Interview – with Erin Elizabeth Hines of Bitter Girl – Petaluma, CA

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Flavors Produced to Date

Batch One – Orange, Tangerine, Vanilla, & Pomegranate

Bitter Rose – Rose Petals, Hibiscus, & Lavender

Pear Jordan – Pears & Hops (Cascade, Nugget, Centennial, Zeus, Chinook, Mt. Hood)

Mom’s Prickly Poms – Prickly Pears, Pomegranates, & Pineapple Guavas

Morning Wood – Barrel Aged Coffee, Cocoa Nibs, & Pink Peppercorns

Bitter Girl Bitters - Erin Hines

Bitters Hub – What was it that motivated you to get started in the world of bitters production?

Erin Hines – I would have to say that it was more situational than motivational. I was working as a bartender and was approached to do a cocktail competition. I had recently purchased Brad Thomas Parsons’ book on bitters. My cocktail idea included using a bitters recipe of my own, which has remained the recipe for my Batch One Bitters. I never ended up actually participating in the competition but I made the bitters. Friends and family really enjoyed it and from that point on I continued to make bitters.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration to enter into this product? You’ve tended bar for many years, right?

EH – I have been a bartender for almost 14 years. I started the week that I turned 21. I believe that bartending found me. It has had a huge influence on the person I am today. I also love to cook at home and have always had a knack for flavors. I think that it was really my passion and love for gardening that tied it all together.

BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything?

EH – Supply and demand is right where it needs to be. I’m currently trying to keep production up to stay on top of the current demand. Since everything I do is small batch and mainly seasonal, I can only maintain a certain level of demand at this time. I am hoping to continue to expand my garden and production over the next few years. I am acquiring new accounts on a regular basis and have many solid accounts across the country.

BH – Knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor, is there a possibility or interest for larger productions on a regular basis, or is there not quite a need for that at this point, or are you already there?

EH – There is definitely possibility and interest for larger production on a regular basis. I would love to get to the point where I could spend most of my time harvesting and expanding my garden for production.  I have the space right now in my yard to expand. I have been using my days off from my full time job, to weed, garden, and prep for more plants.

BH – What kind of feedback do you get from professional bartenders, and do you wish that more bartenders would get involved in regards to upping their game with a wider range of bitters usage?

EH – I get really positive feedback from bartenders. They love the flavors that I do and the concept of farm to bar that my bitters company practices. There was a recent article in the San Francisco Chronical regarding bars using more local and quality products over mass production. The idea of the article was that restaurant kitchens in the Bay Area are all about farm to table, local products for their kitchen, why would you not have the same concept behind the bar. I hope that this practice will help bartenders up their game with bitters.

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BH – Have you ever thought about a way to reach bar/restaurant/hotel bar managers, GM’s, F&B Directors in regards to getting them involved with more understanding of the immense value of bitters for their establishments, since they’re mainly the buyers and decision-makers?

EH – What’s fortunate about the area that I live in and the fact that I have been in the service industry for so long, is that I have access to these people. Also, the Bay Area and North Bay are both very involved in the mixology and craft cocktail trend.

BH – What is the longest maceration process for any of the flavors that you’ve produced to date?

EH – All of my flavors are produced over a 3 month period. If I can, I will try and extend the time that the rose petals sit. Because of their delicacy and aromatics, I find that this ingredient does well for a longer period of maceration.

BH – What is the facility like in which you create your various bitters and flavors?

EH – I use a small rented kitchen space currently but do a lot of the work in my kitchen at home.

BH – How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters? I’ve read that you have your own organic garden where you grow an impressive variety of fruits, herbs, hops, and even walnuts. Can you take us inside your harvest world for a minute?

EH – I do currently grow the majority of my main flavor ingredients and hope to grow even more in the future. The products that I don’t grow myself, I source from local and organic companies. In my garden this season I have oranges, pomegranates, hops, prickly pears, pineapple guavas, roses, lavender, pears, walnuts, and a variety of herbs. Gardening has always been a hobby of mine. My parents are both avid gardeners. My mom helps me with my yard and certain plants to grow. She does landscaping and has always had a love for working outside in the yard. I really enjoy the days that I get to spend with my hands in the dirt, in the sun, with my chickens wandering around helping me. They are very effective at keeping unwanted bugs and weeds out of the yard, as well as, digging up the soil.

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BH – What are your storage and temperature necessities that you feel equate to the best results for your products?

EH – I store all of my product at cellar temperature or cooler. I try to produce as needed to keep from storing any one batch for too long.

BH – Is all of your bottling and labeling done in-house?

EH – I personally do all of the bottling and labeling by hand. Every once in a while I will receive a very large order where I will require help from friends for the bottling. Earlier this year, I had to have 2000 bottles ready in a week for UrthBox. I brought in extra help from friends and my partner for the bottling and packaging. I usually pay in delicious cocktails, food, and good company.

BH – How do you decide on which bottles and tops to use when it comes to eyedroppers, atomizers, dasher tops, woozy, Boston round, flask-style, etc?

EH – I chose eyedroppers for my bottles because I think that it gives you the most control over how much or how little bitters you are using. I went with the Boston Round clear bottles because it really helps the labels stand out. You can see the color of the bitters as well. All of the color comes naturally from the ingredients and I want those beautiful, natural colors to be visible to the consumer. The labels are all color designated to correspond with the color of the flavor. As a bartender, I also wanted to choose something that was user friendly behind the bar.

