Where Pickles Change By The Season


Photo by Tejal Rao

We're sitting in the dog park over coffee, mourning Gourmet magazine. "I had a subscription," says Joya Carlton sadly. She's the newest member of Brooklyn Brine, a small-batch pickling company that first caught my attention in July with a booth of pickled cucumbers at a Brooklyn beer festival.

Josh Egnew and Shamus Jones started the company. The friends knew each other through their speed metal band, Hibagon, with Jones on Guitar and Egnew on bass and vocals. "It wasn't the right situation," says Jones, "Dudes were getting loose." Their new band is more aptly named, considering their interest in good food: Ramps.

Earlier this year, Jones helped opened a local restaurant where he started to play around with pickling. "I was getting a really warm reception, great feedback," he says.

Brooklyn Brine's pickles change constantly based on the season and availability.

"Yeah, laughs Egnew, "I was was going by to visit every single day just so I could eat them."

Jarring ramps, garlic scapes, and whatever other seasonal vegetables he could find, Jones warmed to the idea of starting his own pickling company. After about five months at the restaurant he was, rather conveniently, fired. Within 6 hours Jones talked to Egnew about his idea and the two pitched it to Urban Rustic, a café and grocery store in in Greenpoint, one of their first clients. They bought jars down the street and talked to Lynde McCormick about running a night kitchen at Brooklyn Label. He agreed, at no cost.

He let you guys use his kitchen for free? "Yeah, he just let us use his space," says Egnew. "It was really the most tremendous thing that could have happened," says Jones. All they needed now were vegetables. "Shamus already had connections to distributors and farmers from his restaurant experience," says Egnew. "Within days," says Jones, "we had farmers coming here with produce."

Marlow and Daughters, a butcher shop in Brooklyn, was another early client. Though Jones has been vegetarian for almost 19 years, he knew he wanted to talk to someone there. He made a cold call and ran a tasting with five blood-stained butchers. They placed an order and Egnew and Jones started working overnight, going from their day jobs straight to the Brooklyn Label kitchen to get started on production.

Jones was cooking vegan food at Jivamukti Yoga near Union Square, spending his lunch breaks talking to purveyors at the Greenmarket and Egnew, who designed the company's gorgeous barrel logo, was tattooing at Three Kings (where he still works).

The pickling nights turned out to be labor-intensive so the two put an ad out in Craigslist to get some help. Must like metal and beer, it specified. Carlton, also out of a job, was spending her free time pickling summer vegetables and writing a food blog documenting her adventures in vegan cooking and eating. She answered the ad.

I ask if they really listen to metal when they're working nights together. "We actually listen to a lot of hip hop. Commercial stuff like Jay-Z," says Jones. On a busy night, BB produces 20 cases that get distributed to about 16 local shops and they're working on a contract with Angello's Organic Distributing which would mean 70-odd new locations for the little pickle company throughout the Northeast. That's big news for a new start-up.

But their most exciting project might be their idea to use local whiskey barrels for the actual pickling process, not just for show. They've been successful with a few batches of lacto-fermented cucumbers in Tuthilltown distillery barrels--because the aged charred oak's tannins react, they add grape leaves to the barrels to keep the cucumbers crisp, rather than the firming agents used by industrial pickle-makers.

There's a waiting list for the whiskey sours (Spuyten Duyvil has a case!) but the trio is still working out the logistics--lacto-fermented products aren't shelf stabilized, which means they company would have to commit to a refrigerated storage space and refrigerated transport to do it in bulk.

"It's a slow process," says Jones, "but we're figuring it out. We want to play around with local wine barrels next." Other plans include getting their own production space in the next year with a retail space and barrels up front where customers can buy a single pickle. "With Gus's on Orchard going under, there aren't a lot of places where you can get pickles from the actual producers," says Egnew.

Brooklyn Brine's pickles change constantly based on the season and availability. "The carrots are reminiscent of that West coast relish," says Carlton, "and they take a really long time to peel, cut, etc." The carrots are delicious, crunchy and spicy, very well balanced. When I get home I eat one after another with chopsticks, straight from the jar.

But it's the beets with the whole cloves of hot pink-tinged garlic that make me feel kind of squishy and nostalgic for the West coast. They're subtly flavored with fennel and tarragon and remind me of San Francisco (beets often do) and Highway 1 on the craggy coastline near my old apartment where every gap was filled with tough wild fennel.

"We get really nerdy about spices," says Carlton, "for reals." Though they're not heavy-handed. Curried pattypan squash is so delicately spiced that it's really all about the sweet little vegetables. Minted eggplant, gray and gelatinous like a jar of preserved of tongues, is more acidic than the others and might be my favorite. The baby eggplant is perfect with steamed rice and I plan to use it as a layer in a sandwich tomorrow, possibly with melted mozzarella and fresh basil. If it makes it through the night.