Although it isn't one of the younger upstarts in the Detroit pickleverse, Topor's cold-pack blue-label pickles are the gold standard: no sodium benzoate, no potassium metabisulfites, no artificial coloring, no artificial flavorings or additives — just natural ingredients packed and chilled in a jar. Their blue label natural barrel dill pickles are made with the same recipe owner Larry Topor's father used when the family ran a deli at Seven Mile and Greenfield roads — a recipe Topor's grandmother brought over from Europe. A family business, Topor's has been manufacturing and distributing pickles from a plant on Standish Street in Detroit for about 30 years.
While hot-pack pickles have greater shelf stability, cold packing means the delicate cukes never have to be superheated, pasteurized or homogenized. Although the process produces excellent pickles, it does limit the company's reach a bit. "When we get special orders," Topor says, "we have to send them by next-day mail, because they're cold-packed and need to be refrigerated."
In addition to Topor's natural barrel dill, the company also sells an overnight "new" dill pickle, golden dill, baby dill and hot dill pickles, and also pickled green tomatoes, banana peppers, and red peppers.
Where to buy: Al's Famous Deli, Bozek's Markets, Bread Basket Delis, Hiller's Markets, Holiday Market, Kroger, Meijer, Nino Salvaggio, the Tiger Den at Comerica Park.
Location: Brooklyn, N.Y. and Detroit
Like the Topor family, brothers Robert and Joseph McClure have brine in their bloodline, as pickle-making was a family tradition. They base their pickles on their great-grandmother's spicy pickle recipe, and have expanded from that to produce garlic dill pickles, spicy pickles, garlic dill relish and spicy relish, even extending their brand into a Bloody Mary mixer and potato chips. Their pickles are mainly hot-fill and shelf-stable pasteurized, with some refrigerated pickles and even a bit of seasonal fermentation.
In six years, they've proved that it's a dilly of a business model. Two years ago they addressed the Troy Chamber of Commerce, and this year they've expanded their operations, moving into a larger building in Brooklyn that formerly housed a Pfizer plant, and another larger space at American Axle in Hamtramck.
Where to buy: Eastern Market and other fine groceries across Michigan and the country.
Location: Ann Arbor
Brinery honcho David Klingenberger got into farming as a high school student, after finding his way out to Tantré Farm, an organic farm doing community-supported agriculture on the outskirts of Ann Arbor. For Klingenberger, it was a great fit; he calls the farm "a pillar of the Washtenaw County local food community." After learning organic farming hands-on, he started looking for ways to extend the use of farm-fresh food by preserving it in traditional ways.
He says, "I actually started making pickles and sauerkraut because I was interested in all forms of food preservation, from tomato sauce to jam to beer to sauerkraut — and sauerkraut is one of the most ancient forms of food preservation. Before refrigeration, this was how people lived through the winter months."
In addition to pickles, tempeh and a wide variety of sauerkraut styles, Klingenberger also makes kimchi, a Korean style of pickled cabbage.
"Kimchi has become one of our most popular items. It's our take on a real classic Korean style of kimchi."
He's also using a more ancient style of pickling known as lactofermentation, fermenting vegetables in brine. The results are unusual, as beneficial bacteria living wild on the produce do the work.
"I like a good vinegar pickle," Klingenberger says, "but it's like comparing sourdough bread to quick-rise dough. It's really good."
His products are sold by the jar, cold-pack style, which means they're kept on ice when sold at farmers' markets, or refrigerated when sold in stores. Right now, he's selling pickles in 16-ounce and 24-ounce jars, and in 5-gallon buckets to restaurants.
Where to buy: On sale at 30 stores, including Hiller's Markets, Plum Markets, the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market Wednesdays and Saturdays and Eastern Market Saturdays. Also the official sauerkraut of Zingerman's deli, a coup considering their locavore-centered operations.
Thyme and a Bottle
Sharon Matzelle and her sisters came up with the pun-themed business name when they started making flavored vinegars together in 1994. Now it's her own business, and Matzelle's specialty has become pickles. Originally, they were samples she used to entice customers to buy her vinegars at Oakland County's farmers' market. "I would give people my pickle recipe when I sold it, and they'd come back and say, 'It didn't work out. Can you make them?'"
That's surprising, considering how simply Matzelle's preparations sound. She relies on her special apple vinegar to impart flavor, spending a few weeks to turn it into a dill-garlic vinegar, then adding rosemary, sage and salt to create the brine. Cucumbers, sliced into chunks, are packed into 16-ounce wide-mouth jars, and the product is refrigerated for several days before being sold on ice at several farmers' markets.
