Hosta Hill: Food with Culture January 26th, 2016

A behind-the-scenes look at a local fermented food favorite.

By Matthew Novik

Hosta+Hill0142-4

 

If you haven’t heard of Hosta Hill, then you’re not paying attention to our region’s local food movement. This little company with the tagline “food with culture” has won over local fans of fermented foods in recent years with their lacto-fermented vegetables and small-batch tempeh.

I am one of those fans. And I decided to take some time to visit with Hosta Hill’s Maddie Elling and Abe Hunrichs, the couple behind the kraut, who live and work on the Housatonic/West Stockbridge border just north of Great Barrington.

Hosta-Hill-1WEBAs soon as I got out of my car, I could smell the ferment. For those of us who love sauerkraut and consider kimchi a grocery staple, it’s a comforting smell—one that helps you feel grounded and warm. When I mentioned it to Abe, he gave me a weird look. He couldn’t smell it at all. And when I followed him inside the kitchen, I understood why. The whole room was engulfed in the fantastic smell of fermented food. Abe has spent a lot of time in there, and the slight waft in the yard was nothing to him. It was kimchi bottling day, and the whole production table was filled up with jars of my favorite fermented food. I couldn’t think of a better setting for our conversation.

In the Beginning
hosta-hill-3WEBMaddie is a local girl. In fact, she grew up within view of the commercial kitchen where Hosta Hill produces their products. Abe hails from California and came to the Berkshires for reasons other than the food business.

“I moved here because of Maddie,” he says with a smile. “I was here to meet my brother’s new baby, we met, and the rest is history.” It is a rare treat to meet young professionals who not only know what they want to do, but have the energy, wherewithal, and chutzpah to do it successfully—all in a loving and respectful partnership.

“From the start, we knew we wanted to be involved in agriculture,” Abe tells me as we walk up the hill behind the house. He feeds some grain to their goat, Eadie (named because she loves to eat). “We tried a little of everything,” he continues. “We farmed vegetables and grains, we raised animals, and we canned, cooked, and fermented.”

It was all in an attempt to find a way to be involved in local food, support themselves, and create a comfortable home. “We were sort of heading in the direction of homesteading,” he explains. “Then we realized that there was this opportunity to build a business and share this wonderful food with our neighbors.”

Hosta Hill got its beginnings when Maddie and Abe were working for another noted local fermented food company.

“We were working with Ira at Berkshire Blue Cheese, and he got invited to a market in Norfolk, CT,” says Maddie. “He didn’t want to do a market every weekend, and we were hot to trot to try anything. So we started buying the cheese from him and reselling it.”

After a few weeks of this, they noticed that nobody was selling fermented foods at the market.
“We were already making them for ourselves,” says Maddie. “So we started making more, and people loved them. Soon we expanded to another market in Northampton and then West Stockbridge, and the enthusiasm just kept growing.”

The success at market proved to Maddie and Abe that there was some potential in the fermentation part of their agricultural adventures. They soon settled on the idea of a fermented vegetable business. They named it Hosta Hill after the name Maddie’s parents coined for her childhood home, and they began selling at local markets.

The Hill Gets Bigger
Two years ago, the business had gotten so successful that it was time to invest in more growth. “We had been using several different commercial kitchen spaces to produce the product, and it was getting old,” says Abe. They had grown tired of the extra time it took to change locations and the uncertainty of not knowing where their next batch would be produced. They needed a commercial kitchen of their own.

To help raise money, they posted a campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. They raised over $14,000 with that campaign. While that was far from the whole budget, it did help them motivate to get the project done. “The community support was amazing and energizing,” says Maddie. “Without that motivation, we couldn’t be where we are now.”

It’s the determination they showed with the kitchen campaign that really caught my eye. With that expansion, they went from a small business at a farmers market to one that sells large quantities to the local food leader we see today. Today’s Hosta Hill sells literally thousands of pounds of product. They produce several types of kimchi and sauerkraut, along with some seasonal specials that are incredibly popular.

HostaHill-tempehAnd Then There’s the Tempeh
Last year, the Co-op was thrilled to add Hosta Hill’s locally produced tempeh to the mix.

“Our process for making tempeh is a little different than most store-bought brands,” says Abe. “For one thing, we use a spore called R. oryzae. We prefer it because it ferments slower and more steadily, and it makes a delicious, nutty tempeh. The other brands use R. oligosporus, which can be used on an array of beans and grains. But it ferments quicker and can lend a quickly ripe, pungent odor and flavor.”

Maddie and Abe also don’t pasteurize their tempeh, which is a marked difference commonly found in tempeh. That’s why you’ll find their product in the freezer instead of the fridge.

“Pasteurization increases shelf life,” explains Abe . But it has an effect on flavor and quality. We prefer to thaw what we need and eat a high-quality, delicious food.”

The energy to grow the business and create efficiency continues. For their next project, Abe and his brother, Ben Norrichs, are building a multi-air-aspirator that will be used to separate the hulls from the beans through a dry process. Currently, they float the hulls through water, which takes longer and can only be done in smaller batches.

The Product Line Expands
As I write this piece, Aime, our grocery manager, is at the store raving about Hosta Hill’s newest addition to their line: veggie juices. They are made from pure, fermented vegetable juice with no added water.

“If you’re not eating ferments every day like you should,” says Maddie with a grin, “then the juices are a hassle-free way to get all the same nutritional benefits in one delicious shot.”

Quality Is Still Key
If the concentration on growth makes you wonder if Hosta Hill will ever get too big, then you need not worry. “We don’t want to be huge,” Maddie says. “We just want to live a comfortable life and support ourselves.”

In fact, Maddie and Abe are so focused on local food, that the idea of selling outside the region just doesn’t make sense. “We get calls from places out west all the time asking where they can get our products out there,” says Maddie. “I just tell them that we are a local northeast company and recommend fermenters in their area who I know and trust.”

No matter how much they grow, one thing will remain the same at Hosta Hill: They grow their own crops and source other ingredients from local farms as much as possible. “It’s an off-the-top-of-my-head estimate,” says Abe, “but I’d say about 70% of total ingredients are sourced locally. And when we can’t get it locally, our ingredients are always certified organic.”

This year, they are doubling down on growing their own ingredients. They’ve started working a field a couple of miles down the road to grow cabbage, carrots, garlic, radishes, onions, and peppers. In another location nearby, they are working with fellow farmer Sean Stanton to grow grain and soybeans.

“The land has been used primarily for hay over the years, and Sean wanted to do something to replenish the soil,” says Abe. “By growing crops that will feed the soil and help us produce our products, everybody wins. Currently, there are no local sources for the soybeans we need to make tempeh. This project could be the beginning of fulfilling that opportunity.”

Berkshire Fermentation Festival
What’s the point of doing all this work if you can’t have a little fun? On October 17, Maddie and Abe intend on doing just that as they will be co-hosting the Berkshire Fermentation Festival at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. The festival will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

There will be cultured food vendors offering samples and selling their products, workshops, DIY demos, lectures, music, and more! This is a free, family-friendly event, and we hope that people will spend the day tasting, learning, and supporting local businesses.

“People don’t really think of all the different kinds of fermented foods there are,” says Maddie excitedly. “We’ll have beer, cheese, and all sorts of other cultured goodies. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

No matter how much they grow or how hard they work, Maddie and Abe are still having a lot of fun making their food. And I hope they know that we are all having a lot of fun eating it.

 

This article originally appeared in the Co-op’s Fall 2015 Newsletter