From molecular booze to lab-grown honey, East Bay makers are ushering in a new generation of bio-designed food and drink.
Story and Illustrations by Bri James
One evening in 2017, as Onye Ahanotu sat down at Kith/Kin—the now-shuttered high-end Afro-Caribbean Washington, DC, restaurant helmed by Top Chef wunderkind Kwame Onwuachi—he felt like something was missing.
“Pulling out the wine list and it all being grape wine felt really weird,” says Ahanotu, an Oakland-based materials engineer turned food scientist. He expected to see palm wine, a cultural cornerstone throughout many parts of the Black diaspora including West Africa and the Caribbean, where the restaurant’s menu was focused. But as Ahanotu would later find out, it wasn’t just Kith/Kin that had left palm wine off its list. The traditional cottage product wasn’t readily available anywhere in the United States.
Fast forward to today: Ahanotu is the founder of Ikenga Wines, a palm wine brand he hopes will soon shift the thinking that all (good) wine comes from grapes.
“There are certain areas of food being decolonized,” says Ahanotu, “but this whole wine space and how we think about alcohol still comes from this very Eurocentric perspective.”
While palm wine is a celebratory mainstay in parts of Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia, South America, and Southeast Asia, it isn’t readily available in the United States. Ikenga Wines will be the first American-made palm wine brand, one of only two commercial manufacturers worldwide.
The fermentation process used to produce palm wine is a natural phenomenon. When palm sap is exposed to ambient yeast, the sap turns into a sweet, low-alcohol liquid within a few hours. Allowed to ferment longer, the liquid becomes acidic and turns into the vinegar-like product called sukang sasa, which is commonly used in adobo. (The Philippines also has a storied palm wine tradition using coconut palm sap. There it’s called tuba.)
Palm wine’s short fermentation window makes the wine difficult to preserve, something Ahanotu learned in his original attempts. Turning to his science roots, Ahanotu asked, “What if we could just understand the chemistry of the palm sap? What is there before it starts fermenting? How can we recreate that from other plant-based sources?”
Ahanotu took himself on a palm wine world tour, tasting at each stop as he learned the production process. He stashed samples of sap and took them back home to the lab, where he isolated the compounds that give palm wine its flavor, scent, texture, and taste. Then he developed a sugar combination molecularly identical to palm sap but without the instability. Unlike traditional processes, fermentation for Ikenga Wines is highly controlled using a curated series of microbes spurred by yeast sourced from Nigeria and other regions.
But Ahanotu’s first thought was not that he would grow wine in a lab. “One option,” he says, “was to have a plantation of palms.” But a palm tree takes five to ten years to become mature enough to tap, and the process of extracting the sap from the tree yields a huge amount of biomass relative to a small quantity of product.
“That’s five to ten years of watering and massive land use, which is a huge ecological issue,” adds Ahanotu. “Compared to traditional palm wine, [ours has] a 97 percent reduction in C02 emissions. You don’t need to clear the land. Rainforest can stay rainforest. You don’t have to convert this huge palm tree, and you don’t have to worry about international shipping, which is really dirty fuel.”
But ultimately, Ahanotu just wants to make great wine. “And I think we’ve finally got there,” he says.
Note: If you’re wondering what palm wine tastes like (or palm wine without actual palm sap), you won’t have to wait much longer. Ahanotu is set to release his premier vintage later this year. Keep tabs on the progress @ikengawines on Instagram.
Vegan honey (made without bees)
Extracts sugars from fruits and vegetables and flavors them with compounds from plants that bees pollinate
Taste and texture of conventional honey (worked with honey sommeliers through hundreds of formulations)
Safe for babies and toddlers (Bee-honey is not recommended for children under two because it contains clostridium bacteria)
Slaughter free (but not vegan) chicken made from animal cells
Grown in a machine called a cultivator and harvested aftertwo to three weeks
Famous fans include Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Dominique Crenn
$50 million production facility in Emeryville
Tank-brewed, animal-free milk protein made from fermented plant sugars
Founded in 2014, formerly known as Muufri
Received over $360 million in international funding
Used in Coolhaus ice creams, Modern Kitchen cream cheeses, and more