Fire Cider and the Berkshire Co-op: Cooperative Values in Action.
Working with a local start-up to achieve mutual success.
By Daniel Esko, Grocery Manager at the Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington MA
One of the most gratifying and exciting aspects of my job at Berkshire Co-op Market is building strong relationships with our local vendors, working together to achieve mutual success while delighting our owners and customers along the way. In fact, everything we do at Berkshire Co-op Market is guided by our operational vision, which states: “The Berkshire Cooperative Association cultivates a sustainable local/regional economy and cooperatively builds a vibrant community.” To this end we “foster the growth of local/regional food systems,” which allows us to work closely with local farmers, producers, and entrepreneurs to bring the highest quality local food to market. Over the past ten years I have had the opportunity to work closely with Klara’s Gourmet Cookies, South River Miso, Hosta Hill, High Lawn Farm, The Gluten Free Bakery, No. 6 Depot, Harney & Sons Tea, Shire City Herbals, and Tierra Farm, among numerous others. The work we have done together has varied from product development and retail and marketing consulting to promotions planning, new item introductions, farm and facility visits, education through product demonstrations, and most importantly sharing their stories with the community. All of this work has resulted in various successes for our local vendors and the Co-op, one of which I am particularly proud to share with everyone today.
On the retail floor of the Co-op in 2010, I ran into a couple of old friends from high school, Amy Huebner and Dana St. Pierre. In the process of catching up, they told me they had gotten married recently and when asked what they were up to, they excitedly proclaimed that they were going to make Fire Cider. For a moment I tried to play along like I knew what it was, but soon thought better of it and had to ask. They explained that Fire Cider was a health tonic made from apple cider vinegar, honey, and other whole food ingredients including garlic, ginger, and habanero pepper. Dana had been exposed to the individual whole food ingredients through his family experience and upbringing. His parents, uncle, and grandparents used these foods separately and in different combinations in their daily cooking, and medicinally to help alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms, ward off the cold and flu, and strengthen their immune systems. Over the years he continued experimenting and adding ingredients. Then, in a collaborative effort with Amy, they developed the blend that eventually became what we know today as Shire City Herbals Fire Cider. Although impressed by their enthusiasm and excitement, I knew that they had a long road to travel before they would have a product ready for retail. In my capacity as a representative of the Berkshire Co-op I offered to provide them any support they might need as they prepared to pursue their dream of making Fire Cider for the public. Over the next year I provided a small amount of assistance, such as information about retail licensing and insurance requirements, UPC and packaging advice, and of course an open door to introduce and promote the product at the Co-op when they were ready.
Amy, Dana, and Brian (Amy’s brother) worked hard over the next year and we received our first delivery of Fire Cider on October 3rd, 2011. In only three months, Fire Cider became the number one unit seller and number two dollar seller in the supplement department. This is no small feat for a small local start-up. Fire Cider was now selling better than our number one vitamin supplement! I attribute this early success first to the superior quality of this uniquely marketable product, its effectiveness, and of course its following in the community. In addition, the level of success we achieved would not have come about if we had not worked closely with Amy and Dana on a strong promotional plan that included an introductory sale, placement in our Local Deals flier, and several product demonstrations. By the end of 2012 Fire Cider was still number one in unit sales and had become number one in dollar sales. In 2013 we started to promote Fire Cider more aggressively with more frequent sales, product demonstrations, and a huge cross-merchandising push to get Fire Cider in more places throughout the store. We had introduced the 16 oz. size in late 2012 and saw an amazing 378% unit increase in 2013, while still achieving 10% growth with the 8 oz. size. All year, people were raving about the product. Fire Cider was getting national press, sales continued to increase, and this fiery tonic had quickly become a staple in many households across the Berkshires and beyond. Admittedly, the Co-op was and still is only a small part of their success, but what it represents for the Co-op is our values in action– strengthening the local economy by cultivating strong vendor partnerships and of course harnessing the incredible power of the third principle of cooperatives: member economic participation. Simply put, Fire Cider is an amazing local success story and Berkshire Co-op Market is proud to have played a role in helping them achieve this success.
