Metaphor Organic

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Soap Good Enough to Eat

Errol Davis1 Comment

A long time ago I took a class called something like "Ethical Issues in the Food Supply" from an organic chem professor and learned a a startling fact: you can eat soap. That is, if you can manage to force yourself to chew it up and swallow it, your body can digest soap and derive nutrition from it.

So why don't we eat soap? Mainly because it tastes terrible. It turns out there is a whole class of stuff out there that's technically edible, but we don't consider food because we just don't want to eat it. This includes a lot of discombobulated fat molecules substances (my scientific terminology) such as soap, rancid oils, and gas station hot dogs. 

One takeaway is that if an earthquake hits and you're buried alive in your soap workshop next to a stack of inventory, you'll probably be okay. After a few years of therapy, anyway. You might wonder if we ever tried a little taste of warm, fresh-poured soap right after it hit the mold, because it smelled so damn good?  More than once.

If you've surfed any more of our blog posts or if you've ever read the ingredients on a bar of soap, you'll know that soap is mostly made out of oil. You might wonder if we use the same oil for cooking as we do for soap. The answer is no, but probably not for the reason you might guess. 

And that reason is...taxes. If we use any soap supplies for personal use we have to pay a special tax on it. "Use" tax, in fact. Since that turns out to be kind of a hassle to keep track of, it's a lot easier to keep separate cooking and soaping pots of oil. Now, if I happen to run out of cooking oil, every once in a very infrequent while, I might poach a little bit of olive oil off of the soapmaking shelf. 

Also, a gallon jug of virgin coconut oil from a discontinued product might have contributed to a lot of delicious stir fries last summer. 

Yesterday I ran out of cooking oil again, which actually gave me the idea of writing this post. There was no olive oil to poach, because I've been pre-mixing all of our base oils together in big batches in order to save time later.  So I just went ahead and used some pre-mix, olive/coconut/palm to fry some tofu for a salad. It turned out amazing. Not gas-station hot dog amazing, mind you, but still pretty damn good. 




Spotlight on our Orange & Cream Goat Milk Soap

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When I lived in Ashland, Oregon, my drunken neighbors bought a pygmy goat one morning on a whim. The goat ran away that same afternoon, probably for the better, but ever since then I've been a bit obsessed with these interesting critters that munch on pretty much anything, make delicious milk, and are a lot more portable than, say, a large bovine. 

Needless to say, when crafting our original soap lineup, we had to include at least one goat milk soap. It was a happy coincidence that we were also a bit obsessed with those tasty frozen snacks: you know, half orange sherbet, half vanilla ice cream. We decided this scent would be a tribute to the dessert, incorporating orange essential oil, goat milk, and a dash of vanilla fragrance.  You can see and smell the results here.

Our goat milk soap isn't the most popular kid on our team, but it does have a loyal group of fans and friends.  A few customers order several bars a month off our website like clockwork. People from the East Coast prefer it for some reason. Is it vegan? Obviously, no. Can you eat it? Actually yes, but it doesn't taste nearly as good as it smells. Is there a Metaphor Organic goat? No, but one December, we dressed one of the dogs up with reindeer antlers. 

Did I mention goat milk soap is great for your skin? It's full of emollients, triglycerides, and vitamins.  Emollients moisturize by helping your skin absorb more water, and triglycerides restore natural oils. Vitamins nourish the skin to keep it healthy and youthful. 

Order an Oranges & Cream Goat Milk Soap and see if your skin can taste the goat milk. 

Cooking: The Original Off-the-Grid Skill

Errol DavisComment

If you can cook, you can make soap! Or more precisely, if you can follow a recipe. Maybe the better comparison is with baking. Some of my most successful attempts at bread and pizza dough involved measuring flour, yeast, and salt to the nearest gram on a trusty kitchen scale. But soap also has a lot in common with good old fashioned cooking. You mix stuff. You heat stuff. You mix some more stuff. Then you mix all of the other stuff you previously mixed, and if you do it right, it smells good.

Back in the days of the legendary Capp Street House, cooking was a skill we pretty much learned by accident. Adam and I were both gifted the Great Funemployment of the Late 2000s. We had a lot of time on our hands and not a lot of cash. One way to maximize potential beer money was making dinner on-the-cheap.

On maybe a more philosophical note, I was trying to publish a book, and Adam was trying to land a job as a UI designer, both of which were large, long-term goals for which effort did not necessarily lead to success. On the other hand, roasting chicken quarters and russet potatoes or whipping up a loaf of soap were relatively small tasks that could be broken up into 20-minute chunks of work. With instant results. 

