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All Things Pickled

Blair Nosan of Suddenly Sauer-Detroit Photo by Dave Lewinski
Blair Nosan of Suddenly Sauer-Detroit Photo by Dave Lewinski
Rumored to be a lucky food (for anyone who has a six-year-old jar of "lucky" pickles in the fridge), a hangover cure (especially true when speared into a Bloody Mary), and now the latest trend to get skewered by IFC's Portlandia, pickles are all the rage. As the momentum of artisan food movements across the country continues to barrel forward, there is a subset of makers interested in traditional food preservation methods. From home canning to charcuterie clubs to self-professed picklers and briners, centuries-old techniques are au courant, and we've got more than a hand-full of artisanal pickle producers right here in metro Detroit.

What's in a Pickle?

Pickles -- or any kind of pickled product -- are made by immersing a vegetable or fruit into an acidic solution such as brine or vinegar and allowing it to ferment. There is also the more traditional method of allowing the products to sour through lacto-fermentation, a more time- and labor-intensive method that pickle purists swear is superior.

"I'm an organic vegetable farmer by trade," says David Klingenberger, owner and CFO (Chief Fermenting Officer) of Ann Arbor-based The Brinery. "Living on the farm I got into all kinds of food preservation -- canning, jams. [Then] I started making sauerkraut." While he lived out west he started to embrace food preservation and homesteading, so when he came home to Michigan he wanted a business that would define his existence. "No one was doing the naturally fermented vegetables that I wanted to do," he says. "A farmer friend of mine had cabbage so I started making sauerkraut."

The Brinery has been operating about two years now. "It really hit the ground running," Klingenberger says. "I'm really into entrepreneurship and saw how big McClure's was getting. I saw there was a niche [for naturally-fermented sauerkraut] and was really ready to throw down."  

The Brinery uses as much Michigan organic produce as possible. Klingenberger's goal is to help increase the acreage of organic produce grown in Michigan through a national artisan sauerkraut business. "I want to really be a part of the Michigan economy," he says. "I want to be on a bigger scale and employ people and have more farms growing produce for me."

Right now you can find his products in specialty stores around Washtenaw County, including Plum Market and small natural food stores, in addition to farmers markets in Ann Arbor and Detroit. He is also currently in talks with Whole Foods and eventually wants to move his commercial operation to Detroit. "I think it would be really fun to be a part of the vibrant food culture happening in Detroit right now."

The Brinery specializes in sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), and is currently the only artisan sauerkraut producer in the state. Klingenberger also makes kimchi (a traditional fermented Korean dish that can be made from cabbage, radishes and cucumbers), pickles, and will soon be making miso. He uses the natural lacto-fermentation method to pickle his products. "It's an old, ancient style of naturally fermenting with wildly fermenting bacteria."

He prefers this technique over vinegar pickling because "it's the way food was preserved before refrigeration and modern industrialization." Vinegar pickling became popular during the rampant industrialization of food production that occurred in the 1950s and has been the status quo ever since. Traditional fermentation requires barrels of products aging over time, "a timely process that goes against [the essence] of industrialization."

Lacto-fermentation is the same process by which milk becomes yogurt. Blair Nosan of Detroit-based Suddenly Sauer also uses this method for her products, which includes yogurt, butter, cream cheese and ice cream, in addition to classic dill pickles, squash kimchi, dilly beans and hot head cauliflower from locally-sourced produce.

Pickle Me This

Nosan learned how to pickle on a Jewish farm in Connecticut. She was a participant in ADAMAH: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. They also have a four-acre organic farm and commercial pickle kitchen where they ferment a variety of vegetables produced on the farm.

"I loved the community a lot," she says. "I didn't want to leave after three months, so I took what was available so I could stay -- which was being a pickle apprentice and working in the pickle kitchen. I figured, 'Sure, I like pickles enough, and I'd love to stick around!'"

She came home to Michigan at a time when everyone was talking about local foods and sustainable food systems. "It was very apparent to me that we needed food preservation as part of our food system," she states. Blair joined the nonprofit environmental leadership and advocacy group Greening of Detroit as an urban agriculture apprentice, where she was able to teach some workshops on food preservation -- pickling, canning, freezing and drying. "That was the part of the work I loved the most," she says of teaching the workshops.

