other fermented food, according to Nelson. Artisan chocolatiers develop a personal technique, but the love that goes into their work makes their end product all the more flavorful.

“Mass-created chocolate out there isn’t art any longer,” Nelson said. “It’s a mechanized recipe. There is a lot to be said about artisan bread making or artisan chocolate making that makes things people can enjoy.”

Nelson will co-host a beer and chocolate pairing event at Fermentation Fest with Lone Girl Brewing at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased online at fermentationfest.com.

As of Friday, there were eight spots left in the tasting event.

Festival organizers strongly encourage pre-registration for any events visitors really want to attend. Certain activities, like classes taught by Shawn Rediske, tend to sell out.

Several programs are already sold out.

Rediske, co-owner of Water House Foods in Lake Mills, is the festival’s busiest teacher. He’s teaching 17 classes during the six-day festival.

Although it’s a chaotic schedule to take on, Rediske said he doesn’t mind the workload. He purposefully takes on all of the classes to make the most out of the festival.

He also thoroughly enjoys teaching Fermentation Fest attendees because they’re so enthusiastic.

Rediske, a former product engineer, crafts grain products. Many of his classes in the past focused on breads, but this year he is expanding into things like pastries, cakes and even cinnamon rolls.

Although his day-to-day involvement with foods is a far cry from his former day job, Rediske appreciates the variety that fermentation offers him in his artisan food making.

“It appeals to the crazy mad scientist engineer in me,” he said. “My training was at UW-Madison … and I was a foundry rat. We’ve been making swords and stuff like that since the dawn of time and we still don’t know what we’re doing. There are so many variables and making bread is just like that.

“When you think you have everything nailed down your miller cleans his mill and you have a different grain in the flour. Then everything acts different.”

Because the breads, like Rediske’s sourdough, are made through fermentation, their cultures are alive making them constantly variable. That idea appeals to fermentation craftspeople because it gives their products a life of their own.

Nelson said that fermented food is like living artwork to those who create it.

So while connecting art with fermentation through the festival might seem like a stretch to an outsider, to artisans the things could not be more alike.

“We are all a bunch of weirdos,” Tortolano said. “In that sense there are a lot of us that are creative. So it’s a family of creative weirdos...and it brings out our artistic side. The fascination between the two things (fermentation and art) collide in this beautiful, chaotic way.”

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Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.