Kombucha Culture TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Kombucha Culture, first released on August 9, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

BEN WOLFE: What is the blob? So I tell people it is one of the most disgusting fermented foods. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of gross things in my travels. And it is absolutely disgusting. It’s amazing, the microbiology is really cool, but it’s really gross.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Gross, and yet the blob produces one of the most popular drinks around these days.

NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s right, we’re talking about kombucha, the vinegary fizzy fermented tea that, as of 2016, practically has its own aisle at Whole Foods. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. Today we’ll be staring that disgusting blob straight in the face

TWILLEY: In fact, it’s a co-host blob smackdown. Cynthia’s blob and my blob go head to head and, not to get all reality TV on you here, but our egos are on the line.

GRABER: My blob is totally going to win.

TWILLEY: Yeah, no. But keep dreaming Cynthia. More to the point, we’ll explore kombucha’s mysterious origins and try to figure out how on earth a drink made by a rubbery, slimy blob of bacteria and fungi got to be so popular in mainstream America.

GRABER: We’ll also head to the lab to learn why that kombucha blob produces not just a fizzy drink but also could provide new insights into the microbial world—our absolutely favorite topic!

TWILLEY: Drink!

GRABER: Even the microbes hidden in our guts.

(PRE-ROLL)

GRABER: This episode is also supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.

(MUSIC)

TIM: So describe kombucha.

EMMA: It’s kind of like a soda for people who don’t like sweet sodas.

TIM: I was going to say it’s, it’s just like tea. Only cold and fizzy and a little sour.

EMMA: With stuff floating in it.

TIM: With stuff floating in it. So it’s nothing at all like tea.

ZEENAT: I love the taste of kombucha. It’s effervescent, refreshing, definitely not for the faint of heart.

KATE: I think kombucha tastes like slightly fizzy sweet and sour soup from a Chinese place made by hippies. Oh, and I drink it all the time.

EVAN: I think that kombucha tastes like spicy fermented 70s hippie water and I don’t drink it very often.

SONYA: I think the best way to describe kombucha, the taste and the flavor of it, it’s like you took tea and mixed it with some beer and then mixed that with a little bit of apple cider vinegar. So if you haven’t tried kombucha you definitely should.

DINA: On my honor I have never had kombucha it before. OK, here we go. The bubbles. Kind of bitter and bubbly like, tastes faintly of—of like beer.  Yeah it’s not. I mean there is something refreshing about it, that part I got. Like it’s a nice little like fizz on the tongue and it’s you know, but it feels a little bit like drinking salad dressing with a fizz. So, so why do people like this exactly?

LAUREN: Um well I really like to drink the kombucha that I make because I find it super refreshing. Also I guess I do drink it with the hope, although I’ve not done tons of research, but I drink it with the hope that maybe I’m getting some probiotics from it, maybe it’s benefiting my microbiome.

GRABER: So Nicky, I first tried kombucha a few years ago, I don’t even remember, but it was by accident. I stopped by a new friend’s house and she asked me if I wanted some kombucha to drink. I thought it was just another kind of tea, and I love tea, so I was like, sure! She warned me that it was a little weird, which I thought was strange. And then I tried it, and, yes, I was kind of shocked, since I expected tea. I don’t think I really fell in love it though until maybe like three years ago. And then this year I started brewing my own at home.

TWILLEY: I don’t know where I first tried it. I’ve had it at yours, which I like. But for this episode, I took the plunge and got my own blob. I ordered it online, and when it arrived I freaked out.

GRABER: You called me up. It was hysterical—you were like, what in the world am I supposed to do with this disgusting slimy thing?

TWILLEY: I felt like I needed to be in a biohazard suit, like in a pandemic movie. It really does look like an alien life form.

WOLFE: And we should clarify too because we’ve used a lot of different names for the blob. And actually there are a lot of confusing names.  So “the blob” is commonly known as a SCOBY which stands for a symbiotic community of yeast and bacteria or, sorry, of bacteria and yeast. I always get that confused. We also called it a biofilm where the microbes have glued themselves together. It’s also called a mother. It’s also called a mushroom which I don’t like to use at all because that implies it’s just fungus. In the lab what we call it is fermented tea biofilm.

GRABER: We like the name blob. And we’re back in the lab with Ben Wolfe.

WOLFE: And I am a microbiologist at Tufts University. I’m an assistant professor at Tufts as well as the microbiologist in residence for Gastropod.

TWILLEY: You know you’ve made it as a podcast when you have a microbiologist in residence. Especially if it’s Ben, because he’s awesome.

GRABER: Ben has been on the show twice talking about cheese. And at our live show at the Museum of Science, he even did some real-time cheese microscopy. The audience got to see microbes moving around in cheese—as they put the cheese in their mouths.

WOLFE: I love cheese but it is much more complicated than kombucha.

TWILLEY: Cheese has a lot of different bacteria and fungi going on, and a lot of different kinds of microbial communities in all the different styles of cheeses. Like Ben says, cheese is complicated. Not to mention Ben’s cheese experiments were stinkier. Which made him unpopular in the lab. So this past year, he’s started flirting with kombucha, which, like we said, is a fermented tea drink. Now as a Brit, tea is my national beverage, but fermenting it? What is that?

WOLFE: So what you do is you make tea, you add sugar to that tea.

GRABER: And then once that sugary tea cools down, you add the blob.

WOLFE: So what is that slimy blob? It’s largely cellulose.  So the thing that is used by trees and plants to build up biomass,they’re using cellulose, that’s their building block for life.

TWILLEY: But it’s not just a woody mat of cellulose. The blob is alive!

WOLFE: In general we see many different species of yeast and a couple different species of bacteria present.

GRABER: And the yeast and bacteria are living together in this cellulose mat doing different things.

WOLFE: So yeasts use the sugar in order to make alcohol so it’s just like in wine fermentation where you go from the sugars that are in the grapes to alcohol in the wine. In this case you’re providing the sugar.  So you have yeast making the alcohol and that alcohol is converted into acetic acid, which is vinegar, by the bacteria.  So in every kombucha, in order to have a successful kombucha, you know as defined by a sort of history, you would have to have yeast to make the alcohol and bacteria to make the acetic acid.

TWILLEY: So like Ben says, the yeast is making alcohol and fizz. And the bacteria is gainfully employed too. They’re making vinegar, from that alcohol. And…

WOLFE: And what’s cool is that microbe, the bacterium that makes the acetic acid that I talked about earlier, that is producing cellulose. It’s like, I tell people it’s like a microbial Spider Man where inside this culture, the slimy blob, it’s shooting out threads of cellulose in every direction.
Why is it doing that? Well, those bacteria need oxygen in order to do their thing, in order to grow and produce the acetic acid. So you can imagine that if you’re in a big jar and you sink to the bottom there’s a lot less oxygen available at the bottom of the jar than the top. So they make this big what we call biofilm—cells of microbes glued together at the top surface—in order to be able to be close to that oxygen.

GRABER: That’s why the blob always floats to the top of your sweet tea. So the end result is this slightly sweet, slightly vinegary fizzy drink—kombucha, that, yes, has a tiny tiny bit of left-over alcohol that the bacteria might not have entirely converted to vinegar. But really, there’s barely any left.

TWILLEY: The yeast converting sugar to alcohol, that’s what happens when you make wine or beer too. So I get why you need sugar to make kombucha. But what is the tea bringing to the party?

WOLFE: The why tea is a really interesting question. So very recently we’ve thought, what if we just leave the tea out? Let’s just give some sugar water to our kombucha and see what happens. It didn’t make a blob. So the tea will have various vitamins, micronutrients in it, things that microbes need to grow in low concentrations that can stimulate the growth of the microbes.  So I was actually really surprised, I thought we’d get a little bit of growth. We got no growth at all. So the tea is essential in order to have the kombucha grow.

GRABER: The other thing that tea brings is caffeine. If you heard our caffeine episode, you know I love tea, but I’m pretty sensitive to too much caffeine. So I really wanted Ben to tell me—can I freely drink kombucha late in the afternoon? Does the blob somehow convert caffeine and take away its potency?

WOLFE: The caffeine question, I’m actually not, I don’t know if people have measured that very carefully to know for sure what happens to the caffeine.

TWILLEY: Like so many kombucha questions, the answer is basically, who knows? This is a pretty uncharted field for science. Listeners, if any of you know of any studies on the caffeine content of kombucha, give us a shout. Cynthia’s beauty sleep is at stake.

GRABER: Ben is trying to make major inroads into the terra incognita of kombucha science. And he’s started by assembling what might very well be the largest kombucha library in the world.

WOLFE: I went to Etsy.com and searched for kombucha. So I got kombucha cultures from Colorado, I got kombucha cultures from California, Vermont, Tennessee—all over the place. And brought them in the lab.

TWILLEY: Right now, Ben’s blob zoo lives in a Tupperware box. It’s only got 25 different communities in it at the moment, but he’s hoping to expand it into the hundreds. Already, it’s unique.

WOLFE: Ah, I might go ahead and say, yeah, we might be the most diverse kombucha collection in any one place at any point in time. Thank you Etsy, I guess.

GRABER: And while people say ‘kombucha’ as if it’s all one thing, they’re not. Ben showed off his kombucha collection to us.

WOLFE: What’s really surprising when you put all these different kombuchas from all over the world that have been grown or all over the United States that have been grown in the same environment in the lab, they look really, really different.  They look—it’s subtle. It’s a blob. But some blobs are really clear. Some blobs are really thick, some blobs are really stringy. So that—by appearances they’re really different and by smell they’re very different as well. Some of them smell a lot like stone fruits, you get peaches, you get really, really sort of fruity flavors. Some of them smell like dirty Band-Aids, some of them smell like wet leather. I don’t know if dirty Band-Aids is really a smell but, you know, like a Band-Aid essentially. So you get a lot of different smells and that’s partly coming from the different yeasts that are present. It’s impressive just how different these slimy blobs can be.

TWILLEY: The fact that these blobs are all slightly different communities of yeast and bacteria—that makes the final drink they produce taste different. Which brings us to a very personal topic. Our own mothers. Or I guess, to be consistent, our blobs.

GRABER: We each brought a small segment of our personal blobs in their brewing liquid into the lab. We’re donating our kombucha cultures to science, but really? We want to know whose is best.

TWILLEY: So first the sniff test. My blob went first.

WOLFE: Oh, hello, hello.

GRABER: It’s pretty strong. Smells good. Smells like kombucha.

WOLFE: It does. It smells like a classic kombucha.

TWILLEY: This is my first ever batch, you know.

WOLFE: Oh really? Congratulations.

TWILLEY: I was feeling pretty good at this point. And then Ben sniffed Cynthia’s blob.

WOLFE: Oh. Different.

TWILLEY: Oh yours is less—mine’s more vinegary.

WOLFE: Yeah, yeah.

GRABER: I think I won the sniff test. But that’s not the end of the kombucha competition.

WOLFE: What we’re going to do is look at them in the microscope to just sort of get a feel for what they look like and we may already see some differences there. And then what we’re going to do is incorporate them into our culture collection and see how fast they grow, to see if they grow differently. We’ll sequence the yeast and the bacteria that are there so we’ll learn a lot about what’s inside your kombucha.

TWILLEY: Is there prizes for everyone or does only one of us win?

WOLFE: It’s unclear what winning is in kombucha, so…

GRABER: I can tell you my winning would be to know that I am not poisoning me and Tim.

WOLFE: Oh, I think we’ll find that out for sure. Yeah.

TWILLEY: So Ben sterilized the scalpels and prepped the Petri dishes, and set up the slides for the microscope.

WOLFE: So this is Cynthia’s blob. Let’s get a chunk of…

GRABER: Cut it this morning. I’m not sure how perfectly sterile everything was.

TWILLEY: I should have fished it out for you guys but I wanted to touch it as little as possible to be totally honest. It looks like raw chicken breast.

WOLFE: That’s been sitting on the sidewalk for a while.

GRABER: And then he took a look at Nicky’s blob.

WOLFE: OK, I’m going to go in there … oh my.

GRABER: Oh, yours gets a lot goopier than mine does. Mine doesn’t look like that.

WOLFE: It looks like a manta ray, look at it like…

GRABER: Mine just forms the layers. I don’t get all that like weird goop.

WOLFE: So we’re really fascinated by…

GRABER: Nicky’s totally grossed out.

WOLFE: Do you need a barf bag? We have a biohazardous waste bin over there that you can just go vomit in. We’re really interested in the strings. So one thing that’s really common is there’s like the strings that hang down. And when Liz in the past has looked at the strings it turns out they’re yeasts.  They make these long—so yeast are normally circular cells but sometimes they can make these elongated cells. And we’re trying to figure out why the yeasts are doing that, why are they making the strings? And a hypothesis we have, it’s not been tested at all, is that it might be an escape. They may be actually trying to get out of the kombucha environment, which is kind of stressful for them, for yeast. The acetic acid, the vinegar isn’t the most pleasant thing to be bathed in. And so we think it could potentially be a stress response. But we haven’t tested that yet but…

TWILLEY: It’s going to climb out of the side of my jar in the night.

WOLFE: But yeah there it is. Oh it’s beautiful.

TWILLEY: It’s not beautiful. Even a mother could not say that. Hah.

TWILLEY: So my blob smells worse but it has these exciting gross string things — so this might be a dead-heat. Right?

GRABER: You just keep thinking that.

WOLFE: Are you ready with a microscope?

LIZ LANDIS: We’re incubating right now. It takes about 15 minutes.

TWILLEY: That’s Liz Landis, she’s a grad student in Ben’s lab and she’s been leading their kombucha research.

GRABER: So while Ben and Liz are incubating our kombucha blobs so that we can peer at them under a microscope, let’s take a moment to reflect on some of the mysteries of this bizarre drink. Like, where does it come from?

