How did this couple create a new career out of rhubarb?

Discover how 50+ entrepreneurs Jan Hughes and Holger Ostersen, the driving force behind Rhu Bru, are transforming ‘second-grade’ stalks of rhubarb into first-class products.

Historically used for medicinal purposes to cure anything from digestive upsets to fevers, if prepared correctly, rhubarb can also act as a cleaning agent, hair dye, organic insecticide and herbicide. This humble vegetable is also delicious to consume. So with all these uses, why on earth would anybody waste a stalk of it?

Advocating renewable food security based on adding value to second-grade agricultural waste, Tasmanian-based Rhu Bru makes use of approximately 80 tonnes of rhubarb stalks each year, effectively converting ‘rejects’ into rich jams and compotes as well as sweet, nutritious juices, tangy vinaigrettes and much more.

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Jan and Holger makes use of approximately 80 tonnes of rhubarb stalks each year!

“I think we were really rather shell-shocked at the waste and excesses of First World living when we relocated to Australia in 2002,” Jan explains. The pair met in Tanzania, where Jan was volunteering as a teacher with Australian Volunteers Abroad, while Holger worked as a farmer through a Danish volunteer group.

Recognising a gap in the market for jams and sauces catering to the growing expat population, Holger launched a jam-making company, which he ran for seven years before gifting it to his right-hand man, who continues to run the operation today.

Their experiences living in East Africa significantly shaped their values and had an immense impact on how they run their business; valuing integrity and honesty above all else.

“We want to have a successful enterprise, we want the world to know about Rhu Bru and we want it to contribute to the economic sustainability of our small rural community,” Jan says passionately.

The seed that would one day become Rhu Bru first began germinating when Holger learned that Jan’s cousin Jerrod Nichols – a rhubarb farmer who sells his produce to Woolworths outlets along Australia’s eastern seaboard – was left with tonnes of second-grade stalks each year because they failed to meet the tight quality controls imposed by supermarkets around the country and much of the First World.

Whether too long or short, too thick or thin, or showing traces of wind burn or slug marks, these perfectly edible stalks were being dumped for their less than perfect appearance.

Unable to fathom, nor accept, the fact that good food was being wasted on purely aesthetic grounds, the industrious couple began to envision how they would utilise this abundant supply of raw material.

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Rhu Bru factory workers making the rhubarb magic happen

During their initial trials, however, Jan and Holger discovered they were decidedly lousy rhubarb wine makers and instead turned their attention to a decent tasting juice they’d concocted, which they asked friends, neighbours and B&B guests to sample. Positive feedback encouraged the couple to take the plunge, bottle their product, and hit the road with a car full of Rhu Bru goods.

Rhu Bru’s first sale was made soon after, in September 2008, to a local cafe in Bridport. The brand has grown rapidly ever since and in just seven years the company boasts a catalogue of over 20 unique products.

The couple’s home also has a shopfront, which doubles as the charming Beulah Heritage B&B, an 1878 Federation house, built by one of the regions earliest pioneers and retaining many of the original features. Adding to the historic charm is Jan’s old-fashioned hospitality, complete with rhubarb-infused breakfast each morning and desserts at night.

Thanks to Rhu Bru’s quality and flavour, home-bottling was short-lived and production now takes place in a small factory with up to eight employees, most of whom are the wives of local farmers.

Spread over 20 hectares and yielding around 2000 tonnes of rhubarb per year, Jerrod’s farm is conveniently located just 8km from the factory, so it is a short, scenic trip from paddock to boiler.

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Rhubarb fresh from their Tassie field

“We hear a lot of political speak about agriculture needing to change, farming needs to be sustainable, farmers needing to think differently – we are trying to do this, trying to value-add, create a better return for production by using a higher percentage of the crop,” Jan says. “We are trying to develop a model that can be the germination of an idea that will lead others to explore on-farm secondary production and value-adding.”

In 2013, Rhu Bru nabbed 17 awards at the Hobart Fine Food Fair, but despite the brand’s growing success, Jan and Holger will forever be committed to utilising ‘seconds’, minimising waste and creating employment opportunities wherever possible.

“Much of the processing is by hand, from picking the stalks of rhubarb to labelling the jars and bottles and our determination to use only Tasmanian fruit and, when necessary, spices sourced from mainland Australia – like Buderim ginger,” Jan explains.

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Rhu Bru boasts a catalogue of over 20 unique products

The Rhu Bru crew remains confident that the growth in popularity of farmer’s markets and community and urban gardens will continue to encourage consumer awareness.

(Images from RhuBru/Facebook)

Recipes from Jan & Holger’s kitchen

Easy Rhubarb Custard Cake
1 pkt cake mix
4-6 stalks of fresh rhubarb, chopped
3 tablespoons brown sugar
600ml cream

Method
Make up cake mix and pour into 9in x 13in greased pan. Cover with chopped rhubarb, sprinkle with sugar and pour over cream. Bake for 50-60 minutes at 180°C (350°F) or until cooked. Cream and rhubarb sink down to make a delicious custard layer for a great and easy dessert – serve with ice-cream, Rhu Bru rhubarb syrup drizzled over and/or more cream!

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Rhubarbs make a sweet treat

Stewed Rhubarb Dessert (from Holger’s Danish Childhood)
750g rhubarb, chopped
11⁄2 cups RhuBru syrup
3⁄4 cup of sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons cornflour

Method
Carefully stew rhubarb lightly in Rhu Bru juice, adding sugar and vanilla. Mix cornflour to a paste with a little water. Stirring constantly, add to rhubarb and cook for 5 minutes until clear, then pour into dish. Serve cold decorated with whipped cream. This dish is traditionally served with a little milk poured over the top.

What is your favourite way to eat rhubarb? Join the conversation below.