Getting back to basics by fermenting foods has become a ubiquitous practice, and so has making drinking vinegars. Following in the footsteps of other local brands that ferment food and drink, like Fab Ferments and The Pickled Pig, husband-and-wife team Mercy Mabalot and Arie Vandenberg started Chimera Shrubs in June.
Shrubs are typically unpasteurized, unfiltered fruity vinegars dating back to 17th-century England, before refrigeration was invented.
“It comes from England, when they had a shortage of lemons and limes, so when they were making jams and jellies, they couldn’t make it with lemons and limes,” Mabalot says. “Instead, they used vinegar.”
To distinguish it from jam, they called it shrubs. And in the 1800s, shrubs found their way to America, and bartenders started using them in cocktails.
Mabalot discovered shrubs on a trip to San Francisco and realized it would be cheaper to make them than to pay to have them shipped to her in Cincinnati. Concocting shrubs is right up her alley — she studied psychology and biology at Xavier.
“This is more like biology and chemistry,” she says. “A chemistry background has helped me here because vinegar, even though it’s a very old thing, it’s not the easiest thing to do well.”
Chimera, which takes its name from a mythical Greek beast, works out of Savor Catering and Events' shared kitchen in Newport, where they split the space with Tiger Dumpling, Cuban Pete, Street Chef Brigade and The Canteen.
“To make a good vinegar, you must make a decent fermented alcohol, which is then converted by acetic fermentation into vinegar, utilizing the sugars,” Mabalot says. First, fruit and sugar are converted into ethanol using yeast. Then the ethanol needs to be converted into acetic acid, or vinegar. But because that process can take up to a year, after the substance becomes ethanol, Chimera mixes raw, unfiltered organic apple cider vinegar (Bragg’s or Spectrum brand) with a starter (also known as the “mother”) to expedite the vinegar-making process. It takes two to four months for the alcohol content to reduce to 0.5 percent — the legal limit. Once it reaches that level, they bottle the shrubs.
Currently, they have a couple of flavors but will add new ones seasonally. The sweet Hibiscus Honey tastes like cranberries and is made with basil, cardamom, cinnamon, habañero pepper, raw honey, cane sugar, lemon and vanilla. They use Colorado peaches for Peachy Keen, prepared with peaches, lime, raw honey, dehydrated cane juice, vanilla bean and, for an added kick, hatch chiles and shishito peppers.
Besides the shrubs, they’re also working on a line of bitters, including one made with chocolate, black walnuts and Kentucky bourbon. Because the shrubs don’t have preservatives, they have a shelf life of 18 months unopened and six months refrigerated, and all of their vinegars are tested for safety under FDA regulations.
Like most fermented foods, shrubs are purported to produce myriad health benefits, including balancing the body from acidic (bad) to alkaline (good), and replacing bad bacteria in the gut with good.
You can cook with shrubs, you can make a craft soda with them (four parts soda water to one part shrub) or you can add the shrubs to a cocktail. “You use the vinegar like you would use an acid,” Mabalot says. “So anything you would use like a lemon or a lime, you would switch it and use this.”
Places like Metropole, Calle Cantina and Molly Wellmann’s bars make their own shrubs, but Chimera sells theirs in retail outlets such as Clifton Natural Foods, Party Source, on their website and at events like Art on Vine and Second Sunday on Main, where they let customers sample their goods.
“When somebody first tries drinking vinegar, especially if they’re not familiar with the concept, they’re like, ‘That’s weird. Can you educate me a little bit?’ ” Vandenberg says. “First they smell it and they’re like, ‘Oh, that really smells vinegary.’ And they taste it, and the taste is really complex — people really like it.”
For more info on CHIMERA SHRUBS, go to chimerashrubs.com.