FinAllie Ferments is a kraut company based in southern Vermont that uses all locally-grown produce. It’s named after Fin the farm dog and Allie Dercoli, who is equal parts farmer, community builder, and artist, with some electrician sprinkled in for good measure. When she settled in Vermont in 2014, she wasn’t looking to start a business—she was looking for a sustainable community and farming. FinAllie Ferments is simply the result of meeting the demand that naturally arose from her delicious supply of amazing kimchi and kraut.
Allie is originally from Canfield, Ohio, near Youngstown, in the industrial corn and soy farming belt. The food culture in her family was strongly influenced by their Italian roots—growing it, preserving it, making sauce, and making wine were all big community affairs when she was little. Even as a kid, she remembers wondering why being wasteful was the norm.
After graduating in 2010 from Columbus College of Art and Design as a glassblowing major, she began farming all over the United States, making it to a total of 51 farms over the course of about four years. It was early on in this time of travel that she landed in a place called Bastrop, Texas, and learned the art of fermentation. From then on, she would make ferments from the veggies that were too ugly to sell at the farms where she worked. During this time, her knowledge expanded through experimentation and study, the latter especially focused on the works of Sandor Katz, who, according to Allie, is “the Elvis of fermentation.”
The process of making sauerkraut is simple: gather some cabbage, salt, and a group of friends, crush the shredded cabbage with salt, and then pound it into containers. Cover it (tightly, but not too tight), and keep it around room temperature until it’s to your liking, when you can divvy it up among your helpers. Allie has taken this simple recipe and made each component sing in its highest octave, while building a community of growers, artists, and friends around it, too.
All the veggies, herbs, and spices in FinAllie Ferments are grown at a long list of nearby farms: Allwinds, Harlow, High Meadows, North Winds, Old Athens, Clear Brook, Grace, Otter Creek, Circle Mountain, Walker, Wild Shepherd, Hurricane Flats, Pete’s Greens, and Some Such Farms. The whole seed spices come from West River Seed Company in Townshend, and the ginger is from Full Plate. If she can’t get the produce locally, she doesn’t make the kraut. Allie does not compromise on this, because that would undermine the whole point: FinAllie is more than just a fermented food business—it’s a vehicle through which she and her friends can support and grow a sustainable community.
Allie and those who work for her are in close contact with the farms they buy from during the growing season to see how their crops are coming along so that they know who they’ll be able to get which veggies from when they need them. And with such a big group of farms, if pests or climate change cause major issues, they’ll be able to make do. Instead of a diversified stock portfolio, she’s got a diversified farm community, and it’s awesome.
During the pandemic, FinAllie’s sales increased a lot. Everyone wanted to buy their food, and they completely sold out. And sales have continued to go up as the years have passed. Back in 2019 when we first interviewed Allie, they went through 900 pounds of cabbage a month. Now they’re running through twice that every week! It’s a lot, but the growth has been at a pace that the farms can handle. She can let them know how much cabbage, beets, or other veggies she’ll be needing during the next growing season, and they have time to plan accordingly. This success and growth has also enabled Allie to pre-pay her farmers for their crops over the winter, which is super helpful for them. FinAllie buys 14,000 pounds of produce each year, and goes the extra mile (literally) to pick up harvests from the farms that are too small to spare a delivery person. This network of farms, and Allie’s close ties to them, is what has enabled FinAllie to grow and thrive, and in turn help these farms grow and thrive, too.
Allie is passionate about Vermont’s soil. The concept of terroir—the idea that the environment and methods that go into growing food affect its character—is typically applied to wine and cheese, but Allie uses the term when she talks about anything grown in our state, and is adamant about the truly special qualities this mineral-rich land creates. It’s the supreme quality of these ingredients that lends each jar its genuinely next-level flavor, and the perfect blend of crunch, sweetness, and zing. The “Dill With It” kraut has a stunning, kitchen-garden aroma when it’s served slightly warm—the kind of savory scent that only comes from freshly-picked herbs.
