Fermenting a New Future
A freshly shorn sheep’s fleece is strewn across a folding table in the living room. A few tufts of wool escape from a black garbage bag in the corner, but most of the fleece is mounded into large, pillowy piles on the table, and liberally littered with bits of hay. It’s a complete mess. And not at all what I expected to find on a visit to Sobremesa, the Marshfield-based fermentation company owned by Caitlin and Jason Elberson.
“I thought giving the sheep some hay before their hair cut would calm them down,” says Caitlin Elberson. “But they rolled around in it instead. Oops.” Hours of work painstakingly tweezing the hay from the fleece lie ahead of Caitlin, but her tone remains cheerful. To me, it looks like hours of torture. To her, it’s just another lesson she’s learned the hard way. “If it’s not a little difficult, or sometimes a little uncomfortable, I don’t want to do it,” says Caitlin. “Uncertainty doesn’t scare us away.”
That’s a good thing. Because while fermented foods are a hot new trend in the food industry—and the Elbersons run one of the best operations—the life they’ve chosen isn’t an easy one. And they aren’t exactly your typical Vermont farm family.
Half Dominican, Caitlin grew up in Queens, NY. She wears her hair in thick braids and almost never stops smiling. Jason, originally from Colorado, has cropped curly hair and a neatly trimmed beard. They met in a Spanish class at Villanova University and married soon after on October 10, 2010.
After graduation, they made Philadelphia home, where Jason worked as a mechanical engineer and Caitlin was the development director at a Waldorf school. When downsizing hit and Jason was let go, he humored a desire to spend more time outside. Farming for a summer sounded bucolic, so he took a position at the farm across the street from his former job. Amused with Jason’s newfound love of physical labor, Caitlin found herself visiting Jason at the farm before and after her nine-to-five. She, too, enjoyed the manual exertion more than expected. “Farming didn’t feel like work,” they both say, almost in unison.
The Elbersons packed a truck for Vermont less than a year later. They enrolled in the UVM Farmer Training Program, which caters to novice farmers and teaches the business skills required to live successfully off the land. From May to October, they weeded, sowed, and studied their way to certificates in sustainable farming.
After interning at Stony Pond Farm in Fairfield, Caitlin and Jason bought 7.5 acres in Marshfield in 2014 and named it Wild Rhythms Farm. Wanting to create a value-added product, they settled on fermentation—the process that uses bacteria or yeast to convert sugar into either ethanol, as in the case with wine and beer, or lactic acid, as in the case with vegetables, which creates the distinctive sour flavor. After reading Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation—considered the fermenting bible—they began crafting their own fermentation recipes.
Each ferment has its own blend of spice, crunch, and tang, depending on the length of fermentation, the time of harvest for the vegetable, and the hand delivering the spices. The flavors vary, but the experience of eating fermented foods is undeniably delightful. At first bite, a jolt of acidity and sourness vibrates from your tongue. Then, your shoulders rise, your eyes squint, and your mouth unconsciously puckers into a smile. The effect is visceral; no words are needed to describe how good they taste.
Though fermented foods are staples in many other cultures diets, the rise in popularity in the U.S. is more recent. In addition to preservation, fermentation undoubtedly adds a unique zing to foods, adding an undeniable complexity to any dish with which they’re paired. As a result, fragrant jars and bowls of fermented foods have been appearing on grocery shelves, at restaurants, and even in your favorite brew house, served alongside pulled-pork sandwiches or as an appetizer. But another reason for fermented foods’ sudden popularity is the natural production and proliferation of probiotics during the fermentation process. Probiotics are microorganisms that promote healthy activity in the gut. Though research about the extent of their benefits is still needed, it’s widely believed that probiotics aid with many aspects of digestion and may help with other autoimmune diseases.
“We wanted to figure out a way to add to the community while also creating something healthy,” says Caitlin. When you see the Sobremesa table at the farmers’ markets, you’ll find a wide variety of fermented delicacies, such as kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut, plus they make pickles, dilly beans, and several flavors of kraut. Currently, they offer Sol Kraut, Beeting Heart Kraut, Lemon Dill Garlic Kraut, Atlantic Brine Seaweed Kraut, Juniper Kraut, Kimchi and Gateway Kimchi—a tamer and vegan version of the spicy Korean staple. Their best-selling Fiesta Roja is a Latin American curtido, a fermented cabbage typically served alongside pupusas—and a nod to Caitlin’s Dominican heritage.
But what has truly elevated Sobremesa into a must-stop at the farmers’ market are the Elbersons’ brines. The mason jars full of salty, flavorful brine collected from the vegetables after they submit to the salt and bacteria used in the fermentation process. No water is added in this process, ever. So what you’re drinking—or using for salad dressings, marinades or killer cocktails—is a zesty, pleasantly acidic tonic that’s developed its own cult following. (Not bad, considering it’s a “waste” product from the Elbersons’ main gig.) Caitlin and Jason maintain that they’ll never put health claims on the label, but they know this probiotic-filled elixir is worth its weight in gold. Or at least, they feel it’s worth as much as a big bottle of multi-vitamins from Costco. “Our friends all wonder why we never get sick,” Caitlin says.
“I drink three bottles of brine a week,” Jason adds.
On days they’re not jubilant beacons at the Burlington or Stowe farmers’ markets, Caitlin and Jason tend to four lambs, three sheep, two kittens, a dog, and a plethora of ducks, guinea hens, and chickens, plus their 11-month-old son. Fending off predators like bobcats and skunks can be a full-time job in itself, they explain. In their garden, they attempt to grow new vegetables, such as a special pepper needed to make the homemade gochujang, the Korean hot-pepper paste they use in their kimchi. Last season, only three of these peppers germinated successfully, but Caitlin is undeterred.
Keeping a commercial-grade fermentation business bubbling takes some real estate; attached to the barn is a state-certified kitchen, where a pleasant but strong sour odor tickles your nostrils. Huge 55-gallon barrels of their kimchi and krauts line the walls, and the 62-degree temperature is a pleasant respite from the cold that has overtaken Vermont. The cheery walls of the kitchen emanate joy, much like Caitlin and Jason. “It’s so gray in Vermont that we wanted to paint this kitchen really bright,” Caitlin says. “I think the color is actually called Happy Yellow. You can’t walk in here without smiling.”
It’s true. A visit with Caitlin and Jason, drinking homemade nettle tea at their worn kitchen table, a dog at our feet by the woodstove, leaves me with a euphoric giddiness. Their enthusiasm is contagious. (Or maybe it was the half-bottle of brine I guzzled in the driveway.)