If you want to live in a cabin and grow your own food or put together a small-scale manufacturing operation, cooking is a great way to start. I know everyone reading this will achieve rapid wealth and independence, so the money-saving advice is moot, but I'm also presuming you're saving up to build an earth ship. You can't order from Grubhub if you don't have an address! 

A nice meal prepared with your own hands is a great end in itself, but it might also prove to be the quintessential gateway addiction. If you're not careful you might soon find yourself gathering acorns to mash into acorn flour or squashing 20 lbs of plums into a re-purposed olive oil drum to ferment over the summer for some incredible  late-fall plum wine. I may even see you at the farmers market behind a booth some day soon.....

Fall Two Years Ago: The Thing Quarterly

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Since we lost a lot of our old blog posts when our website went down, and just because #nostalgia, I'm going to write about an interesting moment in Metaphor history. In Fall 2013 we partnered with The Thing Quarterly to concoct an experimental herbal salve. The Thing Quarterly is a subscription service that sends out an art object four times a year in place of, say, a zine. Along with The Thing staff, an artist and a maker collaborate on each issue. For our part, we worked with writer Ben Marcus on the concept of a "thinking salve," in other words some sort of unguent infused with  herbs and supplements designed to trans-dermally boost one's brain power.  

For simplicity, we decided on a salve vs. a cream (no water) to eliminate the need for emulsifiers, preservatives, and a lot of mixing. This cut down the list of possible herbs to only those with oil-soluble active compounds. In the end, a mixture of sunflower oil, gotu kola, gingko biloba, bacopa monniera, and a few supplements ended up macerating in a black 20-gallon garbage in the half-acre garden lot next to my apartment building. The drought wasn't quite so bad that year, and Oakland did get a couple storms. I remember lying awake at night listening to the wind and hoping the garbage can would not tip over!

Production day was a smashing success and also a kick in the pants! To cut costs, The Thing staff volunteered as the production crew. Having that much human power at our disposal is a rare luxury for Metaphor. For several hours, we heated pails of beeswax and herbal oil, and ran them to pouring stations where steady hands would fill a line of 20 tins at a time. After 3/4 of the work was done, we took a break to eat at nearby Little Star Pizza. At the end of the day we filled around 650 tins, a record production run for Metaphor. 




Headed to the Fort Mason Farmers Market Sunday July 19th

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Hey soap fans, we will be at the Fort Mason Farmers Market next Sunday from 9:30 to 1:30. If we do well, or even ok, this could become a regular thing. As you may or may not know, these markets are a super valuable distribution tool for small manufacturers such as ourselves. For one, they give us a predictable sales schedule so we don't have too much or too little inventory lying around. And more importantly, we get to see all your beautiful faces to get real-time feedback on our stuff. A lot of great products were born out of these conversations. To read more about this particular market, check it out here:


Introducing the Farmer's Market Bar

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When first starting out, a lot of luck lead us to success with the small gift shop market. At the same time, another impulse has been driving our process. Simplicity. We feel almost compelled to make great soap with minimal packaging. It's the kind of soap we would buy. Offering soap out-of-the box not only appeals to the conscientious minimalist, it also allows us to lower the price point substantially. The cost of the actual boxes is a relatively small, but by not hand-stamping the boxes and placing the soap inside, we can cut production time in half.  For the past few months we've been offering unboxed soap at various craft and farmers markets to a decent reception. Eventually we'll have soap-in-the-loaf for sale at $1.20 per ounce. You'll show us how big a slice you want, we'll chop it, weigh it, and figure the price. It's the same way you buy pizza in Sicily. For the gift-givers and admirers of great design: don't worry. Boxed soap is still available. And for the sake of logistics, the unboxed soap on our website will stay a standard 5 oz size.

The Quest for an All-Local Soap Bar: Part II, Supply

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Around the same time we started getting inquiries from stores outside of California, it also began to make sense to  get our supplies in larger quantities, which meant ordering base oil from a soapmaking supply company all the way in Columbus, Ohio. Whoa, not local so much! For a while we just kept making soap, but after the holiday rush, we started again trying to work our way back to original ideals. The biggest breakthrough at this point came when I found a local supplier for our olive oil, a grower near Modesto, CA.

