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2017-06-01 / Features

Raise a Glass!

From a bumper crop of raspberries 30 years ago to nearly 60 products today, Tait Farm Foods has been serving up history - and deliciousness - since 1987.
Maggie Anderson | photos by Matt Fern


It began, as many good things do, with too many raspberries.

“It was the mid 1980s,” says Kim Tait. “We had 5 acres of pick-your-own raspberries. It was in July right around Arts Fest and it started raining, one of those weeks of rain in the summer. So people stayed away and we were faced with two choices: One, you let them all rot on the vine; or Two, you get busy and pick. So that's what we did.

“We picked thousands of pounds of raspberries, froze them thinking we would certainly find a market for frozen raspberries, and then we didn't find a market. An old family friend reminded David Tait of a crazy thing she had once made called raspberry shrub.”

To Central Pennsylvanians today, “shrub” has two meanings, but understanding the vinegar-based fruit concentrate has everything to do with the Taits.

“Here's the thing about it — in this country probably 98 percent of all beverage consumed is already premixed, as contrasted with Europe where they’re much more used to using syrups, so the learning curve [among customers] has been huge,” says Tait. “And it still is. ‘What's shrub? You put bushes in your bottles?’”

The recent rising interest in mixology and cocktails with locally sourced ingredients has given shrub a surge, says Karen Myford, marketing manager for Tait Farm. But it’s also the fact that Tait Farm shrubs are made much the same way they have been for 30 years — in small batches with all-natural ingredients.



BERRY TO BOTTLE

The production facility in downtown Boalsburg — just a block off Main Street — bustles with activity, rings with laughter, and smells like summer. Three of the six employees inside are engaged in raspberry shrub production, a relatively simple process that becomes slightly more demanding when you increase the scale to about 686 gallons a year — and that’s just the best-selling raspberry flavor. The total for all 15 varieties last year was 3,520 gallons.

“The process for making shrub starts with taking fresh fruit and infusing it in vinegar,” explains Tait.

“Most stay in these 55-gallon barrels about a month. The vinegar extracts the essential oils and fruit flavor, and then we take it off and we take the remaining pickled fruit over to the farm and compost it.

What remains here is the fruit vinegar, which is very acidic so it's very stable. When we're ready to make shrub we take the fruit vinegar into our heated kettles, we mix it with organic sugar, and we bring it up to pasteurization temperature. Then we run it through the gravity-fed bottler and we label them all by hand.”
It seems pretty simple, and when you’ve been doing it for three decades, it’s almost routine. Or it would be, if not for Tait’s constant innovation.

“Part of this is, you can never rest on your laurels. You can never not be coming up with something new because everyone wants raspberry shrub, but they also want to know what’s new.” That’s how, year by year, Tait Farm Foods has grown to include 15 varieties of shrub and a total of 58 products. That growth has led to ingredients sourced outside of the farm, like the newest shrub, peach, which was made with Harner Farm peaches — “dead ripe and delicious,” says Tait. The raspberry plants on Tait Farm succumbed to disease some years ago, but Tait sources domestically when possible and uses organic ingredients always. “We try really hard to have simplicity and integrity in the ingredients we use,” she says.

And they use a lot. All of the flavor — and color — in the shrubs comes from the fruit, so there is a high fruit-to-vinegar ratio. For the raspberry shrub, Tait says it’s about 7 parts fruit to 1 part vinegar.
The vinegar is white, distilled and non-GMO except in the ginger shrub, where apple cider vinegar doesn’t overpower the strong flavor.



ABOUT THE PROCESS

  • The shrub retails in 13-ounce and 25-ounce bottles.
  • Tait says she employs about 20 people between the production facility and the farm.
  • The fruit vinegar and sugar are heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The foil capsules on each bottle are shrink wrapped by hand.



HISTORY IN A GLASS

Though shrub has made it into the mainstream only recently — and the Taits were making it long before it was mainstream — the history of shrub is rooted in the history of America.

Long before shrub there was vinegar — Michael Dietsch posits it must be at least as old as wine, which is some 8,000 years old. In those days, vinegar served as a way to sterilize drinking water. Dietsch details shrub’s long journey from Turkey to Colonial America, where our story picks back up. In fact, shrub was an important part of that literal journey — sailors used shrub as a way to fend off scurvy, obtaining the needed vitamins via the preserved fruit vinegar.

And so shrub made the voyage to the New World. “Anyone who is a history food buff would say, ‘Oh, I've read about shrubs,’” says Tait. “Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the Shakers, Colonial Williamsburg cookery, all those people and places have recipes for shrub.”


But by the end of Prohibition, shrub, so often used for nonalcoholic beverages, largely disappeared. Dietsch notes that one community kept it alive — the Pennsylvania Dutch.

