The Silver Whisks celebrate the best of local food in the Upper Midwest; only three are given out, for Best Chef, Best Purveyor, and Best New Restaurant.
Our list of nominees for the best purveyor showcases the particular culinary alchemy that can turn the usual into the artisan. The companies here demonstrate that items as simple as ice cream, beer, soda, and even sunflower oil can be lovingly turned into gourmet treats — proving, once again, that the Upper Midwest is a haven for inventive food and drink creators.
Over the past year in particular, the Twin Cities have nurtured numerous craft beer efforts, resulting in extensive beer lists all over town and fresh breweries popping up like Whac-A-Moles. These efforts were boosted by passage of the “Surly bill,” which made it legal for brewers to sell pints of their own beer to brewery visitors. Along with major expansion of homebrew store Northern Brewer, it all added up to the Year of Beer in these parts. A particularly notable entrant to the growing beer scene has been Harriet Brewing, which celebrated its first anniversary in January.
Although some might fret about the staying power of so many microbreweries, look for Harriet to stick around. Brewer and owner Jason Sowards seems to be a fan of the constant tweak, and it’s resulted in some dynamic, distinctive flavors that are tough to resist.
For example, the brewery’s limited edition Rauchfest was a German-style smoked lager brought out to celebrate Oktoberfest, and its ample toastiness balanced out a strong kick of malt. Other beers, like the Saison Nourrice and Wodan Weizen promise notes of banana, clove, citrus, and pepper. Sowards claims there’s even some hints of graham crackers and orange marmalade. With such complex tastes, who needs food?
When Harriet opened, it became the first non-brewpub brewery within the city limits of Minneapolis since 1975, when the Grain Belt Brewery closed. Nestled on Minnehaha Ave., close to Patrick’s Cabaret, the brewery is in continual innovation mode, Sowards notes, and that’s part of the fun.
“We’ve seen a growing move toward more complexity and variety when it comes to local beer,” says Sowards. “With that, there’s the demand to develop beers that are unique. That can be intimidating, but it’s also a great challenge that we love.”
Recent changes in tap room licensing have helped to foster smaller breweries, he adds, and as a result, beer drinkers are driving demand for more nuanced flavors. That’s what’s allowed Sowards to transition from brewing in his garage to whipping up beers that include notes of banana and feature labels that look like tarot cards.
Another component of Harriet’s staying power is the expansion of its taps; you can find Harriet at the usual beer-loving locations like Happy Gnome, Republic, and Pat’s Tap, but they’ve also found their way into the Hilton in Bloomington, Market Barbeque, and Lyon’s Pub. Kegs are available, too, at France 44, Zipp’s Liquors, and The Four Firkins.
The brewery will soon boast its own taproom, too: the city recently approved a measure that will allow Harriet to sell pints of beer at the brewery.
“Back in the day, thousands of people used to brew, it used to be a neighborhood thing,” says Sowards. “Then came Prohibition and bootleggers and anti-beer laws. But with what’s going on right now, with the change in laws and the huge interest in beer, we’re gravitating back toward that community model.”
That kind of local focus — not to mention the commitment to innovation — gave Harriet the edge over its many competitors in our Silver Whisk Awards. We can’t wait to see what Sowards whips up next.
Creativity in liquid form isn’t reserved solely for beer and cocktails, though. Witness the rise of Joia Soda, which is making its mark in a beverage category that’s quickly getting more and more competitive.
Like any good business creation story, Joia started as a casual conversation among friends. Co-founders Bob Safford and Steven Walker were talking about the surge in interesting local cocktails and began wondering why someone hadn’t thought to blend herbs, spices, and fruits in the same way for sodas. The challenge began.
Launching as Boundary Water Brands with another co-founder, Carleton Johnson, the small firm brought on bartender Dan Oskey, of Strip Club fame, and began testing dozens of recipes.
Some were amazing, says Johnson, but wouldn’t have been commercially viable to make. Eventually, after over a hundred blends, they dubbed themselves “Joia” as an expression of joy, and released four very distinct sodas.
Each flavor differs greatly from each other, and from anything else available. The one that comes closest to a mainstream taste is the pineapple, but even that has nutmeg. The others blend together hibiscus, clove, cardamom, and ginger with strong fruit flavors of lime, grapefruit, and blackberry. Although each must have its fans, one flavor isn’t trumping the others when it comes to sales, says Johnson.
“We’re very pleased and gratified that people love the product as much as they do,” he notes. “What we’re finding is that people like to try them all, they don’t stay with one over the other. I think that’s great.”
What’s next? Johnson wouldn’t divulge the flavors under development, except to say that one will be more “orange-based” and the other has more ginger involved. They’ll keep tweaking until they get more sodas that can be replicated commercially while still maintaining the distinctive creations that are already on the market. Limited shelf space at supermarkets for specialty items means we won’t be seeing Joia take over the soda aisle too much, but that’s fine with Johnson and his fellow founders. They like the idea of keeping the soda a gourmet product with a dedicated following.