WOLFE: What we do know is that it was originally produced in parts of China as well as in Russia. It’s very, very popular there and it has been historically. Many different families would have them in their kitchens and drink them. There’s various names for them in different cultures. But how, you know, someone learned to originally make kombucha and that it was a good thing, I’m not really sure. I mean, it makes sense that it would happen pretty spontaneously. If someone was making tea and they added sugar to it, if you leave that out, there are yeasts and there are bacteria in the air that could colonize that, if you’re in the right place. But when did that happen? When did people start purposely cultivating it? What was the original kombucha in terms of which yeast or which bacteria? We don’t know. Yeah.

TWILLEY: There are lots of legends about Chinese emperors and Tibetan monks and Korean doctors, most of which have no evidence behind them at all. The trail leads all over the place in the Far East—the Asian steppes of Russia, China, Japan, Korea—basically, everywhere that people drank lots of tea.

GRABER: There aren’t many good resources about kombucha science and kombucha history. For instance, it’s hard to say when kombucha left Asia and made its way to Europe and then North America. Ben handed us a copy of one scientific paper in German from 1930s. Luckily, one of us can read German.

TWILLEY: Kind of. But enough to figure out that Mr. Valentin, the author of the paper, had done some serious detective work on the subject. He wrote to the editors of 29 different pharmaceutical journals all over Europe to ask if they’d heard of this weird drink, which he called Indian tea fungus. He got 77 letters back and from that information, he deduced that the blob—and the brewing technique—had spread to Europe from Russia originally, via German prisoners of war. So after the first World War, those German prisoners brought blobs home with them, and kombucha spread outward from there. In 1930, kombucha was most common in Central Europe but it hadn’t yet reached the edges—no one he wrote to in Scandinavia or in England had heard of it.

GRABER: That’s almost a century ago. It took about 80 years until I first tried it, it certainly wasn’t hugely popular in the US until recently. So here’s the next mystery—when did it catch on here?

NORMAN BAKER: You know these mushrooms are alive and they have an intelligence. It’s like plants, they know that they are here to help people.

TWILLEY: That’s Norman Baker of Laurel Farms, in Los Angeles. And that’s an archive clip from the AP, from the first wave of the American kombucha craze, back in the early 1990s.

GRABER: Norman’s coming from the type of hippie communities that started popping up in the 1970s. And you could find kombucha in those communities—people shared their blobs. It was super niche. Nobody else really knew about it.

TWILLEY: But then, in the 1990s, a couple of things happened. Norman and his partner Betsy Pryor were given a blob by her meditation instructor, and they started selling baby blobs mail order as a cure-all.

BETSY PRYOR: Because it is making a difference in people’s health, it is profound. And we would like to help heal the planet, that’s what we’d like.

BAKER: Well I’m very different. I’m actually a recovering quadriplegic. I’m one of the few quadriplegics in the world that has ever come back. Right five fingers on, still very slow. But the bottom line is that my hair was receding, and all of a sudden my hair started to fill in. Instead of coloring my hair every 28 days—and I owned a group of hair salons in Los Angeles—now I haven’t colored my hair in over two months.

TWILLEY: That’s Betsy and Norman again. Apparently kombucha stops grey hair, restores movement to quadriplegics and heals the planet.

GRABER: Of course it does.

TWILLEY: Amazing.

GRABER: The thing is, kombucha has always had this sort of healthy halo around it. Even in that German paper from 1930, the author writes that it’s suspected to have health benefits, but that it’s not proven. Paul Stamets—he’s this really famous fungus guy in Washington State—he wrote in the mid 1990s a whole list of what kombucha is supposed to be able to do: cure cancer, cure rheumatism, improve vision, improve sex, cure diabetes, get rid of white hair, grow black hair, cure herpes, cure insomnia, and, yes, even this, reverse the symptoms of AIDS.

TWILLEY: And that last thing—that’s actually what’s behind kombucha’s first big boom. Betsy and Norman start shipping their blobs mail order with a sticker on them saying “Expect a Miracle.” And they were super popular in the Los Angeles AIDS community and that’s how it spread across the country.

GRABER: You have to remember that at the time there was no effective therapy for AIDS. Of course kombucha didn’t cure it. But people were grasping at whatever straws they could. In an LA Times article from 1995, doctors estimated that about a fifth of their AIDS patients were regularly drinking kombucha.

TWILLEY: In that same article, Norman Baker, bless his heart, said that kombucha has an intelligence well above the level of a dolphin.

GRABER: I don’t even know how to respond to that. But at the time The New York Times estimated that three million Americans were growing kombucha at home. Newsweek called it “Snapple for the crystal set.”

TWILLEY: But then two things happened. In 1995, scientists began rolling out an effective new cocktail of drugs to treat AIDS patients. And then right at the end of that year, the Centers for Disease Control issued a warning, saying that kombucha might have been responsible for the deaths of two women in Iowa. The connection was never proven and the women were already pretty sick—that’s why they were chugging so much kombucha in the first place. But the warning made national news. And so the kombucha bubble burst.

GRABER: But not forever. Not all of those blobs were tossed in the trash. In fact one blob lived on in Los Angeles at the house of GT Dave.

TWILLEY: His real name is George Thomas, and he is very muscular and shiny looking. And GT Dave is the person who really made kombucha mainstream. His parents introduced him to it—they scored their blob from a friend who had gone into juicing instead, and the friend’s blob came from a Buddhist monk. Which is about the most LA thing I’ve ever heard.

GT DAVE: Kombucha came into the household that I grew up in when I was barely a teenager. My parents, who are very spiritual and very holistic, started making it and drinking it. I at the time thought it was very weird, but it wasn’t until my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and kombucha played a strong role in helping her overcome the breast cancer and remain strong throughout her treatments, is when I became encouraged to give kombucha another chance. And I started to make it and drink it and I quickly fell in love with it and noticed how it improved my life.

GRABER: There are obviously some problems with that story, but, in any case, GT Dave saw a business opportunity. He dropped out of school and started bottling kombucha at age 16. This is in mid 1990s, and he’s selling kombucha to the same health-food, crystal-type communities that already loved the drink. But by the mid 2000s, he took kombucha mainstream: to Whole Foods.

TWILLEY: There’s a couple of reasons analysts think kombucha caught on again in the mid 2000s. At the time, the Atkins diet was really popular, and that was pushing people away from sugary sodas, and maybe into the arms of kombucha. And then the functional beverage category as a whole was blowing up—you get Coke acquiring Vitamin water and all the energy drinks and so on. It was a new millennium and people wanted to drink something that promised to do something for them. Kombucha fit that bill too.

GRABER: And here’s where Lindsay Lohan comes in. That’s a sentence that has literally never been uttered before on Gastropod and likely never will again. Remember how we told you that the yeast turn the sugar into alcohol, but there’s basically none left in your glass? Well, Lindsay had a court-issued alcohol-monitoring bracelet on. And she was a kombucha drinker. And so it was rumored that perhaps it was the kombucha that set off her monitor. Maybe.

TWILLEY: Either way, stores starting pulling kombucha from the shelves. CNN reported on the issue from a bottling plant in Colorado.

CNN: Federal regulators claim their kombucha has too much alcohol content after some samples tested above .5 % alcohol by volume, about 1/8 the alcohol in a light beer. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or the TTB, has sent letters warning of possible fines, suggesting new labeling and threatening to move the drink from grocery store shelves into liquor stores.

GRABER: In the end, it turns out that the problem stemmed from just a few samples, and kombucha is still not considered an alcoholic drink. But this whole alcohol kerfuffle might have actually done kombucha more good than harm.

TWILLEY: Right, and then came the probiotic craze. All of a sudden in 2012, 2013, Americans started worry about the microbes that lived in their guts, really for the first time. And kombucha sales rocketed in response, growing by up to 40 percent year on year. And now it’s to the point where your workplace is not trendy if you do not have kombucha on tap.

GRABER: But that brings us back to something we discussed a little earlier—all those crazy health claims. People are drinking kombucha now largely because they think it’s good for them. But, really, is it?

(MIDROLL)

TWILLEY: OK, I think we’ve left you all on a cliffhanger for long enough. People have claimed kombucha is healthy for millennia, people have said it will cure everything from diarrhea to cancer. So, is that true? Is kombucha the miracle elixir of life?

WOLFE: People have done various studies often using human cells in a dish, or a mouse or rat model. And they have shown that various components of kombucha, various chemical components of kombucha, can do things like inhibit the growth of certain bad microbes or, you know, reduce inflammation. There are not, as far as I’m aware, any really really thorough, good studies in humans showing that those effects are actually very robust when you’re eating a whole bunch of other things and not just drinking kombucha all day.

GRABER: So, basically, there is no scientific evidence in humans for all of those health claims.

WOLFE: That said there there is a lot of potential for the probiotic components of kombucha to potentially do something—again it’s all potential. So you can think about it in two ways. There are a bunch of microbes living in this tea, it’s a fermented tea. So you can have direct or indirect indirect effects of those microbes. The direct effects of those microbes could be that they’re actually living in your gut. You drink that kombucha, it’s full of all these living cultures, and they’re hanging out inside of you and doing something. Now that to me is a little bit problematic for a couple reasons. First of all, no one’s actually demonstrated that after you consume kombucha, that those microbes are viable or are doing anything. That scientifically has never been demonstrated before.

TWILLEY: And Ben thinks it’s actually unlikely. Because the microbes in kombucha need oxygen, that’s why the blob forms on the top. And your gut doesn’t have a whole lot of oxygen. So no one has done this experiment to show that the live cultures from kombucha actually do set up shop in your gut but Ben’s not betting on it. But there is another way that kombucha could have health benefits, again, not proven, but maybe more likely.

WOLFE: There also could be indirect effects. So these microbes that are growing in the tea can make metabolites, they can make things that could be beneficial. Or the dead cells of these microbes as they’re passing through could be food for the microbes that live in your gut. That has also not been demonstrated but it is a potential probiotic or prebiotic effect of kombucha. So I think there’s a lot of potential. But at the same time I think we have to figure out a lot more about the system before we can make a lot of the claims that are out there.

GRABER: So, the jury’s out. Scientists do seem to believe that microbe-rich fermented foods like miso and yogurt and sauerkraut are all generally good for us. Kombucha is one of those. But there’s no science that backs up any specific health claim.

TWILLEY: And what about those deaths and the CDC warning. Can the reverse be true? Can kombucha kill you?

GRABER: I was actually worried about that. Like, what if I was slowly poisoning Tim with this homebrew?

WOLFE: So in terms of you know pathogenic microbes and kombucha, it’s not necessarily a very happy place for many pathogens. So as long as you’re reaching the right acidity then you won’t necessarily get the growth of those.

GRABER: Ben’s not saying that everything has to be super sterile. Just clean the jar, put a cloth or a paper towel over top of the kombucha as it brews, you should be fine.

WOLFE: You could get molds in there and molds can make what are called mycotoxins which can make people sick. But you need to have a lot of mold in order for that to be a problem. And you’ll know—you’ll see the fuzzy layer.

TWILLEY: Don’t drink your kombucha if your blob turns green. That seems like common sense to me. But, fingers crossed, both of ours are happy health blobs. And mine went under the microscope first.

TWILLEY: Don’t let me down. Oh. Well there’s stuff going on!  There is little—there are rounder things, more like rice-like things.

LANDIS: So a little rice-like things or the bacteria and the yeast are kind of floating on the outside.

GRABER: And is it actually moving?

TWILLEY: Oh, it’s moving!

WOLFE: So acetic acid bacteria can be motile. Some of them do have motility.

TWILLEY: I got a mover

GRABER: You got a swimmer.

TWILLEY: I love it.

GRABER: Do we need to do a comparison?

TWILLEY: Yeah, we need to look at Cynthia’s, I think, otherwise she’ll start feeling jealous.

GRABER: I am, I’m feeling a little jealous here.

ALL: Oh. Oh there we go. Oh.

TWILLEY: I don’t see as much movement. I’m not seeing the swimmers.

GRABER: Oh, there they are, see?

BEN: Competitive microscopy, this is… It looks like Cynthia’s Cynthia SCOBY has a bit more yeast in it.

GRABER: Which is what you thought because it was pretty cloudy.

BEN: Exactly. So that could just be the age. It may not have anything to do with, you know, its overall integrity, it just might be when we harvested it. So we’ll get back to you on that. But we’ll know, as we grow them, we can look at cell density, we can look at the species diversity, how thick and big it is. And we can really figure out which one is better.

GRABER: Now you’re playing into our competition here.

GRABER: But Ben’s interest in kombucha is not actually about whether my blob is better than Nicky’s.

WOLFE: I think some of the things that we’re doing, where we’re trying to understand just how microbial communities work, you know, we’re not really studying this for the sake of the food. We’re really studying it for the pure basic science perspective.

TWILLEY: And he studies a variety of microbial ecosystems—sauerkraut, sourdough, of course cheese—but kombucha has a real advantage. It’s super simple.

WOLFE: There’s only a few parts there, there’s only a few species of microbes present, which allows you to go in and really understand the complete system. As opposed to something like soil or the human environment where there’s many different species of microbes living together and it’s much harder to pull them apart and put them back together again.

TWILLEY: Like for example, we might want to be able to engineer a healthy human gut. And we would have no real idea where to start right now. But if Ben can use something simpler like kombucha to tease out how a microbial community works, then maybe, he thinks, he can arrive at microbe design principles.

WOLFE: Can we come up with some basic rules that allow us to go to a new system and say if you consider X, Y, and Z, you should have a good shot of designing the microbial community that you want, given you know a certain set of parameters. And that’s really hard, no one’s even really done that in a food system, a simple food system, like this yet.

GRABER: One of the questions is, can you swap out one microbe you might want to get rid of for another one that you might actually want to have in a system? Kombucha is a great model for studying how that might work. There are only a few different types of yeasts and bacteria in any given kombucha blob.

