hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Take a sip, feel the heat

Threesome finds a following for ‘Fire Cider’



Contributing writer

Dana St. Pierre recalled a recent experience at the Honest Weight Food Co-op Food Fair in Albany.

There were dozens of vendors with booths set up along the lake in Washington Park selling edible delights ranging from homemade soups and grass-fed beef sliders to cupcakes and homemade peanut butter cookies. Despite the array of temptations, there was a continual line of fairgoers waiting their turn to take a slug of St. Pierre’s creation: Fire Cider.

Some gulped the pale brown liquid in a single shot. Others sipped gingerly. Some declared it intriguingly spicy. Others bought a bottle -- or two.

“We get a range of responses from one extreme to the other,” St. Pierre said. “Some people light up and get all excited about the taste and sensations, while there is a minority of people who get downright angry, as if I’m playing a mean trick on them.”

The spicy concoction, whose devotees say it can ward off the common cold, is unpredictable in the responses it triggers.

“One of my favorite parts of giving out samples is that I can never tell who will be in what category,” St. Pierre said. “We’ve had fragile looking grandmothers absolutely love it, and big tough guys swearing and begging for water.”

Building on a home remedy

Fire Cider got its start more than 10 years ago when St. Pierre decided he’d had one head cold too many. His mother, a nurse, suggested he try the old New England home remedy of apple cider vinegar and honey, so he did. But that was only the beginning.

“He started experimenting with different tinctures, adding ingredients like horseradish to increase its effectiveness,” recalled St. Pierre’s wife, Amy Huebner.

St. Pierre continued to perfect his recipe and noticed that it seemed to boost his immune system, usually keeping colds away or stopping them in their tracks after they’d begun. When the couple moved back to the Berkshires in 2009 after living in New York City, it was Huebner’s turn to reap the healing benefits of the cider.

“It was our first winter back in the Berkshires in a long time,” she recalled. “I was getting sick living in a drafty old petroleum-heated house. Dana said I should try the Fire Cider, and I was surprised at how much better I began to feel. Last winter, I took it every day and didn’t get sick. I have thyroid issues, too, and the Fire Cider helped me feel warmer in the winter.”

Huebner said the evolution of Fire Cider is a natural extension of the couple’s interest in holistic health remedies. St. Pierre attended the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts and is a certified yoga teacher and Reiki master. Huebner studied at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City.

“My training was for health coaching,” Huebner explained. “It’s similar to life coaching. Its focus is beyond just what you’re eating. It also encompasses questions like, ‘Do you love your job? Are you engaging in healthy relationships? Do you have movement in your life?' It’s the whole picture.”

Huebner added that both she and St. Pierre feel strongly that good food is medicinal.

“Whole foods is medicine,” she said. “Raw, local honey boosts your immune system. Horseradish is good for chest and sinus congestion, and turmeric is anti-inflammatory. Pharmaceuticals are based on plants found in nature; Sudafed is based on the ephedra plant.

“We’re meant to ingest the plant instead of isolating an element of it, replicating it chemically, then ingesting a concentrated amount of it. You could figure out how horseradish effects the body and make a pill that replicates it, but when you eat horseradish, you get all the other benefits of it.”

Taking it to the public

A year after they’d become regular drinkers of their homemade concoction, the couple began another round of tinkering with the recipe, looking for ways to make it taste better while also upping its health-boosting properties.

What they came up with is an elixir that has raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar and is augmented with a long list of holistic ingredients such as raw honey, lemons, turmeric, horseradish, ginger root, and garlic.

Huebner was unemployed at the time, and cash was running low. But she felt so strongly about their new and improved product that she used the last of her cash reserve to make enough fire cider to sell at the 2010 Handmade Holiday Festival at the Old Notre Dame Church in Pittsfield.

“We ended up selling out of this weird, funky vinegar,” she said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘We don't have jobs, so let’s do this.’”

With the help of Huebner's father, sister and brother, Brian, the couple put together enough start-up money to get the enterprise off the ground. But they needed one other critical element: a proper label for the glass bottles.

“I knew I couldn’t create a label,” Huebner said. “It was too much, so I had my brother do it for me. He's an excellent illustrator. One thing led to another, and Brian turned into a third partner.”

Brian Huebner decided to use characters from his online comic series on the Fire Cider bottles.

“His comic series is brilliant and it doesn't get enough attention,” Amy Huebner said.

She added that besides being a master illustrator, her brother is also an ace marketer of Fire Cider. As a result, their concoction is now sold at health food stores and co-ops throughout the Berkshires and across the Northeast, from New Hampshire to eastern Pennsylvania.

Holistic medicine for the masses

The three partners incorporated in January 2011 and began their first retail sales in September of that year.

“We get a great response when we give samples away at the New Amsterdam Market at the South Street Seaport in New York City every Sunday,” Amy Huebner said. “It can be very entertaining to watch people take shots of Fire Cider for the first time. Sometimes they yell, shout, make funny faces. Brian’s working on a video reel of first-time reactions of people trying it.”

She said many customers enjoy the cider straight up. Others dilute it with water or mix it into juice, marinades, sauces or salad dressings.

“A lot of people seem to dig it; it’s a great introduction to whole foods medicine,” Huebner said.

Huebner and St. Pierre produce the cider in a kitchen at the Community Development Corporation in Greenfield, which involves a three-hour round-trip commute from their home.

“One batch is a six-week process,” she said. “The vinegar we use is living, unpasteurized vinegar, so the fermenting is already done. We take all of these organic whole foods, chop them in different ways, let them steep for a minimum of four weeks, then take solids out and squeeze them with a juice press, and then compost all solids. At the very end we add raw honey.”

Though the label (at the urging of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) says to refrigerate after opening, Huebner says it’s fine to store Fire Cider at room temperature.

“The FDA was extra cautious,” she said. “I tell customers that apple cider vinegar and honey are natural preservatives, and vinegar has a low pH.”

In addition to the many retail locations where Fire Cider is sold, it’s available throughout the country via online purchases, and Huebner reports a growing following.

“I still do health coaching, but this became a better way to promote our mission that whole foods is medicine,” she said. “Instead of working with one person at a time, I can reach thousands of people.”

For more information about Fire Cider or to find a retail outlet, visit www.firecider.com.



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