In Berkeley, a ceramicist rethinks fermentation

Ceramicist Sarah Kersten in her Berkeley studio. Photo: Alex Wall
Ceramicist Sarah Kersten in her Berkeley studio in the Sawtooth building. Photo: Alix Wall

Sarah Kersten always gets raves for her home-made sauerkraut. People love it so much, she said, that they often tell her she should sell it. But she’s selling the vessels to make it instead.

“There are a million people selling kraut,” she said with a laugh. “You can only do so much. Maybe someday.”

Kersten, 27, is a Berkeley-based ceramic artist whose handmade fermentation crock has garnered notice by Food & Wine magazine, been pictured in fermentation guru Sandor Katz’s second book, The Art of Fermentation, and been sold in popular San Francisco-based natural foods blogger Heidi Swanson’s online shop Quitokeeto.

Now she is trying to raise funds on Kickstarter – through October 17 – to take her business to the next level: to have her own kiln in her studio in Berkeley’s Sawtooth building, as well as the ability to slipcast and glaze on site.


Kersten's fermentation crock. Photo: Sara Washington
Kersten’s fermentation crock. Photo: Sara Washington

“No one will let me use their kiln anymore,” she said. “My pieces are too big, and it doesn’t work like that. I need my own to be able to fire my own pieces.”

Originally from Bainbridge Island, Washington, Kersten never imagined she’d make her living as an artist, even though as a child, the sandbox was one of her favorite places to play. While she thought about being a competitive ice skater, the cost became prohibitive, so she began taking pottery lessons at age 13 instead.

And looking back, she thinks the two actually have a bit in common. “There’s something about pottery that’s very physical,” she said. “There’s a repetition to it, where you’re doing the same physical thing over and over again, trying to get it right.

Bowls made by Sarah Kersten. Photo: Sara Washington
Bowls made by Sarah Kersten. Photo: Sara Washington

Always the youngest at the pottery studios she frequented, she’d see the frustrated artists who couldn’t make a living, and entered Wellesley College.

But she quickly found it wasn’t for her.  “I had some relatives and teachers who picked up on it way before I did,” she said. “It took me awhile to realize it.”

She dropped out and went to the San Juan islands, where she learned organic farming, and that’s when she learned about fermentation.

Plagued by various dietary issues, she soon realized she felt much better after adding fermented foods to her daily diet. Her farming friends, also fermentation junkies, proposed she make a crock especially for such purposes, especially since at the time, the most commonly bought ones were made in Europe.

But she couldn’t fathom how. Thus far, she said, “My work was a lot smaller. I could make cups, but not a giant complicated piece.  It seemed so far outside what I could do.”

Ceramic coffee filter holder created by Sarah Kersten. Photo: Sara Washington
Ceramic ribbed coffee cone created by Sarah Kersten. Photo: Sara Washington

Since she had left college, she realized furthering her education was now in her own hands. “I realized it would be a worthwhile project to try and tackle,” she said. “If I could figure out how to make a really good fermentation jar, at that point, I’d learn so much about pottery, it would be a way to facilitate that independent learning.”

By this point living in Berkeley, working at Saul’s Deli as a waitress to support herself and a regular at the Potters’ Studio in her off hours, she signed up for a workshop in Colorado’s Anderson Ranch, taught by Bay Area ceramicist Christa Assad.

There, she learned from Assad a more precise way of working, and had a lesson with someone who taught her how to throw larger pieces than she had done prior.

“Fifteen minutes with this guy changed the way I work,” she said.

And three years ago, when she thought she might go to art school, her fermentation crocks started selling and attracting notice.

Of course, fermentation has its adherents; Kersten is far from the only person she knows with up to six different batches of kraut or kimchi going at once. While Williams-Sonoma started selling crocks recently, until then, if fermenters wanted one, they had to order it from Germany or Poland, and the design isn’t much to look at.

A large bowl made by Sarah Kersten. Photo: Sara Washington
A large bowl made by Sarah Kersten. Photo: Sara Washington

After hand-making each one, she recently got a mold made of one, and her new ones are slipcast from that mold.

As fervent fermenters know, one need not buy expensive equipment to ferment; one can use a regular jar.

But with that method come some pitfalls.

If the ferment rises above the waterline, mold can occur. Fruit flies can find their way in and lay their eggs. It can smell funny.

With Kersten’s crock — which comes with two weights — evaporation won’t occur because there’s a double rim, which when filled with water, creates a seal. Unlike with a jar, where one has to babysit it and skim it regularly, and check the water level, in the crock the fermentation process can be left untouched for six weeks.

Plus, Kersten said, “the crock is beautiful, it’s not a funny-looking jar with a scarf tied over the top. There’s nothing wrong with that, but design is real and craft is real, and I’ve made a really beautiful jar. My customers love them.”

They also love that they’re locally made, and not shipped here from Europe.

Evaporation won’t occur with Kersten's fermentation crock because there’s a double rim, which when filled with water, creates a seal. Photo: Sara Washington
Kersten’s fermentation crock has a double rim, which, when filled with water, creates a seal, preventing evaporation. Photo: Sara Washington

Kersten’s other pieces are also highly functional for food; serving bowls, a ribbed coffee cone, that allows the filter space from the walls of the cone to allow a better pour, and storage containers that are bound to stay put rather than go home with guests as plastic containers tend to do.

But if its her fermentation crock that remains the largest part of her business, that’s just fine with her.

While so far, most of her sales have been the 1.5 gallon crock, she has made 5 gallon crocks as well.

“How cool is a giant vessel,” she said. “It’s just really satisfying to make a big one. I love it. I’m obsessed with it.”

How to eat more fermented foods

Sarah Kersten eats at least a handful of sauerkraut every day, and is a great proponent of all things fermented. Here are a few of her suggestions as to how to incorporate more into your diet:

  • Chop it up and toss it into salad.
  • A favorite quick meal: quinoa with roasted carrots, raisins and kraut.
  • Use it in place of vinegar.
  • Mix liquid from making kimchi with flax seeds to make dehydrated flax crackers.
  • Serve it with corn chips on an appetizer table so it aids digestion of the less healthier snacks.
  • Add it as a pizza topping.

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