WOLFE: And we don’t have a good explanation right now as to why some yeasts are present in one kombucha and why some are in another. What we do know is that there is some interchangeability in the system—that you can take one yeast from one kombucha and stick it into another one, experimentally in the lab, and it’ll do the same thing as the other yeast would do.

TWILLEY: If Ben can figure out what is making these yeast able to swap in and out in kombucha, maybe that can help us understand out how to swap microbes in and out in general.

GRABER: The next big question they want to tackle is really cool—they haven’t started it yet but they’ll be looking for volunteers soon. They want to understand how the microbial community in the kombucha blobs change over time.

WOLFE: So this is something we’re really excited about. So one of the main questions that we’re trying to understand in the kombucha system is how microbes evolve in a community. And so what we hypothesize is happening inside of these systems is if we all started off with the same culture and then gave it to let’s say 20 different people, and some of those people use a little bit more sugar or some of those people use black tea instead of green tea, some people lived in a warmer environment versus a colder environment, those microbes can slowly change, mutations can pop up. Maybe those are beneficial, maybe the interactions between the yeast and the bacterium can change over time.

TWILLEY: Ben and Liz are planning a big experiment where they give volunteers an identical blob and track what happens to it over time. They have to figure out some more of the kombucha basics first, but stay tuned—they’ll be looking for volunteers.

GRABER: I’m in. But here’s what you’ve been all been waiting to find out.

TWILLEY: Or at least we have. Sleepless nights, I’m telling you.

GRABER: Who won the great kombucha brew-off?

WOLFE: Hello.

TWILLEY: Hey Ben, how are you?

WOLFE: Good, how are you doing?

TWILLEY: Pretty good. Yeah, I’m a little bit nervous actually, but, you know.

WOLFE: Don’t be, don’t be.

GRABER: I’m kind of excited to hear about—you know, also a little nervous, but looking forward to hearing about how our little pets are doing.

WOLFE: Yeah! So what’s really exciting to me, there are clear differences between each of your kombuchas. So there’s clear differences in terms of what microbes are present, there’s clear differences in the amounts of the microbes that are present. Cynthia’s biofilm is a very sort of delicate, kind of undulating, not as rigid, and very flexible, and a little heterogeneous,you know, there’s a lot of variation across the surface. Whereas Nicky’s was this really thick rigid disk that was just—you can kind of see in the picture, I wish you could hold it in your hand after it’s been growing in the lab but it’s just like this really thick mass of microbes. So that was really striking to see.

GRABER: I was wondering if this has anything to do with personalities

TWILLEY: I mean, I am reading a lot into it.

WOLFE: This is so funny because I was thinking the same thing but I didn’t want to bring it up.

TWILLEY: So, it turns out my blob is rigid. And it’s more vinegary than Cynthia’s. My blob had lots of acetic acid bacteria that produce vinegar and not very much yeast.

WOLFE: So, I had everyone in the lab come over and we were doing a sort of a a sniff test of your two different kombuchas living in the Petri dishes, in the very controlled environment, in the lab. What’s really cool is that Cynthia’s kombucha has this very sort of stone fruit, very fruity, sort of almost floral aromatic to it. Whereas Nicky’s, it’s like sticking your nose in malt vinegar.

TWILLEY: Oooh. Crushed.

WOLFE: When we did the DNA sequencing this sort of keeps—the theme keeps going. So Cynthia had a very specific yeast. It’s called a Zygosaccharomyces. And when we smell that yeast growing in the lab, it’s very floral, it has this sort of—again it smells almost like a really fresh peach. And then Cynthia also had another yeast called Brettanyomyces, which is the same thing—you probably heard about it in wine and beer, it’s called Brett. And then Nicky only had the Brett. So she was missing that sort of floral, fruity yeast that is contributing to that aroma that we have in Cynthia’s. So it’s really cool, the microbiology actually can explain a lot about the differences between your kombuchas. And so everyone’s a winner. You know, Cynthia gets the fruity floral yeast, and then Nicky has more of a bacterial SCOBY, and that’s, you know, not necessarily a bad thing at all.

TWILLEY: Aw, Ben. He’s trying to sugarcoat it but really, I hear what he’s saying. Cynthia won. To be fair, I do actually prefer your kombucha, Cynthia

GRABER: We should also tell the listeners that even before we heard the results, you’d already killed off your blob.

TWILLEY: It just wasn’t me. I’m not vinegary and rigid, I swear!

GRABER: Hey, if you’re ever want to try again, I’m happy to hand off some of my blob. It gets really big, really quickly, and I regularly have to prune it back.

TWILLEY: That’s my take-home from this episode: if you’re going to get into this whole homebrew kombucha thing, get your blob from someone whose kombucha you actually like.

GRABER: And, if you buy one and you don’t like it, maybe give it another try with a different brand or a flavored variety. It might just be that you don’t like that kombucha.

TWILLEY: That said, Ben did mention something that kind of almost made me regret throwing my blob out.

WOLFE: So what we’re finding in the lab is that if you change the amount of sugar or if you actually use different tea to brew the kombucha, the culture behaves very differently and actually can smell and taste differently. So for example when you use black tea versus green tea the culture looks totally different and behaves totally different.

TWILLEY: Maybe my blob just didn’t appreciate my super strong British tea bags.

GRABER: For me, the big relief, apart from finding out that I’m not poisoning myself, is that kombucha really isn’t that high maintenance. You don’t have to feed the blob regularly, you just have to leave it in some of the brewing liquid. Go away on vacation, don’t make it for a while, whatever. The blob will survive and be fine and then you can make more later.

TWILLEY: But in true reality TV style, Ben saved the big reveal for the end.

WOLFE: This may be a bit of a shocker. Tell all. So I think that kombucha is the cilantro of fermented foods. Because I know you guys love cilantro.

GRABER: No, I hate it. She loves cilantro.

WOLFE: I enjoy tasting it when I do. I think it’s an interesting beverage. I do not drink it regularly because I am just not really into it. It doesn’t really appeal to me. I think the microbiology is amazing and I love that people are excited about it but it’s just not something I drink regularly. So the truth is out.

TWILLEY: Oh. My. God.

GRABER: So disappointed.

GRABER: I do actually love it—I don’t like drinks that are too sweet, so I love the kind of clean, refreshing flavor. Of mine, that is, not yours, Nicky’s.

TWILLEY: And I think it’s OK. Yours is, anyway. Mine was grim. But Cynthia, I feel like normally we do a better job of answering our own questions—like where is kombucha from and is it really the health elixir people claim. Did we fail?

GRABER: I don’t think so. I think it’s pretty safe to say that kombuchas from the Far East. Also safe to say that it’s not bad for you, and, you know, it’s a fermented food, and in general it seems like fermented foods are good for you. Unfortunately, even though people have been drinking it for thousands of years, there isn’t that much good science on it yet. But Ben has a parting word of wisdom for kombucha drinkers.

WOLFE: I will say that drinking something that makes you happy is a wonderful thing. Eating something that makes you happy, as long as it’s not dangerous, it’s a wonderful thing, so drink on.

TWILLEY: And I will raise a glass of anything but my kombucha to that.

(MUSIC)

(POST-ROLL)

GRABER: Thanks again to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund—they support our coverage of biomedical research. And a huge thanks this episode to our our microbiologist in residence, the one and only Ben Wolfe. We’ve got links to his lab’s website online in our episode notes, so you can keep up with all the cool research going on there. We’ve got photos of our kombucha blobs under the microscope and they are amazing. We’ve also got photos of some of your kombucha blobs—you guys sent in some bizarre shots. Gastropod.com.

TWILLEY: Thanks also to Liz Landis, who is a grad student in Ben’s lab and is leading the kombucha research. She dug out historical papers, prepared our blobs for their close-up under the microscope, and even helped out during our live show too.

GRABER: Thanks too to everyone who sent in sound files of your attempts to describe kombucha to aliens.  As always, you can support us with a positive iTunes review, by suggesting us to friends and family, or, if you are able, by donating to us on Patreon or through our website. We have special rewards available for supporters who give $5 an episode or $9 a month, too—check them out on our website gastropod.com or at Patreon.

TWILLEY: And thank you! For listening and for all your support. We’re back in two weeks with a special collaboration all about salt.

Kombucha Culture

If you haven't tasted kombucha yet, you probably will soon. The sour-sweet, fizzy, fermented tea is becoming ubiquitous in trendy cafes, workplaces, and health food stores across America. Where did it come from, and how did it get so popular? And what in the world is the slimy, beige blob that produces it? From German POWs to Lindsey Lohan to a kombucha zoo at Tufts University, this episode explores the history and science of summer's hottest drink.

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Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar, first released on August 29, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

ANDY HARRIS: I mean, it’s still got the characteristics of the wine, that’s the thing. The better the wine the more, you know, things that you can do with it, the more flavors.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Well, and it tastes like a Riesling.

NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s delicious.

HARRIS: I almost get like banana-y flavors on that. And this I use with marinating herrings and things, it’s very good with seafood. So when you see that sort of breadth of range, you begin to see potential of the vinegars and what you can do with them.

GRABER: Vinegar, it’s not just for cleaning your house!

TWILLEY: Or killing your fruit flies. Although it is mighty good at both of those things. But really, that’s the least of vinegar’s powers.

GRABER: You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And today, we’re diving into vinegar. Not literally, because that would sting.

GRABER: Vinegar is often relegated to salad dressing, but this episode, we talk to people who want you to think about it as much more than that. First, though, what is vinegar?

TWILLEY: And why does Katy Perry think drinking apple cider vinegar will cure basically everything?

GRABER: As usual, we have the answers to all the questions. And then—perhaps most of exciting of all—we actually visit the home of the most famous vinegar in the world.

TWILLEY: It’s like the Katy Perry of vinegars. Although much older and, honestly, more to my taste.

GRABER: That’s right, balsamic vinegar!

TWILLEY: Forget the stuff you buy at the supermarket. It is not real balsamic. Genuine aged balsamic it turns out, is game-changingly delicious.

(PRE-ROLL)

GRABER: And also, this episode would not have been possible without Toni Mazzaglia. She runs a tour company in Florence called Taste Florence. I’ve been on her tours—it’s how Toni and I first met years ago—and they are absolutely amazing. She arranged all our balsamic vinegar interviews for us and helped translate when necessary. So everyone, if you have a trip planned to Florence, go to her website and book a tour online. TasteFlorence.com. If you don’t have a trip to Florence planned, this could be a good a reason to go!

TWILLEY: And if you’re a journalist and you need help setting up visits and interviews in Italy, Toni is the best. She knows how to make Italy happen.

GRABER: So if you listened to our last episode called The Birds and the Bugs, you know that we spoke with author Maryn McKenna about the use of antibiotics in agriculture, and the move to get rid of the drugs from animal feed. One listener sent in a voice mail with a great note of hope.

CONRAD BARRY: Hi Gastropod, my name’s Conrad Barry and I’m a scientist in Portland, Oregon. I just finished listening to your Big Chicken and Big Pharma episode, and I really enjoyed it.

GRABER: Conrad explained that when bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, that power comes at a price. They actually don’t grow as well as they did before. So in the lab, in a petri dish, if the resistant bacteria are left alone, without any antibiotics, eventually they evolve to lose that antibiotic resistance so they can grow more quickly again.

BARRY: That’s something we see all the time when we’re culturing bacteria or other cells in the lab. So that’s just something I find really cool and I interact with every day, and it’s kind of a hopeful thing, you know.

TWILLEY: What’s more, Conrad points out, if we stop encouraging it by using such huge quantities of antibiotics on the farm, bacteria could theoretically lose their resistance really pretty quickly.

BARRY: Because you know bacteria live a very short time, and a generation span is really, really short, and that allows mutations and their evolution to happen very, very rapidly. Okay bye!

(MUSIC)

MICHAEL HARLAN TURKELL: In Ancient Mesopotamia, around the city of Babylon, which is I think near where Baghdad, Iraq, is these days, along the Euphrates and Tigris River, there were tons of really plump, juicy fruit. That lead into what likely were the first wines and what comes after wine is vinegar.

TWILLEY: That’s Michael Harlan Turkell. He’s the author of a new cookbook called Acid Trip that celebrates vinegar.

GRABER: The first vinegars were from wine that had gone off—the clue is in the name. Vinegar comes from vin aigre—or, literally, in French, sour wine.

TWILLEY: And people mostly consumed those first, accidental vinegars as a beverage. Like the wine they used to be. But they quickly realized that this sour wine had other uses.

TURKELL: There are instances of it not only as this celebratory drink, but also as this currency. In Egypt, they were trading vinegars to embalmers when, you know, a family member passed. So it was a preservative in both ways.

GRABER: Vinegar was so valuable that people used it to pay to have their relatives embalmed. But, ironically, they also figured out that the vinegar could do the work of preserving the dead body itself. Vinegar has a really low pH, it’s really acidic, and that means it kills off other microbes that would make the body decay. Two for one.

TWILLEY: Like Michael says, the earliest vinegars were probably made in the Middle East, just because the first wines were made there. But vinegar is a thing that has been stumbled upon again and again, all around the world. In his book, Michael explores vinegar making in Japan and Peru and Mexico and beyond.

TURKELL: And I don’t think I fully realized until I started traveling how multicultural, how expansive the world of vinegar truly is. So there are so many starting points, so many points around the world, that preservation methods and techniques happened at so many times along history.

GRABER: In Europe, like in ancient Egypt, people started out by drinking their sour wine. Michael thinks that vinegar first made its way into the kitchen in ancient China.

TURKELL: It was a condiment, it was a dipping sauce, it was something that you poured over a bowl of noodles. It wasn’t fully integrated into sauces initially but then kind of got into the fold.

