Austin Mushrooms With a View to the Future
Smallhold brings the fruits of fancy fungus to Austin
Travis Breihan, manager at Smallhold in South Austin, opens the big walk-in cooler door and I peer inside, mildly stunned by the sight of what sits upon the metal storage system within that illuminated and climate-controlled space: bloom after bloom after bloom of royal trumpet mushrooms.
"Whoa," I say, blinking against the interior's fungus-crowded brightness, "it looks like a promotional poster for Smash the Patriarchy or something."
"Heh-heh," Breihan responds, generously.
The other walk-ins in the tidy warehouse off Old Manchaca Road contain different kinds of mushrooms: yellow oysters, blue oysters, and, the current darling of the fungus-happy culinary world, lion's mane. None of these others, I note, look even vaguely like dicks. And all of them, including those phallic trumpets, are also beautiful – in a Roger Dean alien-landscape sort of way. But of course they're not aliens at all: The not-quite-plants/not-quite-animals are from right here on Earth. By way of Brooklyn, in the case of these Smallhold farms.
"That's where the company started," Breihan tells me. "The founders Adam DeMartino and Andrew Carter helped come up with this mini mushroom farm so we could raise mushrooms in small places – basements, restaurants, and grocery stores."
They've done it successfully since 2017, supplying an abundance of commercial joints and private citizens up there in New York City – and that big-city success isn't slowing down. But, following the initial triumph, the company wanted to spread their business and its message of health and deliciousness further. Kind of like, you know, mushrooms do?
"Smallhold tries to take as many cues as it can from mushrooms and mycelial networks," acknowledges Breihan. "We get a lot of wisdom there." So the company has expanded to New Jersey, and they're working on outcroppings elsewhere in the country, and – yeah, they're definitely established in Texas.
"I'm from Austin," says Breihan, the mycophile who began his career assisting with forestry and reforestation among indigenous communities in Central America. "I was born here. But I was up in New York, working with sustainable agriculture companies, and Smallhold caught my attention. I've always wanted to find ways that I could help get Texas excited about sustainable food systems, and, for me, mushrooms are the next frontier in the food world. So when Smallhold wanted to expand to Texas, I was like, 'I'll do it! Whatever it takes!'" The company opened their Austin farm last November.
Of course, our city's got its own homegrown mushroom initiatives – Jesse Devenyns reported on the Myco Alliance team in these pages two years ago, and Edible Austin recently featured the busy duo of Hi-Fi Mycology, for two mediated examples, and the Central Texas Mycology Society has been active since 2019 – but it seems there's room for more of everything (except maybe zebra mussels) in this burgeoning burg of ours.
"A lot of the new business kind of came from the pandemic," Breihan points out. "We were really working on restaurants for a long time, working closely with chefs, but COVID pushed us into more grocery arrangements, and to our grow kits. It took us in a whole new direction, which has been really exciting. We've started setting up bigger opportunities with folks like Central Market and Whole Foods, so we're graduating from mini farms to macro farms – which is like this place: bigger mushroom farms."
In addition to the several floor-to-ceiling packed walk-ins, wherein grow the fungal crops destined for grocery store and restaurant distribution, there are a few glass display cases against the walls of Smallhold's main room. Well, no: They look like they're merely display cases, as you'd find in a natural history museum, but they're actually active mini farms. This is the attractive apparatus that the company was started with, the mushrooms inside well displayed and arranged according to development.
"We have the yellow oyster here, the lion's mane, the blue oyster, and the royal trumpet," says Breihan, acting as tour guide, pointing to the big blocks of spore-containing matter in their clear plastic wrapping. "You can see them in their different stages: This first one is, like, the primordial state; this is how they'll arrive from us if you buy a block. Next, you can see them in their pinning stage here, which is almost like microscopic mushrooms. Then, when they're a little bit bigger, we cut open the bag, expose them to oxygen, and that will accelerate the growth. And this –" he gestures to a glass-fronted shelf at the top, a shelf that's gloriously vivid with a bloom of yellow oysters – "this is close to the final stage. They can get bigger than that, but it's a nice size for what we do."
And what Smallhold does, besides grow and sell and recycle, is fulfill their business commitments. "We're getting our retail packs ready here," says Breihan, pointing to his fellow myco-workers wrangling mushrooms around a big stainless-steel table that's covered in small cardboard boxes. Busy hands place perfect specimens – the aboveground part of the organism, what's called the fruiting bodies – into branded vessels. "This is a large part of what we do for Central Market," says Breihan. "These are boxes of our fancy mushrooms – we've got different packs, blues and yellows together, and so on."
Those of us who live around here know what a big deal Central Market is, from a wholesaler's as well as a customer's perspective. So I had to ask: Was it difficult getting hooked up with that high-end H-E-B of a place?
"They were very receptive," says Breihan. "From what I understand, they had a hard time finding reliable producers of the more boutique varieties. The industry is very mature with portobellos and button mushrooms and criminis – which are all the same species, really: Agaricus bisporus. But the oysters – and the trumpets, for that matter – they don't travel super well. Unlike shiitakes, for instance; you can ship them across the planet and they'll be completely fine, they can stay in refrigerated temperatures for weeks at a time. But a yellow oyster, with the time from harvest to market, and then actually getting on a customer's plate? It shouldn't be more than, like, a week. Which is why we want to build these distributed farms all over the country – so we can make freshly harvested mushrooms available to the world, make them locally grown everywhere, essentially."
So, then, the substrate Smallhold uses – the stuff that the mushrooms grow in – that's from around here?
"No," admits Breihan. "We have a partner in Pennsylvania, in Appalachia, that we get the blocks from. We use timber industry byproducts" – read: sawdust – "to grow them in, so we keep that supply chain as close together as possible. We're looking at eventually doing our own substrate facilities, but that'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'll swear there's a hopeful gleam in his eye at this point, "there's a whole world of fungus that we're just beginning to understand from a societal and cultural standpoint. And we see it as part of our job to educate the public and get people excited about mushrooms. That's why Smallhold exists."
The Smallhold website has info on where to procure their fresh mushrooms, including Central Market, and how to order grow kits. www.smallhold.com