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The Deligram is an ode to the artisanal food makers of New York. Two weeks ago, we spoke to the Nepali chef Rachana Rimal of Rachana’s Delights, who makes succulent momos and sweets from her home country. This week, we’re talking with Young Stowe and Graham Pirtle, the friends (and roommates!) behind the Brooklyn-based fermented tea label Unified Ferments. The duo sources single-origin teas from China and Taiwan and honey from an apiary in New Jersey to make their bottles of complex, sparkling and still fermented beverages, including kombucha and jun. You’ll find no fruit flavoring here, and that’s precisely the point. “Fermentation has a remarkable way of breaking open and translating things that can be really subtle in tea,” Stowe says.

The Product: Non-alcoholic fermented beverages, made from single-origin teas.
The Deligram Pick: Qi Dan.
How To Buy: Order online at unifiedferments.com. Shipping is available throughout most of the Northeast, with a greater range coming soon.
Price: Get a two-pack of 750 ml bottles for $35. A four-bottle sampler is $60.

Young Stowe: We met at Baylor, a boarding school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as roommates. I wouldn't say we were fast friends, but we got closer. I think if you had come to us at that time and shown us our lives now, we would be really confused. It probably seems kind of crazy to a lot of people that we run this business together and also are roommates. I think it's a secret to why things have — more or less — worked.

Graham Pirtle: For whatever reason, we both ended up going to New York. I found a bar manager job at a spot in Gowanus, at Lavender Lake. I also picked up shifts at 29B, a teahouse on the Lower East Side that had just opened. I’d always been like, ‘I guess I like tea?’ but there I learned about how deep the world of tea is, how beautiful that entire liquid world is. I was running a cocktail program, and I wanted to make those menus more ingredient-driven and especially tea-driven. I really had to push myself to understand the botanic structure of tea and all these flavor receptors that are lit up by tea.

Young Stowe: Graham’s way more of a baseline tea nerd than I am. I come from the beer and wine world. We had an opportunity to work on the opening of a bar concept with my brother, and it was like, we should have an in-house fermentation program. And we should use these tea connections that Graham developed to play with.

Graham Pirtle: Young and I did not hang out behind the gym in high school, drawing our future company logo to sell fancy kombucha. We fell into it because we thought, why isn't anybody doing this? We are tasting tea in a way that's unique, and maybe the first of its kind on a commercial level. There’s already been so much work and artistry that has gone into the production of the tea that we're using. Sourcing takes up a large amount of mental real estate. I feel the producers looking over my shoulder and being like, is this an homage to the thing? Is this opening up a new dimension of this flavor profile? Is it conveying a sense memory? Is it conveying terroir? With fermentation, you’re breaking something down and putting it back together in a surprising way. At the end of the day, we are doing a certain little magic trick that can make something way more understandable — and just delightful.

Graham Pirtle: We're a COVID company. Keeping the lights on was the goal. Now that we're in a better place, it's like, what does the mission look like when we have a little bit more reach? We were never pursuing this health component of kombucha, which we frankly find a bit annoying. We are about putting stuff in stemware that is approachable but is going to absolutely change how you think about any of the liquids you’ve had before. Sometimes, we have people come in and they're like, ‘We were thinking about maybe doing a cocktail with this.’ We're like, ‘Go for it!’ I want to see a piña colada with Snow Chrysanthemum.

Young Stowe: We have a lot of different things waiting in the wings. What we're doing now is kind of fancy, and we have some product that we're working on that's decidedly not. We are in the process of doing some fundraising — to be able to expand, you need capital. We’re about to go national in our shipping. When we first started pushing ourselves out into the world, we were just talking to restaurants. Probably half of our business these days is online, direct-to-consumer sales.

Graham Pirtle: We wear non-alcoholic lightly, but that is also a very rewarding part of what we do: people being like, ‘I have an option to toast with something.’ We hope to be gracing a lot of tables for a lot of the holidays. And we've been preparing to be able to satisfy orders that are coming from that; that'll do a lot of good, getting us into the places that we need to be in terms of operational weight. Right now, we're a two-man team. It would be great to just be in more conversations with more people about more things. At the end of the day, too, the name of our company is Unified Ferments. Tea is what we started with, but there's lots of fermentation styles and lots of other things that can be brought into the marketplace.

Greatest hit: If we’re talking about order volume and people’s eyes adjusting to tasting it, it’s probably Snow Chrysanthemum. — Graham Pirtle

I would say Qi Dan is a very close second. Typically, if we’re tasting with a fancy wine person, Qi Dan’s the one they are like, whoa. — Young Stowe

Most underrated product:
Wen Shan Bao Zhong. It's a Taiwanese tea, and Taiwanese teas are super delicate, in a different way than Japanese teas. The challenge with that was that a lot of those higher, powderier notes can get blown off really easily in fermentation. It's easy for them to disappear. It forced us to innovate in a direction that I think influenced everything else we make. — Young Stowe

How to best enjoy your products: Pour it into stemware. It opens up like wine. — Young Stowe

[Editor's note: The Unified Ferments makers also mentioned roast chicken twice in this conversation. Take note.]

Favorite places to eat in NY: The Four Horsemen is the best lunch in New York. HiHi Room; the Court Street Grocers guys are geniuses. Graham worked at Insa for years; Insa’s the shit. Xian’s Famous Foods is the perfect New York institution. — Young Stowe

June wine bar — a place we’re very happy to be pouring us. Win Son; Gage and Tollner…. Fort Defiance, a place we adore; its rebirth as a general store is absolutely gorgeous and they make the best bagel in New York. — Graham Pirtle

Food makers to follow: Sobre Masa. Our buddy Zack is the proprietor of this place — he’s from Oaxaca, and his whole thing is importing really insane, beautiful heirloom corn and trying to send as much money back to Mexico as he possibly can. Tortillas that will make you weep and tamales — you’ve never had anything like them. — Young Stowe

Jonah Reider; Yunkombucha420; Miguel De Leon over at Pinch Chinese. Whenever we’re out and about doing deliveries we’ll stop by Edy’s Grocer. He's presaging that, like, we're getting back into a roasted chicken world, which I think we're all excited about. — Graham Pirtle

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An enthusiastic selection of stories about food makers, founded by Anna Polonsky from Polonsky & Friends and Teddy Wolff.
All photos by Teddy Wolff for The Deligram.

 
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The Deligram · 366 Stockton St Unit 1C · Brooklyn, NY 11206-5966 · USA