Meet Sarah Bourke, creator of Sideyard Shrubs, a Santa Barbara-based fruit vinegar company whose passion is to ensure local excess of fruit crops don’t go to waste. Shrubs are also commonly referred to as fruit vinegars, or drinking vinegars. They taste delicious! They are extremely versatile, and they’re healthy to boot; packed with all of the health benefits of organic apple cider vinegar. Traditionally, shrubs can be used in drinks, salad dressings, mignonettes, sauces and beyond.
Sarah started experimenting with this magical fermented liquid at the height of the pandemic and has since turned their passion into a thriving business — her small batch, home-made, and beautifully designed bottles can be found in farmers' markets and local grocers across Southern California. She sources fruit directly from small-farm partners, side-yard farmers, and friends in her community, most of whom are certified-organic non-profits that share the same passion for making positive changes to regional food systems.
Read more about Sarah’s dreams for Sideyard Shrubs, her choice shrub recipe, and her favorite pair of Mohinders for harvesting local bounty.
First of all, what exactly is a shrub? What makes your shrubs unique and so delicious?
I always like to start by saying this: shrubs are an unconventional beverage you can be on a nickname basis with, and they really do taste like sunshine in a bottle. But here’s the more honest answer: shrubs are fruit vinegars! And the way I make them, they’re technically fruit-infused vinegars.
Shrubs are delicious, versatile in drinks and cooking, and packed with all the goodness of raw, organic apple cider vinegar. Our fruit vinegars are pure, fragrant and full of flavor thanks to the highest quality seasonal fruit. Sideyard Shrubs are naturally fermented in small batches - one gallon at a time - with only organic ingredients, and bottled by hand in Santa Barbara. We never add sugar to our shrubs, like so many other brands do, because we believe in letting fruit sing! The only sweetness you’ll taste in a Sideyard Shrub comes from the fruit itself — to us, that’s the good stuff.
What does your day to day look like — from harvest to bottle?
When different fruits come into season in Southern California, I reach out to my network of local, small-scale farmers to source everything from loquats, stone fruits and guavas to prickly pears, persimmons and pomegranates. Often times, I’ll help out the farmers with fruit harvests. Then, I haul everything home, process the fruit and get it ready to ferment and infuse into apple cider vinegar. My apple cider vinegar base is certified-organic, raw, alive and with “the mother” – meaning it’s packed with all those good-for-your-gut probiotics and loaded with health benefits.
When the fruit is ready to go, I add it to our apple cider vinegar base to infuse for 30-60 days (depending on the fruit). When it comes time to bottle, I strain out the fruit solids, compost the fruit scraps, and boom – you have yourself a beautiful, bottled shrub!
How did you first learn about the health benefits of shrubs? What is your favorite way to enjoy them?
Health benefits are a funny lead-in…My very first shrub experience was in a cocktail, so I can’t exactly make any legitimate health claims there. I was at a music festival in Napa, and I ordered a shrub cocktail not knowing what a shrub was. I took one sip, and my taste buds basically exploded. The flavors made me smile big, and that cocktail sparked my interest and motivated me to learn how to make my own shrubs. I started foraging fruit in the front, back, and sideyard of my own apartment building complex, and that of close friends who live locally. I walked every single row of the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers’ Market in search of seasonally-available, regionally-grown produce. I discovered several fruit trees in my own sideyard: figs, strawberry guavas and pineapple guavas -- and friends generously donated fruit to turn into shrubs; the more I tinkered, the more I fell in love with all things shrubs.
I will add this: I’ve been fermenting different foods and drinks at home for six years or so. I started to brew my own kombucha, and experimented with other forms of fermentation such as pickling vegetables, canning jams and keeping sourdough starters. The health benefits of fermented foods are far-reaching, and I can absolutely feel a difference in my day-to-day energy levels and digestion when I’m sipping shrubs.
How else can you enjoy shrubs other than drinking them?
With just the right amount of tang, shrubs are the perfect addition to salad dressings, marinades, pickle recipes and so much more. Any time I think to reach for vinegar in my home kitchen, I grab a bottle of shrub instead. The applications of shrubs are far reaching, both in drinks and cooking.
There are loads of recipes on the Good News Page of our website, from drinks like cocktails, mocktails and wellness tonics, to salad dressings and ceviche recipes, and sauces like harissa.
Describe where you live now. Santa Barbara — what’s happening, as the seasons change?
