WILMINGTON — Bethany Carpenter has been immersed in shrubs for a few months now. No, not bushes — rather one-of-a-kind drinking vinegars that have regained popularity over the last decade or so.
“It’s a vintage thing — definitely historic,” she described. “It has a past and I think that people generally are really intrigued and captivated by older beverages.”
Her new artisanal business, Pomona Shrub Company, launched Thanksgiving weekend at a holiday market.
Since emerging in 15th-century England as medicinal cordials, shrubs have become a popular mixer on the food and beverage scene in the 21st century. Made with fruits and vinegars, herbs and botanicals, Carpenter uses all-natural ingredients in her brand’s offerings.
“They’re a healthier alternative to soda,” she explained.
Thus far Pomona has two flavors: lemon-lime and blackberry-orange-ginger. Carpenter uses 100% natural lemon and lime juice, and muddles the berries, orange and ginger, which are added to different vinegars that pair best with the fruits. She uses red wine vinegar with the blackberry mash and rice vinegar with the lemon-lime.
“It has almost like a sweeter flavor to it,” Carpenter described of the latter.
She then adds cane sugar to the lemon-lime concoction. Like the vinegars, Carpenter switches varieties of sugar for each batch, depending on flavor profiles and how she wants the syrup to look.
“So with the cane sugar and lemon-lime, I can get a bright yellow shrub,” she explained. “But if I use turbinado sugar, it kind of comes to a deeper, almost orange color — essentially like a deep yellow.”
After the fruits are macerated and mixed with the vinegar — ¾ cup of vinegar, ¾ cup of sugar, a cup each of the fruits — the concoction sits for 14 days in an area that doesn’t reach above 50 degrees. Carpenter has to ensure the liquid measures to its correct pH, as certified by a lab at N.C. State.
“They walk you through it — how to safely make it,” she explained of her paperwork-filing process. “I have to measure the pH after I make it and then also before distributing it.”
Pomona has been permitted through the N.C. Department of Agriculture. Currently, Carpenter makes the mixer in an incubator kitchen in Burgaw, but she’s awaiting her home inspection, from where Pomona will be based. Part of what drew her to the business model, she said, was the fact she could work from home and the product wouldn’t need refrigeration.
In fact, it’s why shrubs were created in the early centuries: The vinegar preserved the fruits without the need for cold storage.
“That was such a green flag in a sense because it means I can take advantage of online sales, as opposed to, say, kombucha, which is a product that has to stay refrigerated,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter is well-versed in kombucha, too; it’s where her passion for fermentation began. She worked as the general manager of Panacea Brewing Company, the vegan restaurant and kombucha brewery, owned and operated by her aunt and uncle, Robin and Art Hill. She credits them for fueling her entrepreneurial spirit.
“I lack a traditional business education,” Carpenter said, instead relying on real-world training in finances, marketing and managing, as well as ingredient-sourcing.
“It was the nonstop learning opportunities at Panacea that made [Pomona] a true possibility,” she said. “That incredible chance to learn has been one of the most valuable parts of my origin story — one I will be forever grateful for.”
With $5,000 to upstart her enterprise, she obtained permits, went through lab testing, purchased Boston Round bottles, various ingredients, and hand-built a bar to welcome customers to taste samples when she sets up at markets. Carpenter sells 20-ounce bottles for $20 and 8 ounces for $10-$12. She suggests 1- or 2-ounces of the syrup to be added to 15 ounces of regular or bubbly water.
“The prices could change depending on the cost of ingredients,” she said. “My 16-ounce bottles are intended to make between, like, eight and 16 drinks.”
Glassware, specifically jars and bottles, has been in short supply because of the pandemic, which has her costs fluctuating as well — though Carpenter said so far things have worked out for her production needs. She’s not looking to do refills quite yet and is weighing long-term goals of the company: whether to open a storefront or tasting room versus sticking to retail and online sales.
This winter Carpenter will file paperwork to become a wholesale supplier, so she can sell her shrubs to local bars and restaurants. Upon doing market research about shrub companies, Carpenter found not many were located in the greater Cape Fear region. Yet, she found an uptick in businesses across the U.S. fueling the current craft cocktail movement, as well as non-alcoholic bar programs and interest in healthy consumerism overall.
“My recipes are really flexible,” she said. “They also work well as salad dressings and for other culinary needs.”
Modern-day shrubs even include savory flavors, utilizing ingredients like cucumbers, peppercorns, tomatoes and chiles.
Though she isn’t marketing her fruit beverages as cure-all elixirs, Carpenter does consider the natural aftereffects of ingredients a benefit. For instance, fresh ginger is known to help with digestion and arthritis. Though it doesn’t have flavor, Spirulina — a form of blue or green algae — can be used to add natural hues to the drinks.
“Also, it’s a great hormone regulator,” Carpenter said.
For the holidays, Carpenter is toying with a cranberry-thyme flavor and is already keeping a book of recipes for future batches. One ingredient sure to make an appearance: calendula.
“They’re flower petals, essentially, and have a sweet, grassy taste. One of my favorite fruits is pineapple, so I love blending pineapple and calendula together,” she said.
Carpenter will have the Pomona Shrub Co.’s mobile bar set up at a dozen markets across the state in December. Below are local ones upcoming in and around the Port City:
Dec. 4 — Carolina Beach Holiday Market, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Dec. 5 — Seaglass holiday Market, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Dec. 10 — Riverlights Holiday Market, 4 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Dec. 11 — Wilmington Farmers Market, 8 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Dec. 12 — Second Sunday Market at Seagate, 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Dec. 17 — Seaglass Holiday Market, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
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