Dainty sprigs and crunchy green flourishes have been a customary feature in both traditional and fine dining for quite some time. Flashes of sprouts, cilantro and parsley have been used to impart flavor or simply brighten a plate across cuisines. More recently, microgreens — the stage second stage in plant development, between 10-14 days of growth — have been gaining increased popularity beyond their use exclusively as a garnish. Stephen Cowan and Andy McArdle are both hoping to change the way people see microgreens, each approaching the superfood from a different and interconnected angle.
McArdle — a Littleton native — studied Natural Resource Management at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi, going on to study aquaponics. He received a Fisheries Biologies Master in 2014. His knowledge of commercial system design led him to work at a greenhouse in Weslaco, Texas where his green-thumb really began to blossom. After a stint as a firefighter in Wyoming and Montana, McArdle returned to Colorado in 2015. After returning, he began growing microgreens in the house and was initially attracted to them for their reputation as high-value crop. But he quickly developed a legitimate love for the plants’ robust flavor and potent nutritional value. He conceptually developed Mountain Man Micro Farms as a way to legitimize his product to high-end restaurants while still growing it at home.
What began as an eight-tray in-house project has taken off to be one of the more durable microgreen operations in the state. Between his Franktown and Denver locations, he now has over 40 varieties — including several mustards, broccoli, radishes, pea shoots and nasturtium — spanning 800 trays. The grower will soon consolidate the operation into a single greenhouse in Castle Rock where he will add other vegetables to the growing list. His current clients include The Brown Palace, Bamboo Sushi, Urban Farmer, Ocean Prime, Sushi Sasa, Flagstaff House, Farm House at Breckenridge Brewery, Blackbelly and Vista Vino in Castlerock amongst others.
Cowan’s journey to the world of microgreens was less direct. After a 10 year career in software sales that landed him in Chicago, San Francisco and finally Denver, Cowan decided he’d had enough. “I listened to my intuition, I needed to reconnect with nature. The pendulum had swung so far into technology,” he said. In 2016 he journeyed to Iquitos, Peru — the largest city in the world not accessible by road, also home to 150,000 different species of plants and animals — where he studied with the locals.
Cowan returned to Denver a changed man. While he continued to work in software from 2016 to 2018 he was filling the house with plants, growing lettuce, herbs and microgreens hydroponically. After a stint in Breckenridge, he moved to Boulder, launching Microtea in November 2018.
Microtea is the first shelf-stabilized microgreen product on the market. The line includes four teas — available both with or without vapor-stilled, water-soluble CBD — based around freeze-dried broccoli sprouts, all of which Cowan sources directly from McArdle. While Cowan is passionate about and enjoys growing microgreens, his focus has shifted to the building and promoting the brand. Sulpherophane — found abundantly in the broccoli — is known to greatly reduce inflammation, aid sleep and promote a general sense of wellbeing.”Tea is the original medicine,” said Cowan.
The line includes Recovery, Relax, Energize and Focus with the regular 30-serving container running $21.95 and the CBD-infused variation selling for $54.95. Energize is a blend of all-organic pu’erh tea, black tea, orange peel, vanilla flavoring, broccoli microgreens and Red Russian kale microgreens. Focus is a delicate combination of jasmine green tea and broccoli microgreens. The caffeine-free herbal varieties Recovery — a blend of all-organic turmeric, lemon myrtle, ginger, tulsi, broccoli microgreens and peppercorns — and Relax — combining all-organic chamomile, lemon peel, sage, lemon balm, lemongrass and broccoli microgreens — are a delicious way to wind down.
Both Cowan and McArdle are happy to see microgreens proliferate. What has up until this point been largely a fine-dining luxury is apparently spreading to a wider swathe of restaurants and into more homes. Being that they are both dainty and delicious, microgreens are receiving due recognition as a great source of both flavor and nourishment. “Concentrated flavor translates to concentrated nutrients,” said Cowan. No matter how diners choose to consume them, their availability both fresh and in tea provides yet another avenue for health-conscious Colorado customers thrive with ease.
Mountain Man Micro Farms greens are available here.
Microtea products can be ordered here.
All photography by MJ Kampe.