Fermented Food Fans: Meet The Folks From Cultured

by Sarah Henry on July 9, 2010 · 41 comments

in bay citizen,berkeley bites,civil eats,food businesses,urban farming,vegetables

Sour foods really appealed to Alex Hozven as she battled brutal pregnancy-induced nausea with her first son.

Nothing unusual there, right? Millions of women crave pickles to combat morning (or all-day) sickness. But Hozven’s obsession with fermented foods didn’t end once her baby was born.

Instead, she set out to master making naturally fermented foods (no vinegar, water, or heat) like sauerkraut, kim chee, and kombucha with a locavore sensibility and seasonal twist –  and built a thriving business that now supports a family of four.

Self-taught Hozven and her husband, Kevin Farley, run Cultured Pickle Shop, a small store in West Berkeley dedicated to preserving pickling traditions from around the globe, though the two profess to a particular fondness for Japanese methods.

For years the two peddled their pickled produce at farmers’ markets around the Bay Area, before settling on selling at two Berkeley farmers’ markets and setting up their mom-and-pop shop about four years ago.

The tiny store-front boasts a spiffy commercial kitchen — complete with a fermentation cave, where large steel tanks sit filled to the brim with pickling vegetables for, on average, about six to eight weeks. (Pickling, it turns out, is the ultimate slow food). The pair package their products and teach classes on canning and pickling here as well.

And we’re not talking plain ol’ dill pickles. Hozven’s specialty line includes innovative spins on familiar foods such as seaweed sauerkraut, kim chee with mustard greens and red spring onions, and carrot kombucha (a fermented drink prized for its active cultures, called probiotics, said to have a host of health benefits). Seasonal pickles include rhubarb with spring onions and oregano and beets with fennel. Cultured uses about 2,000 pounds of organic produce a week (mostly sourced from Riverdog Farm) for its raw products.

There is renewed interest in the Bay Area and beyond with old-fashioned food preservation techniques such as canning and pickling, as people turn to traditional methods of putting up produce at home. Cultured recently received a coveted nod from Food & Wine as a “best new shop for obsessive foodies,” kudos in the Berkeley Bites column from Revival chef Amy Murray, and is featured on a CHOW video, where you can watch Hozven wax wondrous about all manner of pickling matters.

The couple, both 39, live in South Berkeley with their two school-age sons. I spoke with the passionate picklers while they tended 5-gallon glass vats filled with jelly-fish like cultures and jarred mulit-colored krauts at the store.

What did you think when Alex announced she wanted to start a fermented food business?

Kevin: I thought she was crazy. But she did it. And then in 1997 she asked me to quit my job and join her, because she was so busy, and we haven’t stopped working since.

What’s good about owning a food company in this town?

Alex: We have a good audience who don’t balk at the idea of spending a large part of their income on food. The average price for our products is about $8.

And they have a good base level of knowledge about food. I’m not sure I could run such a specialized food business anywhere else in the country.

Are there challenges running a small business in Berkeley?

Alex: The city bureaucracy is time consuming, expensive, and not very small-business friendly.  It cost us hundreds of dollars and took eight weeks just to get a little sign in front of our store approved. But I never thought of setting up shop anywhere else. We live here and we love the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets.

Can you explain why you like selling fermented foods in particular?

Alex: I like telling people about how naturally fermented foods are their own food group, part of a time-honored tradition in many cultures, and they benefit digestion. They’re vibrant, alive, and they add that zing, zest, or, pow on the plate — they’re a great flavor addition to the diet.

How is it working with your spouse all day?

Alex: I love hanging out with Kevin. That part has always been easy. It’s not like we separate our personal life from our work life, it’s just one big life at this point. Ninety-nine percent of the time we get along great.

Kevin: I couldn’t imagine having totally separate lives, as other couples do. We’ve always just been together, we like learning things together, whether at home or at work. I sometimes wonder how other couples maintain their relationship, when they hardly spend any time in the same place.

Is there anything tricky about combining your personal and work life?

Alex: For that one percent of time when we’re not getting along…it can be trying.

Kevin: If we’ve had a fight it can be uncomfortable…a bit like a cold war…but it doesn’t last long.

You’ve been doing this gig for over a dozen years. Your thoughts on that?

Kevin: I’m super proud of us. We started a business, we’ve survived, we’ve been able to buy a house, open a store, and we make a product we feel really good about. And that’s all because of Alex.  I provide a set of muscles, a sound work ethic, and I’m good with the kids. Alex brings energy, an amazing palate that she’s honed over the years, and a great business sense to the table.

It’s definitely her business, if Alex were to decide tomorrow she didn’t want to continue with Cultured that would be it.

Alex: I work six days a week and spend 70 hours a week thinking about what I do. It’s just a huge part of who I am and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Cultured Pickle Shop: 800 Bancroft Way (entrance on Fifth Street), 540-5185 Store hours: 9 a.m.-4p.m. weekdays; all products available at Tuesday and Saturday Berkeley farmers’ markets. Cultured sauerkrauts also sold at local natural foods markets such as Whole Foods and Berkeley Bowl.

