As many of you know, Up Mountain Switchel got its start in farmers markets. Just before founding Up Mountain Switchel, I sat down with the man responsible for starting the farmer’s markets in NYC. Barry Benepe is an inspiring individual. Healthy and totally with it in his 80s. We started off talking about our love for the city and the country, and the differences and the counterintuitive similarities between the two. I immediately got the sense that I was speaking to a visionary, and someone who lived his life according to his own beliefs and knowledge, not swayed by trends or the media, but a seeker of the truth. In his own words, a human who wanted to control his environment and not just be a passenger in life. I was lucky to sit down with him. We went to the same high school and were connected through our alumni director.
Barry was the inspiration for my desire to use only fresh ginger in our Up Mountain Switchel- a decision that would ultimately make things more difficult for our business from the get. See, Up Mountain is unique in the beverage industry. Most everyone uses ground ginger, or frozen ginger puree, or some sort of extract that is easily inputted on a traditional beverage bottling line. These bottling lines were mostly developed during the time of Coke, Gatorade, or Vitamin Water, when the prerogative was to have ingredients that could be mixed together with artificial coloring and preservatives and shot right into a welcoming vessel. It makes a lot of sense from an efficiency and profit point of view. It doesn’t make a lot sense for your health.
As Barry and I’s conversation continued, we got into the difference between organic and non-organic farming practices. Some of the vendors at the green markets he started (Union Square being the most prominent), sold organic produce and products, and some didn’t. With more experience in selecting, purveying, and consuming farmer’s market product than possibly anyone I had ever known, I wondered how Barry felt about this. His answer was that ultimately the most important thing is the produce/product is fresh. I was able to cross-reference Barry’s statement with one a farmer, who was mentoring me at my job as sustainability manager for a lemon and avocado producer in the South West, had told me. “A lemon”, my mentor said, “loses 60% of its nutrients 3 days after being picked from the tree.”
Barry went on to explain how several of his friends had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. 3 of them had beaten cancer by implementing a raw produce diet. The produce they were consuming was fresh, but not necessarily organic. That really stuck with me. Garrett, my co-founder, and I, had the clear option to use dried ground organic ginger for our Switchel. That was how the Vermonters in the 1700s made it. That was what every Switchel recipe we researched called for, because that was all that was readily available through the spice trade in the 1700s. But today, we have the opportunity to source seasonably fresh ginger from equatorial growers circling the globe. Sourcing fresh, we knew meant obstacles. We knew it meant limited access to production facilities that could handle fresh ginger, and so it meant years of chopping ginger by hand, the potential loss of some finger tips, lower profit margin, an unorthodox beverage container, and so, an uphill battle educating consumers not only as to what Switchel is, but why its sold in a jar and not a traditional drinking vessel. But I could not ignore Barry’s words. I didn’t want to.
What it also meant, was that obtaining an organic certification from the US federal government was going to be difficult. Because ginger is a seasonal equatorial crop, the country exporting the freshest ginger changes throughout the year. We source from Peru, Hawaii, Thailand, Costa Rica. (We do not use Chinese ginger, but that will have to be another blog post). The ginger for export from these countries is co-opted. Meaning all the ginger farmers contribute to one exporter. This is similar to Sunkist. Sunkist is a co-op. All Sunkist lemons don’t just come from one Sunkist farm. They come from various citrus growers throughout the Southwestern United States and Mexico, who contribute to the co-op that sells them as the Sunkist brand. In order to obtain a federally certified organic stamp for Up Mountain Switchel, we would have to certify each individual farmer from every country we source from. A nearly impossible endeavor with costs that risk putting these farmer’s out of business, most of whom use organic practices to grow their ginger anyway, regardless of whether the USDA says so or not.
So there you have it. That is why Up Mountain uses fresh ginger in our Switchel. That is one of the reasons, along with reusability and tradition, why Up Mountain Switchel has thus far been sold in a jar and not a bottle. And that is the reason we don’t have a shiny little USDA organic stamp on our label. Fresh ginger tastes better. More importantly, consuming fresh could be the best thing one can do for themself.
Things have come a long way in the past four years and we are currently working on procuring a bottling line that can handle different bottle options. We are also looking into what it would mean to partner direct with one, newly appearing, certified organic ginger grower from each region from which we source- and whether that would be better or worse for those local farmers as their governments start implementing their own organic regulations. We’d like to think we have played a small role in these developments, but after all, we are just a small company from Vermont trying to bring you the truth. We don’t have much pull, if any, on that large of a scale, but we do have control over our Switchel and the quality we provide to you, the customer. And you have control to decide what you drink and whom you support. We won’t just be a passenger in the beverage industry. We’ve been driving the switchel market to existence, and mostly we’ve been swimming up-stream.
Note: Ginger is currently being researched at the University of Michigan for its anti-inflammatorial effects for the use in treating and preventing cervical, and presumably other forms of, cancer.
Note: Ginger is not a crop that is at risk for being GMO.