Ginger Beer, the Local Food System, and a Little Bit of Magic
“It’s greater than the sum of its parts,” Miranda LeonJones says. She’s talking about her Bright & Sunny Ginger Beer. Naturally fermented and made from four ingredients, there’s a “magic” element that happens when wild yeast meets organic ginger, cane sugar, lime juice, and water. LeonJones’ ginger beer is effervescent and brings a sense of lightness and wellbeing to the imbiber.
Miranda LeonJones, the “Ginger Beer Lady”
Photo credit: Jay Jones
She gives me a seasonal special bottle, infused with strawberries from Mariposa Farm. A gorgeous shade of rose-pink, the flavor is delicate and invigorating. Not to mention, the natural fermentation process leaves Leon-Jones’ concoctions rich with probiotics.
LeonJones’ ginger beer journey began with just that – a journey. She moved to Bellingham from Seattle in 2017 with her husband Jay, looking for something new to try. Fermentation had always called to her. She recalls, “I’m just such a fermentation geek. I ferment everything I can get my hands on!”
She started making ginger beer, having always loved it, and soon had a cooler set up outside her house to sell to eager friends. Now, she has a kitchen at Avellino Gluten-Free Bakery. “I figured out how to scale it up,” she says. “I thought, ‘What if I can get into the farmer’s market and be the ginger beer lady?!’” And that’s exactly what she did, starting at the Bellingham Farmers Market in 2018.
Bright & Sunny Ginger Beer is the product of LeonJones’ love, curiosity, and community. Of course, it’s also the product of wild yeast in the air, what Leon-Jones refers to as the “magic ingredient”. That’s what makes natural fermentation so special, and why it’s been a culinary practice for thousands of years. Fermented foods and drinks contain probiotics, which many people consume for their health. “I hear a lot of folks saying that it’s good for their tummy troubles, with the ginger and probiotics,” LeonJones says,
Another “magic” part of fermentation? Its ability to extend the harvest. Foods harvested at their peak can be preserved and enjoyed throughout the year, with a little extra flair and fizz added in the process. LeonJones loves being able to connect with local growers, making seasonal varieties with Mariposa Farm strawberries, basil from FarmWild, lemon balm from Ten Fold Farm, blueberries from Terra Verde, and more. The local food system is part of what drew her to this work in the first place.
“The most rewarding part of all this is connection with our community,” LeonJones explains. “I get to know people through the farmer’s market, get to know local farmers, and get to be part of the local food scene. And I meet all kinds of people who are doing amazing things.”
One such person is Brian Rusk of FarmWild. FarmWild is a small-scale sustainable farm in Whatcom County, providing pasture-raised chickens, eggs, turkeys, and pork products to the area since 2016. In 2020, however, FarmWild took a big step in an innovative direction. Rusk and his crew added an aquaponics farm, enabling FarmWild to grow greens all year round, as well as experiment growing plants like ginger and turmeric.
Brian Rusk and his family
Photo credit: Katheryn Moran Photography
LeonJones had a chance to brew with Rusk’s ginger and finds it a big improvement over other varieties. “It’s super dreamy,” she says. “He just planted a bed for me that should be ready at the end of the year. To be able to make this product and not rely on foreign imports…” she drifts off, an excited look in her eyes. “That’s just incredible. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”
So what enables Rusk to grow ginger in Whatcom County? Aquaponics. A combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, aquaponics uses the “symbiotic relationships between plants and fish to replicate natural ecosystems. The basic idea behind aquaponics is that when fish eat, their waste product is nitrogen-rich. Plants growing in the same water and use this nitrogen as fertilizer to grow. So fish create nutrients for the plants, and the plants filter the water and send it back to the fish.”
The aquaponics set up at FarmWild and locally-grown ginger
If it sounds sustainable and efficient, that’s because it is. Rusk can grow 2 acres’ worth of produce in his single greenhouse, which is LED-lit, solar-powered, and has no runoff or waste. Not to mention, that nitrogen-rich growing climate produces basil, herbs, and greens with robust flavor. That’s why local restaurants like Pizza’zza, Fairhaven Pizza, Storia Cucina, Milano’s, Evolve Café, and Maikham all use FarmWild produce in their dishes.
Rusk is passionate about the potential of aquaponics to revolutionize the food system, explaining, “These kinds of farms can address a spectrum of needs, whether they’re for a family or operating on a production scale. They can also be installed in urban areas, food deserts, rooftops, or disturbed lands.”
I return from my visit to FarmWild feeling excited about the ways that the local food system connects fermenters, small business owners, farmers, and consumers alike. “Leave them inspired,” is Rusk’s motto.
And there’s inspiration to be found everywhere: in LeonJones’ delightful brews; the intoxicating fragrance of aquaponically-grown ginger; and the power of a sustainable and supportive community.