[Photo of the couple: Marian Acquistapace, Photo of cukes & shop sign: Courtesy of Cultured Pickle Shop]

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished by Civil Eats and The Bay Citizen.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra July 9, 2010 at 11:02 am

I love to hear about folks with passion who succeed outside of the norm. I will make a point of stopping in this Berkeley shop the next time I’m in the SF area.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..What’s that Powder on my Petunias

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Sarah Henry July 9, 2010 at 11:08 am

I think you need to start keeping a list, Alexandra, for when you come visit.

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Christine@Origami Mommy July 9, 2010 at 11:41 am

Oh yes – fermented vegetables are so good for you. I grew up on kimchi, and now in Japan pickles are a must with Japanese meals and my kids adore them. For awhile I was making my own rice bran pickles (nukazuke) but they require tending (you have to mix the vat of rice bran daily), which fell by the wayside for me when I had baby (after baby after baby)…Hopefully someday again! Now, if I lived near a fabulous store like this one, I would probably not feel a need to make my own with so many tempting pickle choices!

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Sarah Henry July 9, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Christine, I’m impressed with your pre-baby pickling projects! And you may be pleased to know that in addition to Nuka-Zuke (pickling in rice bran), the Cultured crew also practice Miso-Zuke (pickling in miso) and Kazu-Zuke (pickling in sake dregs). Come to think of it, you’d probably have a field day at their store.

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michelle July 9, 2010 at 11:42 am

I’ve been eating their krauts almost since they started up and never knew they had a store front!
When I’ve friends who talk about wanting to pickle anything, I buy them a couple of jars of Cultured’s yummies and tell them ‘try that’!

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Sarah Henry July 9, 2010 at 1:57 pm

and what do your friends say, pray tell? as for the store front, i didn’t realize it had been in the neighborhood for as long as it has. the cultured folks are such a presence at the farmers’ markets, which is where i think most people find their products.

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MarthaAndMe July 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I love the idea of naturally pickled products. Sounds like a great business!

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Sarah Henry July 9, 2010 at 1:58 pm

There’s a seemingly endless niche market for specialty food products these days, MarthaAndMe.

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Frugal Kiwi July 9, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Sounds delicious. I’ve been desperately craving pickles lately, an unusual thing for me. Then I looked into craving vinegar and found that naturopaths hold a vinegar craving as being linked to low magnesium- a problem that was just found in my bloods this week! Anyway, I’d love to try some of your kraut or kim chee.
Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Hide The Leftovers Apple Cake

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Sarah Henry July 9, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Wow, that’s fascinating Frugal Kiwi. As you know, the Cultured folks don’t use vinegar — so you wouldn’t have satisfied that particular craving with their kraut or kim chee — but I suspect you’d enjoy them nonetheless.

Speaking of cravings: I can still remember going to a baby shower and one of the young mums (this was in Oz) talking about her need to lick sandstone throughout her pregnancy. They really got to know her at the local quarry. I suspect some kind of mineral deficiency in that story, too. What say you?

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Frugal Kiwi July 9, 2010 at 2:28 pm

It is craving for sour things, not just vinegar, that signals magnesium deficiency. Not that I was clear about that. So the kim chee and kraut WOULD fit be bill!

There are lots of weird picas out there. Pica is eating non-food items, usually caused by cravings and often by pregnant women. Clay eating pica used to be common in the South, not sure if it still is.
Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Hide The Leftovers Apple Cake

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Kerry Dexter July 9, 2010 at 12:54 pm

sounds as though they both have good perspectives on the business, and their marriage. thanks for the inspiring interview.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..music and connection- celebrating summer

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Sarah Henry July 9, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I thought the exact same thing, Kerry, on both fronts.

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Ruth Pennebaker July 9, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Wow — what a fun and interesting story. Can’t wait for the pickle trend to make it to Austin.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Hopelessly Devoted and All That

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Sarah Henry July 9, 2010 at 1:59 pm

I’ll likely be in Austin next spring/summer. Shall I pack you some pickles, Ruth?

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Jennifer Margulis July 10, 2010 at 6:43 am

We have a local fermenter — a man named Coe who makes kraut and batch sells it — here in Ashland. I never ate kraut before but I’m a total convert now. I think fermented products are great!

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Sarah Henry July 10, 2010 at 9:01 am

Yet another reason why I need to take a trip to Ashland. Thanks for the tip, Jennifer.

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Alisa Bowman July 10, 2010 at 9:01 am

It’s probably because I’m such a cooking dolt, but how do you pickle something without vinegar? I never knew it was possible. Also, why is the sans vinegar approach superior? mostly curious.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..How to Accept Hardship

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Sarah Henry July 10, 2010 at 9:16 am

Good questions, Alisa, and you’re not a dolt. I asked the very same ones myself.

Answers in brief: With salt & for the added health benefits.

In detail: Most commercial pickle products rely on vinegar to quickly supply their trademark sour taste. And most such products are pasteurized in big ol’ processing plants, the heat likely destroying much of the produce’s nutritional value.

