–by Liz Morrison
Vinegar is making a splash in cocktails and soft drinks.
Minnesota food innovators are producing hip, handcrafted shrubs and switchels from muddled fruit, sugar and vinegar. These traditional drinks have roots in Colonial times, when people used apple cider vinegar to preserve fruit for the winter.
Modern shrubs—coming from the Arabic word “sharab,” meaning “to drink” — are intensely flavored syrups that mix well with spirits, water or club soda. They are an easy way to add sweet and sour flavors to drinks, as well as salad dressings and sauces.
“There’s a renaissance in small-batch, artisanal beverages,” says Harold Stanislawski, AURI project development director. Shrubs and switchels are following “the same path as craft brewers and distillers.”
Heritage vinegar drinks are “another value-added opportunity for Minnesota-grown fruits and vegetables,” Stanislawski says, “a new piece of agricultural commerce.” AURI helps nurture this budding sector by offering technical assistance in recipe development, processing and quality control, food safety protocols, shelf life testing, packaging and labeling, ingredient sourcing and licensing.
Here’s a look at a few of the entrepreneurs that AURI has worked with in Minnesota’s emerging shrub and switchel scene.
The Twisted Shrub
Be a “bartending hero at home!”
That’s Scott Dillon’s mission. Dillon, of Edina, an amateur mixologist and food industry veteran, is founder of The Twisted Shrub.
He first heard about shrubs in a cocktail class at Minneapolis’s Parlour bar, in June, 2015. “It was one of those epiphany moments,” he recalls.
At the time, he was looking for a new food venture, after having spent 20 years in sales at General Mills. “I love cocktails and interesting drinks. And I knew that vinegar was a hot food trend, especially among millennials.”
Over the summer, Dillon experimented with shrub recipes, testing some 80 or 90 combinations, and experimenting with a variety of vinegars before settling on apple cider vinegar. He worked with AURI on processing, food safety and licensing. “I had the back-end expertise in sales and marketing,” he says. “But I needed help on the front end and AURI is this amazing resource. They were instrumental in helping me get going. I didn’t even know where to start, and they connected me to the experts I needed.”
In the fall of 2015, just five months after his epiphany, Dillon premiered Twisted Shrubs at the Linden Hills Farmer’s Market. Soon after Dillon began retail distribution. He is aiming Twisted Shrubs at home mixologists. “People want to make more interesting drinks,” he says. With shrubs it’s easy to make interesting and different cocktails
Saint Paul Switchel
“Before sports drinks, there was switchel,” says Colleen Schlieper of St. Paul, founder of Saint Paul Switchel.
Switchel is a traditional American drink, brewed on farms from ginger, apple cider vinegar, and honey, maple syrup or molasses.
Schlieper first learned about switchels when she had a cold and googled natural cough remedies. “A version of switchel came up. I made it, and it was really kind of good!”
She had a hunch that there would be a market for a less-sweet alternative to soda and energy drinks.
Combing old cookbooks, Schlieper experimented with switchel recipes. She settled on one that uses hot-brewed fresh ginger tea and wildflower honey, plus cultured apple cider vinegar, “a very rich product with a great flavor.” She worked with AURI on processing, product testing, bottling and labeling.
Gardener extraordinaire Amy Lorber packs the bounty of her gardens into hand-crafted organic shrubs, cocktail syrups, herb teas, and spice mixes.
Lorber, of Rochester, and her mom, Linda, are the founders of Gardenaire. Their mission: “To create delicious products using sustainable growing practices and authentic preservation techniques.”
The Lorbers raise 80 varieties of organic herbs, 30 kinds of pollinator-friendly flowers, and 35 varieties of fruits and vegetables,
They market a wide variety of shrubs, whose flavors change with the seasons: rhubarb basil, tomato basil, apple tarragon fennel and pear rosemary. Gardenaire also makes veggie-based shrubs, and Amy is developing winter shrub recipes. “I love creating new flavors, playing in the kitchen,” she says.
She worked with AURI Food Scientist Lolly Occhino on testing methods and process regulations. This assistance was important because Lorber ferments fruit, herbs and apple cider or white balsamic vinegar in glass containers for several weeks, then strains off the solids, adds sugar and bottles.
Veteran mixologist Alex Zweber is betting on his insider’s knowledge of the craze for creative cocktails.
Zweber, of Minneapolis, launched Sharab Shrubs in 2016. Early this year, he will begin selling three flavors of the vinegar-based cocktail mixers: strawberry, apple rosemary, and Asian pear with ginger and cinnamon.
Zweber worked with AURI Food Scientist Lolly Occhino to figure out the nutritional information and sugar content of his beverage. After fermenting fruit and sugar for several days, he strains out the solids and adds white vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Sharab Shrubs “work well in cooking and in drinks,” he says, “giving a bit of sugar, a bit of tang, and some fruit flavor.”
Zweber, a longtime bartender at Surdyk’s Flights in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, is up on craft cocktail trends. “I could see the need for a product like this in the market,” he says. He started experimenting with fruit and vinegar combinations at home. As word got around, liquor sales reps started asking him about shrubs.
Humble vinegar is a remarkably important and versatile food, says Lolly Occhino, AURI food scientist.
One of the few acidic condiments, it has been used for centuries to flavor and preserve foods. Acetic acid, the primary ingredient in vinegar, is a potent anti-microbial, which inhibits the growth of bacteria and mold, she says. It’s used to preserve vegetables and fruits, meat, baked goods, sauces, and many other foods.
Occhino points to vinegar’s many advantages as a food ingredient: it is water soluble, inexpensive, widely available, non-toxic, slows browning, and imparts deep, complex flavors.
In addition, “Vinegar is an easy-to-understand, natural ingredient” that consumers readily recognize, says Jeannie Milewski, executive director of The Vinegar Institute, a trade association. That’s important as consumers look for “simpler, cleaner food labels with ingredients they can understand and pronounce,” Occhino says.
Today, researchers are investigating the potential health benefits of vinegar, Occhino says. Recently, for example, scientists have been testing vinegar’s effects on blood glucose. Other studies are looking at using vinegar to treat ear infections. Animal and cell studies are exploring vinegar’s effects on weight, cholesterol and cancer cells.