ITHACA, N.Y.—Beet kvass, a traditional fermented beverage that first flowed in Eastern Europe, is putting a regional fermentery on the map.

“I kind of describe it as a beet pickle juice,” said Carly Dougherty, co-owner of Food & Ferments along with her husband Dave Dougherty.

“It’s savory. It’s got ginger and garlic in it as well. It’s not just a beet flavor,” Dougherty said. “It’s really got this, like savory, beet pickle juice kind of vibe to it.”

And the Good Food Foundation likes that vibe.

Food & Ferments’ Beet Kvass is the winner of a 2022 Good Food Award in the drinks category, distinguishing itself from thousands of other submissions. The nationally recognized awards are given to craft food products not just for their taste and craftsmanship. It also weighs in equal part the social and environmental considerations that go into product sourcing and packaging.

It’s the second time that Food & Ferments, based in Cortland, has taken home a Good Food Award. The first was for their Hearts on Fire Sauerkraut in 2018. Sauerkrauts, Dougherty said, are the business’ flagship product. The recognition of their Beet Kvass came as a bit of a surprise, said Dougherty.

“I just kind of tossed the beet kvass in there. Like ‘Ah we’ll see!’ You know, let’s throw another hat into the ring,” said Dougherty. “So honestly, Dave and I were both kind of happily surprised when we heard it was a finalist, and then thrilled when we heard it was a winner!”

Carly and Dave Dougherty first encountered the somewhat obscure ferment over a decade ago at a traditional Food Conference in Pennsylvania. Dougherty said it was like nothing else she had ever tasted, describing it as velvety, sweet and briny. 

“I tasted it and I was just in love…ever since that day, I just always had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to make that,” Carly Dougherty said.

When she opened up shop with her husband, it was a must-have for their line-up of fermented products. The beet-based drink is also perfect for the region, said Dougherty. She said sourcing beets locally means they’re juicier, better tasting and have higher overall quality. But the big thing is they’re available year-round.

“One thing we love about beets is that they’re a great storage crop for our local farmers,” said Carly. 

The constant supply ties right into Food & Ferment’s mission to make products “tied to the local landscape that supports farmers.”

“Ever since our inception, we’ve always worked with local farmers and used local produce, and honestly the quality is just that much better,” said Dougherty, who sources ingredients for Food & Ferments from Main Street Farms in Cortland and Stick & Stone Farm in Ithaca among others.

The success of Food & Ferments,  says Dougherty, is partly to do with an awareness of the gut-microbiome and the benefits of probiotics hitting the “national consciousness.”

“It’s been really great timing for us,” she said. “I think we’ve kind of just caught that wave of awareness.”

Helping to usher fermented foods back on people’s plates and kitchens seems like a mission that gives Dougherty a deep sense of pride. 

“It’s such a big part of our food history here in central New York,” said Dougherty. “My grandfather, who’s still sharp at 95, will talk about growing cabbage in the valleys here in upstate New York when he was younger, and the sauerkraut factories that dotted the area. That always stuck with me.”

In Ithaca, Food & Ferments’ beet kvass is available at the GreenStar Food Cooperative and the Ithaca Farmers Market, as well as select stores in Cortland, Syracuse, and other stores in New York City, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; a list which Dougherty said she’s confident the Good Food award will help her grow.

For the beet kvass uninitiated, Dougherty said there’s really only one way to know if it’s for you: “A taste is worth a thousand words.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn