A tasty nut is a fuel for all things. Like a loyal pet, this small but satisfying portion of protein tucks neatly into our pockets while we adventure outdoors, stays piled at our elbow while we work, and provides a natural complement — and ballast — to our beer while we relax. Lately, our nut of choice has been Barsy’s Almonds “Smokies,” a combination of soy sauce, hickory, and brewers yeast on a roasted almond so addictive that, although we buy them in bulk, they have to be hidden around the house in small quantities so that certain people do not consume the entirety in one sitting.
Barsy’s Almonds are produced by Minneapolis locals Barbara Spenader and Jason Hendrycks. Like many a small-batch food project, Smokies were originally created to be given out as Christmas gifts. “I found a recipe for smoked almonds,” says Spenader, “and I thought, ‘Well, I can do that — and do it better.’ So I started tinkering. The Smokies recipe doesn’t bear any relation to the original, but that was what made me want to see if I could do it.”
Needless to say, friends and relatives went nuts for the savory holiday treat. At that time, Spenader and Hendrycks, good friends as well as business partners, were both working in the creative department of a mail order company. They spent their lunch breaks walking around the neighborhood, talking about how great it would be to start their own company. When people started telling them to sell the nuts, they took it as a sign.
In 2008, they introduced Smokies at the Midtown Farmers Market, where they were warmly received. Soon, the kind people of Corcoran neighborhood were offering up suggestions for new flavors. “They’d say, ‘How about something with cinnamon?’ and we’d try to come up with something familiar, but a little more exotic,” says Spenader.
Recipe development at Barsy’s is a slow and painstaking process, sometimes months of trial and error. Neither Spenader nor Hendryks have any professional cooking experience to draw upon, almonds can be a challenging medium — and then there are the parameters they’ve set for themselves: “We never add preservatives or fats,” Spenader says, “we cook them lighter than you’d find in something at the drugstore, and they have to be dry enough to store, but we also have to find ways to keep the ingredients on because we don’t have fat to deliver that flavor.”
So far, in addition to the Smokies, they’ve successfully created two more savories — Hotties and Stuffies — and a couple of sweets aptly named Sweeties and Naughties. The team is currently working on a cumin and garlic almond and something Spenader calls the “double almond,” an intense combination of vanilla and almond flavors. And there’s a honey mustard project that has them both completely stymied: “It’s so easy for it to turn bitter — we can’t seem to stop it from tasting like a like a vitamin capsule came open, which is not the effect we’re looking for!” Spenader says. “The stuff you buy in the store is made with a creepy powder. We don’t want to do that — we want to use real mustard and horseradish.”
Spenader and Hendryks are experimenting with other nut varieties that can be grown locally. Sunflower seeds are easy to source from Minnesota or the Dakotas, but roast so quickly they present a whole new set of challenges. “We’re also looking at hazelnuts,” says Spenader, “but the hazelnut industry is just beginning here. We would need for it to mature to the point where we could get consistent availability and size. But we’re watching it closely — I think we’re going to plant hazelnuts in the yard and see how it goes.”
In the meantime, there are the existing five flavors, which are a fine snack on their own or paired with beer, hard cider, and root beer, as we have done here.
Hotties taste of really good barbecue, spicy hot with plenty of smoke, a flash of vinegar, and a lingering sweetness. We like a handful with the fresh, lightly sweet, and peppery Saison Nourrice from Harriet Brewing — though the two do seem to bring out the hot in one another. If you prefer to downplay the spice, you might like the Crispin Cider Lansdowne, which smooths down the heat with mellow fruit and a subtle sweetness that reminds us of graham crackers (in a good way).
Naughties combine a dusting of chocolate and cinnamon with the zing of cayenne pepper, just the thing for a late afternoon snack. They make a brilliant couple with Brau Brothers Moo Joos, a dreamy oatmeal milk stout. The almond rounds out the beer’s chocolate and coffee flavors and smooths over the bittersweet notes.
The salt, yeast, and smoke of these almonds pair well with many a fermented beer, but we like it best with sweet, smooth root beer. We recently had the opportunity to try Smokies with Dorothy’s Isle of Pines Root Beer — famous for having been boiled in her giant kettle and served to folks paddling past her cabin in the Boundary Waters throughout the middle of the last century — which has a pleasantly unexceptional flavor and goes down easy on account of low carbonation. One day, we will decant the root beer, take it and the Smokies in our canoe, and relive the magic.
If you do not favor smoke, Stuffies may be the savory choice for you. They combine sage and onion, a flavor that goes quite nicely with sweet Schell’s Maifest , which tastes fruity — sometimes citrus, sometimes banana. If that is out of season, try Rush River Small Axe Golden Ale. It smells a bit like grass and has a light, crisp flavor that only enhances Stuffies’ herby charm. This is the stuff of summer.
If it were a good idea to drink beer in the morning, we would combine a Surly Coffee Bender with Sweeties. These almonds are coated in East Indian spices, so that they taste like creamy chai-spiced tea and black pepper. In tandem with the smooth, cold-press coffee flavors of the Bender, they are pretty much heaven.
Buying notes: Barsy’s Almonds are no longer available at Twin Cities farmers markets, but you can find them at many of the local co-ops and grocery stores — and, if traveling, in 10 other states. Prices vary ($3-$4 per 4oz).