Shared Sauerkraut Passion Powers Brothers-in Law's Business
Over a cold beer in a warm kitchen a couple of Cleveland brothers-in-law discovered they were both crazy about sauerkraut.
That’s how Cleveland Kraut got started a couple years ago. Now it’s on store shelves from Chicago to New York.
Luke Visnic is trying something different. “That’s salt, mustard seed, and caraway seed. We’re going to mix it in with our cabbage and also put some medallions of pickling cucumbers. And that’s an experiment that we’re working on right now.”
His business partner is his wife’s brother. “My name is Drew Anderson. I’m the President of Cleveland Kraut.”
The brothers-in-law confer on everything, including those cucumber medallions. “Tastes pretty good, says Drew.” I don’t think its thick enough, though,” says Luke. “They need to be thicker.”
Homemade kraut had been a shared hobby
Drew had been working as a banker, and Luke as an architect when they discovered their common passion.
“We were sitting around having a beer,” says Luke, “and we discovered that we were both making sauerkraut. It was a big kind of epiphany for us, like who makes sauerkraut in their 20's, fermenting some stinky food in their apartments? So we compared notes, compared recipes.”
Luke was the more experienced home fermenter. “I was making sauerkraut one head of cabbage at a time just to get back in touch with my ethnic roots. I’ve got German, Serbian, Croatian on my mom and my dad’s side.”
One taste of his brother-in-law’s kraut and Drew was sold. “A little mason jar that he had made, and it was just so much better than what you can get in the store. It was live, crunchy, vibrant kraut, and we were like, ‘Man this is so good!’ “So we started a little company as kind of a hobby, and now we’re here.”
Odiferous experiments in mom’s kitchen
They tried 20 different flavors when they started gearing up the business. “My mother had the best kitchen available to us,” says Drew, “and so we were in there chopping cabbage by hand and adding different ingredients, and trying to find what would be kind of our first ‘go to market’ recipes.”
Luke sought advice from the Bavarian side of the family. “I went and talked with my grandmother, and she was blown away, ‘Oh, you’re making sauerkraut! I did it this way.’”
One of the six flavors they settled on is an homage to Luke’s "Oma." “The classic caraway, our most traditional sauerkraut,” says Luke. “It’s got the caraway seed like hers.”
Other flavors are beet, roasted garlic, curry, a spicy blend they call Gnar Gnar, and a whiskey dill, made with a locally-distilled spirit.
“We took a little fresh garlic, a little fresh dill, a little Cleveland Whiskey, and then green cabbage and salt, and we ferment them all together. It gives it a real punch, and it gives it a subtle sweetness.”
They made up the name of their most popular flavor. GnarGnar is made with green cabbage, green peppers, leeks, garlic, sriracha hot sauce, jalapenos, and red pepper flakes. It packs quite a kick.
“While it was fermenting it was smelling just outrageous," Drew recalls, “and we were saying, ‘This is gnarly kraut. This is going to be so gnarly.’”
They keep finding new things to add to the kraut, usually from the same local farmers that provide their cabbage, peppers and carrots.
“We love working with people that we can shake their hand and really get to know,” says Luke. “We’ll be at a farmers’ market. We’ll see something really interesting like foraged ramps from a local farm, and we’ll buy a couple of bushels and we’ll come up with a ramp pesto and ferment it with the kraut.”
Old school process
What distinguishes their product most, though, from sauerkraut packaged in plastic, is that it’s raw, not pasteurized. They ferment the cabbage for up to 4 weeks to let it produce live bacteria and beneficial enzymes.
Then they put it in glass jars. “Other companies will use plastic,” says Drew. “The product stays fresher. It stays longer, and I think it tastes better out of glass.
"We jar it and then we put it in the refrigerator, and it stays in the refrigerator so it’s a refrigerated product. So that’s what keeps the shelf life. So we don’t need to heat it. That means when you eat it you’re getting all the good enzymes, all the good bacteria.”
It’s the old school way to ferment. The way of grandmothers and farmers.“They would chop it up, put some salt on it, put a big barrel, weigh it down," notes Drew, "and then you’d eat it over the winter time. And that’s your source of vitamin C. That’s your source of fiber. That’s where you get all your good vegetables over the winter until you start growing again in the spring.”
Cleveland Kraut is tiny compared to GLK Foods of Wisconsin, the world’s largest sauerkraut manufacturer. It’s been around for 100 years and processes 140,000 tons of cabbage annually.
“Competition. Hah! I laugh,” jokes Drew, but Luke says they both know they can’t beat the competition.
“We’re a small, little company, “says Luke. “You see our small space. It’s just 2,000 square feet. We’ve got two employees.
"And we’re making something that, at the end of the day, sitting down and saying, ‘This is something that we’ve created,’ is very rewarding, very fulfilling.”