But let me back up a moment. Some of you may still be wondering what exactly Fire Cider is? Who makes it? How is it made? Where is it made? Well, one day I decided to pay a visit to the folks at Shire City Herbals and had the opportunity to make some with them.
Shire City Herbals Fire Cider is made from organic raw apple cider vinegar, raw wildflower honey, organic oranges, organic lemons, organic onions, organic horseradish root, organic ginger root, organic habanero peppers, organic garlic, and organic turmeric. They use locally produced honey from Merrimack Valley Apiary in Billerica, MA, which they purchase by the ton directly from the beekeeper. One ton comes on a heavy-duty pallet and contains 36 x 60 pound buckets, or 2,160 pounds of honey! Although they continue to search for a supply of local (New England), organic, raw apple cider vinegar, they currently source from Spectrum Organics in California, a trusted name in the industry and a reputable producer of the highest quality organic and natural oils and vinegars. The remaining ingredients are sourced through Albert’s Organics and Frontier Natural Products Co-op, long-time organic produce and herb/spice suppliers in the natural foods business.
That’s a TON of organic produce! Amy looks pretty stoked to turn it all into the best medicine she’s ever had!
Fire Cider is marketed as a dietary supplement and is generally used as a natural, whole food remedy for common symptoms related to cold, flu, and seasonal allergies among numerous other medicinal uses. Many of the ingredients have known immune boosting, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties and have been used safely and effectively the world over in herbal healing traditions for centuries. As a whole food product, Fire Cider has a wide variety of culinary uses as well, including sauces, dressings, marinades, and beverages (in a Bloody Mary is particularly delicious). I have been making some amazing salad dressings with it and have recently heard of Fire Cider infused meatballs and even Fire “Soder” (Fire Cider and soda water). But like most people, I usually take a shot a day to keep me going.
Fire Cider is made by a company called Shire City Herbals, which is located in Pittsfield, MA. Incorporated in January 2011, the company is a family affair, co-owned by husband and wife Dana St. Pierre and Amy Huebner, Brian Huebner, and several other family members. A homegrown business, they started making Fire Cider in the kitchen of their home and then at the neighborhood Unitarian church on Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield. Starting off in just a handful of stores, farmers’ markets, and fairs, they are now in almost 350 stores across the country. They currently produce in a licensed commercial kitchen in Greenfield, MA, owned by the Franklin County Community Development Corporation. The FCCDC is an economic development nonprofit organization providing comprehensive business development education, access to capital, and a commercial office and manufacturing space to small business owners and entrepreneurs in the greater Western Massachusetts area. The facility is called the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center and is the same facility where Co-op favorites Ooma Tesoro’s, the Bean Cake Company, and Katalyst Kombucha produce their fine local food.
So, on a warm sunny day in early September I hitched a ride with Amy, Dana and Brian up to the processing center in Greenfield. As we ascended the winding road of beautiful Route 9, our eyes were greeted with lush green foliage and the expansive ridgelines of the eastern edge of the Berkshire Hills in the background. On the way we stopped off at the Old Creamery Co-op in Cummington, MA. The Old Creamery General Store recently converted to a cooperative and the Berkshire Co-op has been assisting them in various capacities over the past several years. We left with some of the Old Creamery’s famous deli sandwiches. It turned out to be a classic late summer Berkshire day, with the sun shining warm and bright as we continued on our journey to Greenfield. When we arrived at the facility, I found out that Katalyst Kombucha (now Artisan Beverage Cooperative) is actually one of the anchor tenants at the food-processing center and I learned that they are the co-packers for Fire Cider, doing all of the bottling on their behalf. This is also where Real Pickles, a huge local favorite, got their start. I felt a profound sense of connection to the local food movement. I was excited to take a look on the inside and have another experience of getting to know more deeply the food we provide to the owners and shoppers at the Co-op.
From the left: Brian, Dan and Dana are ready to get to work!
