I had the privilege of interviewing Meaghan Carpenter, one of the founders and owners of HEX Ferments, a fermented food and drink company located in Baltimore.
I was drawn to her story because of how her company embodies the core of my food philosophy – to connect with our food, where it comes from and how it makes us feel; to savor our food, prioritizing quality and taking time to enjoy it; and to nourish our bodies with vibrant, life-giving food.
What is this place?
Aside from what she had seen in John Waters’ movies, Meaghan Carpenter knew little about Baltimore when she moved here on a whim 12 years ago. The heat and humidity of Charm City in August and her cockroach-infested apartment weren’t the welcome she had anticipated when she picked up her life in Minneapolis to relocate here. She says “a boy” brought her here, but she stayed for a different boy, Shane, who’s now her husband.
Over the years, Meaghan’s initial impression of Baltimore has faded, as she has grown to appreciate and embrace her new home.
I feel like Baltimore is this really incredible city that is this melting pot that never seems to fully merge. People come from all over the place. But everybody has a pretty strong identity here. It doesn’t feel like a homogenous city at all.
Meaghan always loved food, grew up spending time in the kitchen with her parents, and worked in restaurant kitchens for years but never considered food for a career. Both she and Shane have been connected to fermented food since childhood. They grew up eating the harvest from their parents’ vegetable gardens and learned the art of canning at a young age (“You can only eat so many cucumbers, zucchini and carrots” Meaghan confessed.).
They were raised eating sour foods, a taste most Americans have not developed. It was their early introduction to sour, fermented foods that would eventually influence the business they formed together nearly four years ago, a fermented food and drink company called HEX Ferments.
When Meaghan was in college, she was part of a natural foods store co-op and learned how to make simple kimchi and sauerkraut. She noticed it helped the digestive issues she had in college that stemmed from her very poor diet. When she started sharing simple meals of rice, beans, steamed veggies and sauerkraut with the co-op staff, she noticed by how much better she felt. She carried that with her and it would come in handy years later.
It would take two transatlantic trips to the U.K. before Meaghan and Shane would delve more deeply into the art of fermentation. Both she and Shane spent some time separately in Ireland, where Shane worked on organic farms in Wales and saw a different side of fermentation – wines, meads and preserved foods – the side most of us are more familiar with here in the States.
It was in Ireland that Meaghan first learned about the sour, tingly, fermented drink called kombucha. She fell in love with it, and as soon as she got back to U.S., she put out a flyer asking who had the culture needed to brew kombucha. Meaghan was in luck. She learned the simple instructions for how to do it and has been making kombucha for the past 15 years, well before the recent kombucha craze started.
Years after Meaghan’s introduction to kombucha, she and Shane quickly realized that when they got together, they loved playing with flavors and having food experiments. They had a garden and had an overabundance of cabbage and decided to make sauerkraut. So Meaghan dug out Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, a book she first learned about through the co-op, and they got to work. Since then, they’ve visited Sandor’s farm in Tennessee and have been mentored by him along with another husband-wife fermentation team from the Cultured Pickle in Berkeley, California.
I loved what Meaghan had to say about what happened once they embarked on the journey to come together and explore the art of fermentation:
We instantly got rehooked into it all. Once you make fermented foods and you learn about it, there is the potential to get bitten by its mystery and magic, and there’s no turning back. Once you’re hooked into it, that’s it. It’s an obsession. We became totally and immensely obsessed.
Their friends loved what they made and suggested they open a business, but Meaghan and Shane were hesitant. They were enjoying their hobby and didn’t think they wanted to have a business doing it, even though Shane had been in business for himself since the age of 17.
But sometimes your calling finds you, and if you’re meant to do something with your life, it can be nearly impossible to escape. Meaghan was working at a desk job where she was “totally bored”. She was also teaching and making art, but she was not satisfied and found herself researching how to start a fermented foods business. Fueled by their newfound obsession and bolstered by Shane’s entrepreneurial skills, they decided to go for it and start HEX Ferments. It’s been nonstop ever since.
Meaghan designed the HEX Ferments logo and partnered with a fellow MICA alum to render the logo and set the vision for their brand. The inspiration for the name comes from Hexology folklore, which uses signs and symbols to protect relationships, secure the harvest, and ward off the unwelcome. In the same way, fermented foods protect and support our body, digestion, immune system and overall health and well-being.
Through her work, Meaghan has the opportunity to combine her two loves – food and art. She doesn’t see a separation between the two and credits her art education at MICA with her visual, creative problem-solving skills, which have served her well in business.
I see what we do as art. We get to play with flavors, and textures, and colors and beautiful objects and we get to put them together and let them slow cook, also known as ‘ferment’.
The inspiration behind unique flavor combinations, like Juniper Caraway Kraut, Carrot Confetti, Lover’s Truce Kimchi, and Butterfly Lime kombucha, often stems from whatever is in season.
The HEX team scours articles, recipes, and books for inspirations as well and considers their experiments a form of play. Meaghan said naming them is like naming a child and she and the team come up with names together.
For Valentine’s Day, an abundance of local beets inspired the creation of a complex kimchi called Lover’s Truce. And when Meaghan was given green tea and saffron tea from Afghanistan by her brother-in-law, it wasn’t long before Saffron kombucha was born.
Meaghan flavor preferences vary seasonally, so she didn’t have a go-to kraut or kombucha. If she had to pick, the plain sauerkraut that is currently at the peak of its ripeness and the Carrot Juniper kombucha were at the top of her list.
Customer buying habits are more particular. Some customers shop by color (i.e., “I only buy things that are red.”) while others have their standby flavors like Garlic Oregano and never waver from them. At times, Meaghan and Shane will come up with make something that’s “super crazy” in a small batch, and people will eat it up and come back months later looking for it. They like to keep things fresh, fun and seasonal.
When I have the opportunity to talk to people about food and hear their story, what I gravitate toward most is their food philosophy and the language they use around food.
My approach toward food is to invite people to be curious about eating – to connect with why we eat, how it makes us feel and where our foods comes from; to savor food and make eating a joyful experience; and to nourish our bodies with energizing, life-giving, real food, so we can look and feel our best.
When I asked Meaghan about her philosophy around food, I discovered that we share a similar approach and both prioritize being connected to our food along with nourishment:
I see food in different levels. I see food as culture. I see food as commodity and food as nourishment. The level that we operate in is all three. HEX sees food and our food system in a holistic approach. We need to address the entire system of what brings food, nourishment and culture to our plate.
I couldn’t agree more.
It’s a privilege to have a company right here in my hometown that is so committed to upholding the integrity of their food and nourishing people every day.
Stay tuned for the second post in this series to learn more about what makes HEX’s products different from everything else on the market, get some tips for how to incorporate these foods into your diet, and get a sneak peek at some plans for HEX’s future.