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This San Jose Brewery Turns Mushrooms Into Beer, Leftover Bread Into Miso

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A bowl of bright-orange vegan cashew "queso" topped with salsa macha, with a basket of tortilla chips on the side.
At San Jose's Fox Tale Fermentation Project, the beer and the vegan food items — including this cashew-based queso — are made with fermented ingredients. (Octavio Peña)

At Fox Tale Fermentation Project, cashews are blended into vegan queso, sourdough bread gets transformed into miso and whole oysters are brewed into beer.

As its name suggests, the downtown San Jose brewery is known for its experimental approach to its beers, which are made by fermenting special ingredients like rose petals or loquats foraged from the local community. Owners Wendy Neff and Felipe Bravo started tinkering with fermentation in their garage before opening the brick-and-mortar location last April. By combining Neff’s experience as the head of Facebook’s fermented foods program and Bravo’s experience as a professional brewer, the couple grew their passion project into a now-thriving business. Hop Culture Magazine even named it one of the best new breweries in the entire country.

What sets Fox Tale apart is its focus on finding new ways to use local ingredients.

“There are so many amazing producers around here,” Neff says. “Especially independently owned farms and gardens that are creating beautiful things. We’re getting really unique items and things you can’t find through a large produce company.”

A man and woman in black T-shirts pose for a photo in front of a large kettle for brewing beer.
Fox Tale owners Felipe Bravo (left) and Wendy Neff first started tinkering with fermentation in their Silicon Valley garage. (Courtesy of Fox Tale Fermentation Project)

Local gardens and beautiful produce aren’t typically associated with brewing beer. At Fox Tale, however, you can try a pale ale made with the tips of a grand fir tree or a black saison made with lacto-fermented oyster mushrooms. To make the latter beer, the Ouroboros, Bravo also steeps actual oysters in the kettle — a technique that dates back to the 1800s when oyster shells were used to filter sediment when brewing stout beer. The Ouroboros is special because the fermentation develops the mushroom’s savory, seafood-like flavor, which in turn helps bring out the brininess of the oyster.

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As Fox Tale’s chef and recipe developer, Neff extends this experimental approach to the brewery’s newly expanded vegan food menu, which visitors can enjoy at the cozy bar counter, with plants and warm-colored string lights hanging overhead.

One of the most popular menu items is the Tex-Mex style cashew queso, which Neff cultures with microbes to emulate the umami flavors present in dairy cheese. She uses cashews because they’re fatty and sweet like cheese, and then tops the queso with a salsa macha made with smoky pepitas, ancho chiles and vinegar made from tepache (a Mexican fermented pineapple drink). “The reason that I like fermentation,” Neff says, “is because it brings out dynamic flavors that things just don’t have on their own.”

Plant-based cheeses are often mocked for being poor imitations of cheese. But Fox Tale’s unctuous, golden-orange queso has a dense, creamy texture that I actually found superior to its dairy counterpart.

A colorful plate of raw and pickled vegetables, dips and other assorted fermented foods.
The house-fermented items platter is a must-order dish. (Octavio Peña)

Neff’s recipe development process varies from item to item, but the common denominator is her deep knowledge of fermentation. When she acquired quince and sugar rush peppers from a local farm, she combined them to make a fermented hot sauce that also includes rose hips, pink peppercorns and saffron — a floral mixture of ingredients inspired by Persian quince stew. Fox Tale’s sunflower spread, a staple of the house, combines fermented garlic, month-long fermented Meyer lemons, sunflower seeds and stinging nettle to create a tart, pungent dip. It’s served as part of the brewery’s house-fermented items platter — a must-order for first-time visitors who want to get a sense of the kitchen’s approach.

At Fox Tale, fermentation is more than just a way to develop interesting flavors, though. It also allows the kitchen to transform leftovers into something new, thus reducing food waste. For example, miso is traditionally made by fermenting soybeans, but Neff cleverly swaps out the soybeans for leftover sourdough bread, which has the high amounts of protein and starch needed to produce miso. In Neff’s golden chanterelle bucatini, the tangy, savory sourdough miso helps emulsify the liquids into a creamy sauce that pairs beautifully with black trumpet chili oil, tamari and roasted chanterelle mushrooms. What the dish shows, more broadly, is fermentation’s potential to turn something you would normally discard into something delicious — an approach that Neff and Bravo hope others will emulate.

A bowl of pasta topped with greens and golden chanterelle mushrooms.
Miso made with leftover sourdough bread forms the base for this golden chanterelle pasta dish. (Courtesy of Fox Tale Fermentation Project)

Indeed, Neff says she has always wanted Fox Tale to be more than a place where she sells stuff to people. She and Bravo also wanted to create a welcoming space. Toward that end, they’ve created collaborative menu items using ingredients provided by local environmental nonprofits like Our City Forest. They host open mic events and “Drink and Doodle” art nights. And they are slowly forming a community of like-minded people who are interested in sourcing locally, foraging and fermenting — learning about the food that’s growing all around them.

“It’s the biggest thing that keeps us going,” Neff says. “[We] get to be a space where people share themselves.”

Fox Tale Fermentation Project is open Thu.–Mon. at 30 E. Santa Clara St. #120 in San Jose.

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