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Feeling the summer heat? Cool down with a refreshing glass of sparkling water mixed with some Tait Farm Raspberry Shrub.
Shrubs—concentrated syrups that combine fruit, sugar, and vinegar—are resurging in popularity. Typically added to water or spirits, they’re turning up at trendy bars in creative cocktails as well as interesting non-alcoholic alternatives. Shrubs were first popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries; it was a common way to preserve fruits before refrigeration. The term “shrub” is a variant of the word “shurb” from the Arabic word “sharāb” which means “to drink.” Early colonists brought the beverage to America, to places like City Tavern in Philadelphia, where Tait Farm Raspberry Shrub offers a sip of history on its Colonial drinks menu.
The micro-distillery boom is another reason for the steady increase in shrub sales. Distilleries only sell the spirits that they produce in-house, so stocking a wide variety of fruit shrub flavors makes it possible for them to offer an interesting collection of craft cocktails if there’s a bar on site.
Tait Farm didn’t start out determined to rule the shrub world; rather, the concoction was a response to a problem, a novel solution that redirected the enterprise.
The family farm was started in 1950 by Elton and Marian Tait, two graduates who worked at Penn State in Ag Extension. The 130-acre parcel of land stretches up Tussey Ridge seven miles east of State College, home of Penn State University. Marian and Elton raised sheep, chickens, hogs, horses, and Basset hounds as well as three children on the farm: a daughter, Sandy, and two sons, David and John. Both sons established perennial crops as u-pick operations on the farm. Asparagus, raspberries, apples, and Christmas trees sustained the family and proved popular with Central Pennsylvania locals.
Then in 1986, as a bumper crop of black raspberries hung ripe on the plants, there were two weeks of rain. No customers showed up to pick. The family got the berries off the canes and into freezers, but there was no demand for frozen berries. Cindy Tait Law, David’s first wife, suggested making shrub and the first Tait Farm Raspberry Shrub was bottled, looking a bit like a lab experiment, and distributed around town as samples. By the time the next crop of raspberries was ripe, the bottle had a label and a brand. Today Tait Farm Foods’ Raspberry Shrub is known as “The Original Shrub” and leads an additional 15 varieties (some seasonal) of fruit and vegetable shrubs in distinctive retro packaging.
Kim Tait, who married David in 1994, is the force who drives the food division of the diversified Tait Farm enterprise since David’s death in 1997. John Tait runs the Christmas trees and Bassett hounds. Sandy (Tait) Merwarth did dairy farming elsewhere in the state and now assists her son, Fred, who runs the award-winning Hermann Wiemer Finger Lakes winery. Following David’s lead, Kim steered the farm into value-added products that turned apples into apple butter, rhubarb into chutney, cherries into jam. Given lemons, she makes lemon vinaigrette.
“You just do what you gotta do, year after year,” says Kim. “You just learn to roll with it”—whether the “it” is weather, seasonal help, or customer expectations. Today Tait Farm Foods includes six acres of certified organic vegetables, fruits, and greenhouse production that serves its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program known as Community Harvest. The Harvest Shop, the on-farm retail store, offers all the farm products alongside other specialties of the region.
Tait Farm is one of the organic vegetable anchors at the State College Saturday farmers market held in the community’s Home Depot parking lot with plenty of space for social distancing. Tait Farms’ line of 60+ specialty items used to be produced in the barn behind The Harvest Shop but is now made in a larger facility in the nearby village of Boalsburg. The broad line of products sells at the shop, online, and to retailers and restaurants across the country.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic signaled a shift. Retail sales at the shop switched to online with 90 percent of the business from local folks who appreciate the safety and convenience of online ordering and curbside pickup. In the greenhouse, late March, April, and May were very busy as more people planted gardens at home.
Up until March, Kim and her team were busy with shows like the Philadelphia Flower Show that provided vast exposure. There were annual events at the farm that drew hundreds of participants and weekly classes in The Harvest Shop that accommodated dozens, but all of that stopped abruptly.
“It was a big pivot point,” says Kim, “We have gone from being a destination to figuring out how we can bring the farm to you.”
One option for immediate connection with Tait Farm Foods is the YouTube channel, where Kim and longtime Tait Farm R & D specialist Cindy Tait Law offer a series of demos shot right in the shop. Quick one- and two-minute videos show how to use shrub, arrange a charcuterie board, make a white bean dip, and even assemble PB + J boards for children with jams and fruit add-ons.
Tait Farm Foods is proving once again that it can adapt. Too hot to cook? Looking for an easy dinner? Make yourself a refreshing Strawberry Basil Spritzer and put together a cheese board with a jar of Ginger Peach Chutney or some Raspberry Chipotle Mustard. Enjoy a taste of Central Pennsylvania in a bottle or a jar that gets delivered right to your door from Tait Farm.