by Thomas Santella
It’s 10 am in Gowanus, just off the R train, and I’m at a small factory filled with briny goodness. Crates of whiskey and copious amounts of vinegar stream in, spices are delivered from Queens, labels from Boston. Dylan Stice is busy packing jars into boxes and an amazing aroma fills the space. I step outside and run into the landlord of the building, who seems to be simply hanging out. In the distance, I see a rather surly looking bunch walking towards us. Mr. Landlord looks over and says, “Yep…here comes the rest of the pickle crew.”
From a small operation, which got its start out of the back of Brooklyn Label in Greenpoint in 2009, Brooklyn Brine Co. has certainly arrived. With a serious fan base and a significant presence in restaurants, food shops, and bars all over New York City, the company has emerged as a national artisanal brand. To put it mildly, these are some damn good pickles.
I sat down with owner and founder Shamus Jones to get the dilly on the dills…
So Shamus, how did you get interested in the pickling business?
Well, I’ve worked in the food and hospitality business for about fifteen years now, you know, all different levels of responsibility. All that experience taught me all of the techniques that I’m implementing now. And that’s also what got me interested in preserving. To be specific, I was living in Seattle for around seven years. I worked in a restaurant and I had a forager show up one day with a bunch of chanterelle mushrooms. It was the height of the season and he couldn’t do anything with them -couldn’t sell them fast enough – so we oil-poached them to preserve them. That really resonated with me because I love chanterelles and they have such a limited window once they’re picked. So the ability to capture and preserve the season, and enjoy the bounty of that over the course of the rest of the year really piqued my interest.
What kind of restaurants did you work at there?
I worked at two vegetarian restaurants, which definitely added to my interest in pickling. That’s where I cut my teeth preserving vegetables and fruit – we would constantly be picking things and incorporating them into dishes. So it’s more than just preserving something, it’s figuring out how that preserved item can be enjoyed – how to preserve it in a way that your palate can recognize it, but that adds all kinds of other flavors…As opposed to just a soggy pickle on the side of a hamburger.
And then what happened?
So I moved back to New York and starting taking jobs as an executive chef, around 2006-2007. The experience of working as a line cook, moving through the ranks of a kitchen, really gave me confidence and a knowledge of ingredients. I kept using those techniques of preserving ingredients that I’d learned and the limitless possibilities for preserving and pickling really got my inner food nerd going.
So what was the last placed in New York where you were an Executive Chef?
It was Blossom, on the Upper West Side; it’s a vegan vegetarian restaurant. I ended up leaving Blossom, took a couple jobs consulting and took a job opening up this place in Greenpoint. I was basically laid off from there, and that same day, within six hours, I went back to a place I’d consulted at [Brooklyn Label] and asked if I could use their kitchen overnight. I actually started pickling that night, so basically I started the company without any kind of business plan, just pickling from 10pm to 8am. The first thing I did was garlic scapes.
That’s cool that Brooklyn Label allowed you to use their Kitchen like that…
Yeah, I have an infinite amount of gratitude. I was developing menus for them and just developed a really strong rapport with the owner. When I came to him, he didn’t think the idea was bat-shit crazy. He just said, ”I like what you do, go ahead” It’s pretty amazing and humbling that this idea that just started on a whim has worked to the level that it has…It was just DIY…fight or flight, like, let’s just make this shit happen, you know?
So what were the first sales? How did you get the pickles out there?
First it was Urban Rustic, second account was Marlow & Daughters, third account was Bedford Cheese, and that was like…the trifecta! Those places are all institutions in Williamsburg, so it was a real launching point getting into those stores. The gentleman that owns Urban Rustic has a partner who owns the restaurant Lodge, and I consulted on their weekly vegetarian/vegan menu. It was a weird set-up because they had their own chef, so I was kind of coming into his kitchen and filling the vegetarian void. They’re very meat centric, talking about things like venison – “OK – how do we break down this animal?” And I’m over here like, cutting ramps… like… look how beautiful these are!
When I was writing that menu, I was going pretty pickle heavy – pickled plates, different composed plates of pickled items – The chef always made fun of me.
When did you move into the new building in Gowanus?
That happened in October. The build-out took a couple weeks, and we started working here in November. So I was at Brooklyn Label, working nights for ten months, then at Lamb & Jaffe, which is now closed. Lamb & Jaffe was dinner service only, so we worked from 7am to 4pm, for the 4-5 months we were there.
How many employees work at the factory now?
Five full time employees, not including myself, and two part time employees.
What’s your level of production?
We were doing at a max, 1,000 jars per day, but that was rough – worked too many 17-18 hours days consecutively, which is pretty intense. But 700 to 800 jars – that’s not a problem.
And my crew, they’re like magical pickle makers, really passionate about what they’re doing and about the company. Everyone legitimately cares and gives their all.