We began by suiting up in heavy waterproof boots and other necessary gear as they explained how things would get quite messy in the process. They told me their process includes three phases – production, pressing, and bottling. That day was a pressing day. We started by setting up a stainless steel IBC (Intermediate Bulk Container) filled with 350 gallons of organic apple cider vinegar and almost 700 pounds of other ingredients. This is no easy task. Fully loaded, the IBC weighs over two tons (4,250 pounds). Dana and I used a pallet jack, slowly pushing and pulling the hulking IBC into the kitchen, careful not to let the pallet jack wheels roll over the floor drains. We then lined up another temporary holding container adjacent to the IBC. This IBC was prepped about six weeks prior, during the production phase of the process. After we got the tanks in place, Dana and I began to set up the pump and hoses necessary to pump the cider back and forth between the IBC and the holding tank during the pressing and filtering operation. He described the production phase to me while we were setting things up. Production starts with raw fruits and veggies, peels and all. They engage in minimal processing, scrubbing the horseradish and rinsing everything, cutting the citrus and garlic in half, and pulping the ginger, horseradish, and onion. Everything then goes into the tank with the vinegar, habanero pepper, and turmeric and is allowed to steep for a minimum of six weeks (1,000 hours). Meanwhile, Amy was setting up the 35-ton hydraulic juice press in the cold room and Brian was washing and sanitizing all of the utensils, buckets, and containers to be used in the process.
After all the setup was complete, we were ready for pressing. Dana fired up the pump and the cider slowly started to flow from the stainless steel IBC into the adjacent holding tank. He had to bang on it several times with a mallet to get the aging pump up to full pressure. Dana was like the engineer on an old steamer ship, coaxing the turbines to produce as much power as possible. The klaxons, bells, and whistles from the Beatles song “Yellow Submarine” played through my head for a second and I could not hold back the huge smile and accompanying laugh that followed. Once the holding tank was filled, he opened up the door of the IBC and we proceeded to scoop out all of the solid ingredients for pressing. Suited up in full production gear, Amy was in charge of the pressing. Utilizing the incredible hydraulic force of the 35-ton juice press, she made sure to squeeze every last vital drop from the vinegar-infused oranges, lemons, onions, garlic, and other ingredients, with the liquid from each press being poured back into the IBC. The pressing is a crucial step in the creation of Fire Cider because the vitamin- and nutrient-rich liquids are essential to the nutritional composition and the taste profile of the finished product. We all helped Amy at various times with the pressing, cleaning, sanitizing, and disposing of compost and other waste throughout the day. Next, Brian, Dana and I blended in the raw wildflower honey, filtered the batch one final time and we all muscled the IBC back into the warehouse. Finally, there was end of day cleanup, a very extensive and meticulous process, removing all traces of production from the shared commercial kitchen space as well as washing and sanitizing every piece of equipment used that day. From start to finish, it took four people seven hours to complete, and after all of this hard work, we had produced 350 gallons of Fire Cider ready for bottling. One finished IBC can yield roughly 5,600 8 oz. bottles of Fire Cider. They currently have five IBCs in regular production, with several more lined up for purchase in the near future.
The entire experience, from the day Amy and Dana told me of their dream over three years ago, right up to the moment we finished cleaning everything up at the end of the pressing day, helped me fully understand what it really takes to create a wholesome, local product for market. I thought of their tireless dedication, working around the clock to build their business in a very grassroots and personal way with limited resources. What the folks at Shire City have been able to accomplish in three years is truly an inspiration to all of us at the Co-op and in the greater Berkshire community and beyond. For me it all comes back to the power of food and the idea that food is destiny. It truly has the power to transform the lives of people, the communities in which they live, and the world as a whole.
Over dinner at the People’s Pint in Greenfield, a favorite brewpub serving wholesome local food and handcrafted beer, I learned of their dream of buying a farm one day and growing the ingredients for Fire Cider themselves. They told me about their mission statement, which is borrowed from Hippocrates: Food is the best medicine and the best medicine is good food. They explained the idea of Fire Cider as a gateway food; something that is unmistakable, potent, and which can immediately convince people of the power of raw, whole foods. I ended the day feeling incredibly grateful to have had this amazing opportunity to build a better world through food—in my daily work with all of our valued local farmer and vendor partners, and especially with the good folks at Shire City Herbals.