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Savorvore Features Vermont Switchel

These beverages made in Vermont quench thirst and hail the season

Jun. 21, 2013   |  

Susan Alexander pours a measure of commercial-grade maple syrup as she makes Switchel, the traditional farmer’s field drink, at the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. / GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS

Written by Melissa PasanenFree Press Correspondent

Susan Alexander pours out a measure of commercial-grade maple syrup as she makes Switchel, the traditional farmer’s field drink, at the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. / GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS

HARDWICK — We might not quite have reached the peak of summer temperatures yet, but we’ll get to those days when the sticky heat weighs so heavily that it can only be relieved by a leap into the lake, a favorite swimming hole, or a tall icy glass of your favorite, thirst-quenching beverage.

Even better if that drink is sweetened with Vermont maple or honey, or flavored with syrup crushed from Vermont-grown fruits. Cheers to a Green Mountain summertime!

Vermont Switchel: Refreshing tradition

When Susan Alexander travels around the state introducing potential customers to Vermont Switchel, she gets varied reactions to her slightly modernized, bottled version of the old-fashioned drink distinctively flavored with cider vinegar, molasses, maple and ginger.

“Some people say, ‘I have to buy this for my grandfather. He talks about it all the time,’” Alexander explained during a recent production shift at the Vermont Food Venture Center (VFVC) where she has mixed and bottled her switchel for just over a year.

“Other people don’t want anything to do with it. They’ll say their mother or grandmother used to make them drink it on the farm,” she continued. “Even when I tell them that I’ve cranked down the apple cider vinegar and it’s probably a bit sweeter than the one they remember, they don’t want to try it.”

Then, of course, there are many who have no idea what the drink is, so Alexander explains that switchel’s acidic, refreshing qualities made it a staple of hot summer hayfields when all hands were called on deck to make hay while the sun shone.

“Back then, it was more a medicinal tonic. They drank it to prevent dehydration,” Alexander explained. “They didn’t have Gatorade.”

In the 1963 classic “Yankee Hill-Country Cooking,” author Beatrice Vaughan of East Thetford offered her recipe for switchel and wrote, “My grandfather always said that nothing quenched a man’s thirst or cooled his dusty throat in haying time so well as this homely drink.”

For Alexander herself, it was “love at first sip” after she was introduced to switchel through her husband Cedric Alexander’s family, which boasts seven generations of Vermont farmers.

 

Twenty-seven years ago I first tried Grampie’s switchel made by my sister-in-law,” Alexander recalled. “I thought, ‘That’s exactly what we should be drinking.’ It’s light and crisp and healthy. I said, ‘Someday I’m going to bottle this.’”

She quickly outgrew her Cabot kitchen and started using the VFVC, renting the space by the day and taking advantage of the expertise of Connor Gorham, the center’s professional production assistant, who was helping her brew and bottle a 140-gallon batch a few weeks ago.

The production room was fragrant with the deep-edged sweetness of dark maple and molasses, pureed ginger and the bright, sharp scent of apple cider vinegar and lemon juice. Currently, Alexander uses Vermont maple from Butternut Mountain and is looking for consistent, affordable sources of local apple cider vinegar and even ginger.

A soil scientist by training, the beverage entrepreneur still works part-time in her original field as she builds her fledgling business. In May, Alexander was one of the first 20 Vermont companies awarded a Vermont Working Lands grant to help keep land in agriculture or forestry use. She plans to use the $15,000 grant to purchase a new bottler that will allow her to increase daily production output from 1,400 bottles to more than 4,000.

Demand at this point is exceeding supply, Alexander said. In addition to drinking switchel straight, she suggests mixing it with seltzer, as she does. A number of customers have also shared recipes for creative cocktails using switchel as a base, she said.

She is working on developing a five-gallon bag (think wine-in-a-box) and also a concentrate for special events and foodservice customers for added flexibility and cost-efficiency. She’d love to see it everywhere, she said, from schools to hospitals.

If Alexander has her way, a whole new generation of Vermonters will know what switchel is — and all of them will fall in love with it as she has.

WHERE TO BUY:

Vermont Switchel is available at a variety of local and independent markets including Healthy Living, City Market, Natural Provisions and Beverage Warehouse in the Burlington area. For more information, go to vtswitchel.com.