So how did you get into William Sonoma, Whole Foods, etc… how did you land such huge partnerships?
We dropped off a lot of samples in the beginning, but then people started approaching us – it just started spreading like wild fire. I think a large part of our growth was due to our participation in the 2009 Lower East Side Pickle Festival. Whole Foods was one of the sponsors. So one day, we get an email from Whole Foods saying “love what you’re doing, we want to carry your stuff,” and we’re like…holy shit…how does that happen!
A similar thing happened through a connection at Brooklyn Kitchen. There’s this huge annual event called the Fancy Food Fest, and they were asking for some local, smaller vendors. The Brooklyn Kitchen mentioned us, and lo and behold they contacted us. There were like fifteen vendors, and we just ended up having this great one-on-one with basically the people that are running Whole Foods. They were really enthusiastic about our pickles. So it started there, and now we’re in every one of their stores.
How did you prepare for that kind of fast growth?
There was a mountain of paperwork to do them. It took like three months to get through it all. They require certificates, and licenses, like “how much does your product weigh, what’s the shelf life, what are the ingredients?” It’s challenging when it’s your first time going through it. They initially placed an order for 29 stores out of the 300 total, and we had to really scramble to get that out.
We had to get special custom made shipping boxes, for UPS shipping. So part of the learning curve was like, we have to get these custom boxes made for our jars to fit them, and like, we have two sizes of pickle jars – how are we going to do this?
And there were physical limitations with our space, too. There comes a point when you just can’t warehouse everything. We had a lot to learn. So basically, we started with 29 stores and it was difficult, but whatever, two weeks later…they give us a nationwide order, which wasn’t supposed to come for six months. So they’re like “here you go,” make 22,000 jars in like, two and half weeks!
So I immediately started walking around Gawanus, looking for a warehouse. Next thing we knew, our box manufacturer was sending a twenty-seven foot trailer full of cardboard for the boxes. I don’t even know how we found it, but like three days after getting that purchase order, we ended up with a 1,000 square foot warehouse, eight blocks from where we’re at now. It was a real challenge getting the space we needed and getting the order out in time.
What does the competitive pickle landscape look like?
I like to think of it as a pickle camaraderie. I know a lot of people in the pickle making world that have been really helpful. I think there’s room for more. I think maybe more people making small batch pickles will translate into more people wanting small batch pickles.
What are the core Brooklyn Brine items?
We have five core pickles, three of those are cucumber-based, one is beet, and one is carrot. The Whiskey Pickle, which is cucumber-based, is selling ten-to-one over the others. People really connect with a cucumber pickle more than say, a lavender asparagus. But it’s really interesting to see those other items pick up steam, like the Chipotle Carrots are now a really good seller, and the beets do well in colder weather. And we’re about to do our garlic scape pickles for this year, which are always huge.
I’m also wondering how the logo developed?
My original partner is a tattoo artist and drew the design, just standard flash art, and holy shit, it’s like I hear so much from people, “I love the packaging,” and I’m always like, but what about the pickles!?
Where do you get your ingredients and other materials?
Well, the Whiskey Pickle one requires vinegar. We get our vinegar from New York State Vinegar. It comes in a 375 gallon box, which is like the size of a hot tub, and there’s this space bag inside which looks like a big bag of wine. That’s the most important thing to have.
We get our glassware in Brooklyn from this family-owned place that’s just treated us so right – they deliver every day, and we get the labels from a family-owned company in Boston.
We get produce locally during the four months that that’s possible in the tri-state area, and from outside of the region at other times, and we get our spices from a place in Queens.
When you can get the produce locally, when it’s in season, where does it come from?
We get a lot of our produce from Amy Hepworth of Hepworth Farms in Milton, NY. She’s also a big supplier of produce for the Park Slope Food Co-op. But we deal all kinds of different people depending on the time of the year. We get a lot of great produce from Lancaster, PA – from a group of organic Amish farmers, who take the money back to support their community, so those are pretty cool relationships.
We get our whiskey from Finger Lakes Distilling Company in central New York. That’s another great relationship – the owner is always coming down, dropping off whiskey and barrels and picking up pickles to sell in his tasting room. It’s been an amazing reciprocal relationship.
What spices do you use?
The spices in the Whiskey Pickle are caraway, coriander, mustard seed, black pepper corns, chili flakes, then there’s fresh dill, habanero peppers, and sea salt.
Once we have all the ingredients and packaging materials, we wash and cut the produce, sterilize and stuff the jars, add spices, pour the vinegar in, put it through a boiling water bath, let it cool, put the stickers on by hand, put them into boxes, up on the rack…it’s a very organized process…we go from step one to step two and on and on.
How long does it take for the pickles to brine fully?
Timing is more complicated for things like our barrel-aged sauerkraut. The sauerkraut goes through a fermentation process where you have a specific salt-to-water ratio which inhibits bad bacteria growth and promotes the good bacteria growth that creates the sourness. The sourness comes from lactic acid. We’re letting things like the sauerkraut age for a month or month and a half, depending on the temperature.
