Fermentation Fest: A Live Culture Convergence

Profiling a funky festival that’s not just about beer.

by Liz Scholz

Fermentation Fest Featured Image

This October in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, from the 4th to the 13th, there’s some fun fermenting. The Wormfarm Institute, a non-profit focusing on the intersection of sustainable farming and the arts, is putting on the third annual Fermentation Festival. “A Live Culture Convergence,” the event spotlights agriculture and fermentation in all its forms. From beer to kimchi to kombucha, the festival offers a variety of activities for fall visitors with activities such as: workshops, theater performances, music shows, and a scenic drive, complete with a corn maze.

Fermentation Fest uses the term “fermentation” loosely and as a metaphor for change, evolution and enhancement, whether it alters the mind state, is healthier, or just tastes funky (in a good way). But Reedsburg’s Fermentation Festival is anything but a big beer bacchanal. It celebrates all things fermented, going beyond the sipping samples. You can take classes on fermenting foods, get a taste of fermented sundries, and learn about local farms. The Fermentation Festival is an “active culture” experience.

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Quick review // Photo courtesy of Wormfarm Institute

Where is Reedsburg, anyway? Halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis and near Castle Rock, that crazy glacial rock formation off I-94. And while most visitors come from as far as a hundred miles, it is truly an event for all Midwesterners. A mere three-and-a-half hours from the Twin Cities and close to Wisconsin cities like Madison and Milwaukee, Reedsburg (population 10,000) has a familiar and friendly small-town feel.

A Multidisciplinary Approach to Fermentation

Anchoring the ten-day festival, guest speakers Gary Nabhan and Nikiko Masumoto will lead talks on proverbial and literal fermentation—their experience with cultural exchange and pursuit of healthy soil, society and self. Masumoto’s focus is on “roots,” both familiar and food-related, both of which are pertinent in the Midwest, with our robust fermenting heritage. In addition to a book-signing, Nabhan will demonstrate how to make kishk, a Lebanese fermented dairy product.

One Fermentation Fest event is a day or multi-day-long extravaganza called the DTour, a 50 mile tour of back roads accessible by car, bike, or on foot. It’s not so much an event as a journey to understanding our farming and fermenting history and present day practices. While the full route starts and ends in Reedsburg where most of the other events take place, the DTour meanders through several small towns, encouraging visitors to experience smaller-town life and the farms along the way. While most other events happen on the weekends (October 5-6 and 12-13), the DTour runs every day of the festival. And each day is slightly different, with pop-up events and impromptu performances on the trail.

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This’ll happen // Photo courtesy of Wormfarm Institute

Along the DTour are “Food Chains,” locally-sourced produce and fermented product stands, and “Field Notes,” posted signs that educate guests about the farms and their proprietors. Visitors can also find “Farm Forms,” art installations of six professional artists, including some from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekends, 20 minute shows called “Pasture Performances” will mark your way—Shakespeare, harp trios, opera, and some additional surprises. You will need a map and a timetable, available at the festival’s headquarters or online, as some performances require booking tickets in advance while others are free.

The DTour goes through an area that was once rolling hopyards, some of the biggest in the nation between 1863-1865. If beer isn’t your thing, there are viticultural activities for you. At the Homemade Wine-makers Potluck, you can learn how to make your own wine from local winery Fisher King, while tasting the fruit of other home-vintners’ labors and snacking on fermented foods.

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