“We just want to continue to create drinks that people enjoy, that’s the fun part,” he says. “Our flavors are so unique that they pique your interest, and that’s what we intended in the first place. So, that’s the path we’ll keep following.”
Of course, you don’t need to be a teetotaler to enjoy them, either. Joia’s website has some killer cocktail recipes that use the sodas. Check out Infidel Castro or Pimm’s My Ride for your next shindig.
Despite the recent food critic odes to doughnuts (the natural evolution from fawning over cupcakes), there’s another sweet treat that deserves plenty more adulation: craft ice cream. More specifically, all hail FrozBroz.
Their flavors aren’t the kind that will catch on with the mainstream, even with the funky blends seen with Ben & Jerry’s. But founders and friends Ben Solberg (above, left) and Erik Powers (above, right) aren’t in it for the shelf space — they’re all about staying local, building community, and coming out with the craziest flavors they can imagine.
“The most important element is that we’re not just making up flavors to see what they taste like,” says Solberg. “We strive to make sure that even it’s odd, the flavor and quality live up to our standards.”
As a classically trained chef, Powers brings the sharp execution that comes from training and experience, while Solberg is more of the “nothing is impossible” type. They may have started out as friendly competitors, but now each values the unique perspective of the other when it comes to brainstorming flavor ideas.
Powers notes that they prefer “chef-inspired flavors,” which includes the use of ingredients like bacon, corn bread, Cotija cheese, chicory, tomato, and in one spectacularly creative move, Ritz Crackers. But they also rock the more usual flavors like mint, caramel, pistachio, and gingerbread. Most often, it seems that they take a sweet, familiar taste and odd-ify it with something totally unexpected. For example, apple crisp with sharp cheddar, or burnt honey with creme fraiche and pepadew peppers.
The pair have been cooking together for about a decade, and often talked about starting a food business together. Three years ago, both got ice cream makers as gifts and they started making ice cream weekly, competing with each other as a result.
Last May, they started a blog and announced an ambitious plan: to create a new flavor every week, with two pints given away to a lucky reader. True to their belief that supporting local businesses makes for a stronger community, they source their ingredients as close to home as they can. Most are organic as well.
Just to make the whole process more challenging but more satisfying, they make the ice cream base from scratch. Many ice cream stores buy pre-pasteurized ice cream from another source and add ingredients, says Powers. Since the FrozBroz partners need to pasteurize the homemade base themselves, it makes it more complicated to get their creations to market.
That means it’s tough to find FrozBroz, but when you do, savor the experience. Or, depending on the week, savor a pint of Maple French Toast Apricot ice cream.
Smude’s Sunflower Oil
When farmer Tom Smude began looking for a drought-tolerant crop in 2008, he didn’t expect that less than five years later he’d be getting calls from distributors in Ukraine, asking for semi-loads full of his products. Such is the power of a really good, very tasty sunflower oil.
Originally, Smude began growing sunflowers for biodiesel, but then prices for that fuel fluctuated and he realized he’d be squeezed out as a small supplier. After a friend recommended growing food grade sunflowers for oil, Smude did some research and found that the resulting oil would be high in good fats. More importantly, it would be unique in the market, since he couldn’t find any other sunflower oil around Pierz, where his farm is located.
He and his wife Jenni went to the bank with a big, fresh idea, and they almost got shown the door. Smude says, “They thought we were crazy. If it hadn’t been for the reputation we have here, and the supportive community, we never would have been able to do it.”
Eventually, it took four different lenders to pool money for the half-million dollar oil pressing operation. Smude chose to do pressing because he didn’t want to use chemicals for the extraction, and the resulting oil is a buttery, delicious blend that has taken off faster than he and Jenni could have ever expected.
“If someone tries it, they love it and then they tell 10 people,” he says. At trade shows, which the pair attend frequently, they use the oil to make popcorn, and spend most of their time trying to convince people that they didn’t use any butter. The richness of the taste is a huge draw, and the high nutrient value of the oil doesn’t hurt either.
He adds, “It’s all happening really fast, and it’s scary in some ways, but fun in other ways.”
Ukraine, for example, wants three million bottles per month — from an operation that currently produces about 20,000 bottles per year. Every day, the farm gets dozens of phone calls from retailers who’ve gotten demands for the product from customers. Smude, who also works at his father’s John Deere dealership, raises 350 black Angus steers, and runs trucking, construction, and gravel companies, doesn’t exactly have the time to negotiate with international distributors. But he does anyway.
“I guess a really good product can speak for itself sometimes,” he says. “When I started this, my goal was just to have a little side business that allowed me to raise my cattle and slow down the pace of life. But when something takes off like this, what are you going to do?”
Tomorrow: Nominees for Best New Establishment.