But with the acidified products, like the Whiskey Pickle, it’s a relatively quick process. The brine goes in, the jar is capped and it immediately goes into a hot water bath, which kills any dormant bacteria, but also creates the expansion force that seals the jar – you’re basically pasteurizing it. Theoretically you could eat it in four days, but that said, the longer you let it sit, the more infused the flavors will be.
So what’s the history of the Whiskey Pickle?
I don’t think there’s a single other company that makes a whiskey pickle, or a lavender asparagus, or anything we do. And that’s part of what we’re about. Honestly, I don’t know how the idea formed, but I just thought, “cucumbers, fermenting in whiskey barrels…hmmm”; so I just got barrels, and tried and was like, holy shit, that idea worked! The first time, they were a little mushy because it was like 95 degrees outside when I made them, but we ended up getting them right.
What makes a pickle crunchy?
Temperature is important. Having a consistently high-quality product obviously matters. If you start with a product that’s about to turn because of the heat, you’re going to get a shitty pickle. Another factor that’s interesting and completely nerdy is that the oak tannins from the whiskey barrel actually help reinforce the cellular walls of the pickle, adding crunch. That’s why a lot of old-school traditional methods of fermenting pickles involve grape leaves, cherry leaves, and horseradish leaves – all those tannin-rich leaves added to the salt water brine help keep the pickle crisp, without having to add some weird processed salt derivative that no one can pronounce. Apple cider vinegar, which we use in a lot of our products, also has a lot of tannins which keeps them crisp and adds a great flavor.
What’s going on with this new product, the Whiskey Barrel Sauerkraut?
The Whiskey Barrel Sauerkraut is based on green cabbage and savoy cabbage, and it’s next-level shit – I’m so stoked about it. We’re putting the cabbage in Finger Lakes whiskey barrels. We use the McKenzie Rye Whiskey and it’s got an amazing flavor.
Tell me more about the barrels.
The barrels have been used to age whiskey. The distillers can only use them once, so when they’re done with them they bring ‘em down here, and we put 400 pounds of cabbage in each barrel and let it ferment for a month. The barrels are the magic in this sauerkraut – it’s where all the unique flavors are from. It has this sweetness from the tannins and a really nice oaky wood flavor because the barrels are charred inside. With that char, you get this smoky depth with an after note of umami that brings together all the notes in the barrel. So it’s got this really pleasant front-end from the spices and preserves we use, then you get the sour flavor from the fermentation – the lactic acid, but then it finishes with the whiskey notes and all the magical flavors from the barrel.
Seriously, this is bringing the language of wine to pickles, no?
Exactly. There’s a real intention behind every jar. That’s fucking it. It’s the same intention I’d put into coming up with a restaurant dish or a menu. It’s thought out, tested, perfected, and replicated over and over and over again.
It’s highly creative. We always try to push the envelope. But I think all of the employees take pride in taking an approach like an old school butcher, or an old school pasta maker, where that repetition is there, but you are always fine tuning your craft.
It’s weird, you know, it’s a lot more than just stuffing pickles in a jar. I always think about an old Italian dude rolling gnocchi or something, fingers bent from doing that same process over and over for years, but making perfect gnocchi. I don’t know how much I thought about it when I started but now, you know, it’s like, I’m a pickle maker. I do it every day. That’s my job, and I’d better know exactly what I’m doing.
Was it a conscious decision to found and keep the business in Brooklyn?
So without trying to knock anyone else, what’s important for me is to actually keep it in Brooklyn. That’s why we named it Brooklyn Brine. I don’t know how to sum up what I feel…I’m very passionate about it. I’m a native New Yorker, but now there’s so much more of a connection. I have a facility in Brooklyn, and employees, and I source products here…It’s something I think I never fully understood the importance of as much as I do now. I really want that association with Brooklyn, or in a larger scale, New York City to be front-and-center because it’s important to me. We’re synonymous with this place.
Right, to be an important name, to have people grow up with the product and develop food memories, I think those are awesome goals to have…
Yeah, I think the coolest thing is our landlord lives above us. He’s got a ten year old son – I can’t imagine the stories he’s gonna tell, like…”I lived above a pickle factory.”
I’m sure running the business keeps you extremely busy but what are your non-pickling interests?
Well yeah, of course you can work nonstop but I do allocate time to other things. I have a lot of interests, I still play in a band, Psychic Limb. We do thirty second frenetic grind core. It’s the same shit I’ve been playing since I was sixteen. But I can never turn my brain off about this company – you’re always on call.
Finally, what’s in the future for Brooklyn Brine?
We’re going to have a physical location that’s not our factory that will be a next level odyssey into the potential of pickles and how they can be enjoyed….there’s something in the works.