Austin Mushrooms With a View to the Future: Smallhold brings the fruits of fancy fungus to Austin – Food
Yellow oyster mushrooms (Photo by Wayne Alan Brenner)
Travis Breihan, Manager at Smallhold in South Austin, opens the large walk-in radiator door and I look inside, slightly amazed at the sight of what is on the metal storage system in this lighted, air-conditioned room: blossom after blossom after blossom of royal trumpet mushrooms.
“Whoa,” I say, blinking against the mushroom-filled brightness of the interior. “It looks like a poster for Smash the Patriarchy or something.”
“Heh-heh,” replies Breihan generously.
Lion’s mane mushrooms (Courtesy Smallhold)
The other walk-ins in the tidy warehouse on Old Manchaca Road contain different types of mushrooms: yellow oysters, blue oysters, and, the current darling of the mushroom-loving culinary world, lion’s mane. None of these others, I notice, look even vaguely like tails. And all of them, including those phallic trumpets, are beautiful too – in some sort of alien landscape by Roger Dean. But of course they are not aliens at all: the not quite plants / not quite animals come from here on earth. About Brooklyn in the case of those small farms.
“That’s where the company started,” says Breihan. “Founders Adam DeMartino and Andrew Carter helped develop this mini mushroom farm so we could grow mushrooms in small places – in basements, restaurants, and grocery stores.” They’ve done it successfully since 2017, serving a plethora of offices and individuals in New York City – and that big-city success isn’t slowing. After the initial triumph, the company wanted to further spread its business and its message of health and deliciousness. Kind of like, you know mushrooms do?
“Smallhold tries to take as much clues as possible from mushrooms and mycelial networks,” admits Breihan. “We get a lot of wisdom there.” So the company has expanded into New Jersey and is working on outcrops in other parts of the country. Yes, they are definitely established in Texas.
“I’m from Austin,” says Breihan, the mycophile who began his career as a forestry and reforestation assistant to indigenous communities in Central America. “I was born here. But I’ve been to New York working with sustainable agriculture companies, and Smallhold caught my eye. I always wanted to find ways to get Texas excited about sustainable food systems, and mushrooms are next for me.” Frontier in the food world. When Smallhold was about to expand into Texas, I said, ‘I’ll do it! Whatever it takes!’ “The company opened its farm in Austin last November.
Royal Trumpet Mushrooms (Photo by Wayne Alan Brenner)
Of course, our city has its own mushroom initiatives – Jesse Devenyns featured on these pages two years ago on the Myco Alliance team, and Edible Austin recently featured the bustling duo Hi-Fi Mycology for two brokered examples and central Texas is The Mycology Society active since 2019 – but it seems that our burgeoning castle has room for everything (except perhaps zebra mussels).
“Much of the new business came from the pandemic,” emphasizes Breihan. “We’ve really worked on restaurants and worked closely with chefs for a long time, but COVID pushed us to more grocery stores and our growing kits. It took us in a whole new direction, which was really exciting. We started, bigger ones.” Creating opportunities with the likes of Central Market and Whole Foods. So we’re moving from mini-farms to macro-farms – just like this place: bigger mushroom farms. “
In addition to the multiple floor-to-ceiling walk-in walk-in rooms that are used to grow the mushroom plants destined for sale in grocery stores and restaurants, there are several glass display cases on the walls of Smallhold’s main room. No, they look like they’re just showcases like those you’d find in a natural history museum, but they’re actually active mini-farms. This is the attractive contraption with which the company was started. The mushrooms inside are well displayed and arranged according to the development.
“We have the yellow oyster, the lion’s mane, the blue oyster and the royal trumpet,” says Breihan, who acts as the tour guide and points to the large blocks of spore-containing matter in their clear plastic shell. “You can see them in their different stages: this first is like the original state; this is how they come from us when you buy a block. Next you can see them here in their pinning phase, that is almost like microscopic mushrooms. When they are a little bigger, we cut open the bag, expose them to oxygen, and that accelerates their growth. And that – “he points to a shelf with a glass front above, a shelf that is wonderfully alive with a bloom of yellow oysters – “This is close to the terminal stage. They can get bigger, but it’s a nice size for what we’re doing.”
Blue oyster mushrooms (Photo by Wayne Alan Brenner)
And what Smallhold does in addition to growing, selling and recycling is fulfilling its business obligations. “We prepare our retail packaging here,” says Breihan, pointing to his colleagues who are fighting mushrooms over a large stainless steel table covered with small cardboard boxes. Busy hands place perfect specimens – the above-ground part of the organism, the so-called fruit bodies – in branded containers. “This is a big part of what we’re doing for the central market,” says Breihan. “These are boxes of our fancy mushrooms – we have different packs, blue and yellow together and so on.”
Those of us who live here know what a big deal the Central Market is, from both a wholesaler’s and a customer’s perspective. So I had to ask: was it difficult to connect to that high end HEB of a place?
“They were very receptive,” says Breihan. “As far as I know, it was difficult for them to find reliable producers of the boutique varieties. The industry is very mature with portobellos, mushrooms and criminis – actually all the same types: Agaricus bisporus. But the oysters – and, by the way, are the trumpets not particularly easy to transport. Unlike shiitakes for example, you can ship them across the planet, and they’re perfectly fine. They can stay in chilled temperatures for weeks. But a yellow oyster, with time from harvest to market and then actually on a customer’s plate? It shouldn’t take more than a week. So we want to build these dispersed farms across the country – so we can provide freshly picked mushrooms to the world and essentially grow them locally anywhere. “
Yellow oyster mushrooms (Photo by Wayne Alan Brenner)
So, the substrate that Smallhold uses – the stuff the mushrooms grow in – that comes from here?
“No,” admits Breihan. “We have a partner in Pennsylvania, in Appalachia, from whom we source the blocks. We use by-products of the timber industry” – read: sawdust – “to grow them so that we can keep this supply chain as tight as possible. We are We want someday build our own substrate facilities, but it’s a really expensive investment and we’re not quite there yet. ”He smiles. “But that’s the plan.”
“Man,” I suggest, “you seem pretty invested in all of this.”
“You know,” says Breihan, and I will swear that at this point there is a glimmer of hope in his eyes, “there is a whole world of mushrooms that we are only just beginning to understand socially and culturally. And we are seeing it. ” as part of our job of educating the public and getting people excited about mushrooms. That’s why there is Smallhold. “
The Smallhold website provides information on where to get fresh mushrooms, including the Central Market, and how to order grow kits. www.smallhold.com