TWILLEY: But from the very beginning, people weren’t just appreciating vinegar for its ability to add tang to a sauce or preserve things. Vinegar has had a health halo as far back as Ancient Greece, if not beyond.

TURKELL: There are instances of Pliny the Elder or Hildegard or these ancients that wrote about using certain aspects of vinegar in their healing. Posca, which is an old Greek drink, was actually usually an herbal vinegar mixed with something to cut it a little bit because it was so tart. But that was used as medicine, if not a placebo to make people feel better.

GRABER: In France, there was a famous early health-promoting vinegar called The Four Thieves.

TURKELL: I can’t tell you who the four thieves were, but in modern day Provence you can still actually find this vinegar around.

TWILLEY: This Four Thieves vinegar was first made during the bubonic plague. The story, which is almost definitely not true, but is fun anyway, is that a gang of thieves were robbing the houses of people who were dead or dying of the plague. And then, when they were caught, the thieves bought their innocence by sharing their secret recipe for a vinegar that they said had kept them healthy, even in the houses of the sick.

TURKELL: It had a lot of aromatics and herbs like wild sage, rosemary—in modern days, you can find garlic in it, I think more for culinary purposes than to stave off the bubonic plague. But it was around during that time. And I think those smells and those flavors were resonant of something that was healthy or, you know, that old saying of, you know, if it doesn’t taste good it must be good for you. But then it started tasting good. And then everyone died of the bubonic plague. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

GRABER: But now today vinegar is back in the spotlight as a cure-all. Especially cider vinegar, for whatever reason. You have celebrities including Heidi Klum, Megan Fox, Hillary Duff, Scarlett Johansson, and even explorer Ralph Fiennes singing vinegar’s praises. So we wondered, is there any truth to any of that?

WOLFE: There are a lot of claims, but the thing to keep in mind when you read any paper about the wonders of any food, anything from oranges to kombucha to vinegar, is a lot of studies start off in a petri dish.

TWILLEY: To be fair, some of the studies were done in rats too. And that voice of scepticism is one you might recognize if you are a regular Gastropod listener—it’s Ben Wolfe of Tufts University, aka our in-house microbiologist.

GRABER: That’s right: microbes. Drink now.

TWILLEY: Cheers. So there is some interesting science on vinegar’s health benefits. But the only vinegar super power that’s really well-documented is its ability to kill bacteria. They’re actually being killed by acetic acid, which is what makes vinegar vinegar.

WOLFE: So you can add, you know, high doses of acetic acid to E. coli, to salmonella, and they’ll die because of that acidity. Then translating those kinds of studies from a pure culture in a petri dish to the more complicated world of the human body, there’s some challenges there. It’s much more complicated. You know, if you drank a ton of vinegar, you know, you probably aren’t going to feel great. And that’s because your own body tries to maintain a certain pH in different places. So drinking a ton of vinegar isn’t necessarily going to make you super, super healthy.

GRABER: There does seem to be some intriguing research on the effects of consuming small amounts of vinegar on blood sugar and weight loss, but these are not definitive studies. At all. Sorry Heidi, Scarlett, and Ralph: more research is needed.

TWILLEY: In other words, vinegar is not a cure-all.

GRABER: That said, adding fermented foods like vinegar to your diet seems to be a good thing overall—if you enjoy them. Just listen to Ben rather than Heidi, and don’t drink the whole bottle in one go.

TWILLEY: But vinegar’s ability to kill bacteria is curious. Because vinegar is actually made by bacteria. Like I said, vinegar is basically acetic acid.

WOLFE: And acetic acid is a byproduct of microbial metabolism. It’s essentially waste from a certain group of microbes.

GRABER: This group of microbes is called acetic acid bacteria. And to make vinegar, they first need alcohol to eat. Which is why you can’t have vinegar unless you have alcohol first.

WOLFE: Which when you think about it, it’s not something that a lot of organisms can use. And in fact it’s actually toxic to many organisms. But for acetic acid bacteria it’s delicious and wonderful.

TWILLEY: Acetic acid bacteria cannot get enough booze. They love it. They chug their way through any alcohol you give them, they break it down, and then they sweat it out as acetic acid, carbon dioxide, and water.

GRABER: This sounds like great fun—microbe party!—but it’s actually a lot of work.

WOLFE: Why would they go through all this work to use up alcohol and produce acetic acid? And in part, it makes a lot of sense, it’s a great way to kill competitors in your environment. So if you want to grow as a microbe you have to fight with all of these things living around you. And so acetic acid is a, you know, a very strong acid. In high concentrations, the pH, the acidity of the environment is a really difficult thing to deal with for many microbes.

TWILLEY: That’s why it makes sense that vinegar preserves things, like dead bodies in Egypt and also pickles.

GRABER: So vinegar is three to six percent acetic acid. The rest is just water and a few other flavors, depending on what kind of booze you started with.

TWILLEY: And because thirsty humans have developed so many different types of booze, there are tons of different kinds of vinegars out there. Red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar and rice wine vinegar. There’s pineapple vinegar and coconut vinegar and malt vinegar. You can start with absolutely any product, as long as it has enough sugar in it to be fermented by yeast into alcohol.

GRABER: And once the yeast have done their work, then you let the acetic acid bacteria have their party.

WOLFE: Yeah, so acetic acid bacteria are everywhere. So if you walk in a field of flowers, if you even walk through Central Park or any place where there is soil, where there are plants, where there insects around, there are acetic acid bacteria. They’re living in places with little bits of sugar, like inside of flowers where there’s nectar. They’re living inside the bodies of insects. And so anywhere you have open alcohol, these bacteria can get into that environment, and that’s really where—that’s their happy place.

GRABER: And this is why, as Michael told us, those first vinegars were almost definitely an accident. The acetic acid bacteria would have just fallen in those open Mesopotamian wine containers and then, poof, vinegar!

TWILLEY: Lots of traditional vinegars are still made this way, just by relying on acetic acid bacteria in the environment to sour a jugful of wine. Andy Harris, a food writer turned vinegar entrepreneur, makes vinegar in his shed in West London in earthenware crocks and barrels. He told us that that’s a tradition that goes back millennia.

HARRIS: Traditionally in France and probably many other parts of Europe, peasant society, you know, farmers, each family would have a pot, vinegar crock, or a barrel where they made their vinegar. And that would be literally either pouring their slops from the daily wine. So then they used that as the family vinegar barrel.

GRABER: Among vinegar makers, this is known as the Orleans method. Michael told us the name comes from the town of Orleans in France that served as a stopping off point for wine coming into Paris.

TURKELL: And it had this amazing history of all this wine coming from the Loire, you know, along the Loire River and then would be shuttled up to Paris. Well, whatever didn’t make it on the boat as wine and then converted into vinegar was dropped off at the shore. So peoples or artisans there had to figure out something to do with it and they developed the Orleans method, which was one of the initial barrel-age methods of vinegar.

TWILLEY: It’s most the low-maintenance thing you can imagine. The wine sits there, the acetic acid bacteria do their thing, and then you drain the resulting vinegar off and bottle it, leaving the dregs in the barrel to get things going the next time.

TURKELL: The only one who’s left is Martin Pouret, who’s a sixth-generation vinegar maker in Orleans. And I couldn’t even walk into the vinegar cellars—or it was actually on the second, third floor—because the smell was so strong.

GRABER: At the height of the town’s vinegar production, around the time of the French revolution in the late 1700s, there were dozens of vinegar makers in town. Imagine the smell!

TWILLEY: The Orleans method is also a very slow method of making vinegar, which is fine, but has its downsides for businessmen who, you know, traditionally favor making a quick buck.

TURKELL: You have to have a lot of patience and you have to have a lot of product.

GRABER: All that changed in the late 1700s, when Louis Pasteur noticed that booze turned into vinegar more quickly if there was more oxygen in the liquid.

TWILLEY: So people started to experiment with ways to expose the vinegar to more air, first by trickling it down through beds of wood chips in a barrel, and then, more recently, using something called the Frings acetator. This is the method that’s still used to produce most of the world’s vinegar today.

GRABER: Ben told us that these acetators work by bubbling up oxygen into alcohol.

WOLFE: It’s sort of like a bubbler in an aquarium, and that continuously pumps in a lot of oxygen into the system and that happens over just a couple of days. So these microbes are capable of making vinegar over a really short time periods if the conditions are right.

TWILLEY: Whereas in Andy’s shed, his wine or beer takes as long as it takes to become vinegar—3 months, 6 months, however much time the acetic acid bacteria need to get the job done.

GRABER: So we wondered, does making vinegar faster make a difference to the flavor? And what contributes the most flavor to the end product, anyway?

WOLFE: Yeah, so I think you know in terms of the flavor of vinegar, I’d love to think that the microbes are doing a whole lot. But at the end of the day, the thing that’s driving flavor often in vinegar is what you start off with.

TWILLEY: That plain distilled vinegar or white vinegar you buy at the store is made from straight ethanol. And that ethanol could have come from corn or really any of the huge number of industrial processes that produce ethanol as a waste product.

GRABER: So it’s pretty tasteless. But then what about the red wine vinegar at the grocery store versus Andy’s red wine vinegar? They’re both made from red wine.

(DOOR OPENING)

HARRIS: And then this, this is what I call my vinegar shed.

TWILLEY: Andy used to be a food writer, like I said. So he has lots of wine writer friends who give him their leftover tasting bottles.

HARRIS: So that’s a Bordeaux. That’s a Tempranillo, a Rioja.

TWILLEY: Yeah, sadly the red wine vinegar in my cupboard is not a single varietal.

GRABER: And yes. Andy’s red wine vinegar is genuinely really tasty, better than the one I have at home. Like Ben said, the starting material really does matter.

TWILLEY: But so wait. That raises a question. Could you just put that fancy Bordeaux into one of these industrial bubblers and make really good red wine vinegar really fast?

GRABER: As usual, the answer seems to be not necessarily. First of all, Andy’s vinegar gets some great flavor notes from the wood barrels themselves. But then there’s the aging process. Ben pointed out that there’s a lot going on in the wine as it slowly becomes vinegar.

WOLFE: When these acetic acid bacteria are metabolizing the alcohol and converting into acetic acid, they’re not just doing that, right? Their cells are doing other things. And so you can imagine if you let those things sit around for a while some of those cells will die. And as those cells die, they release different things into the environment, metabolites that we can perceive as flavors. You could imagine that there would be a much more complicated microbial death cascade that could end up in some really beautiful flavors in the longer fermentation.

TWILLEY: Yep, that’s right. It’s the microbial death cascade in Andy’s vinegar that makes it so pleasing on the palate.

GRABER: Perfect band name.

TWILLEY: Cynthia, if we were a band rather than a podcast, we would totally be called Microbial Death Cascade!

GRABER: If we had any musical talent. But microbial death combined with the source alcohol is not the only way to get amazing flavored vinegar. Andy, for example—he doesn’t just make vinegars. He also has an incredible collection that he sells as well. And lots of them are infused with herbs and fruit and flowers.

HARRIS: So there’s this wonderful lady called Natalie LeFort who makes all these vinegars. This comes from a 16th-century recipe she found in a cookbook. And it’s vermeil and it’s basically with cloves and cinnamon.

TWILLEY: This is another way to build flavor in your vinegar: infuse it.

HARRIS: That for example I use with duck—duck breast. To deglaze.

GRABER: That sounds perfect.

TWILLEY: Ideal.

GRABER: The herb and spice flavors are all preserved in the vinegar.

HARRIS: These are made by nuns, and there’s a thyme flower vinegar—you just smell from the bottle. So these are very intense and savoury and all the herbs and the fruit are grown in the monastery. Tarragon. You can really get that aniseed of the tarragon in that one.

GRABER: Mmmm, I love tarragon.

TWILLEY: That’s incredible.

HARRIS: Sarayet, which is one of my favourites—savoury. Wow. It’s a really earthy. So that with a lovely warm potato salad. You know, just get some waxy potatoes and just literally just get them out the pan, add some of that and some good olive oil and some nice sea salt.

TWILLEY: We had an epic vinegar tasting session at Andy’s, and it really was easy to see how these super-flavorful infused wine vinegars would add a whole new dimension to a dish.

GRABER: With Andy, though, there’s one crucial vinegar we did not taste. Because we knew we were headed to Italy to taste it in its home. Balsamic vinegar.

TWILLEY: The top dog of vinegars. But when did balsamic get so popular? And is the balsamic you’ve tasted actually the real thing?

GRABER: Answers to all your balsamic questions and more—right after a few words about our sponsors this episode.

(MIDROLL)

EMILIO BIANCARDI: OK, what you see here is one of our robotic lawn mower. We were the first one to introduce robotic lawn mowers in a vineyard.

TWILLEY: Here we are, surrounded by grapevines, near a 18th-century villa, in the gorgeous Italian countryside. And this oversized lawnmower roomba-thing is following us around.

BIANCARDI: Yeah, that’s Inea. Well, Inea in English. We have Mario, Pepo, Inea and Ulisa, Ulysses. So we decided to give them name.

GRABER: This is where balsamic vinegar comes from.

BIANCARDI: My name is Emilio Biancardi, from Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca. We’re in the zone of origin for traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, which is just the province of Modena.

GRABER: People here have been making vinegar here for thousands of years. Christina Sereni works in the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, not far from Emilio’s vineyards.

CRISTINA SERENI: We know that we were famous for vinegars even in Roman times. We cannot grow olive trees, we cannot grow lemon trees. Winter frost kills everything. We know that we were growing grapes even in Roman times. Apicio, one of the chefs of the Roman Age, was using vinegar from Modena and he writes it in his recipes. So we know that in Roman times we were already famous for our production of vinegars. And I’m using the plural because we had many, many vinegars. Different kinds of vinegar, made in different ways with apples, with grapes, with wine or cooked grape must.

