Raising a Glass to Our Agrarian Heritage
Glover dairy farmer Joseph Alexander taking a break from summer haying
circa 1910 (Photo courtesy of PitchforksToTablespoons.Blogspot.com)
BY KC WRIGHT
A first taste of Vermont Switchel typically generates comments such as “interesting” or “different.” But given the chance to linger on the palate, it leaves most customers yearning for another sip. And another––finding Vermont Switchel to be quite pleasing.
There’s no doubt about it: Switchel is a unique beverage derived from a century-old recipe, traditionally prepared on Vermont dairy farms to quench the thirst of farmers, workers and their families who endured the arduous task of manual haying during long, hot summer days.
Historically, switchel was prepared in large canning jars filled with spring water, fortified with maple syrup for calories and minerals (energy and electrolytes), apple cider vinegar to cool and stave off leg cramps and ginger for digestion. As our French Canadian neighbors would say: “Voila!” The original Gatorade was born, sans the copious amounts of refined sugars along with artificial flavors and colors that flood today’s beverage market.
The first time Vermont Switchel founder Susan Alexander tried an iteration of the homemade concoction she was hooked. “It was love at first sip,” she recalls. Alexander, now of Cabot, enjoyed the beverage in Glover, Vermont, home to the Alexander family dairy farm. “I thought that switchel was so good and so good for you, it would be great to bottle it for everyone to drink.”
More than two decades, two careers and two grown children later, Alexander followed her vision. In June, after much encouragement from early tasters and assistance from the Vermont Small Business Development Center, she began producing her exclusive recipe for market. Her test lab was the Vermont Food Venture Center commercial kitchen incubator in Hardwick–– a hardscrabble town in the Northeast Kingdom that’s been transformed into a model for community food sustainability.
In many cases, Alexander’s Vermont Switchel snags customers at first taste. When Ann Knox tried it at the South Burlington farmers market she reacted first with “Oh, yum!” and after a few seconds confirmed her impression: “Like, happy!”
Courtenay Labson of Chevy Chase, Maryland, sampled Vermont Switchel at the summer farmers market in Hardwick. “I finished off a cold bottle while I shopped, [then] bought a couple of quarts [to take] that day.” When Labson returned to Maryland the following week, she took 12 quarts with her.
Photos by Barry Wright
“We went through that order in three weeks. Sadly, Susan is not yet shipping to Maryland. When she does, I expect I will be ordering cases regularly.” Labson continues, “I was so sad to be out of it; I actually researched switchel recipes. I have yet to produce any that’s just like Susan’s.”
Yet there are some people—about 7% to 9% of the population, according to feedback Alexander has collected from her tastings—who just can’t get past the pungent flavors of either the apple cider vinegar or ginger. Perhaps many of today’s palates have been sugarfied due to “America’s hidden drinking problem––the rivers of sugary soft drinks, juices and other beverages we guzzle daily,” in the words of a nutrition report from the Harvard School of Public Health in September. Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, says there’s a general expectation that everything should be sweetened to the point that natural flavors from fruits and vegetables are shunned. Willett’s report encourages the beverage industry to produce beverages much lower in sugar. Vermont Switchel is closer to that target.
A young mother of two reported that her kids love Vermont Switchel and enjoy it as a treat, because they don’t drink any other sweetened beverages. In fact, the maple syrup it’s sweetened with is considered to have a low glycemic index (the rate at which a food increases blood sugar) compared to other sweeteners. In addition, results of analysis out last year from University of Rhode Island researcher Navindra Seeram found maple syrup to be loaded with antioxidants. Seeram described it as “an antioxidant cocktail having some of the beneficial compounds that are found in berries, some that are found in tea and some that are found in flaxseed.”
Vermont Switchel’s apple cider vinegar is prominent in taste as well as being much hailed historically as a nutrition boost. In his 1958 book Folk Medicine: A Vermont Doctor’s Guide to Good Health, Vermont native Dr. D. C. Jarvis recommended mixing apple cider vinegar with honey as a health tonic. Of course, maple syrup is plentiful in the state and Alexander’s husband, a seventh-generation Vermonter, produces much of the maple syrup for Vermont Switchel.
Alexander spent years researching, recipe testing and sampling before she was satisfied that her product not only tasted great while maintaining nutritional integrity, but that it could stand alone in the competitive beverage marketplace. Her switchel is exclusive in the proportion of its sole five ingredients: 100% Vermont maple syrup, organic lemon juice, organic apple cider vinegar, ginger root and organic blackstrap molasses.
Customer Labson from Maryland says she finds the taste of Vermont Switchel similar to kombucha, but better: “I really enjoy the taste of the individual ingredients, and together they’re wonderful. I particularly like that it’s just lightly sweet––not at all cloying.”
Trained professionally as a soil scientist and, more recently, a leader in Vermont’s solid waste management, Alexander is just as dedicated to building a sustainable business for community benefit while minimizing packaging and Vermont Switchel’s environmental footprint. It is both a product and a purpose that she believes in.
“Of course it’s a business and I’d like to turn a profit, but this is also about preserving a part of Vermont’s agrarian heritage while offering a convenient, healthful product in a world flooded with sugar-laden, artificially flavored drinks, some shipped from across the ocean.” After spending the summer selling Vermont Switchel statewide at farmers markets, Alexander has acquired a following of loyal sippers who run the demographic gamut. Some consumers like to drink it straight up cold for refreshment or from drink bottles during a run or on bike rides. Labson adds, “It’s a great re-hydration drink, especially since it goes down so easily. Much better than most sports drinks.”
Mature “switchel-lers” report that it shakes well in equal parts with vodka over ice, dubbed a Switchel- Tini. Another customer described mixing it with rum and calling it a Switch-Hitter. Others like to drink it heated at bedtime, while Alexander herself sips it warmed with a cinnamon stick.
Vermont Switchel will be available to taste at both the Montpelier and Stowe winter farmers markets. It’s also sold at Healthy Living in Burlington, Buffalo Mountain Co-op in Hardwick, Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville and at The Farm Store in Jeffersonville. Vitality Vending, which stocks organic snacks and other Vermont-made products at corporate locations and small colleges around the state, includes Vermont Switchel with its inventory offerings.
Basically a one-woman show, Alexander continues to work her “paying” job. She reflects about the late nights and early mornings she keeps to produce and market her switchel: “I get such a good, warm feeling from having people try something they’ve never had before and watching their expression as it changes from trepidation (apple cider vinegar?) to delight (‘Yumm!’).
“I feel something akin to pride in introducing people to something so basic, pure and delicious all at once.” That’s in line with a middle-aged man who tried Vermont Switchel for the first time over the summer at the Stowe Resort farmers market, declaring: “It’s Switchel-licious!”
And though farmers now hay in tractors with air-conditioned cabs, scientific research has revealed that cold weather can dry out our lungs with risk of dehydration. Vermont Switchel is becoming the healthy, local thirst-slaker of choice after workouts from yoga to skiing. It’s also gaining quite a reputation as an uncommon mixer for cocktails. Switchel and mulled wine anyone?