Small Batch

Small Batch - Vegetal MattersOne of my favorite activities while traveling, near or far, is to visit places where food and drink are made. Or perhaps considering the fact that I work on a farm and cook immediately upon returning home, I just always want to be where consumables are made. But when not at work or home, I have to work a little harder for those experiences. Not much harder though, because makers are popping up everywhere you look, and visiting them has become a larger component of tourism and maker’s marketing strategy.

In MA the Brewer’s Guild put together a “Craft Brewers Passport” mapping out all the breweries to visit and prompting you to get your passport stamped at each one. Once you complete a section, or the whole thing, you can turn it in to the Guild in return for prizes. This is similar to vineyard tours in wine country, cheese trails, and food festivals of all kinds. The point is to experience where the product is made, meet the person doing it, and try the product (especially since it may not be widely distributed).

Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits, and the Return of Artisanal Foods by Suzanne Cope looks at this cultural phenomenon and offers her analysis of this shift back to small scale food production. She focuses on the four categories of food mentioned in the title, and goes out to meet small scales makers producing each of the items. Each section offers some historical background which frames how the industry got to the point it is today. Pickles have re-surged from renewed interest in local eating and preserving vegetables to eat out of season.  Cheese became a value added product for milk producers that helped small producers becomes more sustainable in the face of consolidated milk production. Chocolate making has a history sullied by slavery, which is slowly being righted with fair trade production. Prohibition changed our country’s relationship with alcohol in ways that are still felt today

There is a lot of discussion about what it means to be an “artisanal” maker. Artisanal is a word that has been greatly diluted by mass producers using it to describe anything they want perceived as small batch, which in turn is supposed to denote high quality. Every venture started out as a one or two person operation, but a few of the makers Cope met have experienced such success that they were greatly increasing staff and machinery to keep up with demand, seemingly on the cusp of no longer being artisanal or craft makers. Some were having to make hard decisions about sourcing, like moving from a local producer they knew to an organic producer further away. Jasper Hill Farm has a large cheese cellar that they lease space in to other makers, which includes small farms who want to age cheese but don’t have the resources, and very large producers like Cabot who want to make a product that tastes like it was made by a small producer.

The truth is that the smaller a venture is often the harder it is to be sustainable. While the story of a maker with all local sources is compelling, so many of us are used to a global economy that makes all things available at all times, which greatly challenges a pickle maker with one farm to supply produce in town who is at the whims of weather (and the many, many other challenges that affect farming).

When asked to define “artisanal,” one of the maker’s interviewed described it as when the person who handles the product also handles the money. Cope likes this definition best, and I agree it is the most accurate. But the reality is we all can’t be fed by producers with their hands on every aspect of a food’s production (unless way more people want to their day jobs to start with milking goats at 5am). While there will always be limits to producers who want to want to be connected to every part of their process, and downfalls to those who expand production beyond what they can do on their own. Cope argues that while many of these producers may end up reaching a wider audience and having to drop their artisanal title, their products grew from an authentic care for quality, which we shouldn’t necessarily disregard once scale increases.

The final chapter acknowledges that any study like this has a limited sample, and many people she wished to talk to were unavailable. I understand that travel is expensive and time consuming, so Cope couldn’t exactly criss-cross the country trying every pickle, cheese wheel, chocolate bar, and libation she could find (but…best road trip ever???). The makers discussed were primarily from New York (especially Brooklyn), Massachusetts, and Oregon, with a few others in Vermont, California, and Washington. That is almost exclusively liberal, coastal, densely populated areas. Is the high sample size in those areas because those are the communities that most support this type of production? What does the picture look like in the rest of our vast country?

A lot of the value added to these products is the time makers take interfacing directly with consumers to tell their stories. This experience is worth seeking out, for the fun of visiting new places, meeting people, and getting to consume delicious things. Cope provides excellent background and analysis on this quickly emerging trend. As someone in the same age range as most of these makers (20s-30s), who constantly seeks out these foods and stories, it was fascinating to read about the historical influences and societal mentality that brought about this love of artisans.


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