What is shrub—and where can you drink it in Charlotte?

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A few weeks ago, we ran a piece about healthy alternatives to beer that you can order at breweries in Charlotte. That piece included the usual suspects like kombucha and cold-brew coffee, but it also included a beverage that we’ve seen on menus but aren’t familiar with: shrub.

We’ve seen shrub on the menu at Free Range Brewing and a few other places in the Queen City, but weren’t totally sure what it was (or, honestly, what it tasted like).

We reached out to Jamie Swofford, owner of The Chef’s Farmer and maker of Old North Shrub Botanical Beverages, to find out more about this mysterious drink.

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What is shrub?

First, a little historical background: shrub is a colonial-day drink whose named is derived from the Arabic word Sharab, meaning “to drink.” Per the Slow Food Foundation, it’s a concentrated syrup made from fruit, vinegar, and sugar that is traditionally mixed with water to create a refreshing drink that is simultaneously tart and sweet.

“I say that shrub is fruit, vinegar, sugar,” Swofford said. “That is the only rule I adhere to when developing flavors of Botanical Beverages. Even then, I tend to bend the rules. Sometimes fruit isn’t a fruit at all; maybe it’s a vegetable, or even herbs and spices.”

What does shrub taste like?

As mentioned above, shrub is made to taste like a balance of tart and sweet… but referring to it as “old school drinking vinegar” is probably going to turn some people off. Sure, shrub is a vinegar-based drink—but if we were the ones marketing it, we might call it something like a “fizzy fermented fruit beverage” to make it seem a little more approachable.

“What I’m doing with Old North Shrub is taking this century-old technique and using it with today’s flavors that are found here in the Piedmont and foothills of North Carolina,” Swofford explained. “I find one ingredient, then accentuate or elevate that flavor with other subtleties (like flowers, herbs, spices) to create a bold, round flavor.”

Swofford told us that there are a lot of simple flavor varieties of shrub on the market, but that the possibilities are pretty endless. Shrub came onto the scene around 2011, and in the seven years since, the product offerings have diversified significantly.

Swofford’s products are the ones you’re most likely to find in the Charlotte area. Old North Shrub currently has three flavors on the market, with plans for another three this year.

As of right now, you can look for:

  • State Grape (Muscadine)
  • Two in the Bush (Strawberry, Chamomile, Lemon Verbena)
  • The Pink Lady (Apple, Root-to-Leaf Ginger, Spice Bush and Bay Laurel)

And you can keep an eye out for these flavors later in the year:

  • Ginger
  • Hibiscus
  • Rose Hip

Is shrub a healthy beverage?

In the same way that drinking kombucha or apple cider vinegar is said to be healthy, drinking vinegar-based shrub (er, wait, we said we’d make it sound more approachable—we meant this “fizzy fermented fruit beverage”) is said to be healthy as well. It’s supposed to be good for your gut, aid digestion and more.

But when it comes to shrub, the second factor to consider beyond the vinegar base is what types of fruits and other flavoring agents are being used.

“I don’t make any health claims, but I use ingredients that are good for you and for your body,” said Swofford. “I don’t use any processed or unnatural ingredients, and the sugar that’s in Old North Shrub is low. I’m also making fruit sugars to use, instead of raw cane sugar.”

Where can we find shrub in Charlotte?

If you’re looking to try some shrub for yourself, you can find it at most bottle shops in the area, including Earl’s Grocery, Rhino Market and Common Market.

Old North Shrub in particular was born at Free Range Brewing, and you can always find it there both on draft and for sale in bottles. (The bottles are concentrate, and priced at $22 for 16 fl. oz.)

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