Why be Bootleg? 4

Sourcing yeast from Olive & Sinclair cocoa nibs.

On Tuesday I was invited to speak to the Cross Street Irregulars homebrew club in Baltimore about Bootleg Biology and DIY methods of capturing and culturing wild yeast. I had a blast meeting everyone, and can’t wait to see what local yeast comes out of the Baltimore area.

The day before, I started thinking, how can I put this in a larger context? Bootleg Biology’s mission statement is pretty clear, but I feel it doesn’t get into the why of it all.

Why devote so much time and resources into building such an ambitious and diverse library of wild and local microbes? We’ve gotten a ton of support from the craft beer and homebrew community, who love the idea of a diverse bank of new wild strains and want to contribute. But is it more than just a neat idea? Is Bootleg Biology just the latest niche to come out of the craft beer and homebrewing movement?

I think Sandor Katz, in the introduction to his book “The Art of Fermentation”, fires the opening salvo:

Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of the consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators.

Patrick McGovern’s book “Uncorking the Past” makes it clear that as long as there has been civilization, there has literally been a culture of fermentation. In a way, the need and desire to create fermented food products was the reason for civilization. How does one survive harsh winters, or take advantage of times of plenty in the anticipation that at some point food/nutrients will be scarce? And gee, it sure is nice to have ready access to a magical liquid that makes you feel good in reasonable amounts.

Beyond the practical or recreational reasons, fermentation also has meaning. It is a way of preserving the legacy of loved family members, and honoring the traditions of our culture. Who doesn’t have a family pickle recipe, or some other fermented food that is eaten on special occasions and holidays? Fermentation is a cultural birthright.

And of course, as craft and homebrewers we like doing things our way, and are rarely daunted by any endeavor; especially if it means making the freshest, most unique or local beverage imaginable.

So, why be Bootleg?

Because the corporate, franchise mentality that creates homogenized and sterile products that look and taste the same regardless of whether they’re produced in Akron, Ohio or Mumbai, India (no offense to Akron or Mumbai, you are loved)…and fears the yeast and bacteria that has been keeping us alive and healthy for thousands of years…doesn’t create a positive cultural legacy.

I want to eat and create food made with respect that belongs to a specific place and time. Whether that’s honey, yogurt, pickles or especially craft beer. It’s not always practical, but with enough people who share the same goals we can make this the norm, easily achievable and readily available.

So how can you be Bootleg? Become a Contributor, because we’re ridiculously excited about Local Yeast and DIY culture(s). But also learn from and support those who have similar missions, people like: Sandor Katz, The Fermented Man, your local farmer’s market and craft brewery, and even your grandparents. There are so many people who want to pass on their stories and techniques, who want to grow this community, and see the sharing of knowledge as the best way to do so.

Independent, local, creative and with respect for the past. That’s why. I hope you feel the same way too.

Until next time.

To Fermentation!


About Jeff Mello

Chief Yeast Wrangler @bootlegbiology. I play with yeast so you don't have to. You may have already met my beard.

Leave a comment

4 thoughts on “Why be Bootleg?

  • Aaron

    Well stated. I have a few samples I need to collect, but jacked up making my culture dish. One more try this weekend…actually following your directions before I buy pre-made from Amazon.
    Looking forward to becoming a contributor in the near future.
    Cheers and keep on wranglin’!

  • Mike Edinger

    Wow, that’s some deep, existential shit! But spot on. And there’s no need to understand Bootleg in any larger context. it is what it is, and more importantly, it can become what it can become. Great words Jeff, and keep it!