TWILLEY: Cooked grape must—that is the thing that sets balsamic apart. Must is just the pressed wine grapes—juice, seeds, skins, stems, and all. And then that must is cooked for between 12 and 72 hours. It’s brought to the boil, and then gently simmered.

BIANCARDI: That’s the secret of our product. And it gives us these four major effects: volume reduction, sugar concentration, almost killing of all the enzymes and bacteria that can lead to an alcoholic fermentation. And, last but not least, the first change in the color, due to the caramelization of sugar and to the Maillard reaction.

GRABER: The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction from heating proteins and sugars that makes things brown and tasty, like the brown top of a loaf of bread. Same thing is happening to the cooking grape must. And like Cristina said, it’s not just that they’ve been making vinegar in Modena for thousands of years, but they’ve also been cooking grape must for just as long.

BIANCARDI: The idea of cooking must comes from the Roman. As you may know, the Romans didn’t have any sugar. They just had honey and cooked must. This was one of the sweetest things that they had.

TWILLEY: Cooked must, which is called saba in Modena, it’s still used as a sweetener in the region today, to make Christmas confectionery. In fact, quite a few places still have that tradition, left over from Roman times. Emilio told us cooked must is big in Romania too.

GRABER: And like everywhere else in the world where vinegar has been invented, that sweet, cooked grape must turned into alcohol and then vinegar, by accident. And unsurprisingly, it was delicious. People loved it.

TWILLEY: That happy accident was the first balsamic vinegar, the grandaddy of all the balsamic vinegars we drizzle today. Balsamic vinegar is, by definition, cooked grape must, aged.

GRABER: This sounds simple, and yet bottles of real balsamic vinegar cost about 50 bucks minimum. So obviously it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.

TWILLEY: For starters, you can’t just use any old grape.

BIANCARDI: Our productive law says which kind of grapes we have to use. So the trebbiano, ancellotta, lambruschi. So typical grapes from the zone of origin.

GRABER: So far, so straightforward. Then it gets a little nuts. We went upstairs at Emilio’s villa into his balsamic attic.

TONI MAGLIAZZA: Neither of you have been in a balsamic attic before?

GRABER: No.

MAGLIAZZA: Prepare yourselves, have the mic on.

GRABER: Oh the mic’s on, it’s not off.

MAGLIAZZA: You’re gonna freak out, it’s life changing.

TWILLEY: Even though Toni warned us, we still freaked out. We got out of the elevator and it hit us right away, square to the nose.

TWILLEY: Ohhhh! Smell that!

GRABER: Wow. It’s sweet and it’s acidic and it’s warm.

BIANCARDI: Well it’s warm because I left the—

GRABER: No, I mean the smell is like really a warm smell.

TWILLEY: Like a little spicy, wood.

GRABER: Little caramel.

BIANCARDI: OK, follow me.

GRABER: Wow. Oh my gosh.

BIANCARDI: Watch your hand, watch your step please.

GRABER: As Emilio started to say, it wasn’t just a warm smell, which I loved, but it was also really freaking hot.

TWILLEY: Which, it turns out, serves a purpose. Because once you’ve got your cooked must, you use it to refill a barrel that’s half-filled with older balsamic. And then you leave it for an entire year, winter followed by summer. And the magic starts to happen.

BIANCARDI: The fluctuation between hot and cold is really important. Because the acetic bacteria are really active when it’s hot. So in winter when it’s cold and calm you have sediment.

GRABER: And, after a cold calm winter and a busy hot summer, the sugar in the must has turned into alcohol. And it’s starting to turn into vinegar. Andy’s red wine vinegar would be long done and bottled by now. But Emilio is nowhere near finished.

BIANCARDI: Even if it seem a really calm and slow product, it’s really dynamic product. You have to keep the product alive.

TWILLEY: This is what Emilio has to do to keep his balsamic alive: Every year, once a year, he has to go up to the attic to sniff his barrels, and then move some of the vinegar from one barrel to another. And then the vinegar that was in that 2nd barrel … well, some of that gets moved to a third barrel. Which some of the vinegar from that third barrel has to be moved into a fourth. And then some of the vinegar from the fourth… You get the picture.

GRABER: Each barrel down that path year after year is smaller. In part, it’s because you’re only moving some of the vinegar from one barrel to the next. In part, it’s because some of the liquid evaporates over the course of the year. And so, up in Emilio’s attic, there are all these beautiful rows of barrels, each progressively smaller in that row.

TWILLEY: This process of moving just a little bit of the aging vinegar each year—it can be as little as a litre, like a couple of pints—it’s called the passages. It happens every spring.

SERENI: When temperature rises yeasts and acetic acid bacteria start to wake up. And they start to work. So you understand that the time is right by the perfumes you are perceiving.

TWILLEY: That’s why Emilio sniffs his barrels to know when to start the passages—you can smell when the acetic acid bacteria have woken up from winter hibernation and rolled up their sleeves to start another long season of eating alcohol.

GRABER: So each of those barrels in a set, it gets a little bit of the vinegar from the barrel before. So in each barrel, there’s vinegar there from the very first year that the barrel was ever used to make vinegar.

TWILLEY: This is why when you buy balsamic—the real aged traditional stuff—it always says it’s either at least 12 years or at least 25 years old

BIANCARDI: So what does it mean? The first one you tasted, I told you it was at least six. But this barrel contains all the product that we’ve been putting inside this barrel from the beginning of the life of the barrel.

GRABER: So why don’t you just leave the product in one barrel and age it there for six years? Why this whole moving a little bit each year thing?

BIANCARDI: You wouldn’t have the same complexity and taste that we are achieving now. So adding something every year is making them more active.

TWILLEY: It’s all about keeping the balsamic alive, not letting it get stuck. But the moving, adding young blood to the older barrels—that’s not the only thing contributing to balsamic’s flavor development. There’s also the wood of the barrels themselves.

GRABER: Cristina told us they use woods they can get in the region.

SERENI: Oak and acacia are sweet and warm. Mulberry and cherry are fresh and fruity. Ash is very delicate. Chestnut is tannic, but because it is the cheapest, everyone’s got a barrel of chestnut. And we use to sweeten the flavor given by chestnut with oak. Oak is the most used for smallest barrels. And the one in the middle is juniper. Juniper is a very aromatic and spicy wood, so aromatic and spicy that you can tell if a vinegar has been kept in a barrel made of juniper simply by smelling it.

TWILLEY: Over the years that the balsamic is moving along into smaller and smaller barrels, its flavor is being transformed. Emilio gave us a taste of the at least six-year-old balsamic, which is actually too young to legally sell. It tasted fine to me, but kind of acidic—a little sweet and thick but really more like regular sherry vinegar.

GRABER: Then we moved on to the good stuff.

BIANCARDI: But let’s continue so you see how the product is following its path to the excellence. Ready?

GRABER: Yeah.

TWILLEY: Yeah.

BIANCARDI: OK please, poker face. OK, don’t tell the others what you’re feeling. I don’t want—

TWILLEY: The world to know?

BIANCARDI: This one is at least thirteen, more or less. That was one of the worst poker face I’ve ever seen.

GRABER: We don’t do poker faces here.

TWILLEY: So it’s become sweeter. It’s become thicker. It’s also become…

BIANCARDI: Rounder.

TWILLEY: Yeah.

GRABER: And more caramel notes to it too.

TWILLEY: So here’s the funny thing. I have no idea how some lunatic Modenese person first decided to do this whole kind of painful process of transferring just a tiny bit of vinegar into a smaller barrel each year. No one really does.

SERENI: We have a record that tells us that in 1046, a German Emperor, Henry the Third, going to meet the Pope stopped in this area to collect a bottle of vinegar, that from the description could have been an ancestor of this traditional balsamic vinegar. But we haven’t found a barrel, we haven’t found any recipes dating back one or two thousand years. So only we can tell you is that we found a record.

TWILLEY: There’s also a record in the 1500s of Lucretia Borgia, who has something of a reputation—the Borgia family specialized in poisonings and murder—but she apparently specially requested the famous vinegar of Modena to ease her labor pains.

GRABER: The name ‘balsamic vinegar’ was first used, as far as we know, in 1747. It was another name for ‘the Duke’s vinegars’ that were kept in his secret cellars. The name is from the Latin balsam, like a thick aromatic balm.

TWILLEY: But balsamic wasn’t only for the duke.

SERENI: In ancient times, families used to start a new set anytime a baby girl was born. In this way, when the girl was ready to leave the house, usually because she was getting married, the vinegar was already good.

TWILLEY: Cristina’s family started a set of barrels for her when she was born. She’s not married, but she’s used her own vinegar anyway.

SERENI: Now the tradition stays on. But people don’t mind the gender. Anything can be a good excuse to start a new set.

GRABER: So people were doing this—cooking grape must, moving it from barrel to barrel in an attic. But there wasn’t a clear defined step-by-step, this is what you do to make balsamic vinegar, until…

SERENI: The first record, the first recipe describing in detail is the process that we still use to make traditional balsamic vinegar is described in one of the letters Pio Fabriani and Francesco Aggazzotti exchanged between 1860 and 1862. He was just describing the method his family was following to help his friend to make a better vinegar.

TWILLEY: This letter was the first time that these specific steps were spelled out. But nowadays, they’re law.

GRABER: Emilio’s family has been making balsamic vinegar this way for at least six generations back. Today, they make 5000 to 8000 bottles a year.

TWILLEY: But they don’t put their own vinegar into bottles. They’re not allowed to.

BIANCARDI: So you will have to bring the product to the consortium, whole amount.

GRABER: There’s a special consortium, they’re basically the guardians of balsamic tradition, and they decide whether the product is good enough to be called “traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.”

BIANCARDI: There the product is tested and tasted by experts. They test it for minimal acidity, minimal density, and then taste it. And if the product is OK, they do the bottling.

GRABER: Cristina was a master taster and would have been one of people judging vinegar like Emilio’s, though she’s no longer doing it these days.

TWILLEY: It had taken over her life. If you’re a taster, you spend more time tasting than you do with your family.

GRABER: At the museum, Cristina talked us through what she used to do, and what tasters still do, every day in Modena.

SERENI: This is a typical table used to taste traditional balsamic vinegar. Six people gathered around a table, and first of all they checked the color of the vinegar through the light of a candle. When you check the vinegar through the light of a candle, you look for the perfect density. The color must be dark with ruby flecks and it must be clear.

TWILLEY: Then they sniff it. Cristina told us you’re looking for an aroma that sticks around. It needs to have lasting power but still be delicate.

SERENI: You want to have a refined perfume, not too aggressive.

GRABER: And then they taste a few drops. They spread the vinegar around on their tongue and press it to the roof of their mouth.

SERENI: Then you look for a body, when you taste it in your mouth, you look for a body. You want a vinegar that remains there even when you swallow it. The flavor should be nice and harmonious. And then it must be sour, because vinegar is sour, it must be sour, not too sweet, not too sour. Everything must be very well balanced and refined.

TWILLEY: And then they talk about the vinegar and they give the vinegar a score.

SERENI: Sometimes there are discussions that goes on for minutes and minutes. Some other times you find people that agree about the quality of the vinegar. The highest possible score is 400. Nobody got such a high score.

GRABER: The best vinegars get about 320 or so. But if it’s not quite good enough to be called real balsamic vinegar of Modena, the guardians of tradition might send the producer back to age it another year or so. And that’s it. This is traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.

TWILLEY: Balsamic vinegar was a pretty local product for a very long time. European aristocracy might have craved it, but the majority of world had no idea it even existed. And then suddenly—and I remember this happening—you couldn’t move for a balsamic-drizzled Caprese salad. What happened?

GRABER: A few things happened within just a decade or so. In 1976, Chuck Williams—he’s the founder of Williams-Sonoma—he first saw and fell in love with balsamic vinegar in Italy. At the time it was almost impossible to find here. So In 1977, he imported some in his Williams-Sonoma catalogue, and apparently it was really popular. He’s credited with starting the balsamic craze in America.

TWILLEY: Although Emilio’s theory is that balsamic really became big a little later.

BIANCARDI: It was in the 90s, I think because I remember in Star Trek, in one of the movies, there is Captain Picard says something about “serve to the aliens some balsamic vinaigrette,” something like that. So it was in the 90s.

STAR TREK EXCERPT

TWILLEY: But something else happened in the 1990s, too.

BIANCARDI: This was the moment of the fight, you know. Our tiny consortium was fighting to receive this protection from the European law and the European Union. But then everything went wrong.

GRABER: As we said, the real balsamic vinegar is super expensive, at least 50 bucks for a small bottle. And now you understand why—it takes years to make. But balsamic vinegar in America suddenly was super popular. So of course, copy-cats started to elbow in on Emilio’s family business.

TWILLEY: His family and the consortium—the balsamic guardians—they wanted to say that the only product you could call balsamic vinegar was balsamic vinegar made the way they make it. But they lost.

GRABER: There is actually a law about what can be called ‘balsamic vinegar of Modena.’ It does, yes, have to be made in Modena. But there are industrial shortcuts you can take. You can make it with wine vinegar, for instance, which, as we know from Andy, takes a lot less time to produce.

BIANCARDI: Wine vinegar, concentrated must, caramel. Whatever.

TWILLEY: This more industrial, faster product—it’s cheaper, obviously. And it’s not bad. In fact, for years, it was all I knew. It’s all many Italians know. And it’s legally sold as traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena with an IGP label—a protected geographical indication. So it looks really legit.

GRABER: As Nicky said, it’s not bad. But it doesn’t have the same complexity and depth of flavor. And, frankly, the grapes don’t even have to come from Modena.

TWILLEY: So if you want the real balsamic—the stuff that Emilio and Cristina make, painstakingly transferring vinegar between barrels each year—you need to be specific. It has to be called traditional balsamic vinegar of modena and it has to have a DOP symbol—a protected designation of origin. Which is confusing, because the IGP label really looks quite similar.

