Three years ago, Sarah Bourke was at Napa’s BottleRock music festival when she tasted a shrub for the first time.
“My taste buds exploded,” she recalls of the fruit-flavored vinegar drink, explaining that she’d always wanted to start her own food or beverage company. “I don’t know what shrubs are,” she immediately thought of the tart syrups, which can be used to flavor sparkling water, enhance cocktails and mocktails, and serve as the base for salad dressings, among other applications. “But I think they could be my food business.”
Back in Santa Barbara, Bourke — who worked for Patagonia for six years before starting at Apeel three months ago — started making her own, using fig and guava from trees that grew in her side yard on Garden Street. Last year, while volunteering at Fairview Gardens during the pandemic, she learned about the cottage food license that allows people to legally sell food and drink products that they make in their home. “It’s really taken off from there,” said Bourke, who officially launched Sideyard Shrubs in June 2020.
She’s steadily growing her network of more than 20 organic farms, from San Diego to San Luis Obispo counties, and that includes a half-dozen “farmers” whose trees are just in their front, back, and side yards. Bourke typically buys fruit that otherwise can’t be sold because it’s bruised, getting old, oddly sized, or otherwise not pretty. Without the salvation of her shrubs, much of this produce would wind up in a compost pile or landfill. “I’m taking food waste and celebrating that in shrubs,” explained Bourke, who was born in Fresno, moved to Marin County at age 10, and majored in environmental studies at UCSB.
Each of her 16-ounce bottles feature different fruits — from finger lime to passionfruit, more than 25 flavors pop up over the course of the year, with 16 currently available — as well as the names of the farms where they’re grown: apricot from Rancho San Julian near Lompoc, prickly pear from Centennial House in Los Alamos, strawberry and pomegranate from Fairview Gardens, and so on. Whereas many other shrub producers add sugar to their recipes, Bourke is proud to simply use apple cider vinegar, water, and the produce she buys. “All of the sweetness is from the fruit,” she said.
After a year of making them in her one-bedroom apartment, Bourke recently moved operations to a small corner of Sun & Swell’s facility in Ventura. “We can’t live like this anymore,” her fiancé had been complaining. “We live on a vinegar boat.”
That’s allowed her to keep more than 60 wholesale accounts stocked and satisfied, whether they’re boutique markets in Napa and Santa Cruz, farm stands in the Santa Ynez and Central valleys, surf and coffee shops across Southern California, or high-end restaurants in Venice and Montecito. We met while sipping on a shrub soda at Bettina on Coast Village Road, where the delicate pink-colored fig flavor made a vibrant pairing to our soft-yet-crunchy sweet potatoes and savory chickpea, kale, and ‘nduja stew. Much like a fine wine, the shrub’s tart complexity enlivened my palate as I ate, making me excited for each coming bite.
It will probably be awhile before Bourke leaves her day job to be a full-time shrub star. But she’s already living her dream, hanging out in orchards, cutting down on waste, and producing a tasty beverage that purely showcases both fruit and farm.
How to Shrub
Here are just some of the recipes, from ceviche to harissa, listed on the Sideyard Shrubs website.
Shrub Soda: Place six ice cubes in a glass, add seven ounces of sparkling water, top with one tablespoon of shrub. Stir to combine.
Shrub Salad Dressing: Whisk together one tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil; two tablespoons shrub; ½ cup each of orange and lemon juice; one teaspoon each of sea salt, black pepper, and cumin; and two tablespoons of fresh, chopped herbs.
Shrub Mignonette: Combine one minced shallot, ½ cup of shrub (preferably tomato or persimmon turmeric), and fresh cracked black pepper. Serve on oysters.