“As raspberry vinegar (later called raspberry shrub) became a common beverage in colonial America, the Pennsylvania Dutch happened to be among the colonials who adopted the drink… Once raspberry vinegar/shrub became part of their tradition, they kept it, alongside lemonade, birch beer and other foods.”

The family friend who reminded David Tait of shrub provided a recipe from a Pennsylvania Mennonite woman named Betty Groff, who had a Pennsylvania heritage foods book.

“David was crazy enough to try to resurrect that,” says Kim. “It was clearly an idea before its time, and it’s taken a lot of hard work to educate people as to what it is. People still don’t understand it but more and more do, and people will say, ‘Oh I had that drink when I was in Central Pennsylvania once!’”


SHRUB REVIVAL

In 2006, Eric Felten’s Wall Street Journal article “Barbecue’s Best July 4 Beverage” expounded on the little-known shrub’s ability to both quench a summer thirst and distill the flavor of the season. He provided a recipe for readers to make their own, but just as quickly advised against it. “Why bother when Pennsylvania’s Tait Farm makes luscious Shrub syrups in a variety of flavors, using their own fresh fruit vinegars?” Felten wrote.

In his book Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, first released in 2014 and now in its second edition, Michael Dietsch notes that Felten’s column was the “spark” for a reemergence of shrub. He writes: “Today, we’re in the midst of a shrub renaissance… Some of the credit has to go to Tait Farm Foods.”

“We’re an overnight success 30 years later,” says Kim. “We’ve been at it a really long time and have had to learn everything by doing.”

All of the other Tait Farm products locals have come to know and love spun off that first foray into shrub. “We would go to shows and say, ‘Here's a recipe for raspberry teriyaki or raspberry barbecue sauce,’ using the shrub, and people would say, ‘No, no, we don't want to make it — we want you to make it.’”

So they did. But shrubs have always been at the center of the Centre Hall business, even as it grew from one quirky product to nearly 60 unique items, from a home kitchen to the carefully regulated production facility, and from selling hand-labeled bottles locally to shipping their goods up and down the Eastern seaboard and as far west as California.

In Napa, Arthur Harturnian opened Napa Valley Distillery in 2009, and when he was looking to open a complementary tasting room a few years later, he found just two results from a Google search for “shrub.”

“I reached out to Tait Farm and I tasted it and their product is phenomenal,” he says.
Harturnian uses Tait Farm shrub in cocktails and mocktails, and he ships it to 2,200 people all over the country every quarter via their bar club shipments. “We have lots of admiration for everything that they make,” he says. “It’s healthy, it’s natural, it’s flavorful, it’s real.”
Kim takes such compliments to heart, using them as motivation for their continued dedication to quality and process. But to her, local Tait Farm shrub fans — including area chefs, bartenders and other businesses, with which she has built great partnerships — are what keep the heart of the business booming.
“I think this area with this evolving food culture and local food collaboration has been very well received with the shrub,” she says. “We've been around long enough that we're not a flash in the pan.” •SCM


TOAST TO TAIT

On June 17, join Kim Tait and other Tait Farm employees for a 30th Anniversary Shrub Celebration at the farm in Centre Hall. From 2 to 4 p.m., sample all 15 flavors, including a signature 30th anniversary cocktail created by local mixologist Rebecca Larsen. Tait Farm’s local partners, including Seven Mountains Wine Cellars, Otto’s Pub & Brewery and Barrel 21 Distillery & Dining, will offer samples of their collaborations. Plus, kids can get in on the fun with a shrub fizzy station.



1. Champagne Shrub
Pour 1 oz. Raspberry Shrub into glass and top with 4 oz. each champagne and ginger ale.
Courtesy City Tavern in Philadelphia

2. Milesburg Mule
Combine 2 oz. vodka, ½ oz. Ginger Shrub, ½ oz. fresh lime juice and 3 oz. ginger beer in a mug or rocks glass over ice. Garnish with a lime twist.
Courtesy Big Spring Spirits

3. Citrus Iced Tea
Add 1 oz. Lemon, Lime, Orange or Grapefruit Shrub (or a mix) to freshly brewed iced tea.

4. Peach Blossom
Pour 1 oz. Peach Shrub into a champagne flute or coupe. Add ½ oz. sparkling wine and top with 2 dashes of peach bitters. Garnish with a frozen raspberry.
Courtesy Kelly’s Steak & Seafood

5. Rhubarb Mojito
Squeeze 2 lime wedges into a shaker. Add ¾ oz. Rhubarb Shrub and 6 mint leaves; muddle. Add 2 oz. white rum and ice; shake well. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice. Garnish with a lime wedge and mint leaves. Courtesy Gigi’s Southern Table

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