GRABER: Let’s make this all even a little more confusing for you, and more frustrating for Emilio. If you go to the supermarket and you see something called ‘balsamic vinegar,’ no mention of Modena, it could just be industrial wine vinegar with added sugar. That’s what most of the stuff in America is. You can tell, too—it flows like water, it’s not thick at all. It’s just slightly sweet vinegar.

TWILLEY: I would say be careful here. If you do try the real stuff, it’s very hard to go back! And it’s a really expensive habit, although a little does go a long way. But oh my god is it good.

GRABER: Emilio cooked us lunch, homemade focaccia and all, and spared no expense on the balsamic vinegar.

BIANCARDI: One of the most common appetizers is Parmesan cheese with traditional balsamic vinegar. So we’re drizzling some drops on the Parmesan. And then you will tell me how it tastes.

GRABER: I can already tell you how it tastes.

TWILLEY: I’m looking forward to it. I’ll just put it that way.

GRABER: I could see the future, and I was right. It was just as delicious as I’d expected.

BIANCARDI: So that’s the frittata with the zucchini.

GRABER: With some balsamic.

BIANCARDI: And on top we’re pouring some traditional balsamic vinegar on top of it. I don’t know if you want to take a picture of that.

GRABER: In a beautiful shape of a spiral.

TWILLEY: At this point, I asked Emilio whether he just puts balsamic on everything, because everything tastes better with it.

BIANCARDI: I put balsamic. Yeah.

GRABER: The frittata was amazing. I’m going to start drizzling balsamic on all my eggs. If I can afford it.

TWILLEY: I am afraid that podcasting and a balsamic habit may not be compatible. Then to finish our balsamic feast, Emilio brought us some gelato drizzled with the at least 25-year-old balsamic.

TWILLEY: It looks like hot fudge sauce. I have a feeling it’s going to taste a lot better.

GRABER: I was going to say, this is much more appealing to me than hot fudge.

TWILLEY: Toni—her eyes literally rolled backwards in her head at this point.

GRABER: Nicky, so did yours.

TWILLEY: If I could only have one ice cream topping in the world for the rest of all time, it would surely be this. Like no competition at all with anything ever.

GRABER: We kept asking everyone in Modena if anyone else in the world makes a similar vinegar, something this sweet and rich and complex. Of course, they’re Italian, they said nobody else. Just them. But Michael—he’s the one who wrote the cookbook on vinegar—he told us about an insane Japanese sweet potato vinegar that smelled like Beaujolais but was really sweet.

TURKELL: Akihiro Io who is a many generation vinegar maker who has taken it over from his father and mother in the past few years poured it over vanilla ice cream. And I have a little bottle of that vinegar, it’s called Benimosu, at my house specifically to kind of like blow people’s mind and pour it over ice cream for dessert.

TWILLEY: And that’s the thing. For Michael and also for Andy, it’s not about, ‘Oh you have to spend 50 bucks on fancy balsamic.’ Yes, fancy balsamic is amazing. If you get the chance to try it, you have to. But their point is, vinegar in general is so much more than the industrial product most of us have on our shelves.

TURKELL: It’s often overlooked as something that’s important

GRABER: Because most people think of it just for salad dressing. Which Michael doesn’t mind.

TURKELL: But then when everyone starts thinking that, ‘Oh yeah I have vinegar and I do this, you know, I get fruit flies with it.’ I hate that vinegar has somehow been relegated to cleaning more than it has to culinary purposes.

GRABER: Andy and Michael are campaigning to break vinegar out of its salad dressing bottle. We had it on eggs in Italy. Andy uses it in casseroles and paella and gazpacho. Michael has an entire book full of recipes that require vinegar. Me, personally—I almost always splash some at the end when I’m cooking greens or other vegetables.

TURKELL: Acidity is one of those, you know, handful of elements that needs to happen in a well balanced dish. And I know a lot of chefs—actually I’ll say most chefs will say if a dish is missing something, it’s usually acidity. So I think a lot of people just don’t even know how to use it. They’re a little scared of what vinegar is.

TWILLEY: I know before we made this episode, it wouldn’t have ever crossed my mind to add a dash of vinegar to my stew or my pan-fried fish or whatever. At most, I would use like a squeeze of lemon to add that acidity.

HARRIS: If you go into supermarkets, it’s rather second-rate balsamic and a few other vinegars. So you know every—people have kind of discovered good quality olive oil and how you can use different oils for different things and they should be able to do the same with vinegar.

GRABER: That’s really the point, as we discovered in Andy’s shed. There are so many different vinegars, each with its own acidity level and flavor. Andy loves the cinnamon and cloves-infused vinegar to deglaze the pan when he’s cooking duck, and he uses a cider vinegar to poach rhubarb.

TWILLEY: Vinegar: the gateway to a new dimension. As Captain Picard never said.

(MUSIC)

GRABER: Once again, a huge, huge thanks to Toni Mazzaglia for arranging our balsamic vinegar tours and translating and making everything happen. Go to Florence and take her food tour: TasteFlorence.com.

TWILLEY: Thanks to Andy Harris of the Vinegar Shed, Michael Harlan Turkell whose new book is called Acid Trip, and then, in Italy, Emilio Biancardi of the Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca and  Cristina Sereni of the Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar in Spilamberto. We have links to their books and their online shops so you can buy vinegar and cook with to your heart’s delight. It’s all on our website, along with lots of amazing photos of our vinegar adventures. Gastropod.com. And I have to thank my parents for cutting out and saving an article about Andy Harris for me: they provide a dedicated clippings service for which I am extremely grateful!

GRABER: And of course, thanks to Gastropod’s in-house microbiologist, Ben Wolfe of Tufts University. He answered all our appropriate vinegar questions, and then some that were maybe not quite in his wheelhouse.

TWILLEY: The other thing people do is they put it on their hair in the shower to make their hair shiny. Why on earth would that work? Would it?

WOLFE: Um, again…

TWILLEY: LAUGHS A tiny bit outside your expertise.

WOLFE: Sorry.

GRABER: We’re taking you way out of…

WOLFE: Yeah.

TWILLEY: I know, I’m like ‘Professor of Hair Shininess at Tufts Ben Wolfe said…’

WOLFE: LAUGHS I could put that on my CV somewhere. You know, I think it makes sense that these acids are really good at denaturing proteins. And so they can help loosen up and denature proteins that are stuck on things and other, you know, fats and other kinds of things that can help solubilize those. So it does make sense to put vinegar on your hair, it’ll probably clean your hair. But again, yeah, I’m not a hair specialist.

GRABER and TWILLEY: LAUGHING Sorry.

Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar

It's found in almost every home, whether it's destined to dress salads or clean surfaces and kill fruit flies. But, effective as it is at those tasks, most of us struggle to get excited about vinegar. Today, however, a handful of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs are trying to launch a vinegar renaissance—one in which we appreciate vinegar (nearly) as much as the alcohol from which it's made. This episode, we visit vinegar attics in Italy, conduct an epic tasting in a backyard vinegar shed in west London, and chat with our in-house microbiologist, Ben Wolfe of Tufts University, in order to explore vinegar's long, frequently accidental history, its rumored health benefits, and its culinary potential. Plus: is the balsamic vinegar on your shelf the real thing? Listen now for all this and more!

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The Buzz on Honey TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode The Buzz on Honey, first released on November 15, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

BECKY MASTERMAN: That’s a lot of bees. You ever seen that many bees?

CYNTHIA GRABER: Never.

NICOLA TWILLEY: Never. That’s a lot of bees. Like, I can’t even, I mean I can’t even guesstimate. Like, is that 250, is that…?

GRABER: A thousand?

MASTERMAN: Yeah, on a full frame of bees you are going to have about a thousand, fifteen hundred to two thousand actually. So that’s probably a lower—on the lower end. it’s probably approaching a thousand.

GRABER: Nicky has a lot of skills—but counting things unfortunately isn’t one of them.

TWILLEY: Numbers are not my friend, it’s true. It’s a real thing and I expect sympathy not scorn, OK?

GRABER: All the sympathy. You can leave the counting to me. But there really were a shit ton of bees. I mean, who ever—if you’re not a beekeeper—who’s seen 1000 bees in one place? It was a little intimidating.

TWILLEY: But we braved all the bees because we wanted to see what they were making.

GRABER: Honey!

TWILLEY: That’s what this episode of Gastropod is all about—and yes, you are listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And this episode on honey was suggested by listener and donor Alan Chao. He’s not only a Gastropod supporter, he’s also a hobby beekeeper. Alan says that when people learn he keeps bees, he gets a flood of questions, and they end up chatting about bees for an hour or two.

TWILLEY: Do not be afraid, this episode is under an hour, we promise. But honey—and the bees that make it—they are fascinating. So let’s get stuck into the sweet stuff.

(PRE-ROLL)

(MUSIC UP)

GRABER: So we are starting this episode back in Minnesota—you may remember we were out there for our immersion in Native American cuisine last episode. And while we were in Minneapolis, we also received a crash course in bee-keeping and honey.

MASTERMAN: My name is Becky Masterman and I run the Bee Squad for the University of Minnesota Bee Lab. And we are looking at about ten colonies, and they range from probably a low of hopefully 40,000 bees to maybe up to 50 or 60,000 honeybees.

TWILLEY: Cynthia, Becky, half a million bees, and I were all hanging out at the corner of a very busy intersection—you’ll hear trucks and cars going past as we talk. We were right at the corner of the University of Minnesota Campus. And the Bee Squad?

MASTERMAN: So the Bee Squad—there’s no A-squad. The Bee Squad is an outreach and education organization that was started by my boss Marla Spivak.

GRABER: Marla Spivak is one of the top scientists studying bee colonies in the country. She received a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work and used the award to set up the Bee Squad. On the squad they do outreach and education to both beekeepers and the public in general. So we asked Marla what’s so special about bees.

SPIVAK: Bees matter because they’re the most important pollinators of our fruits and vegetables and flowers. Do you want me to go on?

TWILLEY: Yes please.

SPIVAK: It’s interesting because plants can’t move to have sex, and instead they bring—many flowers bring insects in to do it for them. Pollen—this may be more than you want to know—but pollen is basically plant sperm. And the bees are collecting it because it’s high in protein and lipids, and bees use it as food for their young. Sounds a little crazy, but nature does some wild things. And so bees fly around collecting pollen for food to feed that to their young, and in the process they end up pollinating the plant.

TWILLEY: OK, that’s pollen. What’s honey?

SPIVAK: So flowers produce two things. They produce nectar which is just sugars, and they produce pollen. And bees collect both of these things and use them differently. So the pollen is what they feed to their young and the nectar, if they’re honeybees, they convert it into what we call honey. Honey is basically just condensed nectar.

TWILLEY: What happens is, the forager bees come back to the hives with a full tank of nectar and they pass it on to their younger colleagues, who spit it carefully into some wax cells they made earlier.

GRABER: Yep, honey is part bee spit.

TWILLEY: The enzymes in the bee spit actually help break down the sugars in the nectar and concentrate them.

GRABER: And then the bees call out for some muscle assistance. Other bee colleagues join in and flap their wings really hard and evaporate off a lot of the water.

MASTERMAN: And that low moisture makes it honey.

TWILLEY: Tada! But a quick point of order here: we are talking about honey bees, because they make honey. But honey bees are only one species out of more than twenty thousand bee species that buzz around pollinating our crops and flowers.

GRABER: There are a couple of other species that make a little bit of honey, but nothing in the quantity of the one bee species that we’ve basically domesticated. They’re the super honey producers. They produce a huge amount of excess honey that they don’t need, and that’s what we steal.

TWILLEY: But why are they making honey in the first place?

MASTERMAN: So bees use the honey as their source of carbohydrates, and they—it’s really their energy. So in the winter, for example, honey is very important because they will feed on honey and then they will—they decouple their wing muscles. They take their wing muscles apart from the mechanism that would move their wings and they shiver, and that shivering generates heat.

TWILLEY: The honey is like the bees’ energy goo, so that they can spend all winter shivering their little bodies fast enough to keep the internal temperature of the hive at a balmy 70 degrees, even when it’s fricking freezing in Minnesota.

ZIPPING SOUND

TWILLEY: This is like the ultimate bomber jacket.

GRABER: Becky was about to open up some boxes so we could watch honey being made in real time.

TWILLEY: OK, let me do your head too, hold on.

GRABER: Here we go, yeah. I’m getting all suited up here.

GRABER: But before that, obviously we had to suit up.

TWILLEY: OK. Looking good, Cynthia.

GRABER: As do you.

GRABER: You’ve probably seen photos of beekeepers in these all-white garments. They kind of look like space suits.

MASTERMAN: We wear certain colors so that to not cause any alarm basically to the bees. So bees have a few predators. Bears are one of them. And so we think that like dark fuzzy clothing is an issue.

TWILLEY: Better an astronaut than a bear as far as bees are concerned.

GRABER: So a big guy with a beard—dark beard is not really welcome here.

TWILLEY: In a fuzzy fleece.

MASTERMAN: I’ve had boots attacked. Like, early spring, late winter, with like a fur ring around the edge of the boots. I’ve had the bees really not like those.

GRABER: Becky cracked open one of the boxes.

MASTERMAN: Let’s go over here.

MASTERMAN: So, again, I just put some smoke in the entrance.

TWILLEY: Becky had a nifty little portable smoker burning some aspen wood chips. The smoke basically drowns out the bees’ own chemical communications, so they can’t set off the panic button.

MASTERMAN: Crack the top, break the propolis seal. You can see a couple of cool things here. This is actually propolis right here.

GRABER: Propolis is actually resin from trees. The bees collect it and bring it back to the hive.

MASTERMAN: And they use that resin to to glue all the parts together. But then it also serves a bigger purpose as an antimicrobial protection.

