Quick Take:

Philosopher Foods sells great sprouted almond butter at Santa Cruz County farmers markets and elsewhere — but it’s also selling a great story about regenerative farm practices.

Farmers Market Fridays

They say that the unexamined life is not worth living — but then again, Socrates never tried sprouted almond butter.

Ergo, life without sprouted almond butter is not worth living.

Sounds odd? We thought so, until we had our first spoonfuls after visiting Philosopher Foods’ stand at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market, where the company sells a wide array of butters and spreads made from coconut, cacao and almonds. Started nine years ago by chief philosopher (his actual title) Tim Richards, the operation’s claim to fame is its sprouted almond butter — which, as the name suggests, is made from almonds that have begun the process of sprouting into trees.

“Sprouting makes almonds sweeter, more digestible, more nutritious,” Richards said. “And we were in Davis, and surrounded by massive monocultures of almond trees with nothing else growing or alive between them. I saw that and I was like, ‘That doesn’t really look healthy or like nature.’”

That was in 2013. Since then, Philosopher Foods has begun popping up in stores and farmers markets throughout California. The operation remains small, though: Richards says the company processes somewhere in the ballpark of 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of almonds every year. The company has only a handful of full-time employees.

Eating Philosopher Foods’ sprouted almond butter is an experience that puts even the finest old-school nut butters to shame, says Lookout’s taste-testing team. The butter coats your mouth in a thin, naturally sweet and nutty layer descending straight from the almond gods above. To say it’s heavenly isn’t hyperbole — it’s perhaps the most accurate way to describe a taste and texture so unique, a more mortal description couldn’t do it justice.

While the taste and product are what most consumers will remember when dressing their salads, making their PB&Js or indulging in a sweet treat, the process behind tells us a wider story. Philosopher Foods takes a more holistic approach to its product and its impact on the environment than its competitors, says Richards. For instance, Philosopher Foods will soon source all its almonds from an orchard near Denair, California, that uses regenerative farming techniques to produce its crops. It sources its coconuts from a co-op in Sri Lanka and its chocolate from (mostly fair trade) farms all over the world. Its relatively small grinding operation is housed in the Old Sash Mill just north of downtown Santa Cruz.

Philosopher Foods sells products made from various combinations of almond, coconut and chocolate.
Philosopher Foods sells products made from various combinations of almond, coconut and chocolate. Credit: Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz

The company aims to earn Regenerative Organic certification for its entire product line — a certification governed by the Regenerative Organic Alliance guaranteeing soil, livestock and worker treatment practices within certain ethical and environmental guidelines. Philosopher Foods received this certification for its coconut products earlier this year, and hopes to receive it for its almond products in 2023.

Richards said the company grinds its products in 100-pound batches in a specialized stone mill, which slowly crushes nuts at low temperatures over the course of several hours. The crunchy versions of Philosopher’s almond butters take around two hours to process, while the smooth versions take upward of 12 hours. The coconut butters can take as long as 24 hours to process, Richards said.

Available for sale at the downtown farmers market are jars of almond butters crunchy or smooth, with or without chocolate or vanilla; and coconut butter with or without chocolate. The Naked Crunchy almond butter is rich and earthy, with a slightly tart finish; Chocolate Coconut butter works well as a topping for oatmeal and fruits.

The sticker price, of course, might be a shock to some. A 6-ounce jar of Philosopher Foods’ almond butter costs $12.99, while 16-ounce jars cost $29.99. Richards offers this rationale: “What I’m trying to do is quantify what we’re doing and why it’s important. People are willing to pay a higher premium, and realize it’s an investment in their health.”

Regenerative farming, he said, is a technique where farmers encourage other plant and animal species to propagate in between crop rows, replenishing nutrients in the soil and — crucial in California’s famously water-intensive almond industry — preserving precious water resources. Richards said these techniques also produce more nutritious (and tasty) almonds.

Mandy Cassell, Philosopher Foods’ director of events and markets, works the table at the weekly downtown Santa Cruz farmers market, one of five the company regularly shows up at.

“The regenerative approach is making sure that the whole system is taking care of the land, the people ingesting and people who have farms,” Cassell said.

Philosopher Foods sets up shop at local farmers markets including in downtown Santa Cruz on Wednesdays, the Westside on Saturdays, Live Oak on Sundays and once a month at the Felton and Scotts Valley summer farmers markets. You can also buy its natural butters online and at area stores including New Leaf Community Markets, Staff of Life, some Whole Foods locations, the Food Bin in Santa Cruz and Sunnyside Produce in Soquel. Find Philosopher Foods products by using the store locator at philosopherfoods.com.

Thomas Sawano joins the Lookout team after two-and-a-half years at City on a Hill Press, the student-run newspaper at UCSC. While there, he reported on the university, arts and culture events, and the...