Two Augusts ago, during a fantasy-football draft, Evan Machowsky reached into his friend Josh Siber’s fridge for a beer. His hand landed on an unlabeled Mason jar packed with green beans in clear liquid. Intrigued, he helped himself to a bean. Pleasingly crisp, it displayed a gamut of brisk flavors: salt, vinegar, dill and garlic. He loved it.
Siber has always been fascinated with food and cooking. The Manalapan native, 28, an equity research analyst at Morgan Stanley, spends his free time experimenting with recipes, from breakfast to cocktails. In 2011, he came across a recipe for pickled green beans and gave it a whirl, “just for fun.” They were a hit. “I would make a big batch of pickled green beans every spring or summer,” Siber says. “My friends loved them.”
Around the time of the fantasy-football draft, Siber and Deloitte senior tax manager Andrew Guberman, 31, pals since their Manalapan childhoods, along with Machowsky, also 31, had been talking about launching a food-related side business together. Machowsky’s enthusiasm for the green beans made the three friends suddenly envision a different, longer kind of green—the kind that turns a bottom line black.
The investment-minded trio saw promise in pickling. The raw materials are inexpensive; the manufacturing process is relatively simple; and the end product has a nearly endless shelf life.
“You can build an inventory and then go out and sell your product,” explains Machowsky, 31, a financial advisor in Manhattan. “I liken it to a fashion item. If you create a really nice shirt, for example, it’s not going to go bad. And pickles have been around forever, so people aren’t going to just start disliking them.”
Indeed, pickling is an increasingly popular segment of the artisanal food movement. House-made pickles and various fermented products are turning up in serious restaurants.
Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown has served an appetizer sampler of stracciatella cheese, pickled cremini mushrooms, pickled skate and dried beef with crusty bread on a wooden board. Mossuto’s Market & Café in Wall Township has a signature Napoletana pizza, the Fat Lip, that gets its name from the pucker-inducing South Jersey red peppers it pickles in house.
When the Diving Horse in Avalon reopened for the season in June, it offered a calamari appetizer with house-pickled ramps spiced with paprika. Pickling, says Diving Horse executive chef Paul Carrier, is a great way to preserve seasonal ingredients.
“We constantly pickle—lots of onions and peppers,” Carrier says. “It’s refreshing to have on the plate, especially during the summer. I’m thinking of pickling some shrimp soon. You really can pickle anything.” Carrier uses the classic 3/2/1 formula: 3 parts vinegar, 2 parts sugar, 1 part water, plus salt and spices. The plethora of available vinegars, including apple cider, cherry, red wine, white wine and rice wine, offers the pickler a full spectrum of flavors.
By November 2013, Siber, Machowsky and Guberman had rented a cooking facility in Little Ferry and were pickling everything they could get their hands on, from traditional cucumbers and hot peppers to contemporary choices like Brussels sprouts, watermelon rind and pears.
Each trial ingredient and recipe was sealed in a jar. Then the three had to wait patiently for the pickling process to proceed. After about three weeks, the batch was far enough along to open and taste.
“If we each made five different things, there were 15 chances for something to be good,” reasons Machowsky. “But there were definitely a few times when we went 0 and 15.” Over the course of several months, he continues, “we probably tasted 300 jars of pickled items, of every type of fruit and vegetable you could imagine.”
Many of the experiments, including watermelon rind and Brussels sprouts, were unpalatable. Pickled lemons and pickled peaches? Both nauseating. Pickled hot peppers were too spicy for their taste buds; Siber had to chug milk to quell a hiccup fit after a particularly nasty batch. In the end, fairly classic vegetables seemed to hold the most promise. They then refined the recipes, meticulously recording each measurement, adding or subtracting minute quantities of sugar, salt or spices until they settled on three initial products:
• Salt and Vinegar Chips (crinkle-cut cucumbers in white vinegar, with salt, shallots, garlic and black pepper)
• Caulikraut (a riff on sauerkraut, with chopped cauliflower, Vidalia onions, celery seeds and spices)
• Jalabeaño Carrots (green beans and carrots brined with jalapeños, mustard seeds and crushed red peppers).
They recently added a fourth: Rye Chips, crinkle-cut cucumbers brined with caraway seeds. “It actually tastes like a deli sandwich,” says Machowsky, “instead of a pickle on a deli sandwich.”
The three partners (“We all wear the CEO hat,” says Guberman) pitched in designing the company’s lively website and fun logo. The name was inspired by the long, messy nights experimenting in Little Ferry (and in their home kitchens, much to their wives’ displeasure). And, being avid New York Rangers hockey fans, “Messy Brine” was a nice homage to Mark Messier, the Hall of Famer who led the team to its long-sought Stanley Cup victory in 1994.
Eco-friendliness was built in from the start. Ingredients are sourced from local farms as much as possible, and Messy Brine contributes a portion of proceeds to the water-quality improvement efforts of the non-profit Concern Worldwide U.S. “Our products can’t be made without clean, sustainable water,” says Machowsky. “The idea is to give anyone the opportunity to grow their own produce anywhere in the world.”
Messy Brine became a LLC in January 2014, registering its permanent address as Guberman’s parents’ house in Manalapan. “Right now, where we are in our lives—Evan just moved to Brooklyn, I’m still in the city—we didn’t want to put one of our current addresses in the LLC,” Guberman explains. “I’m planning on moving back to New Jersey at some point, once the kids start to happen. I’m sure my wife [a Rutgers grad from Marlboro] is going to start pressuring me pretty soon,” he adds with a laugh.