When he was a young boy, David Ehreth stuck his nose into an old-fashioned pickle barrel at a San Francisco deli and became immediately addicted to the fresh, clean smell of those half-sour, whole kosher dill pickles, fermented in salt water rather than vinegar.
He spent most of his career as a telecommunications engineer and in 1987 co-founded Optilink in Petaluma with tech pioneer Don Green, but even then he could not get the briny taste and smell of pickles out of his head.
To get his mind off the stress of running his own business, Ehreth started making pickles for fun nearly 30 years ago. Then, after owning and serving as CEO of Westwave Communications in Santa Rosa for six years, he sold the company and jumped into brining full-time, launching the decidedly low-tech Sonoma Brinery in his Alexander Valley garage in 2004.
“I started it by myself, just me and a knife and a cutting board,” said Ehreth, a Novato native. “A friend who was a caterer was kind enough to let me borrow her kitchen.”
Now, after expanding into four warehouses over the past 12 years, he is preparing Sonoma Brinery to move into a new, 10,000-square-foot factory on Grove Street in Healdsburg that was custom built for the growing, artisan food business.
“We’ve signed a 10-year lease, and we’ve got 25 employees,” Ehreth said. “We still make everything by hand, but there are a lot of hands here cutting now.”
A few years ago, when Ehreth realized that his hobby had become a bona fide business, he incorporated his pickle company as Alexander Valley Gourmet LLC and settled on Sonoma Brinery as the brand name.
“We started out with Alexander Valley Gourmet on the label, but no one really knew the Alexander Valley,” he said. “We are in Sonoma County and we brine stuff, so we decided to call it Sonoma Brinery.”
Over the years, his line has grown to include nine products, from stalwarts like the Manhattan-style Whole Koshers (his original pickle) and Outrageous Bread & Butter pickles to four flavors of raw sauerkraut, now available in 1,200 stores across the country.
The line of natural pickles is especially popular on the West Coast, where a good pickle — nice and crisp with a good tang — is particularly hard to find.
“These fresh, half-sour pickles are the West Coast’s best answer to Carnegie Deli’s,” a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 2007.
In the beginning, Ehreth was selling pickles to a world that had frankly soured on the product. That’s because consumers had grown accustomed to eating pickles boiled in vinegar, then canned. All the fresh flavor and crisp texture had been processed out of them.
His pickles and sauerkrauts are made with super fresh produce and without preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, dyes, heat processing or pasteurization. Both the pickles and the sauerkraut are refrigerated throughout their shelf life to keep them fresh and crunchy.
“The reason I’ve been successful is that people taste it and say, ‘It’s fabulous. I never knew a pickle could taste like this,’” Ehreth said. “When you eat my pickles, you’re tasting cucumbers and all kinds of lively flavors, and you’re not assaulted by salts and vinegars.”
Sonoma Brinery is one small branch of the Bay Area’s burgeoning artisan food movement, which has put a greater focus on handmade foods that have a high level of taste, texture and nutritional value.
“A new economy is emerging where small food vendors like myself have come up and are really raising the bar for our products,” Ehreth said. “We had this great abundance in the 1950s, and we turned it into canned food and Wonder bread. Now, we’re really turning that canned food and Wonder bread into baguettes and fresh pickles.”
Although he got into fermenting for the taste, Ehreth gives credence to the health claims of the fermentation movement, namely that fermented food can introduce healthy, probiotic bacteria to people’s guts.
“This is the oldest method of food preservation there is,” Ehreth said. “Once you encourage the right culture to grow, it will discourage the wrong bacteria.”
Sonoma Brinery pickles include the Manhattan-style Whole Koshers, a tribute to that original pickle barrel; and two flavors of Outrageous Bread & Butter pickles, including a mild chip with just a hint of heat and a spicy chip that cranks up the heat via Thai chiles and serranos.
“The bread-and-butter pickles are our summer afternoon barbecue pickle,” he said. “You put them on a hamburger, a grilled chicken or a pulled-pork sandwich.”
The Traditional Sauerkraut is fermented for 20 days, creating a crisp and mild kraut that is loaded with cabbage flavor and a hint of tartness. For those who like it with more of a spice kick, the kraut also comes in flavors like Dill & Garlic, Smokey Chipotle and Curtido, a Central American variation made with onions and carrots as well as cabbage.
When the company moves to its new home in June, Ehreth plans to launch an exciting new product, Jalapeño Escabeche.
“They are ‘nacho’ sliced, fermented and lip-smackin’ good,” he said. “I think they are the best I’ve ever had.”
In Sonoma County, Sonoma Brinery products can be found at Community Markets, G&G Markets, Lazzini’s Market, Pacific Markets, Oliver’s Markets, Shelton’s and Sonoma Markets, among others. For a complete list, go to sonomabrinery.com.