GRABER: And the whole hive—it was an absolutely amazing thing to see in person. I was so entranced by the thousands of bees in the boxes, all swarming on the frames filled with wax honeycomb. I wanted to get closer in to get some great sound of bees buzzing. So I stuck the mic right in.

MASTERMAN: That’s black and fuzzy, so we’ll see if they like it.

TWILLEY: Fortunately, the bees did not think Cynthia’s mic was a bear paw. You will be glad to hear that no one was stung in the making of this episode.

GRABER: As Becky pulled out different frames we saw different color bees—Becky told us that the queen mates with different males, and her offspring are slightly different colors.

TWILLEY: And we saw a rainbow of different pollen colors—everything from flaming orange to kind of grey.

MASTERMAN: Some of these colonies are my favorite just because it’s nice and diverse in color. Oh and look at her, she’s pulling her way out right now.

GRABER: Wow.

MASTERMAN: Sometimes you want to help but it’s always best to just let them do it on their own.

GRABER: That was a bee being born!

MASTERMAN: There she is!

GRABER: Ahh, you made it!

TWILLEY: Congratulations!

MASTERMAN: Isn’t she adorable? So she’s going to start cleaning, grooming herself.

TWILLEY: Little baby bees have to eat their own way out of the wax cells, and they come out looking a wee bit bedraggled. They’re not fluffy, like you imagine a bee.

MASTERMAN: If you guys want to try the honey?

GRABER: Yeah.

MASTERMAN: So, you can do that and I will show you. The one thing you have to do obviously is you’re going to have to go and unzip. So I can actually bring this over there or you can do this close to here, it’s up to you. OK, so all you need to do is you just approach it slowly. And just put your finger in and take a new spot and then just make sure you go under the veil.

TWILLEY: OK. So I can just take a—I should take a capped spot yeah.

GRABER: Oh my gosh, It just comes right out.

TWILLEY: I got a little wax… there we go.

GRABER: It’s really…

MASTERMAN: And now the bees are going to be like hey, look at this.

GRABER: That’s so sweet.

MASTERMAN: And so now they’re going to start to fix what we did.

GRABER: You going to take picture of our little finger spots?

TWILLEY: Yeah, I feel bad though, but…

MASTERMAN: They’ll be fine. Remember, this is their surplus honey. So we didn’t go into their—kind of into the refrigerator. We went into the garage to get the extra honey. So this is this is nothing they were depending upon.

GRABER: I have that feeling of like you know the humans who like you came across this honey and like tasted it and were like, oh my God, what is that thing? The thing that these bees are making, it’s so amazing!

MASTERMAN: It is.

TWILLEY: That is exactly what our ancestors were probably thinking. And I’m talking about our ancient, ancient ancestors, like chimps.

GENE KRITSKY: We know that chimpanzees will make sticks, modify sticks into tools that they can use to tear to wild bee nests. And they’ll even carry these tools around from nest to nest. And so it’s quite probable that our ancestors possibly the Australopithecines were doing the same.

GRABER: Gene Kritsky is a biology professor at Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio and he’s the author of Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt.

KRITSKY: As far as modern humans go—I should say modern Homo sapiens—the earliest visual evidence we have of honey hunting goes back to about 6000 BCE, about eight thousand years ago.

TWILLEY: It’s a pre-historic rock painting, in a cave system near Valencia, in Spain.

KRITSKY: And it shows a honey hunter—that is, an individual being sort of suspended over the side of a cliff and dangling by a ladder rope is robbing a wild nest of bees. And the original actually has a hole in the rock wall that the artist used to denote the the wild nest. And then there’s circles around that with the honey hunter grabbing in to steal the the comb and he or she is actually holding a bag to put the comb into.

TWILLEY: We have a picture on our website—it’s such a cool painting. The hunter is truly teetering on his ladder—you really get a sense of the risks of stealing wild honey.

GRABER: Those early honey hunters were probably absolutely nuts about honey. The risks were totally worth it. It’s actually sweeter than anything in nature except date—it’s even sweeter than sugar.

TWILLEY: That’s because of honey’s chemical composition—it’s pretty much half and half fructose and glucose. Those are simple, one molecule sugars, whereas table sugar—that’s sucrose. And sucrose is two molecules joined together, not just one. And the crazy thing is, our bodies can tell the difference: glucose and fructose taste sweeter than sucrose, which is why honey typically tastes sweeter than sugar.

GRABER: Early, early humans just went out and tried to find as much honey as they could. Wild honey hunters still do this in parts of the world today. But nearly all the honey we eat now is not wild. At some point, humans, probably in ancient Egypt, figured out how to start domesticating bees.

KRITSKY: And it probably happened quite by accident. I can envision somebody having a clay pot or amphora of some kind that they just sort of put upside down to keep sand out of it and there’s enough of an opening for bees to find this cavity that was protected and start making comb inside that that pot. It probably was then somebody realizing, if we do this a lot, well we get more bees, is probably the transition. It probably wasn’t a long process to figure this out but it was probably a serendipitous discovery by somebody just storing pots.

TWILLEY: No one knows exactly when beekeeping started for sure, but Gene’s best guess is that it was just before 3000 BC.

KRITSKY: That’s about the time we see the first honeybee hieroglyph. But again there were wild bees in ancient Egypt as well so we don’t know when they made that transition to providing artificial cavities. But it clearly predates 2450 BCE.

GRABER: It predates 2450 because 2450 is when we have the first proof of beekeeping.

TWILLEY: 2450 is when there’s the first image of humans using an artificial cavity to house bees.

KRITSKY: And it’s from the Chamber of the Seasons of a fifth dynasty Pharaoh Nyuserre Ini. “Chamber of the Seasons” was almost like a Harry Potter term to me when I first started reading about it. But it’s a bas relief that shows the whole process of working hives, pouring honey, apparently separating the honey from the wax, and then sealing it. Now the neat thing is that’s the oldest evidence we have of beekeeping. But by this time it is a very sophisticated operation using horizontal beehives stacked on top of each other.

GRABER: Egyptians seem to be the inventors of bee-keeping. And to them, eating honey was a religious experience.

KRITSKY: The Egyptians thought of bees and honey in a very special way. The title of the book The Tears of Re is because the bees believe—the bees!—the Egyptians believed that bees were formed from the tears of the God Re and so therefore honey is indirectly is a gift from the gods.

TWILLEY: The Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic for the Pharaoh—it literally includes a bee. People were paid in honey in Ancient Egypt. Marriage vows included husbands pledging to provide their wives with sufficient honey. And there was an entire civil service devoted to bees.

GRABER: The Egyptians also discovered the fact that smoke would calm down the hive. They didn’t know then what we know now—that it disrupts the bees’ panic chemical communication—but they knew it worked.

KRITSKY: In the 18th Dynasty tomb of Rekhmire, it’s the oldest evidence we have of smoking bees and they’re using an incense burner. If they believe that the honey was produced by bees which are the form for the tears of Re, giving an incense offering to the bees would be a way of showing respect and praise of the bees, but because it was smoke it quieted the bees. That was the first instance we have of using smoke to quiet bees. So that’s how this religion influenced the way we kept and then how they kept bees kept reinforcing the religion. I found that rather fascinating.

TWILLEY: Religious feelings aside, the Ancient Egyptians also ate some of their glorious honey. Well, at least the rich did. The poor probably had to make do with dates.

KRITSKY: If we go back to the 18th dynasty, prior to that time, we do find evidence of honey cakes. And these were honey mixed with flour, fashioned into triangles, and then coated with sesames and then baked. So that was a very popular food item. And by the time we get into during the time of Cleopatra you would find a whole range of honey being used to—not only for other pastries but also possibly used in with meats, for preservation of meats or even with cooking with meats.

TWILLEY: The Ancient Egyptians might have been first but they weren’t alone.

ELLIS: And then every culture—because there’s honey all round the world and every culture has evolved recipes that celebrate honey.

GRABER: Hattie Ellis wrote a cookbook called Spoonfuls of Honey.

ELLIS: Honey was our earliest form of sugar round the world, predating the sort of widespread use of sugar. And so just that tiny bit of sweetness makes such a difference to dishes.

GRABER: I just want to stress here: at this point, in most of the world, honey is THE sweetener. If you want to eat something sweet, something you might put a teaspoon or a cup of sugar in today, they had to use honey. So that’s why all these ancient and medieval recipes all have honey as the sweetener.

ELLIS: There’s a lot of Roman, ancient Roman recipes rely on honey as a seasoning. There was a Roman honey baked ham. Actually, it was very interesting because in Rome still they have these amazing honey recipes. So you see it this sort of tradition of using honey as has continued right the way through, and that is getting a gammon.

TWILLEY: Quick translation for American listeners, who may not have encountered this quite British way of eating pork—gammon is a hind leg of pork, brined or salted into a joint of ham.

ELLIS: And sort of spreading it with honey and then putting a paste of flour and water before baking it. It’s absolutely wonderful. And the original Roman recipe has got dried figs and bay leaves in the cooking stock as well. So that’s a kind of ancient taste that is still—that’s what I love about food is that it has very long roots often, which you can still enjoy.

TWILLEY: But it turns out honey wasn’t just useful for satisfying our sweet tooth.

ELLIS: Mead was our sort of earliest form of booze really, predating wine. And it was one of our sort of earliest ways of getting high or merry.

GRABER: Mead is just diluted, fermented honey.

ELLIS: Supposing you are an ancient Egyptian say and you leave your honeycomb out in a bowl and it rains. And the sugars in the honey will ferment and you taste it and you think mmm, this is nice. So that’s mead.

GRABER: You know, Nicky, I’ve tasted mead but it’s a little sweet for me.

TWILLEY: Yeah, I’ve never had it, but that’s what I would expect. I hate sweet booze.

GRABER: Me too. Hattie said there are some small producers who make a drier type of mead, which she quite likes. I haven’t had any of those yet.

TWILLEY: Next Gastropod happy hour sorted then. So just to go back a minute, the reason you have to dilute honey to ferment it into mead is interesting. Honey has so little water that it won’t ferment on its own—it will actually kill the yeast by sucking out all the water in the yeast cells.

GRABER: And this is why honey has been used not just as food for thousands of years—it actually has always had really potent uses in medicine, too. Because of that very water-sucking property, it kills microbes.

KRITSKY: It’s found in almost half of the prescriptions that we find in ancient Egypt. It was used as a—in some cases as a binder. I think mostly it was used as a way of sweetening the concoction, because some of these use a whole range of things from crocodile dung on. And I would imagine they would have quite a disgusting taste. But honey also can be used as a salve. You can use it on cuts, you can use it on burns, and its antibacterial properties keep infection from occurring. And it allows a good flow of oxygen so healing is promoted. And that’s clearly got—its value for essentially as the ointment of use back in ancient Egypt all the way to more complex pharmaceuticals is quite impressive.

TWILLEY: It’s hard to imagine how amazing honey must have seemed at the time. For most of the world, it’s the only source of sweetness. It’s the first way we got drunk. And it turns out to heal wounds as well. I mean, it sounds like the wonder product. But, believe it or not, honey is not the only wonder product that comes from a hive.

KRITSKY: Beeswax was quite special for the Egyptians, they thought it was magical. When you burned beeswax it burns in a very bright light but, significantly for the Egyptians, it didn’t leave any ash. So they used beeswax amulets and carvings as part of their magic to ward off evil, to protect, and so on.

TWILLEY: And beeswax had plenty of more prosaic uses, too.

KRITSKY: We know that they used beeswax in their wigs. We find evidence that the curls were maintained by using beeswax.

GRABER: Just like honey must have seemed magical to the ancient Egyptians, beeswax did as well. There’s the amulets, and the candles, and their wigs. Plus, on top of all that, it was waterproof, and so they used it to seal up their boats.

TWILLEY: Here’s another thing that’s hard to imagine: we’re talking about a time before artificial light, right? And if you wanted candle-light, you had two choices, pretty much. Tallow, which is meat fat, which was smoky and smelly, or beeswax.

GRABER: Which was lovely. And so because of that, the church was super into beekeeping in medieval Europe. They needed the beeswax for all their candles to illuminate all those glorious cathedrals.

ELLIS: The strong tradition of keeping keeping bees was a monastic one, because they were using the wax to make candles because the beeswax candles have the purest light and smell absolutely wonderful. And that’s how you—and the flame symbolized the soul and so on.But I think it’s probably also that the monks wanted the mead as well.

TWILLEY: Oh surely not. But seriously, mead and sweetening aside, the fact is, in medieval Europe, a pound of beeswax was worth worth 8 times a pound of honey. The Pope only gave permission for Catholic churches to use candles made of anything other than beeswax in 1900!

GRABER: If we haven’t made it clear enough yet, honey and everything else associated with it was super important for thousands of years.

ELLIS: Well, it’s what makes the world go round really, doesn’t it? Honey not money.

TWILLEY: And then everything changed. So how did honey get relegated from the tears of a god to a humble toast topping? Before we get into that, we want to tell you about a couple of our sponsors this episode.

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TWILLEY: OK. We’ve established that honey was a really big deal to our ancestors. Obviously it’s impossible to know exactly how much honey they ate. Bee Wilson, who you might remember from our first episode about cutlery as well as one earlier this year on learning to eat—she has also written an amazing book about honeybees called The Hive. And she estimates that at the peak of honey consumption, in the 1100s, people in England ate something like four and a half pounds of honey a year.

GRABER: But by the end of the 20th century, just recently, people only were eating about a half a pound a year. That’s maybe a half a jar. So what changed?

TWILLEY: Well, for one thing, Henry VIII wanted a son. Long story short, the closure of the monasteries with the Reformation—that really put a dent in honey production. Remember, the monks were the main beekeepers.

