BY STEVE HOLT
PHOTOS BY JOSEPH FERRARO
Savory steam emanates from a 75-gallon kettle at Commonwealth Kitchen in Dorchester. Inside, roasted beef bones have been mingling in simmering water with leeks, carrots and a variety of herbs—all locally sourced—for the past five hours. The concoction will boil another seven hours before it’s strained and bottled.
What is this tantalizing witch’s brew? It’s a complex beef broth, conceived and bottled by John Hopkins, under the brand Five Way Foods. Hopkins, a resident of Newton, also makes and sells fresh chicken, vegetable and fish broths. And while it certainly wins no awards for its culinary sex appeal, the line of broths conceived by the former technology executive is building quite a following around New England.
Since Hopkins set up a single table at a farmers market in 2016, his broths now occupy shelf space at more than two dozen markets and supermarkets in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Hopkins has sold 1,450 bottles of the stuff in just a year.
In broth, Hopkins has found a niche market that also taps into a currently popular culinary trend: bone broth as a beverage. Championed by Paleo types as an ancient health food, bone broth reemerged a few years back as a sizzling hot, if not strange, craze. Advocates touted its powers to strengthen achy joints, cure a “leaky gut,” detox the liver and even make us look younger. Hopkins first noticed it in a big way while on a West Coast business trip, where San Franciscans were guzzling warm broth like craft beer. As a home chef, Hopkins had been scratch-making broth for his dishes for years, but the sudden big moment bone broth was having gave the cybersecurity director a business idea.
But true to his profession of more than a quarter-century, Hopkins initially approached his budding venture “as a tech project.” Producing the broths in a 5-gallon pot at Kitchen Local in Amesbury, Hopkins’ objective, at first, was to gather data on whether shoppers would buy his broth, repurchase it, and then evangelize to their friends. His laboratory for this “beta test” was the Brookline Winter Farmers Market, where Hopkins brought 25 bottles of chicken and vegetable broth that first Sunday.
He sold them all. He’d do it again the next week.
“Every time I’ve stepped up production, the demand has been there,” says Hopkins, who quit his tech job in May 2016 to focus on Five Way Foods. “The product has exploded, really.”
Broth is hardly a recent invention, however. Some of our earliest ancestors were likely eating hot, meaty bone broths around campfires millennia ago. These hunter-gatherers wouldn’t think of throwing away the bones of an animal they’d just consumed. Once they’d invented the cooking pot, the addition of some tubers and wild herbs to a boiling broth could satisfy a whole family.
Many of our grandmothers, children of Depression-era bootstrappers, would throw the used chicken carcass or hambone back in the pot to make the week’s soups and stocks.
Despite its longevity as a food, most of what passes for broth or stock in supermarkets, Hopkins tells me, isn’t broth at all. It’s flavored water, basically, full of salt and extracts and surprisingly little of the things we think we’re getting—like the meat. But real broth, he says, is a core building block of most dishes and a natural healer—which is why celebrity adherents from Gwyneth Paltrow to Kobe Bryant drink the stuff to strengthen their immune systems, beautify their skin and cleanse their guts. For home cooks, Hopkins adds that carefully sourcing all of a meal’s ingredients except the broth just doesn’t add up.
“If you go off and you’ve bought a great cut of meat or local vegetables, maybe from the farmers market, and then you pour in that carton or can from the supermarket, you’ve defeated the purpose of all that effort you put into it,” he says.
Hopkins crafts Five Way Foods’ broths “for taste and health,” leaving out all the extra preservatives or additives. He sources his grass-fed beef and chicken bones from Walden Local Meat in Burlington. For his fish broth, Hopkins went to Red’s Best, which donates fish frames that would typically be composted but still provide those coveted omega-3s and natural iodine. Local, seasonal vegetables and herbs are sourced from Sid Wainer & Son. Hopkins and one worker do all the chopping, roasting, boiling and packing out of Commonwealth Kitchen in Dorchester, where he’s been based since last May.
The magic his broths create in a dish at home—or by themselves as a drink—justify the hours it takes Hopkins to make one batch and the slightly higher price point for the consumer. Hopkins says he envisioned five ways his product could be used—drunk as a beverage, hot or cold; in a stir-fry; to make a sauce; for soup or stew; and as the base of a risotto—hence the name he gave his company. But he’s been pleasantly surprised to learn that his customers are finding a variety of other ways to use the broths, including mixing them into smoothies or warmed up with some dried seaweed. One customer even used the fish broth in place of sodium-heavy fish sauce, which gave Hopkins the idea to try it at home as the base of a miso soup.
“It was delicious,” he said. “I even used that recipe in a class I taught at Boston Public Market.”
Down the road, we may even be able to buy a fresh miso soup or scratch-made cup of noodles in a Five Way Foods bottle. Hopkins says he’s also considering adding pork to his lineup of broths. But as Five Way Foods is one of the only fresh broth companies out there, Hopkins says he’ll spend at least the next year growing the business with the four varieties he’s producing now.
“I’ve only scratched the surface,” he says. “There are other competitors out there, but from the fresh broth perspective that you can buy in the refrigerated section, I’m one of the few.”
FIVE WAY FOODS' HOMEMADE MISO SOUP
MAKES 3–4 SERVINGS
2 cups Five Way Foods’ Fish Broth
½ cup water
½ cup sweet potato, peeled and diced into ¼-inch squares
¼ cup tofu, diced
3 teaspoons green onions, thinly sliced from top to end
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons miso paste
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Add fish broth to a 4-quart pot and bring to a gentle boil. Add sweet potatoes and simmer for 15 minutes, until tender.
Add water and bring to a gentle boil. Add tofu, green onions and ginger. Simmer for a few minutes. Reduce heat. Add miso paste and stir. Remove pot from stove. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
STEVE HOLT covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Connect with him on Twitter and Insta-gram: @thebostonwriter.