When Britt Eustis decided to start a company that made pickled vegetables, there was only one way he wanted to do it: oak barrel fermentation.
Pickles have been around for millennia, dating back to 2030 B.C., when cucumbers from India were first pickled in the Tigris Valley. The oak barrel fermentation technique Eustis favors has been used for centuries — in the 15th century, for instance, barrels of pickles helped sailors ward off scurvy on long sea voyages. Eustis’ pickles ferment naturally in the oak barrels on the floor of his Whidbey Island warehouse for one to five weeks in a solution that uses salt, water and the naturally occurring presence of lactobacillus to ferment the vegetables and create that sour, pickle-y flavor.
And you can taste the difference. The tannins in the oak barrels suppress the enzyme that naturally occurs and makes pickles turn soft, meaning Britt’s Pickles are reliably crisp.
“The oak barrel has that ability to act as an agent in the fermentation,” says Eustis, owner of Britt’s Fermented Foods, a small, local company whose devotion to process has won it rabid fans, but also nearly contributed to its demise in 2019.
But in an era where most of the pickles that line grocery store shelves are mass-produced in commercial-sized vats of vinegar, or by using heat via pasteurization to destroy bacteria, oak barrel fermentation is somewhat of a dying art on a commercial level.
“We are the only company [in the U.S.] doing oak barrel fermentation,” Eustis says, a note of pride in his voice. “I think it’s difficult, but it was the traditional container for fermentation back in the day.”
Eustis came to fermented foods after visiting a centuries-old miso company in Japan decades ago. Once he returned home, he began experimenting with fermented foods in his own kitchen. He also made his career in food — albeit on the brokerage side, as president and CEO of Ceres Organic Harvest in St. Paul, Minnesota.
After nearly 40 years, the company eliminated Eustis’ division and he moved to West Seattle in 2011 to live and work with his sister, an artist. He ordered his first barrel from a company in Minnesota and kept tinkering with ferments, perfecting his brine recipes and finally starting a small eponymous pickle company in 2012. The pickles — and a product line that eventually grew to include kimchi and sauerkraut — were sold at a small stand at Pike Place Market, in regional grocery stores and at a handful of farmers markets.
His signature was the oak barrel fermentation method.
Oak barrel fermentation fell out of fashion in the 1970s as food safety regulation laws changed and companies grew production to a point that 60-gallon barrels didn’t make sense, Eustis says.
“And of course plastic came about, all these so-called improvements,” he says.
Eustis believes oak barrel fermentation produces a pickle unlike any other. This means his pickle company is also part cooperage. The oak barrels are sourced from wineries and, upon receipt, need to be taken apart, planed for a new surface, and painstakingly put back together — the wood slats going in an exact order to ensure they are airtight. Look closely at the barrels on the warehouse floor and you’ll see small numbers etched or burned into the wood, a sign they’ve been planed and reassembled at Britt’s.
Yet, despite a loyal fan base and a great product, Eustis’ debt mounted each year. It started to feel, he says, like he was making pickles with “one arm tied behind my back,” and he eventually hit a ceiling. He had a large product line but couldn’t push beyond making pickles a few barrels at a time.
Unlike heat-treated or vinegar-based pickles, relying on oak barrel fermentation meant that little things beyond his control could affect the finished product. Plus, in an industry where margins are razor-thin, waiting up to five weeks for fermentation can be hard on a small company.
“I had some product come up from Mexico and I don’t know if it had fungicide on it or what, but all 10 barrels, I had to throw them out,” Eustis recalls.
Later, he spoke to someone at the water department who said one of the lines had recently been cleaned and chlorine was used to flush the system. That’s normal with a city water system, and it’s not usually announced ahead of time. However, when you’re relying on filtered water to create a food product, chlorine is a killer.
Eustis thought he had a Canadian company on the line to take over and grow production, but at the last moment they backed out and Eustis realized “I had to let go.”
“There were a lot of people who supported me over the years, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with the debt,” Eustis says. In September 2019 he made the tough decision to shut down Britt’s Pickles.
A second chance
An article announcing the closure of Britt’s Pickles ran in the South Whidbey Record, where Eustis was quoted saying the company was for sale. This caught the attention of Britt Fletcher, owner of Whidbey’s Mutiny Bay Blues organic blueberry farm.
Fletcher contacted Eustis and Kimberly Woodworth, Britt’s chief of sales and marketing, to see if the trio could “see a way forward.”
“And we did,” Fletcher says. Because he shares a first name with Eustis, he’s often asked if he was the original Britt in Britt’s Pickles.
“The island is small, but not that small,” Fletcher quips.
Fletcher brought financial backing to the project and, with his experience in diversifying income streams for a food company, he also brought new ideas and networking connections.