After it gets shredded, all that cabbage is mixed with salt and crushed by hand. Allie has help from a few employees: Tyler Burns, Haley Felker, and Travis Czekalski are all old friends she’s known for at least a decade, and Nate “The Polish Hammer” is her life partner.
Once it begins to release its moisture, the cabbage is combined with other ingredients to create Allie’s unique recipes, and then is pounded into giant wine barrels with a classic Louisville Slugger baseball bat… an unconventional but highly effective kraut-pounding tool. The barrels, which stand about three-feet high and almost two-and-a-half-feet across, are made of lightly toasted oak wood. This is a point of pride: FinAllie Ferments are never aged in plastic, the industry standard. Allie’s own chickens eat the vegetable scraps, and there’s virtually no single-use plastics used in the packaging or the processing of her ferments.
All of FinAllie’s products are made and packed at a shared commercial kitchen called the Sustainable Valley Group (S.V.G.) in Bellows Falls. There Allie has built an insulated room where there might be up to twenty giant barrels in operation at one time during growing season. The time of year also affects the fermentation time: when the produce is super fresh in spring and summer, it spends about one month aging. In the colder months, it will take 6 weeks or so to reach optimum flavor. She says it’s done “when it’s super crunchy, but not too crunchy,” and tastes each batch to make sure it’s perfect. During harvest season Allie goes through 1,800 lbs. of local, organic cabbage every week, which is about 400% more than what she was using in 2019. FinAllie is now carried by three local distributors and also sells online. There are five regularly available varieties: Dill With It Kraut, Electric Curry Kraut, VT Roots Kimchi, Heavy Nettle Kraut, and Black Garlic Kimchi. All varieties are made with ingredients purchased from farms that use organic and non-GMO practices in a kitchen that does not use gluten and is vegan.
In addition to the giant oak barrels, five traditional German ceramic sauerkraut crocks are also still in use from before she scaled up. These are used for small-batch, experimental flavors. They’re about two-feet high and, naturally, all have names: Thor, Carol, Harriet, Alice, and Helga, and then there’s Pete, a little half-sized crock named after her dad. On a past visit I thought I heard someone’s cell phone make a pert “bloop!” sound, but realized that it was actually bubbles of gas escaping through the “airlocks”: a little trough of water lines the opening of each crock, and the lids sit in the water, sealing off the contents from the air but allowing gasses to escape. And apparently this old technology also has the added benefit of giving voice to the little life forms that are the microscopic operators behind lacto-fermentation, the process that transforms simple cabbage and salt into a living food that is not only delicious, but also beneficial for our health.*
Allie emanates fun and playfulness, and so does her business. She and her employees wear custom red jumpsuits (they were made by her and our very, very dear departed Jonas “Jobo” Fricke); the labels on FinAllie jars feature a drawing of her and Fin wearing psychedelic sunglasses; and the jars often feature limited-run labels made by artist friends. An entire community contributes to these products, and the fun continues to grow along with the business. They even started holding Pickle Fests—fermented family fun! Everyone is welcome to attend the next one on August 12, from 10am-4pm, in Townshend! But don’t let this lightheartedness belie the seriousness with which she takes her vocation. Allie is uncompromising about the quality of her ingredients, the quality of her equipment, minimizing waste, and, above all, in her determination to leverage her livelihood to weave a stronger and ever more joyful web of friends and neighbors..
*“Naturally fermented foods are getting a lot of attention from health experts these days because they may help strengthen your gut microbiome—the 100 trillion or so bacteria and microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. Researchers are beginning to link these tiny creatures to all sorts of health conditions from obesity to neurodegenerative diseases. Fermented foods are preserved using an age-old process that not only boosts their shelf life and nutritional value, but can give your body a dose of healthy probiotics, which are live microorganisms crucial to healthy digestion, says Dr. David S. Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.”
Come try some for yourself! From 11:30am-2:30pm, on Fridays: July 7, 14, 21, 28, and Saturday, July 22.
By Ruth Garbus