Photo by Todd Persche
I’m very curious by nature, and to my delight, I landed in the perfect spot last October when I headed out to Reedsburg, Wisconsin, for Fermentation Fest 2019. Nestled in a geological wonderland known as “the Driftless Area,” this festival showcases a unique agricultural region that produces a great deal of the nation’s organic produce and some of the United States’ finest dairy products. The event is produced by the Wormfarm Institute, a nonprofit founded by Jay Salinas and Donna Neuwirth that strives to activate links between art, culture, and agriculture; strengthen connections with urban neighbors; and grow possibilities for enhanced sustainability practices among businesses, farmers, consumers, and citizens. The festival is a live culture convergence that’s fully integrated into the tiny town, and spreads throughout the region with a companion, biennial event called Farm/Art DTour.
Photo by Jean Denny
Fermentation Fest focuses on expert demonstrations, hands-on learning, and guided tastings with over 40 different guest authors, chefs, scientists, and master artisans organized in the town’s many businesses and art galleries. Farm/Art DTour, on the other hand, hosts vendors, artists, food carts, performances, comfy campfires, and local beer. With 10 years of experience behind it, the two-weekend event each fall is worth a long road trip. I met food writers, chefs, several small-business owners, and epicurean wanderers from all over the globe.
My favorite event last year was a Wisconsin beer and cheese tasting hosted by Tenaya Darlington in her incarnation as Madame Fromage, and Hathaway Terry from Ale Asylum of Madison, Wisconsin. The lineup included six pairings, and lots of amazing flavors. Before we started, we learned how to taste cheese, and this amplified my enjoyment of the fare considerably. (For more on how to properly taste cheese, see “So You Want to Be a Curd Nerd?”) I loved the combination of Madtown Nutbrown ale with cave-aged Bleu Mont Dairy Bandaged Cheddar, which left my palate sated with buttery sweetness and lingering hints of wintergreen. Roth Buttermilk Blue was heavenly, creamy, and tart, and Oktillion Oktoberfest lager paired with Le Rouge alpine-style cheese from Master Cheesemaker Jon Metzig of Red Barn Family Farms was delicious. And then there was Sartori’s espresso-rubbed BellaVitano cheese paired with Velveteen Habit, an India pale ale. I’d gladly eat this for breakfast!
Photo by Aaron Dysart
When I left the event and rolled through the valleys toward home, the iconic farms that rose up and retreated from view were instilled with more significance. With events like this, I felt hopeful that family dairy farms and independent craft brewers were doing their part to slow us down and give us a taste of truly American terroir. Small is good. Slow is good. Beer and cheese are good, especially in Wisconsin. Engaging artists in community-making and environmental awareness isn’t a new concept, but its aesthetic and educational value works perfectly with fermentation, another creative and transformative kind of alchemy. The work of Wormfarm Institute, and its place in rural America, bring new stakeholders into what might seem, at first, an unlikely alliance. Fermentation is an art, and there are many small alliances throughout the United States networking and sharing information, like a true microbial colony. (To learn about one of these alliances, see “Wine and Cheese: Voices of the Earth”.)
Photo by Karin Talbot
If you wish to head to Wisconsin too, you can try fermented herbs, fizzy soda, coffee, chocolate, sourdough, kraut, miso, and much more on two separate weekends this fall. You can attend Fermentation Fest and Farm/Art DTour on September 26 and October 4, 2020. Both events are just now shaping up. Artists submitted proposals in March for the self-guided Agri/Cultural experience covering more than 50 miles in Sauk County, Wisconsin, and the chosen artists will then work this summer to construct their installations. This year’s Farm/Art DTour will respond to the current state of farming in Wisconsin. The tour brings urbanites into the beautiful Driftless landscape and puts them into direct contact with the family farms that both nourish and need us. You might encounter site-responsive art, roadside poetry, local food, and pasture performances, and you’ll leave transformed, with a new connection to family-scale farming, fermentation, and art as “social probiotic.” I know I can’t wait to once again experience the convergence of Fermentation Fest and Farm/Art DTour this fall. Visit Fermentation Fest for details.