BY SARA JONES
[twocolumns]Sometimes, when Britt Eustis is fermenting pickles in his factory on Whidbey Island, he thinks of a 500-year-old, family run miso company he visited in Japan over 30 years ago. There they fermented soybeans in wooden casks, piling rocks on top to add pressure. The hatcho miso they made took three years to complete. For a product that dates back to the 1500s, however, that seemed like small change, especially considering the rich flavor that was the result.For Eustis, who was working as a natural foods buyer at the time, that trip was transformative. “What I saw and learned changed my way of looking at food, food systems and the value and inherent wisdom of these traditions,” Eustis explains. When he got home he started “putting up strange brews in my kitchen.” After three decades of home fermentation, and rave reviews from friends, he decided to make a business of it.
“Up to this point, my career in food had involved commodity trading, mostly behind a computer,” Eustis explains. “I decided [making fermented foods] is what I wanted to do, because you’re actually doing something with your hands—producing something local and fresh-packed.”
Britt’s Pickles is the culmination of Eustis’s 38-year-career in the natural and organic food business, and an integral collaboration of family and friends. After Eustis researched the feasibility of such a start up, close supporters offered their skills and funds to help. His cousin did the carpentry as well as invested; his cousin’s daughter did the marketing. Eustis’s son, a graphic artist, designed the label. In the fall of 2011, Britt’s Pickles started selling at Central Co-op (then Madison Market).[/twocolumns]
What sets Britt’s Pickles apart from their grocery store competitors is how they are made. Vinegar pickles are heat-treated, and therefore have no live cultures. They can also include additives to maintain crispness, color and extended shelf life. Though the use of vinegar in pickling dates back to the Romans, it rose to prominence in the mid-1900s, along with cheaper, mass-produced foods.
[twocolumns]Naturally fermented pickles, on the other hand, date back to around 2400 B.C. They contain living organisms that contribute fresh flavor and—some believe—may provide gastro-intestinal health benefits. To make his pickles, Eustis combines fresh cucumbers, spices and other vegetables in oak barrels, and submerges them in salt water for one to three weeks. When the pH drops below 4.6 percent, it prevents anything but lactic acid bacteria from growing. This adds the signature pickle flavor. When he has achieved the degree of fermentation he wants, Eustis finishes the pickles in a cooler.
It is this lactic acid bacteria that some people believe to be beneficial. Eustis estimates that four out of ten customers seek out his products for health-related reasons, saying they experience noticeable benefits with digestion and overall gastro-intestinal issues. Eustis has seen supportive research about healthy bacteria in fermented foods, including Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times article “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs.” Like Pollan, however, he believes more research is needed for solid conclusions in this area.
“I don’t make those [health] claims,” he says of his products. “Our claim is that these are live culture foods. They are fresh. People can taste that, and most importantly, they taste great.”
[twocolumns]Seattle, it seems, agrees. After their debut at Central Co-op, Britt’s Pickles started selling at PCC in March 2012, then opened a storefront at Pike Place Market the following September. They also sell to a number of restaurants, including Hit it Here at Safeco Field. Their rise has been so swift, in fact, they are delaying some of their larger chain store launches until they can transition to more industrial equipment, including a cucumber washer.
Britt’s now offers five kinds of cucumber pickles (full sour, half sour, spicy, hot and sour and ginger and pepper), three types of kimchi, two types of sauerkraut, fermented black garlic and seasonal selections such as cauliflower and preserved Meyer lemons. Eustis is always experimenting with more.
He credits strong demand for part of their success. We’re in the midst of a “fermentation renaissance,” according to Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation. “We’re riding a wave that’s already happening,” Eustis says. “People are looking for [these] foods in their diets.”
Another contributing factor is the current popularity of strong flavors. Ellen Byron, writing in the Wall Street Journal, observes how “tart, sour and bitter flavors are beginning to dominate American cuisine.” Fermented tastes are already popping up in snacks and condiments on grocery store shelves.
Eustis also attributes his success to quality ingredients—sourced locally five months of the year—and time-tested recipes. Whidbey Island offers an excellent water supply, and the use of oak barrels contribute flavor and crispness.
But still, there is something else. “These foods connect with a lot of people because they go back generations,” Eustis says. They have a long history and cultural significance.
[twocolumns]Korean, the culture of kimchi, helps explain this. The Korean language has two words for taste: one for “mouth taste” and one for “hand taste.” Mouth taste is the flavor we detect on a basic level, hand taste refers to what has gone into the food on an energetic level—the quality of ingredients, the care put into preparation, the memories that will follow.
Eustis believes fermented products amplify hand taste. “These are live culture foods, so there’s something in them that doesn’t happen with other things,” he says.
For example, he says, a customer at his Pike Place Market stand tasted one of the pickles and nearly teared up. “Now this is a pickle!” she exclaimed, and told Eustis her grandfather used to make pickles in Brooklyn, where they were sold by immigrants who brought their fermentation traditions from Eastern Europe.
On the days when the pressure of growing a small business feels overwhelming, these strong responses ground Eustis. “To watch the gratitude these people have for these products keeps me going,” he says.
Find Britt’s Pickles at their Pike Place Market store, at Central Co-op, PCC, Town and Country Markets, and on Whidbey Island at The Goose, The Star Store and Payless in Freeland. The pickles are certified Kosher through Seattle Va’ad.
Sara Jones is a freelance writer, cook, and budding cookbook editor. She can’t get enough kimchi grilled cheeses these days, and is ready to invest in her own pickle-ator.