BH – How do you determine the best bottle size to use – 1oz., 2oz., 4oz.,?

EH – I chose the 2 oz. bottle size because you can take it on a plane. I have a lot of retail accounts that sell to tourists and working in the bar business, I meet a lot of people that are traveling. I want people to be able to take the bottles home with them from their travels without having to check a bag.

BH – Are the legal requirements and approvals strict and/or lengthy for producing bitters up in beautiful Petaluma? , or your county more specifically, and do you need some special license and/or certification, how does that all go?

EH – I have a license/seller’s permit with the state and the county to sell, which was fairly easy to do. I also work with the TTB which is pretty standard for all bitters producers. That process is a matter of submitting recipes for approval. It does require some mathematical skills. I am lucky to have friends and family that are able to help me with this process.

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BH – What are the costs/fees/expenses involved, and are their regular facility inspections?

EH – The fees are fairly inexpensive since they are typically based on sales and I am still in the lower range of income. There aren’t regular inspections but I am constantly working with the TTB for new flavor recipes.

BH – Do you have any new flavors coming up in the near future that you can tell us about, or is it still a secret at this point? I know your Morning Wood flavor is fairly new, right?

EH – Yes, Morning Wood was something special that I did. The first batch had only 82 bottles. I do have another batch in production now that I will be releasing for the Petaluma Drinks event this summer. I am planning on doing a walnut flavor this year. I have two black walnut trees on my property and I am looking forward to using another homegrown ingredient. I also have another more unusual flavor in mind that I think I will keep a secret for now.

BH – Overall, what’s the feedback been like since the launch of your many flavored line of bitters some years ago?  . . . and what was your debut flavor and when was it released?

EH – The feedback has been great. I love being the Bitter Girl. I have people come up to me at events that I am working and want to take a picture with me. Being a farm to bar company makes me a little bit different. My hands are in every step that it takes to produce a bottle. People really love and appreciate that. My debut flavor was Batch One, hence the name. I made the first batch in 2013. In the beginning I was handwriting labels to give to friends, family, and colleagues. A very close friend of mine has saved a bottle from every batch that I have produced. It is fun to be able to see those original bottles labeled entirely by hand.

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. When I saw that name of Pear Jordan, I was curious about what type of flavor profile that would be. Can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about, and the barrel you used? And by the way, what’s it like growing hops?

EH – The name Pear Jordan – It’s got Hops, was thought up by two of my best friends and fellow bartenders. Both hops and pears harvest at the same time of the year, and it just seemed like a logical combination. The hops have a bitter and bright citrus flavor, while the pears bring a more luscious, mouth-watering quality to the flavor. There are also notes of faint celery, with a floral juiciness in the mouth. The first batch I made, I aged in an oak barrel. Last year, I made the second batch. I chose not to use a barrel this time. I really wanted the bitter flavor of the hops and the sweet juiciness of the pears to be more prevalent in the flavor.

Hops are probably my favorite thing to grow. They are beautiful. Every year they go completely dormant and are hardly visible in the ground. Then around tax season in April, they come to life. Once they get started, they will grow 6 inches in one day. Their vines are like alien tentacles reaching for the sky. Every year each plant will grow more vines then the year before. They do require full sunlight for as much of the day as possible. They are the centerpiece of my garden growing up poles that I have set up to look like a Tee-Pee.

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BH – What are the most samples and the least samples of trial and error testing you had to go through to get the flavor profile you wanted with a couple of your releases?

EH – I’ve actually had very few trial and errors. I have always had a palate and flavors just make sense to me. When I was creating cocktails behind the bar, I would get an idea and many times could nail down a cocktail idea within one or two tries. It’s been the same with bitters. My Batch One flavor was the first batch/flavor I ever made and the recipe hasn’t changed. I feel like there is always room for improvement and that my techniques are always evolving to produce a better flavor profile with each new batch, but the ingredients and original recipes haven’t really been altered.

BH – I also heard that you’re now pulling some new, exciting double-duty with working at Spirit Works Distillery over in Sebastopol. That sounds like a fun job and still staying within our field of culinary. Must be a great learning experience?

EH – I started at Spirit Works in February. It has been a big, yet fairly smooth transition. I already had a personal relationship with the owners from working with their product and doing a radio show together. They had actually posted the job opening on Facebook. I immediately emailed co-owner, Ashby and told her that although I had no retail or tasting room experience, I thought that I would be a great fit for the position. They agreed. It has been an amazing learning opportunity and their product goes hand in hand with my bitters. We have a similar grain to glass concept and we are both Sonoma County based.

BH – Do you still conduct your mixology classes whenever you can fit them in?

EH – I do. Making drinks is really my first love. And being able to work with people to make quality cocktails using local ingredients and bitters is a great way to market and connect. That was also one of the advantages for Spirit Works bringing me onto their team. I am able to give a lot of cocktail knowledge to people that purchase spirits from the tasting room and want ideas of what to do with those bottles when they get home.

BH – Erin, thank you so much for taking the time with this insightful interview into your bitters world. I’m sure the visitors here on Bitters Hub will appreciate you sharing your knowledge on how things go in creating Bitter Girl and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task master of your own brand. Cheers!

EH – Thank you for having me on the Bitters Hub. It is always great to take the time to answer and reflect on the journey of my business. I wouldn’t be here without the support of my parents and friends. Be sure to visit my website www.bittergirlbitters.com to purchase new seasonal flavors and the release of some old favorites.

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