In all your time scouring the aisles of farmers markets, you've never come across anything quite like Element [Shrub]. Charlie Berkinshaw, its founder and mad scientist, makes vinegars out of pretty much anything you can think of — honeydew and jalapeño; pineapple and turmeric; lemon and mint — and bottles them, with their distinctive periodic-table-esque labels.
We chatted with Charlie about how this all began, and about how everyone needs a little bit of vinegar in their lives.
Where did you grow up?
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Who taught you to cook? If the answer is different, how did your interest in food and cooking ignite?
Growing up, one of my best friends from high school had parents who loved to cook. I learned a few basics from them, but wasn’t as interested in knowing how to cook when I was a kid — I was just interested in eating good food.
In college, I started taking community education classes at the cooking school next to our university. From there, I ended up meeting a bunch of people who also liked to cook and threw a few over-the-top (in terms of food) parties in college.
Where exactly did you come across the concept of shrubs? Do you remember the particular source?
We came across shrubs because of my wife’s and my involvement in a group outside of Boston that foraged fruit from people’s backyards. We would then take the fruit and preserve it in some way whether that was jam, jelly, apple pie, pickles, hard apple cider, or shrub.
Was your first recipe a success the first time you made it? How did it change as you got it ready to market?
Absolutely not. We did recipe development for 18 months before we brought anything to market. Our Honeydew Jalapeno was originally a Honeydew Habanero (I like alliteration) but it was way too spicy, so we had to tone it down a little.
Do your kids like shrubs? (Do most kids?)
Yes! Our 4 year old loves our shrub sodas and asks for them by name. For other kids, just like adults, some absolutely love it and some just aren’t into it.
It seems like you’ve made shrubs out of almost every fruit — do you find there are fruits that lend themselves better to shrubs? Are there any that don’t work?
I think you can probably make a shrub out of anything, fruit or otherwise. Berries are probably the more traditional fruit used to make shrubs because that what was most readily available on the east coast during the colonial era. I haven’t really found any that don’t work, but I have tried to make some shrubs that were total failures. I really wanted a “green” (like literally the color green) shrub in our lineup, so I created this Kiwi & Dill shrub. It was disgusting.
What flavors are on the docket that you want to make down the line?
We are always experimenting. We have a bunch flavors up our sleeve that we can’t quite share with the world yet. But when we do, you’ll be the first to know.
How did you spread the word about your company? Has it taken off in any unexpected ways, or gotten any surprise press?
Mostly through social media and grassroots outreach. I really enjoy photography, so I gravitated towards instagram as a way to educate our consumers on what shrubs are and how to use them, whether in cocktails, spirit-free drinks, or even cooking.
We got lucky early on with press — an article in the Washington Post within three weeks of launching — and I’ve been really surprised at the press we have received over the years. We don’t have a PR person, so it’s completely organic.
Element [Shrub]'s periodic labels.
How did you come up with the (extremely clever) labels?
When we started making shrubs, everything else on the market was very one note — ginger, lemon, cherry, lime. We felt like we were creating something more interesting by adding different herbs and spices with flavor combinations where each ingredient on its own is familiar, but when you pair them together, you get something really unique and intriguing. With all that said, I thought it would be fun to do a modern take on the periodic table because again, at the time, the trend seemed to be medicinal, brown bottle, apothecary-esque style, and we wanted something bright, modern, and fresh-feeling (because we use 100% non-GMO and sometimes organic fresh fruit in all of our shrubs). So we came up with things like Lemon + Mint (Lm), Blueberry + Rosemary (Br), Honeydew + Jalapeno (Hj).
Your website and Instagram are incredibly clean and bright and gorgeous — which obviously pair with the labelling on the shrub bottles, but did the branding grow out of the labels, or vice versa? Who’s been a part of creating branding for the product?
Thank you! That is definitely our intention. I would say the branding probably grew out of the labels. I was lucky early on to find a good friend who is much more talented than I am to help execute and build out the original idea of the brand. Since then, I have been involved as the creative director.
What’s the most inventive way you’ve heard of someone using shrubs? Also, how would you like to see shrubs used?
I have seen a couple of our fans use shrubs in really cool ways. This one person sent me pictures of a Pork Tenderloin that he made using our Chai Pear + Honey as the marinade. We have used our shrubs in baking, because vinegar + baking soda helps leaven. Our goal is to really push the envelope on how people think about vinegar. While it is great on salads, it’s also really great in a bunch of other ways as well.
Would you expand into creating any other non-shrub, or shrub-adjacent, products?
Potentially. Vinegar will most likely always play in a part in whatever we do, but we’ll see what happens!
What’s your neighborhood like? What’s your favorite local restaurant, café, or market?
Suburban. There is a great park, library and strip mall with everything you could possibly need. If there is one thing I miss about some of the other places I have lived (San Francisco, Cambridge) it’s walkability of the neighborhood. Arlington is great for our kids, and that’s more important to us now.
Do you listen to music or podcasts while you cook (or make the shrubs)? If so, what/which?
Yes, definitely! I’m a big fan of Gimlet Media. The Startup Podcast was one I listened to early on and I really connected with it. Also: How I Built This, Reply All, The Daily, Masters of Scale, etc.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
Everything written by Ottolenghi (Jerusalem, Plenty, Plenty More). In fact, my wife and I just got to hear him speak in DC on his book tour for his new dessert book. Spice by Ana Sortun. Molto Mario by Mario Batali.
What are your favorite non-cookbook books or authors?
I gravitate towards books about food and drink even if they aren’t cookbooks. The Billionaire’s Vinegar is one of my favorites. The Flavor Bible.
What’s your favorite comfort meal to make?
Asparagus risotto with bacon and lemon zest.
What’s your go-to dinner party meal to make?
We always try to do something different every time, usually from one of the cookbooks I mentioned above.
What’s your favorite drink of the moment?
I have been really into Mezcal drinks lately. It seems to work really well with a bunch of our shrubs, so I’ve been having some fun experimenting with it.
Now we've got some quick-fire questions for you — answer these before you have a chance to think about it! Dog or cat?
I gravitate (and am more like) a dog, but I don’t want either as a pet.
Tomato sauce or pesto?
I would say pesto. My wife would say tomato.
Regular fries or waffle fries?
Regular, sweet potato with rosemary and smoked paprika.
Chocolate or caramel?
Pizza or pasta?
This is tough. Pizza and pasta are probably my two favorite things to make from scratch. Pizza on a school night, pasta on the weekend?
Wine, beer, or cocktail?