It also might have been obvious in the last article that, although we originally found our supplies at local retailers, those same suppliers did not necessarily get their oils from local farms, etc. We were lucky that Rainbow Grocery did in fact get some of its olive oil from a local farm, which is the same place we eventually began to buy it in bulk.

Olive oil alone makes an okay soap bar, but not with quite the lather that our customers came to expect. We also use coconut oil, for example. I spent about a month scouring soap making forums, and it turns out you need a saturated fat to contribute some of its properties to make the excellent soap bar that we were used to producing. Our only choices are to use an animal fat or a plant source that grows mostly in the  tropics.

Today we do have an all-local soap bar available: the Savon de Castille bar, which, being just pure saponified olive oil, is also our most hypo-allergenic. Developing it was an excellent experiment, and I haven't yet completely given up on sourcing more of our ingredients locally. An inexpensive source of milk fat might work in place of coconut oil, and there are a few species of palmetto growing wild in California that produce the right type of oil if we ever get big enough to charter a Metaphor Organic farm. You never know.


The Quest for an All-Local Soap Bar: Part I, Distribution

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Metaphor began in many ways inside-out. We started with principles and larger goals, and then tried to figure out how to make them work within practical business constraints. One ideal was to establish all-local supply and distribution chains. We got our first batch of oil 4 blocks away from our house at Rainbow Grocery, and our essential oils around the corner at S.F. Herb Co. To obtain the lye took a slightly greater trek to the Ace Hardware store at the corner of Church and Market. Our first wholesale account was a whopping 1 block away at the Mission Statement, followed by Viracocha and Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper all within a half-mile radius. Mission accomplished, right?

Well, we quickly discovered there are a limited number of accounts available within bicycling distance that would carry our soap. Maybe 10 in S.F. To pay ourselves full-time we would need more like 50 to 100. And small gift shops from around the country (and world) began to seek us out! We soon took the same stance as a lot of people who are vegetarian for environmental reasons, or "meat minimalists." That is, dramatically cutting back achieves nearly the same result as eliminating it altogether. So we decided to be "carbon minimalists," which is, indeed about as far as you can go when even breathing releases a bit of CO2 into the air!

Today we sell soap as far away as South Korea. However, the majority of our accounts are still in the S.F. Bay area. We also occasionally table at local artisan fairs, and since last winter, we've been workshopping products to find what sells best at these. Now we've figured out a pretty good lineup to offer and are in the process of getting established at a couple weekly farmer's markets. The volume of soap sold at one market in one afternoon is often equal to what might sell in a small gift shop in several months, so a couple markets a week could dramatically shift our focus back local again.





Extending The Soap/Wine Analogy

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On a previous incarnation of this blog I wrote about eating out at an (unnamed to protect the guilty) San Francisco restaurant that had excellent food paired with excellent wine that did not match soap at all! In other words, the soap in their bathroom dispenser left a funky smell on my hands that clashed a bit with my fine dining experience.

I went on to muse about the strange situation when we make such a big fuss about stuff like food/wine pairing, but neglect certain details such as the soap that might easily throw a sour note in the mix. The least you could do is use and unscented variety.

But as I think about it more, I find that soap and wine have a lot more in common. Both are obviously necessities, haha. Both are made from natural materials grown perhaps not too far away, or perhaps all the way across the world.

Both have basic economy versions available on the market and also more choice, luxury vintages. Some people pay hundreds of dollars for one bottle of wine that lasts a few hours, so our bar of soap that lasts a month is, by comparison, a bargain!

Both need to age a bit before they are fit to use. But while fine wine only gets better as the years go by, fine soap is ready in about a month, and past its prime in a year or so. So maybe the better metaphor is to compare soap to cheese!

The Toaster Project

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At Metaphor Organic we think a lot about small scale production. How do you run a factory out of your basement, apartment kitchen, or even less space?  At the beginning we decided to focus on rustic production methods to produce a rustic product. The soap would be handmade. We even made the soap molds by hand!

Poetry teachers say that form should match content. In industrial design, this is less an aesthetic imperative and more an inescapable law of the universe. In the book, The Toaster Project, Thomas Thwaites says it's almost impossible to create a perfect product using handmade tools, but at the same time, it's also equally impossible to create an imperfect product with state-of-the-art tools such as CAD software and a CNC milling machine.

