PHOTOS BY BRIAN SAMUELS
For nearly two decades, Ann Moran Brainard has embraced the North Shore, making her home in Wenham and putting down roots in the community. But there’s no mistaking Brainard’s affection for her native New Orleans. She keeps the Big Easy close, decorating her antique colonial with Fats Domino posters, playing a continual stream of jazz, cooking up crawfish, jambalaya and gumbo for friends and family, and organizing a makeshift parade down Route 1A to celebrate the New Orleans Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl win.
“You can take the girl out of New Orleans, but you can’t take the New Orleans out of the girl,” she says with a laugh. “I’m bringing part of New Orleans culture here. To me, it’s about sharing the love. I can’t help but do that. I’m so rooted there, but I love where I live.”
For the past three years, Brainard has been sharing that love on a bigger scale, bringing the taste of New Orleans to Massachusetts in the form of cold-brewed coffee. She’s the founder and chief blending officer of MOJO Cold Brewed Coffee, which is brewed, labeled, and shipped from a commercial kitchen in Essex that she leases from and shares with Lark Fine Foods.
But those who know Brainard have been drinking earlier iterations of MOJO well before she even considered developing it into a business. Not long after she moved to Wenham, she began running volunteer events for her kids’ schools. She knew keeping the volunteers moving and happy was key. “So I would crank up the music and give them what I used to call my ‘happy juice.’” Friends and family, meanwhile, liberally poured from the ever-present pitcher she keeps in her refrigerator.
Brainard, who grew up dipping beignets in cold-brewed coffee at New Orleans’ iconic Café Du Monde and drinking homemade cold-brew at home, didn’t realize it was a regional craft. People raved about her “crazy good coffee,” imploring her to spill her secret. “I’d say, ‘It’s just cold-brewed.’ I didn’t realize at the time that people outside of New Orleans didn’t really know what cold brewing was. I thought people everywhere brewed their coffee using cold water.”
Now she understands the method is simply the best way to pull flavor out of the beans, and she isn’t one bit surprised that New Orleanians perfected this superlative means to a caffeinated end. “In New Orleans, you have a lot of people who are very interested in creating the best, whether it’s food or drink,” she says.
Brainard should know. She comes from a line of New Orleans restaurateurs. Her grandfather owned Moran’s La Louisiane; her late father and uncle took that over, and added Acme Oyster House and the Old Absinthe House Bar restaurants to their portfolio.
Along with lessons about creating the best, Brainard was schooled in the importance of sharing the best. She recalls how her father would roast turkeys on Thanksgiving morning to deliver to friends, and then return to the restaurant for a meal with friends and family. “He just wanted to share the love. He’s influenced and inspired me in many ways.”
Still, it took a while to convince her to share her “happy juice.” For years, she just laughed off suggestions that she sell it. That is, until 2011, when she decided to test it with the uninitiated; she sold cups of it at a small craft fair on Fisher’s Island in Long Island Sound. It met with such rave reviews that the next summer she sold it at a local arts festival, then at some farmers markets, and arranged for it to be sold by the cup at Grassy Roots in Wenham. It was there that the owner recommended she bottle the goods. She listened and began bottling MOJO in quart mason jars.
Since first serving up “happy juice” to friends, family, and volunteers, Brainard has refined the recipe for her commercial, subtly sweet, ready-to-drink beverage, which can be enjoyed as-is, with ice, or hot. “It’s taken me decades to perfect,” she says, noting she enlisted her “frequent flyers” as taste-tasters as she sought out the best ingredients and tweaked her formula, with the goal of appealing to as many people as possible.
While the ingredients are simple—fair trade coffee beans from Costa Rica, which she roasts locally, reduced fat milk, water, and sugar—it’s the formula that creates the special sauce. “I’ll just tell you there’s some magic,” she says, noting at 110 calories per 8-ounce serving, it’s not as decadent as you’d think. But that magic, or mojo, is potent, packing 170 milligrams of caffeine per serving. “Drink responsibly,” Brainard warns with a wink.
Brainard began brewing MOJO in a commercial kitchen in a church basement in Wenham and in February 2015, she began leasing space in Essex from Lark. Here, MOJO is brewed in five-gallon buckets: coffee grains steep overnight in cold filtered water, after which they’re strained to create an extract, or “black gold” as she calls it.
Once the extract is ready, she brings it to Puleo’s Dairy in Salem, where she adds the other ingredients, bottles, and pasteurizes it and then has the finished MOJO. The quarts are labeled and packaged back in in the Essex kitchen, where Seacrest Foods of Lynn picks up shipments for distribution.
The business has grown by word of mouth. “I’ve always been very thoughtful in making sure I could stay on top of production and meet demand, so I was very careful especially in early years, selling through stores I knew I could keep producing for.”
On the horizon for MOJO is an unsweetened version which should be ready by the end of the year; a nondairy product in early 2016, and a shelf-stable, single-serving version in spring 2016.
As cold brew gains more of a presence, fewer people are scratching their heads when they hear the term. To Brainard, the timing couldn’t be better for growing her business. “I can’t help but see the bright side of that. They’ve [competitors] now opened the door” and educated people about what cold brewing is, she says. “There’s still a lot of room for competition.”
With each step forward, Brainard is up for any challenge: an attitude she’s cultivated since her days working for Lehman Brothers on Wall Street, an experience that taught her “anything is possible with determination and tenaciousness.” Add to that her NOLA-esque sass and proclivity for fun, and you’ve got MOJO.
Brainard sells her product at local farmers markets, as well as in more than two dozen stores in the state and in the Gordon College cafe. For details, go to mojocoffees.com
Lesley Mahoney is a South Dartmouth-based writer, editor and content strategist who loves a new food find, whether at a farmers market, restaurant or local purveyor. She can be reached at email@example.com.