Thus, Britt’s Pickles got a second chance, rebranding as Britt’s Fermented Foods and finding a new home in a barn-red, 3,000-square-foot warehouse in Langley, 15 minutes from the Clinton ferry landing. There are four rooms: an office, a small workshop to resurface barrels, a walk-in cooler for finished product and the main warehouse floor.
Eustis has built back a small crew, working up to 60 barrels of production a month.
One look at Britt’s products and it’s evident something different is happening. Unlike the neon green spears in the condiment aisle, or even the refrigerated pickles at the grocery store, the liquid Britt’s pickles sit in is cloudy, with whole cukes bobbing among slices of garlic and onion, dill or horseradish; an Australian sea salt Eustis gets from Woodinville’s SaltWorks acts as the main agent in fermentation.
“Can you taste the zippywowowyum?” The question, complete with a funny, nonsensical word, appears on labels for both Britt’s IPO (Initial Pickle Offering) and Peace Pickle varieties. The IPO has bay leaf, turmeric, coriander and mustard seeds. The Peace Pickle combines horseradish with fresh dill and garlic. The word is made up, but bite into a pickle and you can actually taste the “zippywowowyum.” These are no one-note pickles; instead they are fat, crunchy wonders with body and depth.
Britt’s also makes kimchi and sauerkraut using the oak barrel fermentation method. Finished kimchi and sauerkraut is pulled from a mixer using a small pitchfork, direct into the company’s signature oak barrels. Among the unique flavors: Bare Naked Kimchi that’s similar to Korean white kimchi without garlic or chiles, Black Market Kimchi with funky black garlic, and a delicate, almost floral riesling kraut.
The day I visited, a barrel of riesling kraut was being packed, and Eustis offered me a taste. The kraut was pale yellow and crunchy, with a definite hint of wine but without any overpowering sour bite.
“We’ve gotten rave reviews from a lot of visitors here from Germany and Austria, they say ‘Yeah, this is like home,’” Eustis said.
The scent of ginger and garlic from fresh kimchi being mixed hangs in the air on the warehouse floor, a heady, intoxicating scent of freshness and spice. I asked Woodworth if she ever tires of it. She inhaled deeply, and emphatically shook her head: “I love it.”
Growing the right way
Britt’s resumed operations in July, after nearly a yearlong hiatus. Even though Britt’s managed to recapture a group of its original loyalist fans and was welcomed back into 37 Seattle-area stores, including Town & Country Markets and PCC, restarting a company amid a global pandemic has come with a few snags.
A mixer ordered from Europe took six months to arrive due to shipping delays and time spent in customs. The current glass shortage means finding appropriately sized jars has been tough. The first pickles to be sold again this July were sold in specialty pouches or in half-gallon plastic pails; kimchi and kraut jars weren’t available until late September.
“The first six months [of restarting] was finding the space, then making the space fit. We had to get the wiring right, the water right,” Fletcher says.
They also redesigned the logo and labels and pared down the product line, leaving only three varieties each of pickle, sauerkraut and kimchi.
Sitting with Fletcher and Eustis in the spartan room at the warehouse that’s been designated as an office, Fletcher drags his right hand in a flat line across his body: “We didn’t want to be this company,” he says. “We wanted to be this company,” he finishes, his hand moving at an upward angle, like a plane taking off.
While Britt’s remains committed to old-world-style fermentation in small batches, the company has added a few technological advances that it hopes will make a big difference in the long run: a reverse osmosis water machine to remove impurities and eliminate pesky additives like chlorine from the water source, a hand-held drill that speedily removes cores from cabbage, and a new steel mixing drum.
The 600-liter (158.3-gallon) drum looks much like a shiny concrete mixer, weighs almost 900 pounds, and mixes tirelessly in minutes what used to be done laboriously by hand. It’s tall enough that an employee stands on a platform to load and operate the controls to mix, raise and lower the drum,
Despite the pandemic-disrupted economic downturn this year, Fletcher and Eustis have lofty goals for the future: Their goal is to get their product into 100 stores by early 2021.
“It might be a little optimistic, but I think after the holidays people will start to entertain new products,” Eustis says.
From a marketing standpoint, they continue to innovate, trying different things to see what will strike a chord with people amid a stressful, weird holiday season. Eustis and the crew are excited about the “Britt’s Pickle-ator,” a home pickling kit complete with a jar, ceramic weights, an airlock, salt and spices, with instructions for making your own Britt’s Pickles — a perfect gift for the holidays.
The spice blends are proprietary, but Eustis and Fletcher are convinced that after one successful attempt at making Britt’s at home, people will be back to try more spice blends.