As a journalist obsessed with inbox zero, I delete an email onslaught daily. But, every now and then, a ray of sunshine illuminates Gmail’s abyss, like last summer’s invite to experience Denver chef Jensen Cummings’ sensory tasting panel at Brooklyn Brewery.
Cummings is the mind behind Brewed Food, founded in 2014 as a call to arms to blow beer’s relationship with grub to smithereens. He utilizes beer’s building blocks (yeast, malt, hops) and brewing processes to fashion thrilling foodstuffs that blur the line between ales and edibles. Working with a revolving cast of chefs and brewing collaborators like New Belgium and Jester King, the chef ferments yogurt with brewing yeast, adds crystal malt to sauerkraut, creates hop vinegar and makes beef jerky with malt extract. It’s both a scientific and gastronomic endeavor to connect cooking and brewing.
“Our lens is looking at brewing techniques and ingredients as culinary ingredients,” Cummings says. “Yeast is the center of that conversation. We want to say that yeast is a culinary ingredient.”
A massive part of Brewed Food’s mission is to reboot the beer dinner, by now a cliche. (Begin with an invigorating gose, align Berliner weisse with oysters, pair steaks with schwarzbiers and conclude with an imperial stout and chocolate cake. Bon appétit! The multicourse dog-and-pony show will leave all sated. Elated? Not always.) In a world where breweries break flavorful new ground at a breakneck pace, beer dinners seem stuck in neutral. The invite to this event, however, touted food that read like a beer-drenched fever dream. The feast would feature spent grain-cured egg yolks, wild yeast-fermented kimchi and bacon rimmed in hop ash. Hop ash?
I popped over to Brooklyn Brewery, where I also sampled Cummings’ miso—made with malt syrup—and cherry sriracha fermented with brewing yeast. Each plate was partnered with two polar-opposite beers, meaning it was up to me, not some Cicerone or know-it-all server, to decide which pairing worked best.
“You’re not allowed to say anything,” Cummings instructed the crowd, Zen-like in contemplation. He wore a goatee, apron and the kind of confident grin of true believers preaching to potential converts. “We’re not going to do barelywine with some cheese course. We love those things. All of those things have a place,” Cummings told me later. “Right now, our conversation should be driven by what else is possible.”
“When you have dinner with Jensen, you think, ‘I don’t always know what I’m eating but it tastes great,’” says Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales co-founder James Howat, who supplies Cummings with sour cultures for his sauerkraut and beets.
Ground zero for Brewed Food is Cummings’ Denver test kitchen. There’s a large whiteboard where he and his cooking cohorts scribble fermentation fantasies, such as turning classic pairings like strawberries with black pepper into beer. “We’ll do a beer aged on strawberries with no black pepper. We want to coax out those pepper notes with a mixed culture or maybe some saison yeast,” he says.
Cummings and company will take any conceivable sugar source (honey, agave syrup, etc.) and ferment it with upward of 50 yeast strains to see which functions best. This technical work, done in conjunction with local yeast lab Inland Island, is Brewed Food’s biggest undertaking. There are books aplenty on brewing with yeast, but, as he explains, “We’re fermenting solid mediums, not liquid.”
He quickly learned the specific challenges during early attempts to convert cabbage into kimchi. “The plant matter just disintegrated,” Cummings says. “It tasted great, if you want a bowl of gruel. Many of our fermentations were epic failures of not understanding that sugar isn’t sugar and what fermentation activity would do to plant matter.”
Cummings’ fix is multiphase fermentation. The first couple weeks, while souring lactobacillus bacteria does the heavy lifting, Cummings ferments yeast in sugar water. “We call that our MSG. It’s pure flavor,” he says. He then pours the mixture onto kimchi and adds additional yeast. “It’s like mounting a sauce with butter.”
But continual triumphs are not the point. “If we don’t fail 50 percent of the time, we’re not pushing the envelope hard enough,” he says. “It is our job to be a force in this movement. Failure is good for us.”
The chef wasn’t always so crazy about beer. Cummings was the kind of guy who crushed “dirty thirties” of Milwaukee’s Best. Cooking, though, is coded into his DNA. His family has been in the restaurant business for five generations. In Little Falls, Minnesota, his greatgreat grandfather ran La Fond House (“It looked like someplace where Wyatt Earp shot somebody out front, a straight-up corner saloon,” he says), and his great-grandfather and grandfather operated restaurants and bars in San Francisco. While Cumming’s dad “can’t boil an egg,” his father’s three younger brothers own restaurants in Ames, Iowa.
After barely graduating high school in San Diego, he learned the kitchen ropes at his uncle’s Ames sports bar and, in time, attended Des Moines Culinary Institute. His beverage teacher doubled as a general manager for the local Rock Bottom Restuarant and Brewery, which the students toured.
“I remember two things: How many students scoffed at the brewer [there], and also how eloquently and respectfully the teacher spoke of that man,” Cummings says, adding, “I had no concept there was a human being creating something with their hands.”
He began educating his palate on global beers, falling in love with both New Belgium Fat Tire and his now-wife, Betsy. While Betsy finished college, Cummings moved to Kansas City to work at the influential 40 Sardines (since shuttered). At a Boulevard Brewing Co. beer dinner, he sampled an early version of Tank 7, a peppery exultation of farmhouse perfection. “I was like, ‘This is what it needs to be about,’ creating something new, something interesting, something exciting that I’d never seen,” he says.
The brewery-drenched Denver scene was the couple’s next move, where Cummings secured his Cicerone certification, worked as a restaurant group’s beer buyer and brewed collaborative beers with Bull & Bush, “trying any way I could to scratch and claw into a position where I could have a serious conversation about beer and food,” he says.
He sought the connections between brewing and cooking: His revelation was spent grain. That waste product could be repurposed as food, a link between cooks of a different type. Cummings’ epiphany is at the core of Brewed Food. “The brewer is a chef and the brew house is a kitchen,” he says.
In addition to raising two young sons, he takes Brewed Food on the road to restaurants and breweries such as Cincinnati’s Rhinegeist and Seattle’s Fremont. He and his wife run the Heroes Like Us nonprofit, raising funds for needy children, and Cummings is also a restaurant consultant. This year, he’s launching the Good Bugs brand, an outlet for collaborative beer and fermentation projects. Nonetheless, he’s never too busy for a new opportunity to experiment.
During last year’s Great American Beer Festival, TRVE and Jester King breweries collaborated on a beer featuring Texas blueberries. A couple cases had gone off, destined for the dumpster. “Someone said, ‘We should call Jensen. That guy will do just about anything with anything,’” Cummings recalls.
Now his garage fridge (the same one that birthed many Brewed Food products) contains blueberry sriracha, blueberry miso, Korean BBQ sauce with blueberries—blueberry everything. “My wife won’t look in the fridge,” he says. “She’s still convinced that I’m Dexter and there are body parts in there.”
Fermentation’s serial thrills fuel Cummings’ trials as he forges new pathways for integrating beer and cuisine. “Brewed Food was built on the belief that beer and food—and, more importantly, brewing and cooking—can and should be the pinnacle of culinary experience,” he says. “That’s the sentence I look at and say, ‘Am I doing everything that I can to drive that home?’”