- Luke Awtry
- Fresh ingredients and finished Yerbary Master Tonic products
Herbal remedies are the stuff of grandmothers and pyramid schemes, right? If you buy into their concoction, they tell you — the grandmothers sometimes more forcefully than the pyramid schemes — just a little every day will cure whatever ails you.
Michaela Grubbs, CEO and founder of Charlotte-based company the Yerbary Master Tonic, doesn't fit that mold. She markets her organic fire cider as "a traditional remedy for the modern world" and even sells a branded shot glass to go with it. Sure, she suggests taking a tablespoon-size shot of the product every day, but that's just good business.
Grubbs has been interested in herbal medicine since childhood. "I grew up reading books on natural medicine," said the native of Longmeadow, Mass. "It wasn't really popular — no other 8-year-old kid I knew was reading those books — but it stuck with me."
After a Lyme disease diagnosis, Grubbs noticed lingering symptoms and delved into her childhood interest. She took up yoga and opened her own studio in Charlottesville, Va., in 2002. She also studied under several herbalists, never thinking that the knowledge she was gathering for herself and her family would become a career.
She began making fire cider, an apple-cider-vinegar-based tonic, while studying online with Rosemary Gladstar (see below), founder of Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center & Native Plant Preserve in East Barre. Gladstar is credited with developing the first modern fire cider recipe.
Grubbs filled her pantry with huge vats of fire cider, giving it away to friends for free. "Some batches were crazy spicy, depending on the pepper I used," she said.
Years later, after her children were in school full time, Grubbs realized the tonic could be a successful product with a little standardization. She found a commercial kitchen that could manufacture the tonic near her home at the time — in Greenfield, Mass. — made a test batch and went through the steps to get U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval.
"As soon as it all came back A-OK, we got word that my husband got a job in Vermont and we were moving," Grubbs said. She pressed the pause button on her business to settle her family in Charlotte. Six months later, in September 2018, she launched the Yerbary.
Though the business is based in Vermont, the Yerbary's production still happens at Franklin County Community Development Corporation in Massachusetts. "When we moved up here, I tried to find a facility locally," Grubbs said. "They're all amazing, but they don't have the specific machinery that I need."
- Luke Awtry
- Michaela Grubbs
While making fire cider is straightforward, it can be a slog without the right equipment. "To clean all the horseradish I need for a batch would take almost an entire day by hand, but a root scrubber gets it all done in 20 minutes," Grubbs said. "Once I can afford my own machines, I'd like to move everything right here, for every reason: to be in Vermont, to be close to home, everything."
All of the ingredients in Master Tonic are raw, organic and sourced locally whenever possible. Making a batch means chopping them up and putting them in a vat, where they are covered with raw apple cider vinegar and left to steep for six weeks. When the steep is complete, the mixture is strained, the pulp is pressed in a juice press and the resulting liquid is bottled.
The pulp is composted or fed to pigs, making for minimal waste. Sustainability is important to Grubbs, who is developing a product using the pulp in an effort to reduce waste to zero. All of the Yerbary's products are sold exclusively in glass bottles. "I get a lot of pressure from some businesses," Grubbs said. "I could have grown even bigger if I'd used plastic bottles, but I just can't do it."
Despite that limitation, her approach has landed the strikingly designed bottles of Master Tonic on the shelves of such Vermont stores as City Market, Onion River Co-op; Healthy Living Market & Café; Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op; Commodities Natural Market; and Shelburne Market. Throughout New England, it's available at the regional chain Big Y World Class Market.
"About three months in, someone at Big Y got hold of my product and said they'd like to carry it at all 90 stores," Grubbs said. "I went from zero stores to 130 within a few months."
Tracey Orvis, wellness manager at Middlebury's co-op, said she jumped at the opportunity to carry Master Tonic. "For the co-op to have the opportunity to stock a fire cider that is locally made in small batches is a win for everyone," she wrote to Seven Days in an email.
That early, rapid growth led Grubbs to switch her focus. Rather than ramp up sales, Grubbs, who has no employees, does a few in-store demos a week at existing accounts to build product awareness.
Offering samples of the product and gauging consumer response is one of Grubbs' favorite aspects of being a business owner. "Every now and then you get somebody who cannot take spice at all, and they freak out," she said. "Otherwise, it's fun to watch people's reactions."
