Tanner’s Pickles: Handmade in Baltimore by handsome devils

Written by on June 19, 2013 in Featured - No comments

"The running joke at work is that I'm posing as an Amish guy to give the pickles more credibility," says Evan Tanner. - Photo by Erik Zygmont

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- Photo by Erik Zygmont

Natty Boh beer is brewed in South Carolina and Georgia. Esskay Meat Products is a subsidiary of Smithfield, which will most likely be in Chinese hands later this year.

What is still made in Baltimore?

Tulkoff horseradish, Domino sugar, Goetze’s candy—and Tanner’s Comestibles, known colloquially as Tanner’s Pickles.

While the other companies are old, Tanner’s is new.

Owner, operator, producer, marketer and laborer Evan Tanner, 42, lives in a “little man-cave apartment” in Highlandtown, on the 3500 block of Bank St. A former Krav Maga instructor who plays drums in a feminist hardcore punk band called War on Women, Tanner tends bar at Johnny Rad’s. On his own time, he packs roughly 240 jars per week with his pickles—chipotle garlic dill, habanero bread and butter, garlic dill and lemongrass dill, to name a few.

He’ll head to a local farm, pick up a few hundred pounds of produce, and, within six hours, turn the raw material into gourmet pickles, hermetically sealed in labeled jars. Tanner repeats this process three times per week in a space available to him for the graveyard shift. He has one “casual labor” helper who is learning the craft of pickle-making and assists in the two-man “intense production line.”

“I can keep up with it for now,” Tanner says, adding that he will soon have to increase his production capacity, which is topped out in his present circumstances.

Four years ago, Tanner was flipping through the “Ball Blue Book Guide to Home Canning” and buying home canning kits from Walmart, and his current problem was completely unforeseen. He was simply tired of the same old commercially-produced pickles.

Known for his ability to tweak cocktails until better-that-just-right, he started experimenting with pickle brine “to make things tasty and different.”

Tanner stresses that the brine—pickling liquid—can have many flavor profiles besides salty. He used flavorings such as habenero peppers, soy sauce, jerk spice, chipotle and ginger to achieve new heights of flavor.

“Basically, it was selfish,” Tanner says. “I wanted pickles to taste the way I wanted them to taste.”

Plus, he had found himself with an “abundance of fresh, local, organic produce,” a side effect of spending a lot of time in Lawrenceville, Penn., a town with a population well below 1,000.

“There was a farmer who just gave us stuff,” he says.

Never intending to profit from his pickles, Tanner brought them to friends and regulars at Johnny Rad’s.

“People suggested I try to sell them,” he says.

Not a bad idea, Tanner thought, but he “found out pretty quickly that it’s way more complicated than canning them, putting a label on the jar, and selling them.”

Putting pickles in hermetically-sealed jars for human consumption is a process regulated by the Food and Drug Administration on the federal level, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on the state level and the Baltimore City Health Department on the local level. Tanner explains that pickles and other “acidified foods” must go through an FDA “process authority” in which lab testing determines whether ph levels are safe for human consumption.

On top of that, Tanner has had to complete several courses—on microbiology and thermal processing, for example—and become certified in basic food preservation.

“It’s what anyone would have to go through to become a foreman at a canning plant,” he says.

Tanner notes that “all that registration and craziness” was (and is) a very expensive process. A loan from a good friend helped get him through it.

“Both he and his wife are firm believers in the product,” he says.

So, it turns out, are lots of other people. Tanner’s Pickles can be purchased at the Fleet Street Market in Fell’s Point, The Wine Source in Hampden, Grand Cru in Belvedere Square and the Green Onion Market in Hamilton. They are served in bars and restaurants such as the Laughing Pint in Highlandtown, WC Harlan in Remington and the Golden West Cafe in Hampden.

“Pretty much as soon as I was legal, I’ve had people come to me,” Tanner says. “There are more retailers waiting on me right now.”

Per the current Baltimore City zoning regulations, canning pickles falls under the category of “manufacturing.”
“Where I’m being pushed is out to the industrial areas, near the oil refineries and whatnot,” Tanner says. “My argument all along has been, ‘Do you really want to buy pickles made next to an oil refinery?”

Tanner says that he and the city have been working toward a solution.

“The Health Department has been very cool to me,” he says. “Jamie Nash of the Office of Sustainability has been very helpful.”

Tanner sees a couple options for his next step. With the city’s approval, he could craft his pickles behind a storefront, and sell them from the same space.

“A bakery can make cupcakes and sell them out the back to whoever—why can’t I do that?” he says.

The other possibility?
“I would love to have the problem of building the big processing facility; that would be great.”

Whatever happens, Tanner will stay focused on his product—maintaining that delicate balance between crispness and flavor saturation, or tempering the “punch from the acid” with a surprising flavor such as lemongrass.

“I appreciate making pickles the same way I appreciate cocktails in bars—it’s just a really delicious thing made from other things,” he says
And, despite the difficulties, Tanner’s not going anywhere.

“With this movement of handmade, artisanal food products, there’s something to be said for being made in Baltimore City,” he says. “This city’s always been a blue collar city, and making pickles is basically manual labor—with a skilled edge.”

by Erik Zygmont

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