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New Oregon City business sells starters for yogurt, kefir, kombucha and sourdough bread, rather than the finished food items themselves.


"When you make your own, you create a better quality product," said Wendy Jensen, co-owner of NW Ferments, with Sue DePaolo.

The Oregon City business sells starters for yogurt, kefir, kombucha and sourdough bread, rather than the finished food items themselves.

PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Wendy Jensen, left, and Sue DePaolo, co-owners of NW Ferments, check out starters for several products at their site in Red Soils in Oregon City.This way, Jensen added, people "can tailor the products to their liking, avoiding allergens and additives, and it is cheaper" and better for you.

NW Ferments is located in a roomy space in the Red Soils area of Oregon City. Several temperature-controlled rooms are stocked with glass jars and movable shelving units.

The site is not a retail outlet, but rather where the two women make six varieties of starters for sourdough bread, seven varieties of yogurt, two kinds of kefir and kombucha. All of their products are available on their website nwferments.org.

The name of the company describes what the company does best — the fermentation process.

"Fermentation is when a substance breaks down to a simpler substance, making it easier to digest," DePaolo said.

It is a "metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, gases or alcohol" in food processing, she added.

The process "converts the bacteria already present [in the food] to populate the gut with beneficial bacteria," in order to boost the immune system and ward off acid reflux and various other digestive disorders, Jensen said.

She added, "Everything starts from your gut. If you fix this, a lot can fall into place."

Perfecting the process

The two women worked for another company in the same business, but when that firm relocated, the pair started NW Ferments in December 2015.

"Nobody knows how to do this better than us. We feel like we've almost perfected some of these cultures," Jensen said, adding she and DePaolo have been fermenting as a hobby for more than 20 years.

"Oregon City is a good place to have a business, because of its proximity to Portland, and this complex is a good centralized location with the potential to expand," Jensen said.

Yogurt, sourdough

Because of their prior experience, the two women knew what products would sell easily, and so they jumped in making starters for yogurt, sourdough bread, kefir and kombucha.

They offer a vegan yogurt starter as well as dairy-free versions of kombucha and sourdough starters for people with dietary restrictions.

Their seven varieties of yogurt reflect the different geographical areas where the product is popular, Jensen said, noting that the company sells starters for three Nordic yogurts, one from the Republic of Georgia, one each from Greece and Bulgaria, and one vegan/gluten-free version.

Four of the sourdough starters also come from specific regions, including San Francisco, the Yukon, Danish Rye and Camaldini, Italy. A gluten-free sourdough starter is made from brown rice, and a whole-wheat starter also is available.

Kefir, kombucha

NW Ferments also sells milk kefir, water kefir and kombucha starters.

"The milk kefir is similar to drinkable yogurt and the flavor is a bit like buttermilk, while the water kefir is lighter, sweet and bubbly," Jensen said.

Kombucha is a fermented beverage made from sweetened tea that "is bubbly and has a tangy, vinegary flavor," she said.

To vary flavors, you can add fruit or juice to both kombucha and water kefir, and the fruit's natural sugars start a second fermentation process, Jensen said.

Kombucha originated in Manchuria more than 2,000 years ago and then was exported to Japan; it has been commercially available in this country only since the late 1990s.

"It used to be you couldn't find it, but a lot of companies have jumped on the bandwagon," Jensen said. However, "commercial companies are under the gun to produce, produce, produce, so they use shortcuts to make a lot of it, and if the product has been pasteurized that ruins the whole thing.

"When [these products] are heated, it kills a lot of the bacteria and defeats the whole purpose."

Advantages

Both Jensen and DePaolo have become familiar figures at the Oregon City, Milwaukie and Beaverton farmers markets, where they offer samples and sell starters and starter kits.

"The kits have everything you need, including a starter, a jar, jar cover and small strainer," DePaolo said.

Their products have a broad appeal, and customers include health enthusiasts and people who want to save money and go back to the basics with their diets, Jensen said.

Choosing to sell only the starters has allowed the two women to achieve their primary goal of "teaching people to make their own and get healthy," she said.

Another benefit is that each product produces its own starter, so "you can make your own and save a little bit of the culture and share it with people," Jensen said.

In fact, sharing is one of the primary reasons the two women do what they do.

They teach classes at Portland Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that uses food and cooking to change the lives of underserved youth, and they will be vendors at the Food as Medicine symposium on Feb. 11 and 12 at the National University of Natural Medicine in downtown Portland.

"We'll sell product as well as give out samples and information. The event is open to the public on Saturday, Feb. 12, and open only to naturopathic physicians on Sunday," Jensen said.

In addition to their online store, NW Ferments starters are available at People's Food Co-op on Southeast 21st Avenue in Portland, Portland Homestead Supply in Sellwood, and Above the Rest Home Brewing Supplies in Tigard and Southeast Portland.

As for the future of NW Ferments, the two women are experimenting with making tempeh and miso starters, and hope to see their product line in larger chain stores with a health focus.

Get started on starters

Visit nwferments.com to see the full line of products available from NW Ferments.

For more information about Portland Kitchen, visit theportlandkitchen.org; for more information about the upcoming Food as Medicine symposium, visit foodasmedicineinstitute.com.

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