Matzelle says, "My pickles are all-natural — no preservatives — so it's a refrigerator pickle that you need to eat in a couple months for the best flavor. And if people bring back empty jars, I give them a little bit off their next purchase."
She also makes a few special batches when the produce is in season, including whole baby dills and pickled cauliflower.
Matzelle has noticed an uptick in awareness since the 1990s, thanks to rising interest in seasonal eating and traditional food preservation, as well as the local food movement. She says, "It seems like people weren't really that health-conscious back then ... but now people love it. They want to eat better — no calories, no fat. Some people, when they finish the pickles they drink the brine. They love the taste: It's cleansing and it's good for you."
Where to buy: Rochester Farmers Market, Royal Oak Farmers Market, Clarkston Farmers Market starting June 23. For more information, call 248-935-2329 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perkins Pickles president Tom Perkins has always loved the tangy taste of a good pickle. As a kid, he says he didn't carry around a packet of Skittles, he had a jar of pickles. For Christmas, he'd get 5-gallon tubs of pickles as gifts. That love of pickles continued into adulthood, and in 2007, when he was living in Chicago working as a button-maker at the Busy Beaver Button Factory (yes, it's for real; Google will prove it), Perkins and his fellow button-makers would order pickles from different companies, trying to find the best.
"Everybody there was kind of a pickle fan, and I kept eating these pickles and I started to think, 'You know, I bet I can do this better.' So, with some urging from my colleagues at the button company, I started making pickles, just screwing around with a bunch of recipes. It just sort of evolved from there. I got a recipe I thought was pretty good, and went to the Leelanau Pickle-Off Festival with my friend's dad, who had deep pockets. And so when I ended up winning the People's Choice award, beating out 50 other companies, he sorta said, 'What's it going to take to get this started?' That was 2009, and I started going through the licensing, tweaking the recipe until just last year, when I got serious about jarring."
Rather than call his pickles "cold-pack," Perkins prefers using the term "refrigerator-style" pickles, because "people recognize it more."
Describing his process, he says, "We put pickles in five-gallon food-grade buckets on Monday, pull them out partway through the week and chop them up into bite-size pieces and put them back in the brine again until Friday, when we pull them out and jar them. It's a super-quick pickle. There's actually a style of pickle called a 24-hour dill, but this is more like a 96-hour dill, I guess. So it's all really fresh, and we make just enough to sell during the week. Every Friday we have fresh pickles coming out, so nobody gets pickles that are more than a week old. That helps keep the product cold, crisp and fresh.
Perkins' brine includes peppercorns, crushed red pepper, garlic and sugar — although he cautions that it's only a little bit sweet, "definitely not a bread and butter or sweet pickle."
"People ask me what kind of pickle it is," he says. "It's a little sweet, but it's not a sweet pickle; it's got a little spice to it. It's not quite a new dill; it's fresh like a new dill, but new dills don't use vinegar. It's basically a hybrid of a lot of different kinds of pickles."
In addition to pickles, Perkins also sells pickled garlic, taking the garlic he pickles with and letting it sit a few more weeks. Other products available from time to time include pickled green tomatoes and chow-chow, a pickled relish (Perkins prefers to call it a "slaw") made from red cabbage, green tomatoes, pearl onions, carrots and jalapeños.
With all these new pickle companies, you might think there'd be stubborn rivalries among competitors, but Perkins paints a different picture. "The pickle guys are all really nice," he says. "Some of the other food people aren't very friendly to each other, and it is cool that there are all these companies and we're all friendly and supportive, and we're all doing a little bit differently, we all kind of have our own niche, and it's cool that way. Joe McClure is actually one of the nicest guys I've come across, always offering to help me out in some way."
Where to buy: Plum Markets, Rocky Peanut, Eastern Market and in farmers' markets in Ann Arbor, Birmingham, Dearborn, Northville, Royal Oak, Wayne and Ypsilanti. Mudgie's and Woodbridge Pub in Detroit use Perkins Pickles. The Painted Lady Lounge in Hamtramck uses Perkins' brine for its Pickle Back cocktail.
Website: Perkins Pickles has a Facebook page.
Pickler Blair Nosan got started on pickles while living on a Jewish Farm in Connecticut. "We made a variety of pickles in the ways of the old world," Nosan says, "using fermentation instead of vinegar. I was so charmed by the process and the incredible flavors, I brought my skills back with me when I returned to Michigan."
Now her pickle products can include parsnip kimchi, butternut squash kimchi, dilly beans, and fennel and turmeric cauliflower. She has sold them on a "subscription" basis for the past two years, but she hopes to soon be operating out of a licensed kitchen and selling at area farmers' markets.
Where to buy: by request at email@example.com