Posted November 20, 2014 by Cooper Point Journal in Community

Fermenting Local Culture

OlyKraut Expands Reach Beyond the South Sound

By Cassie Johnson-Villalobos

Sash Sunday began sharing her small batches of homemade sauerkraut with friends in 2005. The former Evergreen student now manages the production of much larger batches of raw, fermented products and distributes from Seattle to Portland—as the founder and owner of the growing local business OlyKraut.

Since its founding in 2008, health, sustainability, and efficiency are both policy and practice at OlyKraut. Recent expansions of distribution into Seattle and Portland have increased the company’s staff to 16, while keeping delivery distance low in cost and fossil fuel consumption.

Sunday says she is excited about future prospects of distributing as far as Spokane, Wash., or Eugene, Ore.—anywhere “within a one-day drive.” “I would feel comfortable feeding the whole Pacific Northwest region,” she said.

Building relationships with local farms is central to the mission and operations of the business. Last year, the company bought and used 60,000 pounds of local, organic produce, including cabbage, ginger, kale, peppers, garlic, among many others. That number is projected to rise almost three fold, to 175,000 pounds, by 2016. “We are really focused on building the local regional food system,” said Sunday.

Sunday started experimenting with raw vegetable fermentation as a student of sustainable agriculture and microbiology at Evergreen. The hobby branched out from her work on Evergreen’s Organic Farm as a student in the Practice of Sustainable Agriculture (PSA) program.

“I was getting into farming, and I ended up with a lot of extra cabbage,” said Sunday. When asked to write a business plan for her final project in PSA, she imagined one that turned surplus vegetables into valuable food products using the vegetables’ own naturally-occurring microbes.

Raw, “wild” fermentation relies on salt, oxygen restriction, sanitary food handling, and water quality to maintain beneficial microbes.

Most commercially-fermented products, such as beer or yogurt, are processed with laboratory-isolated, industrially-produced yeasts and bacteria. And many foods that were fermented for centuries, like cheeses and sauerkraut, are now merely pickled or curdled to keep up with industrial production demands.

Additionally, most of these foods arrive at the supermarket devoid of beneficial microbes due to modern pasteurization processes. Raw, “wild” fermentation relies on salt, oxygen restriction, sanitary food handling, and water quality to maintain beneficial microbes.

Fermentation writer and speaker Sandor Katz gained notoriety for his “fermentation tours” in the early to mid-2000s. As Katz recounted in his April 2012 appearance on campus, he toured co-ops, farmers markets, and colleges all over the United States with samples of raw sauerkraut and his first book “Wild Fermentation.” During the 2005-2006 school year, Sunday saw Katz speak at Evergreen and got inspired to chop and brine some cabbage on her own.

Remembering that first batch, she said, “It was the first time I’d eaten raw sauerkraut. And I couldn’t stop eating it!” Now, she and her staff get to re-live OlyKraut’s inception every time a reluctant customer tries a sample and returns to buy a jar. This happens remarkably often at the OlyKraut table at various local farmers markets, said Sunday.

Sunday concluded her higher education path this spring with a Masters of Arts in Sustainable Systems at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. Once again, her program’s final project required students to develop business plans, but this time the plans had to be entered into competitions. As a result, OlyKraut won third place in September at the edge3Fund competition, a joint venture of Kitsap Bank and the Burke School of Business at the University of Washington.

Many business competitions only accept entries from businesses that are already in their start-up phase. Fortunately for OlyKraut, its business plan had been developing naturally for years. In 2008, the business’s four original founders established a Community Supported Agriculture collective focused on fermentation.

According to Sunday, her agriculture focus complimented her colleagues’ interest in the health and probiotics aspects of fermented foods. Colleagues Kai Tomen and Jeremy (no surname given) moved on eventually, leaving Sunday and nutritionist/herbalist Summer Bock to further develop the business. When Bock relocated to Portland, Sunday continued administrating OlyKraut’s growth.

Two other companies, Northwest Naturals and Herbaflora, currently share a 1930s cannery building with OlyKraut as a production space on Friendly Grove Road. Sharing the space limits the time each company can spend in working in the building each week. Even so, OlyKraut supplies three flavors of kraut and brine (Original, Spicy Garlic, and Eastern European) year-round while rotating a selection of six other flavors based on seasonal ingredient availability The newest seasonal flavor, Smokey Kale, was just released this fall.

OlyKraut remains open to interest and input from Evergreen students. Several students have already served as interns and helped to design new uses for and flavors for the company’s ferments. One past intern created a cookbook based on recipes she designed at home and then served to OlyKraut staff during the next day’s lunch break. The recipe book is still in-print and will be available as part of a gift basket the week before Christmas at OlyKraut’s Olympia Farmers Market stand.