GRABER: And then there’s the colonization of the new world and slavery—and suddenly sugar, made from sugar cane, gets a lot cheaper. And sugar actually has a leg up on honey, because you can cook with it more easily. It doesn’t burn as easily as honey does, and it sets hard while honey stays squishy. Basically, it can be used to make all sorts of desserts and confections that are really tough to create with honey.

TWILLEY: But the death knell of honey, according to Bee, is the rise of tea and coffee. Once Europe got addicted to these invigorating beverages, honey consumption really fell. Because the simple sweetness of sugar doesn’t compete with the delicate aromas of tea and coffee, whereas the more complex flavors of honey can.

GRABER: But honey’s popular again today. Hattie Ellis says one reason for that is the rise of the good food movement. And farm-to-table eating.

ELLIS: If you’re interested in where food comes from, it’s one of the ultimate foods because it’s so particular to a time and place that it’s endlessly fascinating, because a good honey comes from within three miles of the hive. It’s the ultimate local food, really, I think.

TWILLEY: Back in Minnesota, Becky Masterman of the Bee Squad sees how different bee neighborhoods affect flavor first hand.

MASTERMAN: So I know where all the best honey locations are in the Twin Cities and beyond because of all of the colonies that we do manage for businesses and for single family homes. So we definitely see differences.

GRABER: So where are some of the best honey spots, is it secret?

TWILLEY: Hot honey spots in the Twin Cities, come on.

MASTERMAN: Exactly. I would tell you if I had permission, but it’s highly secret information.

GRABER: One jar of honey has the nectar from as many as two million flowers. And just as a rose smells different than say, lavender, honey from different fields and flowers tastes different, too.

TWILLEY: And here’s the clever thing. If bees find a really nice big patch of flowers, they keep going back to them, and they tell all their friends to join them. So beekeepers know that if they can put their hives near, say  a big patch of heather or an orange grove in blossom, then they can harvest honey that is made from pretty much just one type of flower.

GRABER: Bees work fast—like, you know, busy bees. They can fill up the boxes that beekeepers use in just a week. And you’d be surprised how sweet trees can be—one lime tree has enough nectar for 40 pounds of honey.

TWILLEY: All of these honeys—they’re not 100% from heather nectar or lime tree nectar, but there’s enough heather or lime in there to make them taste really distinctive. So we asked Becky what her favorite type of honey is.

MASTERMAN: OK. I’m not a huge fan of honey, believe it or not.

GRABER: This is like our kombucha story! What’s going on here?

GRABER: In case you missed that episode, our kombucha researcher doesn’t really like kombucha, either. It seems to be a theme.

MASTERMAN: So, OK, so I really like those bees. I started working with bees in graduate school decades ago. And I—I really didn’t. I never ate honey then, ever. When I came back to work for the squad I started actually tasting more of the nectars and the honeys in the colony, just because my role had changed from setting up research experiments to really being one with the bee and seeing what they’re bringing in. And so if I had to pick, it would be basswood because it’s lighter and not as strong. Yeah. I eat it. I do eat it because it’s actually very nutritional but I put it on my toast with peanut butter. I’m not a huge fan. Do we need to cut that out?

TWILLEY: Fortunately, Cynthia and I do actually like honey.

GRABER: And probably some of you do too.

TWILLEY: Either way, it’s kind of fun to try the different varieties—they really do taste different. So we asked Hattie for her top tips on honey tasting.

ELLIS: The best way to try honey is to start with the lighter ones. So lavender and orange blossom, and then to move through to the darker and sort of funkier ones.

GRABER: These darker, funkier ones are my favorites. Buckwheat in the U.S., chestnut honey from France. They’re really strong, almost savory honeys.

ELLIS: The best thing is to smell them and to look at them,because the colors are so amazingly different.  They have very different textures too, honeys, because different kinds of nectar solidify at different rates and in different ways. And then take the top off and inhale it and you really get the aroma. And then taste it and leave it in your mouth for a little bit and let the aromas sort of go up your nose and then swallow it.

TWILLEY: Some of Hattie’s favorites come from New Zealand

ELLIS:  This is a real tongue twister but rewarewa. That’s probably mispronounced. But pohutukawa and tawari. They’re sort of butterscotchy flavors. And then I’ll go all the way through heather honey which has this wonderful sort of champagne-like little bubbles in it. It’s like got a sort of jelly-like texture.

GRABER: So that’s how Hattie puts together a honey tasting. But if you want to put honey in your food?

ELLIS: Some of the things that I love about using honey in food are that it absorbs moisture. So your cakes will keep well. Bakers like put in a little honey into their bakes because it keeps the bake moist.

TWILLEY: Hattie will often reduce the sugar by a quarter in a recipe, and replace it with a little honey—not the same amount, because honey tastes sweeter than sugar. And you have to remember to lower the oven temperature a little too so the honey doesn’t burn.

GRABER: The other thing to know about honey is that some of the aromas that make each variety so distinct, those are lost at really high heats.

ELLIS: If you can, just add it at the end and don’t heat it up too much. But so for example when I roast a leg of lamb I will brush it over with honey at the end to give it a lovely glaze and put in a little bit of honey in the gravy. So there’s a kind of fine line between burnished and burnt with honey, which I spent quite a lot of time testing the recipes to reach that point. Then I think with things like sauces, there are amazing things you can do. So even just a little honey in a vinaigrette—πeople know about that. But a tiny bit of honey stirred into some homemade mayonnaise is really delicious.

TWILLEY: Yes, honey is delicious. But that’s not the only reason we eat it. Just like the Ancient Egyptians, a lot of people believe that honey has health benefits, too.

ELLIS: People also eat the pollen for energy. Mohammed Ali used to eat the pollen. To not just dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but to eat like one too.

GRABER: Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much science backing that up—or the idea that honey can help combat seasonal allergies. At least not yet. But the ancient Egyptians did have one thing right when they applied honey to cuts and burns.

ELLIS: Scientists in New Zealand actually started to prove how honey was useful in healing wounds and in other ways. And so it’s sort of come back. Because he’s proven it in a laboratory, we’re now allowed to appreciate something which people have been doing in different cultures for for millennia.

TWILLEY: Honey works because it’s killing the microbes by sucking water out of them. But there’s something else going on too. One of the enzymes in the honey reacts in contact with bodily fluids to produce hydrogen peroxide, which is also an antiseptic. So it’s like a two-pronged attack.

GRABER: Some honeys are better at this than others, and scientists are trying to tease this all out. Manuka in New Zealand gets a lots of press for its medicinal properties, but it’s not the only one. In general, the darker honeys seem to be better at killing microbes.

TWILLEY: But while honey might be good for our health, the health of the bees making that honey—that’s not so good.

MASTERMAN: Honeybees have been in trouble for about a decade. What we’ve seen within our own program is that the biggest threat that we can see for honeybees is a mite pest.

GRABER: Becky’s boss Marla Spivak is one of the top international experts on bee health and colony collapse disorder.

SPIVAK: And the mite feeds on the blood of these bees and compromises the immune system and weakens the adult bee. They don’t kill them outright but they weaken them. The worst thing is these mites, as they’re sucking on bees blood, they pick up viral particles from the bee. And then the mite goes to another bee and feed some more and it’s like a dirty syringe, it injects some of these viruses.

GRABER: And it turns out that there’s one kind of strange reason these mites spread so easily.

MASTERMAN: This is a boy bee actually. It’s flying upside down for some reason. So boy bees, their only job is to mate. But they’re kind of funny—they’re just not as graceful as the girls are. And when they come in you can hear them buzzing and they kind of make their arrival. And they also get lost a lot. They often go home to the wrong house.

GRABER: There are way too many jokes.

MASTERMAN: Yeah I know. Yeah.

TWILLEY: It’s not even fair.

GRABER: It’s too easy.

MASTERMAN: No it’s not fair. And the girls actually—the sad thing is they let them go from from place to place and it’s a problem with our mites because they will, that’s one of the ways they spread because the boys go home to the wrong place.

TWILLEY: Yes, the confused, upside-down, show-off boy bees are, in fact, spreading this disastrous disease around. This mite was introduced into the States in the late 80s.

SPIVAK: But it just seems like starting in about 2006, it reached a tipping point. and just too many things affecting them at once just threw them over the edge, and we started to see massive die-offs of colonies. And now it hasn’t kept increasing but 30, 40 percent of all of our nation’s honey bee colonies die every year.

GRABER: This is a huge problem. Colony collapse disorder has both beekeepers and farmers panicking. It seems to have stabilized somewhat, we’re not in danger of losing all our honeybees right now, but the situation is not great.

TWILLEY: Marla has been working on various solutions. She’s been breeding bees that are better at sniffing out infected bees and pushing them out of the hive before they can spread the mite. She’s developed more aggressive hive management techniques too. And Becky says it looks like their work might be starting to pay off.

MASTERMAN: So we’re seeing that if we’re able to manage that mite pest that our bees look really, really healthy. Overall there are still high numbers of beekeepers who are losing their bees. But at the same time we feel like if we can share this information with them, that they’re going to then be able to have better success as far as keeping them alive.

GRABER: But mites aren’t the only problem. You’ve also got all the chemicals used on huge fields of wheat and corn and soybeans.

SPIVAK: Bees as they’re foraging run into a lot of pesticides, most of them are insecticides that they run into, and sometimes they’re in a high concentration and can be toxic enough that that kills the bee outright. But oftentimes we’re learning it can be low dose, low concentration that just kind of affects the bees in sub-lethal ways. So they don’t, they’re not killed but their nervous systems are affected. They can affect their learning, their memory, their flight behavior, things like that. And now we’re learning that sometimes when bees run into these low dose, low concentration insecticides, it exacerbates the effects of their viruses and diseases.

TWILLEY: So there’s the insecticides we use to manage the landscape, and then there’s the landscape itself.

SPIVAK: There’s just simply not enough flowers out there for good nutrition for bees. So if they have good protein from that pollen and good carbohydrates from the nectar, the bees are able to detoxify pesticides to some extent. And they’re also able to bolster their immune systems if they have good nutrition. So—very similar to humans. But if all of those things are a problem—not enough flowers or contaminated flowers and lots of mites in the colony—they all combine in ways that are just deadly to the whole colony.

GRABER: Marla’s doing other research in her lab too, trying to find out all the ways to help keep bees healthy. But she has one big tip for all of us, how we can help.

SPIVAK: If you like honey, plant more flowers.

TWILLEY: That’s true for honey bees, but it’s also true for all the native bees. Those nineteen thousand nine hundred and ninety nine other bees species we mentioned back at the start—they’re also affected by disease and insecticides and lack of good food, and we need them too. They’re not making our toast topping, sure, but they are providing essential pollination services to lots of native plants.

GRABER: And it’s the native bees that are really threatened by another huge environmental problem.

TWILLEY: No prizes for guessing…

SPIVAK: Climate change is really going to have the most effect on some of our native bees that are solitary. They live alone and spend most of their lifecycle in the ground or in a stem developing. And they come out in the spring or at certain time in the summer, and some of them are specialists that need one particular kind of flower to feed on for their short lifecycle. Quite different than a honey bee. And if they’re out of sync, so climate change may make things bloom earlier or later in the season than normal, and if the bees emerge from the ground and their flowers aren’t there then they may become extinct.

GRABER: That’s not something we can offer a quick fix for, unfortunately.

TWILLEY: But, like Marla, one thing you can do if you love honey is plant flowers. And don’t spray them.

GRABER: And, you know, it’s not just the problem with the honey bees. There’s also kind of a problem with how we think about honey. We’re so used to thinking of honey in the teddy bears.

TWILLEY: Or being eaten by teddy bears.

GRABER: And it’s become so prosaic, almost boring.

TWILLEY: It’s just kind of the same kind of sweet honey flavor. Like it’s just honey, it’s not something special. It’s not like wine or cheese or something that we know to appreciate for all its different flavors and textures.

GRABER: Hattie wrote an entire cookbook on honey because, to her, honey is all that and more.

ELLIS: You know it’s sort of become a bit patronized, if you like, in the same way that bees are, because they’re small and they put these cute yellow and black jackets on. People look down on things which are smaller. But I think because—people now see the importance and the power of bees. And honey is a, you know, powerful food in its taste and what it does. And sugar, we’ve got used to just sort of gulping down sugar, but actually just a spoonful of something special and valued like honey is another way to approach sweetness.

TWILLEY: Hattie wants us to appreciate what honey can bring as part of a complex dish and what it can do if you pair it with a good cheese—but also just on its own, for itself. And that’s Marla’s favorite way to appreciate honey, too.

SPIVACK: Straight out of the bottle. I really like a teaspoon of just honey. You know sometimes I’ll put it in tea. I often bake with it. But if I want to enjoy a honey, I’ll just take a teaspoon and consume it slowly and savor it. It’s just wonderful stuff. You know some people go and eat a sweet treat or a dessert—I’d rather just have a teaspoon of honey

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GRABER: And that’s it for this episode! If you enjoy honey and Gastropod – or really, if you just enjoy Gastropod – please consider supporting us on our website or at Patreon.com. We’ve got some extra honey treats for our sustaining supporters. You can also write us a review at iTunes – that helps new listeners find us – and you can follow us on twitter or facebook at Gastropodcast.

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TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Marla Spivak and Becky Masterman of the University of Minnesota, to Gene Kritsky, author of Tears of Re, and to Hattie Ellis, author of Spoonfuls of Honey. We have links to their books and their websites on our own website, gastropod dot com. Some of you have asked about transcripts of our episodes. We try to get them up about a week after it first goes out.

GRABER: And the reason we can get these transcripts up for you is all due to our great volunteer, Ari Lebowitz. Thanks to Ari for all her help.

TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with the lady who helped me make whale poo ice cream last summer, Sarah Lohman. Get ready to have your tastebuds tingled — we’re going from black pepper to sriracha.

GRABER: Till next time!