If you haven't read The Toaster Project, it chronicles one fellow's attempt to build functional but very ugly toaster from scratch. That is, he begins with mining the iron ore for the frame, the smelting it in his parking lot, etc. The passage about production methods comes in the chapter about pouring the plastic housing using a mold carved out of a tree trunk. Deja vu.

I'm going to insert a paragraph of disclaimer here reflecting my opinion, anyway, that neither rough nor precise methods have greater potential to produce a more or less beautiful product. At that point, it comes down to individual taste. One choice, however, is far more feasible for beginning makers. And the toaster, just incidentally, ended  up very very ugly.

The Toaster Project is an excellent investigation into where our stuff comes from, and much more thorough than our humble soapmaking experiment.  I reference it every time I teach a soap class and students are awkwardly lining the soap molds. I remind them that even though the soap molds are ugly, they will still make beautiful soap.


Seeds of Soap

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Metaphor Organic was born in the Fall of 2009/Spring of 2010 when Adam Bienvenu and I were living in the Mission District of San Francisco, but in many ways, it started much earlier. Adam will have to write his own blog post about what combination of street art insight and product design savvy lead to our logo, box design, and general aesthetic. For me, the possibility of a small soap company was sown a decade ago when I was still in college. My English and writing major wandered toward a minor in contemporary ethics. Three years before "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, two other undergraduates and I assembled and taught a one-credit course in environmental ethics and consumer culture as our senior capstone project. So for two semesters I spent a lot of time reading blogs like "Gardening as an Anarchist Plot" and articles about how planting fruit trees in your yard is a good idea. Maybe gardening will yet save the world. At that point, we still thought that making conscientious decisions about even the smallest details of one's own life could, through leading by example, somehow spark a resonance of cultural change. I ended up thinking a lot about stuff like soap. At this point in my life, I'd only known Safeway, and I'd eaten a lot of meals out of cans. The organic grocery co-op in my college town was a wondrous discovery. And a little farther down the road was a roadside produce stand that also sold a few other household items. And for while you could buy bags of about 5 little puck-soaps there for like 5 bucks. That is probably what planted the seeds of Metaphor Organic in my imagination: this basic, natural thing, one of the necessities besides food and clothing, inexpensive, and made probably fewer than 10 miles away. 


Soap Life

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Well, this little soap company has been going for almost 5 years now. Aside of gifts and samples for market research, I've used my own soap exclusively. I use it for hands and body. A big bar sits next to the bathroom sink as well as one in the shower. There's a small plate next to the kitchen sink with a large pile of soap shavings.

I also use our soap as shampoo. My hair regime happens in 3 steps: soap to cleanse, cider vinegar to balance ph, and just a bit of oil to replace what was lost in the wash. Same goes for the beard. When I do shave, you guessed it, I use soap, lathered in a thrift store mug with a boar-bristle brush.

We even wash the dogs with the soap! This started with a bunch of leftover "shampoo bars" from an experimental batch and continues with odd pieces and ends of the loaf. The regular Metaphor bar leaves the dogs even softer than the shampoo bar did. Our soap works as an effective pre-treatment for stains on clothes. The moisturizing qualities make it not the best choice for dishes, but it will work in a pinch.

I also use only my deodorant, although I skip some days. One of the best things about it is that it travels well so I can take it with me and apply as needed.

Along this journey, I've come to appreciate the different personalities of the different soap formulas. Our regular bar produces a lush, abundant, soft lather, while the castile bar is soft and creamy. The sea salt bar lather is light, perhaps even mysterious, and it rinses away quickly.

I could write on and on about soap, but you need to get back to your day. I will say that using an organic (very) locally-made product seemed unusual at first, but now, like tending our garden, it feels only natural. 

Two August Soap Classes at Workshop SF

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Errol from Metaphor Organic will be teaching two soap classes in August, one on Thursday, August 14th, and one on Monday, August 25th, both from 7:30 to 10 pm in the evening. The class will include:

  • crafting a simple DIY soap mold
  • mixing unique scents
  • a method to safely handle lye exclusive to this class
  • your own personal brick of soap you can take home the same night

To book, or for more info, go to

Lyft Passenger Promo

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Since mid-spring our Director of Business Development, Errol, has been driving around SF and the East Bay for different ride-sharing services and spreading the word about soap. We've been talking about offering a 15% discount to passengers for a while, and our web team is just now our web team is catching up. So if you happened to catch the secret discount password, it is now live. If you didn't happen to catch the secret password,  send an email with the subject "I took a ride in the soapmobile" to, and we may respond and enlighten you.