Suddenly Sauer is an artisan food product business, but the Michigan cottage industry food laws loosened in 2010 still do not allow for the distribution of fermented products not made in commercial kitchens. Ultimately Nosan has taken on more of an educator's role, offering fermentation workshops of various products through Suddenly Sauer and also through her synagogue.

Tom Perkins of Perkins Pickles also got his start by being a home pickler. "When I was a kid I preferred walking around with a pickle jar in my hands to a candy bar or junk food," he says. "My family would always buy me industrial tubs of pickles for Christmas, so it seemed like I should start making my own pickles when I got older. People really liked them. That led to me selling to a few restaurants from 2009-2011. I didn't start regularly jarring until [last] October but already can't keep up with demand."

Perkins makes his gherkins at Traffic Jam & Snug in Detroit, which has a spotless 20,000-square-foot commercial kitchen. These pickles are cold-packed, which means they are never heated at any point during the pickling or packaging process. It also means they have a shorter shelf life and must be made in smaller batches. But Perkins prefers this method for his namesake pickle. "That keeps them fresher and crisper, and that's what people really seem to love about them … I think it's worth the extra work to have a pickle that's always fresh."

In addition to pickles, Perkins makes a pickled red cabbage, green tomato relish, dill beans and cocktail onions. His products are available at all three Plum Market locations, the Rust Belt Market, Eastern Market, the Produce Station in Ann Arbor, and select area restaurants. They will also be available at Whole Foods soon, and Perkins is in talks with a few other local markets.

Much Ado About Pickles

Detroit-based Topor's Pickle & Food Service also cold-packs its pickles. They are widely available in major grocery stores and area markets. Then there's McClure's Pickles. There isn't much to be said about McClure's that hasn't been said already (by us, here, and here). Brothers Joe and Bob McClure started McClure's Pickles in 2006 with their great-grandma Lala's pickle recipe and little else. Since then they've received national press from the likes of the New York Times and Bon Appetit; their iconic products are available in 28 states, three countries and two continents (as well as through online retailers that ship worldwide). They offer two different kinds of pickles, a much-lauded spicy Bloody Mary mix, relishes, mustards and flavored potato chips. Last year they generated $1.6 million in revenue, and just last week announced that they will be relocating their operations from Troy to Hamtramck.

So why are pickles so damn popular? "I think it's part of the food trend overall," says Joe McClure. "It's an old tradition of how people used to preserve the harvest, and people are really coming back to those things."

Joe suggests that, at least for the picklers themselves, there is perhaps a certain feasibility factor in pickles that might be harder to tackle with, say, cheese or charcuterie (less licensing needed, less expensive to make, easier to sell). But pickle-making still offers the same challenges and fulfillment of culinary craftsmanship.

Perkins echoes these insights: "It seems like 95% of the people I meet are self-certified ‘pickle people,' so with the craft food market exploding I guess it isn't surprising that there are more pickle companies," he states. "Pickles are a fun, simple food. What I think is cool is that there are so many pickle companies in Detroit. I guess I don't know this for sure, but it seems like there are more pickle companies here than anywhere else except NYC. Detroit is a pickle town!"

For Nosan, the idea that pickles are more of a "fringe" food than jams or pasta sauces gives them an added appeal to the consumer looking for interesting artisanal food products. She adds, "Fermented pickles really unlock some flavors that are [kind of] unknown in a mainstream American diet.  But they are salty and savory and can even be sweet all at the same time.  I think their complexity really titillates our palates in ways that a jam, jelly, or pasta sauce can only hope for."  

And perhaps there is also a certain element of nostalgia that's driving this picklepalooza. For Perkins, his love of pickles was deeply rooted in his childhood. For the McClures it was a family tradition. While they may be more of a fringe item, many young adults today have fond memories of pickle jars permanently situated in their refrigerators. This is in no small part due to the massive marketing campaign launched by Vlasic Pickles in the 1990s, utilizing the iconic stork image and coining the latest in a stream of memorable catch-phrases for the brand: "The best thing for burgers since the bun."

Incidentally, the Vlasic brand was started in Detroit in 1942. Seems we've been at this awhile.


Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Metromode and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com


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