I live in a small apartment in downtown Santa Barbara. I must pay this great place a compliment, in that Santa Barbara has been an amazing place to call home during the pandemic. There’s so much to do outside, from surfing and hiking to trail running, and I continue to count my lucky stars that I’m able to live here. More now than ever before.
In general, Santa Barbara experiences a warm-summer Mediterranean climate characteristic of coastal California. We’re starting to see the first few glimmers of fall, with slightly cooler weather, occasionally breezy days and low-hanging coastal fog in the morning. That said, most days continue to feel like summer is in full swing.
What are you harvesting currently?
With Sideyard Shrubs, the changing of seasons means summer crops like peaches, apricots, nectarines, and plums are on their way out and fall fruits are on their way in. Looking ahead, I’m gearing up to harvest caviar limes, prickly pears, pineapple guavas, pomegranates and persimmons. And figs, definitely more figs.
What is your favorite season for farming?
Late spring or early summer. When strawberries and loquats come into season, my heart starts to sing. And for me, these are the seasons when shrub production really ramps up.
How did you get involved in farming? It sounds like you have a large network of fruit farmers and community based small-scale farmers.
Growing food feeds my soul, and connecting with small-scale farmers growing good food is a really special thing for me. It’s been that way for the past ten years or more. I’m passionate about gardening and growing veggies for myself, friends and family. I dream about farming full-time in the future, but until then I’ve made a commitment to cultivating a community and network of small-scale farmers I’ve come to know as friends, and feel more like family. That’s really how I stay connected to the food and farming scene in Santa Barbara County, and have had success building relationships with farmers in the community.
Small-holder farmers are a special breed. Their shared commitments to land stewardship, feeding our communities, cultivating perennial fruit trees and thriving orchards, and supporting our regional food system are second to none. Not to mention the love they feel, the joy they bring and the passion they share and exude when it comes to growing good food. It’s totally contagious to me, and I spend the majority of my free time volunteering at local farms, visiting new farms, and spending time around people who grow food.
Organic farming is so much more than just the absence of pesticides. What’s something you wish more people knew about organically-grown produce?
For me, organic agriculture is part of a much bigger conversation around climate change. Hidden in the earth beneath our feet in the soil, billions of microorganisms may help reverse climate change —if we treat them right. Farmers don’t have the luxury to debate climate change, they have to respond to it and take action. And farms have long understood that this carbon-rich organic material supports healthy plants, which is why mulching, composting and cover crops have been used for thousands of years.
There are more bacteria and organic soil matter in a handful of healthy soil than there are people on the planet. Organic agriculture – and farming practices that build soil health and sequester carbon – might just be humanity’s best hope for mitigating climate change.
Are there any future plans for Sideyard Shrubs that you are excited about?
In my mind, good grows slow. I’m staying focused on wholesale, and maintaining existing and building new relationships with like-minded stores, community-based shops and farm stands to sell my shrubs. I have great momentum here in Southern California, and I’m starting to reach out to potential wholesale partners in Northern California and grow the business up the coast.
Can you share a shrub recipe with us? Do people use them for cocktails?
Yes! My personal favorite is the Sunshine Spritz, which you can find online here: https://www.drinksideyard.com/good-news/shrub-cocktail-recipes
image credit: (left) Sandy Lee Walsh for Communal Table Santa Barbara, (right) Mikaela Hamilton
What moves you?
My community here in Santa Barbara County moves me. My relationships with friends and family continue to motivate me, inspire me, and keep me moving and grooving.
Where have you been wearing your Mohinders? Do you see yourself taking them on future travels?
I wear my Mohinders all over town in Santa Barbara, and more recently started wearing them on trips to farms where the ground is solid and clear, and I can easily move around. While I don’t have any future travel plans on the books, I’m confident I’ll pack my Mohinders and bring them with me wherever I go.
What are the (other) staples in your shoe collection?
Blundstones boots, Rainbow sandals, and Mohinders Slides. These are my staples, and I can’t see that changing.
What’s on your bookshelf right now (or in your car stereo)?
Honor Thy Label, a new book out from Dr. Bronner’s. I’m a big fan of their business model, their commitment to corporate social responsibility and radical transparency when it comes to supply chain partnerships and doing business in general.
The best advice you’ve ever received?
When it comes to my business, I was offered the advice of pouring all my time, energy and enthusiasm into starting out and really growing in my hometown of Santa Barbara. There’s always temptation and motivation to expand and grow as fast as possible, but in our first year of business I’ve made a huge effort to establish farm partnerships with growers in Santa Barbara County and establish wholesale partnerships in Santa Barbara County.