In a 1930s-era cannery northeast of Olympia, a group of seven workers have their eyes down and their hands busy shredding cabbage, chopping carrots and measuring spices. It’s production day at OlyKraut, a six-year-old company that makes sauerkraut and pickles.
The company, which produces seven different kraut varieties, recently won a coveted Good Food Award for its Curry Kraut and Sea Vegetable Kraut flavors. The award goes to food producers who excel in both taste and responsible production methods. Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. also won a Good Food Award for its Ethiopia Konga variety.
OlyKraut is owned by Sash Sunday, who started it with Summer Bock in 2008 (Bock subsequently left the company to pursue other ventures.) Three flavors (Original, Eastern European and Spicy Garlic) are produced year-round. Four others and the pickles are made seasonally.
Besides flavor and the organic produce that Sunday uses there is one other notable quality about OlyKraut – it’s alive. The product is delivered to stores full of living, probiotic organisms, otherwise known as “good” bacteria.
OlyKraut isn’t some food process gone horribly wrong. The live organisms are by design and one of the major reasons why customers purchase it.
Science is just now beginning to understand the many health benefits of probiotic food (see other story.)
“Probiotics are instrumental in helping us obtain certain nutrients from our food and for the normal function of our digestive and immune systems,” said Dr. Marvin Gentry, a University Place based naturopath. “No wonder we find commercially marketed probiotics in dairy products.”
Probiotics are also found in other fermented foods like tempeh, kombucha and kefir and that yogurt pushed by actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
OlyKraut’s varieties are inspired by a diversity of cultures.
“Every culture on the planet has a fermented vegetable built around the ingredients and flavors they have,” Sunday said.
At OlyKraut, production day starts with fresh, organically grown cabbage. After washing, coring and quartering, the cabbage is shredded.
Sunday, a native Olympian, gets her cabbage – as much as 1,500 pounds a week — from local farms during the Western Washington growing season. In the offseason she purchases it through an organic wholesaler in Oregon. In 2009, Sunday purchased 1,400 pounds of local produce. In 2013, she was up to 30,000 pounds.
On this day, employee Carley Mattern was working the shredding machine, adding salt and caraway to the mixture that will eventually become the Eastern European variety. Nearby, Fennec Oak and Sam Sylvestro were cutting carrots and onions. The onions were sending up a tear-inducing cloud of fumes.
“People who work here don’t need therapy,” Sunday observed.
Apples and a little grapefruit round out the ingredients in the Eastern European variety.
Sunday spent 10 years working for the United Parcel Service. During that time she took sustainable agriculture classes at The Evergreen State College. She had been a longtime gardener and paid attention to what she ate, she said, but hadn’t considered food production as a career. While at TESC she completed a project on kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish that is a staple of Korean culture.
It was cabbage farming and the kimchi that got Sunday interested in probiotic foods and her new career was born.
At OlyKraut headquarters, workers put the completed combination of ingredients into stainless steel wine fermenters and ceramic crocks. They then use a three-foot long wooden tamper to compact the ingredients. At no point is plastic used in the process.
“I’m paranoid about the leaching of organic compounds from the plastic. I feel like they haven’t figured it out yet,” Sunday said.
The containers are stored in a room that maintains a constant room temperature. On this day there were 30 containers ranging in size from 10 to 52 gallons.
Then, the anaerobic process begins. Naturally occurring lactobacilli (the same bacteria used to make cheese, kimchi and many other foods) begin to produce lactic acid. The acid, in turns, kills off any pathogens.
Once fermentation is complete – about six weeks – the kraut is moved to cold storage where a 35 degree temperature is maintained. Though it doesn’t need to be it’s kept refrigerated to preserve its flavor, Sunday said her products are good for about six to eight months after jarring.
All of the liquids in the jars of kraut come from the cabbage and other vegetables. So much excess brine is produced during fermentation that Sunday would just dispose of it when she first started making the kraut. Then she discovered she was pouring money down the drain.
The brine, which is full of the same probiotic organisms that the kraut has, is now sold separately and has become a money maker for Sunday along with the kraut. Customers use it in salad dressings, soup and even as a bloody Mary mix.
“I like to drink a shot after I go for a run,” Sunday said.
While the Good Food Award is a nice coup for Sunday, true success can be measured in her product’s popularity. At the end of 2009, she was selling her product in seven stores. Now, it’s in 60 stores from Bellingham to Portland.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541