PHOTOS BY ADAM DETOUR
In some ways, Adam Bauman knows he has a difficult task when it comes to hawking the vinegar-based syrups, called shrubs, that he so painstakingly crafts at Commonwealth Kitchen, a food incubator in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.
At first, “people are very skeptical,” says Bauman. “There’s a sign on the front of my farmers market table that says, ‘What is a shrub?’ because people are still pretty unfamiliar with them. Once someone approaches, I explain that it is a drinking vinegar—and then have to convince them to actually taste said drinking vinegar.”
But after a sip or two, most people end up interested. “The vinegar adds almost an umami note to drinks,” explains Bauman. “It’s an unusual sour flavor that’s very intense, but also very approachable for a lot of people.”
At the moment, Bauman—his full beard neatly contained in a hair net—is alternating hands as he grinds his gloved fists into a funnel. Slowly, he presses every last drop of juice out of 40 pounds of chopped cucumbers that have been marinating with spices in a sweetened champagne vinegar. Loosely based on the flavor of his grandmother’s bread and butter pickles, the resulting cucumber and spice shrub will star in “The CBM” cocktail at Terra—the restaurant within Back Bay’s Eataly market—alongside Hendrick’s gin, Italicus (a bergamot-flavored spirit) and a house-made basil-mint syrup. But Bauman confesses that, at home, he thinks the “sweet pickle juice” works equally well to wash down a bag of potato chips; as a dressing for cucumber, tomato and feta salad; or mixed with a light beer for an interesting shandy.
Each bottle of Bauman’s Best comes with similar suggestions for how to use it in cooking or for craft cocktails, which is no surprise when you consider the company’s origin story. Bauman—who worked as a bartender for 10 years on both sides of the Charles River at hot spots such as The Intercontinental and Kirkland Tap and Trotter—was introduced to shrubs six years ago when Lou Saban, a fellow bartender at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, shared his personal recipe for a shrub made with balsamic vinegar, strawberries and rosemary.
“It made me fall in love with the flavor profile of vinegar and get interested in the craft food side of bartending rather than the alcohol side,” says Bauman, who has been playing with recipes ever since.
While they have survived as a culinary undercurrent in farming culture throughout U.S. history, shrubs had their biggest American moment during colonial times, when they were used to make water potable: The high acidity levels found in vinegar tend to kill bacteria. “Shrubs are fairly basic in that they involve letting late-harvest produce macerate for a while with a little bit of vinegar and sweetener,” says Bauman. To sweeten a shrub, you can use sugar, honey, molasses or maple syrup (in which case, the shrub is then called a “switchel”); Bauman sweetens his with all-natural evaporated cane juice from Privateer Rum in Ipswich. “You also can add botanicals or spices if you want more depth of flavor,” he says. “Shrubs have a lot of possibilities for doing things your own way.”
Bauman’s herb and berry shrub—a mix of strawberries, blackberries, apple cider vinegar and herbs—is his homage to the Lou Saban shrub that started it all. “My partner calls it a liquid popsicle,” says Bauman. “She’ll drink it straight up or on the rocks.” The couple also likes to use the shrub to deglaze the pan to make a sauce for steaks, as well as to splash it over dark greens like collards or over spinach and goat cheese salad.
The tangerine and lavender shrub harks back to Bauman’s time bartending on the Big Island in Hawaii. “There was a lovely lavender farm on Maui Island and tangerine groves on Big Island,” he says. “I wanted to put those flavors together in a way that would be local and fun.” Bauman is now working on developing an as-of-yet-unnamed spicy pineapple shrub that will include Dragon Sauce made by Alex’s Ugly Sauce (a graduate company of Commonwealth Kitchen). “The flavor will be really fun mixed with rum and in tiki drinks,” he says.
Whenever possible, Bauman tries to source his ingredients locally. In season, he buys his produce from Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon and Red Fire Farm in Granby.
“My brother has small farm up in the Bay of Maine area, where he sometimes grows lavender. Basically, I end up picking and choosing my ingredients from places I know. I’m partial to Ward’s Berry Farm, because I grew up going to the corn maze there, so it’s close to my heart.” (When Bauman can’t source his ingredients locally, he buys from companies based in Massachusetts, including Pit Service Produce in Hyde Park and Christina’s Spice & Specialty Foods in Cambridge’s Inman Square.)
As Bauman finishes making each flavor of shrub, he sets aside the solids to later experiment with making relish, chutney and marmalade. “We’re working toward becoming a zero-waste company. It’s just an idea at this stage,” he says, but he hopes to develop some new recipes worthy of selling alongside his shrubs.
Before bottling the vinegar syrups, Bauman adds a little water to make them more palatable. The entire production process takes about 24 hours—spread out over multiple visits for prepping the produce, straining the vinegar, and bottling and labeling—to make 40 cases of product. Now, a year into his business, Bauman says he doesn’t miss the late nights of bartending and that his labor-intensive undertaking has given him lots more time to spend with his partner and their dog, Derby, a young Boxer mix. “I couldn’t be happier.”
You can find Bauman’s Best shrubs at Eataly Boston (at the wine shop and in cocktails at Terra and La Piazza), Falmouth Wine and Spirits in Falmouth, Mill City Cheesemongers in Lowell, the SOWA Farmers Market in Boston (Sundays, in season), and the Harvard University Farmers Market (Tuesdays, in season). You also can order them online ($10 for 8 oz.; $18 for 16 oz.) at baumansbest.com.
Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers food, science and animals. You can find her at genevieverajewski.com.