Naturally fermented, unpasteurized foods, like Cultured’s, are made from raw veggies that sit in a salty brine at cool room temps for a few to several weeks. This process encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria, which can aid digestion, among other things. The health claims for kombucha include relief from respiratory ailments, fatigue, insomnia, and a slew of other disorders. Anecdotally, friends who are fans swear by the stuff as a general immune-booster/health tonic.

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MyKidsEatSquid July 10, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Fascinating. So interesting that her pregnancy-induced nausea led to a great business idea. I have family members who can’t tolerate any vinegar, so this is something to think about.

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Sarah Henry July 10, 2010 at 10:34 pm

It’s true, MKES, sometimes opportunities come from unexpected situations.

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey July 12, 2010 at 10:39 am

Talk about a niche! Love it. My kids were just over and we were having a discussion on what makes a good pickle. Not all pickles are created equally. This shop sounds awesome and a fun visit.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..The 5-Question Literary Agent Interview- Anita Bartholomew

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Sounds like your kids would love this place, Meredith. One thing I learned from my field trip there: Not all pickles are created equally, that’s for sure.

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Sheryl July 12, 2010 at 6:01 pm

We love pickles…but you can’t find a decent one in all of Connecticut. Now, New York City, that’s another story. Thanks for this interesting take on fermenting foods. And now, I’m really craving a good half-sour pickle (done right).

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Sarah Henry July 12, 2010 at 7:46 pm

I wonder why Connecticut doesn’t cut it, pickle-wise? Any readers want to help Sheryl out? if you know of a good source for fermented foods in CT bring it on.

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Viki July 15, 2010 at 7:26 am

I too think it is wonderful that pregnancy-induced nausea led to her great business!

My daughter is pregnant right now and her doctor has forbidden anything not pasteurized — no goat or soft cheeses and these pickles would not be allowed, for sure.

As this is her first child and she is now on modified bed rest as well, she is trying to follow those instructions to the letter. She doesn’t argue or ask enough questions either as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, my kid is not a foodie like her mother. She also is reluctant to try new things because of her food allergy problems.

Me, I wish I lived close enough to shop at Cultured! I’ll have to check out the website to see if they’ll ship across the country.
Viki´s last [type] ..Its been Forever

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Sarah Henry July 15, 2010 at 8:26 am

Viki, Nice to see you here and thanks for chiming in. Do check out the pickle people’s website — I’m pretty sure they ship.

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Kris Bordessa July 20, 2010 at 9:37 pm

I’m really interested in adding more pickled foods to my diet. In particular I love kombucha – but I’m cheaper than the folks in Berkeley, I guess. It’s too expensive! I’d love to make my own if I could find a starter.
Kris Bordessa´s last [type] ..Monico’s Taqueria on Kauai

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Mary October 27, 2010 at 6:47 pm

I got hooked on homemade sauerkraut and pickles almost a year ago. It’s like an addiction, I like to eat some everyday! I started experiencing ringing in my ears after I started eating it and still don’t know if it’s related or a coincidence because I can’t go more than a day or two without eating some. I’ve been digging around to see if there might be some reason for the ringing in the ears and it seems there’s MSG that forms in any fermented food. I’ve never noticed that I’m particularly sensitive to MSG before. Has anyone experienced anything like this from eating these foods? I don’t want it to be true but I’d better face up to it if it is because ringing in the ears is a sign of toxicity.

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catbear August 18, 2011 at 9:14 am

So glad to see your post, Mary, albeit many months later. I’ve just made my first batch of kombucha at home and have been drinking several glasses each day. But for the last two days my ears have been ringing. I’ve been looking online for answers, and found your post here.
Could you give me an update? Have your ears stopped ringing or have you stopped eating the sauerkraut? I have never been sensitive to MSG either.
Thanks!

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Mary August 20, 2011 at 7:36 am

Well first off, I haven’t made or eaten sauerkraut since last Fall, probably around the time I posted my questions about the MSG. I still eat the pickles once in a while. At this point the ringing is much more mild–meaning it happens less frequently and is quieter when it does happen. I never found an answer to my question about the possible connection. I went to an ENT and had an audiology evaluation. The physician told me that when you begin to have hearing loss (I’m 46 and he said I’m beginning to have some genetic hearing loss) your brain compensates by making the ringing. It’s not an actual sound but rather an illusion created by our brains. I told him about the sauerkraut coincidence and he immediately disregarded the idea that there was any possible connection. I’m still not so sure. Thanks for posting your experience. I think it sounds like too much of a coincidence. Perhaps I should fix another batch and try it out to see if it happens again. I’ll send a reply to this to update with my results in a month or so.

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catbear August 21, 2011 at 6:08 am

Thanks for the update, Mary!

I kept on looking online that day and read somewhere else that a lack of vitamin B12 can cause ringing in the ears, so I took some and the ringing stopped. I also cut back on the kombucha just because I’m getting low and my next batch won’t be ready for about a week!

I do think physicians have been trained to disregard nutritional effects! Thanks so much for sharing your story with me. :)

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