Artisan food for mass consumption

Should we still call it "artisan"?

Brian Ellison, founder of Wisconsin's Death's Door Spirits, is often asked how he decided to work with Washington Island farmers. When he launched his company, there weren't any. "Farming had died off in the 1970s," Ellison says. "Then in 2005, I found two brothers willing to grow five acres of wheat."

According to the original business plan, Ellison would use the wheat's flour to make fancy artisan breads for bed-and-breakfasts in Door County. But he quickly realized there wasn't any money in baked goods. "Frankly, a salesman doesn't go home and say, 'I crushed it this week, let's get the good flour.'" In 2007, Ellison started distilling, and "the success was immediate." Death's Door's current annual production is 250,000 cases of vodka, gin, and whiskey, making Ellison the odd artisan who's become too big to outsource. After years of distilling in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the company this month opened Wisconsin's biggest craft distillery.

"From the beginning, my belief was we could find partners for everything," Ellison says. "It got to the point where we were growing so fast, the feeling was either we have to accept the fact that we don't get the same quality every time or build a distillery."

The Herkner sisters are bringing an old family recipe to a wide audience
Erin Groom
The Herkner sisters are bringing an old family recipe to a wide audience
April McGreger makes her Farmer's Daughter krauts, tomato pickles, and more in her home kitchen
Courtesy of News and Observer. Cody Jackson
April McGreger makes her Farmer's Daughter krauts, tomato pickles, and more in her home kitchen

The growth has reconstructed Washington Island. The five-acre stand of hard red winter wheat that a pair of farming brothers first planted for Death's Door has grown to 1,200 acres of organic wheat planted across the island.

"The best way to keep people farming their land is to have them farm it," says Ellison, who pays three times the going rate for wheat, chalking up the added expense as a marketing cost. "You don't need land trusts."

"Michigan's heritage was built on building cars, and we recognized we had to rethink ourselves as a state," says Matt Birbeck. "We've climbed on board with agriculture. Culturally, we've changed to understand value-added is sexy."

Birbeck moved to Michigan from California, where he says artisans are "more focused on cosmetics. Here, we focus on ingredients. When you talk about 'artisan' in San Francisco, they're talking about craft, whereas here it's taste."

In addition to the Herkners' cherry topping, Birbeck has helped develop and market whitefish filets, cheeses, and venison sausages. Since 2004, MSU's Product Center claims it has officially launched 229 food businesses, creating 917 jobs statewide. Funded by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station and Michigan State University Extension, it offers growers and home cooks a menu of services, including market research, label design, and financial planning. Last year, more than 250 entrepreneurs signed up. The center has been so successful that this week it's hosting the National Value Added Conference in Traverse City, near the orchards where the Herkners' cherries grow.

"If you are a person who has a recipe in your back pocket and $5 in your other pocket, you can come to us," Birbeck says. "I think every state has a program like this, but Michigan is really pushing it because it's an area it can do very well."

Doing well for Birbeck is measured in dollars, so he's cut deals with Kroger and Meijer to dedicate shelf space to Michigan artisans. He has little patience for the quaint and quirky. "When we can help a farmer, when we can help people who have lost their jobs, that's what I do," he says.

Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods also works with corporations: Woodford Reserve, owned by liquor giant Brown-Forman, last year hired the Louisville soy-sauce maker to develop a sorghum vinaigrette salad dressing with its bourbon. Jamie recognizes that the partnership qualifies him for sellout status in certain artisanal circles. "I want to make a lot of money," he says. "I don't think there's a problem with me remaining an artisan. When a company like Brown-Forman approaches you, it opens doors." Jamie clarifies he didn't have to sacrifice quality for the contract: "I was approached by QVC, and the guy was like, 'We'll make this in China,' and I was like, 'You could, but you can't put my name on it.' These products are my babies. We're selling a super-premium product. I embrace that."

Since Jamie doesn't grow the sorghum he uses for his salad dressings and syrups, he's not welcome at his local farmers' market. "They don't want anything to do with me. I'm like no, I'm not growing sorghum, but I buy from one guy. It's a single crop and he doesn't have time to come out here and sell."

"I'm not always over the kettle," he continues. "I'm 50 percent food artisan and 50 percent entrepreneur, maybe even 60/40. I don't grow sorghum. I don't have a spring on my property. But I make something artfully."

Although sorghum once was the region's dominant sweetener, it's now largely forgotten outside isolated pockets of the mountain South. Jamie says wedding sorghum to artisan techniques and promotional strategies has helped create new markets for sorghum farmers, who are now forming a trade group. "The sorghum farmers I buy from would never see an end product," he says, referring to the more than 75 percent of U.S. sorghum that's used for ethanol and livestock feed. "So when they saw my product at Williams-Sonoma, they took a picture with it. They saw it on a menu and brought the chef out, they were so proud of what they did. I'm very proud."

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