- Luke Awtry
- Some of the Yerbary Master Tonic base ingredients: onion, habañero, horseradish root, ginger, garlic and turmeric
Spice — the "fire" in fire cider — is an essential part of Master Tonic. The Yerbary currently offers three flavors of the product, each with the same base ingredients: onion, habañero, horseradish root, ginger, garlic, turmeric and raw apple cider vinegar. Taking a shot of Master Tonic is a tangy, tingly experience; Grubbs said it's not unlike a shot of alcohol, with its "invigorating burn."
The honey lemon and lemon herb flavors offer variety to consumers, whether they're seeking a bit of sweetness or herbal notes from oregano and thyme. "There are people out there that feel safer — they know this product is going to be strong and powerful — when they see honey and lemon," Grubbs said.
The lemon herb flavor is popular for culinary applications, including salad dressings and marinades. That culinary crossover is on display at the Big Y stores, where Master Tonic is placed in the vinegar aisle. Though Grubbs encourages culinary uses, she finds that particular placement confusing.
"Everywhere here in Vermont, we're in the supplement aisle," she said. "That's the preferable spot, because that's mainly what it's used for — although people love to use it in cocktails, and it makes an incredible spicy margarita."
Master Tonic is regulated as a food product, and Grubbs has to avoid health claims on the product's label and in her marketing. The back label reads: "Master Tonic is a traditional herbal remedy used for thousands of years for its wholesome properties." The original copy said "healing properties," Grubbs said, but her production facility urged her to change the language to meet the strict regulations.
Placement is especially important because, until recently, Grubbs was not legally allowed to use the term "fire cider" anywhere on her label. As Seven Days reported in 2017, the Massachusetts company Shire City Herbals trademarked the term in 2012. Herbalists, who had been selling fire cider since Gladstar developed it, could no longer use the term for their products.
Grubbs didn't start her business until after the trademark was in place, so she chose the common synonym "master tonic" and quietly supported the anti-trademark cause, donating money to the herbalists who were fighting to have the trademark revoked. Supported by Gladstar, the organizations Free Fire Cider and Tradition Not Trademark worked to educate the public on the importance of keeping traditional herbal products available for the community to make and sell.
The dispute between the herbalists and Shire City Herbals culminated in a nine-day hearing last summer in a Massachusetts federal court. Judge Mark G. Mastroianni ruled in favor of the herbalists that fire cider cannot be trademarked because it is a generic term that is well used in the herbalist community.
"It was an intensely interesting experience that restored my faith in the legal system," Gladstar told Seven Days. "I never was sure we would win, and we got such an education.
"If it were just about fire cider," she continued, "it wouldn't be worth all the trouble. It was a landmark victory that has set a precedent, and it will make it easier to protect our traditional recipes."
Grubbs acknowledged that it would have been easier to market her product if she'd been able to call it "fire cider" from the beginning, but she hasn't decided whether to change the name now. She agrees with Gladstar that the outcome of the case is a boon to the industry.
"This was a name that herbalists have been using for so long, and they should be able to make it and sell it without getting cease-and-desist letters," Grubbs said. "The more people that can be producing it, and the more name recognition it gets, the better we are as a whole. It's going to be easier for the consumer to make choices about which fire cider they want to buy."
If the Yerbary's customers are any indication, fire cider could be set for world domination. "They go all the way from my 10-year-old daughter's friends to people who have been making it at home for decades," Grubbs said. "Especially in Vermont, people are doing what they can to feel better naturally, and they're realizing that there is a space in between wellness and sickness where we can use food as medicine."
Fueling the Fire
While the fire cider trademark battle raged, Vermont herbalist Rosemary Gladstar was preparing her newest book, Fire Cider! 101 Zesty Recipes for Health-Boosting Remedies Made With Apple Cider Vinegar, for publication. Released by Storey Publishing in October 2019, the book chronicles the "fire cider revolution," tells the story of the traditional tonic, and offers "fun, fabulous and sassy" recipes, related remedies, and guidelines for cooking with vinegar and fire cider.
Gladstar, who now lives in Milton, developed the first modern recipe for fire cider in the late 1970s; she published it in a home study course in the '80s and in her 1999 book Rosemary Gladstar's Herbs for the Home Medicine Chest.
"Everything about fire cider has been community oriented, even the recipe going out in the world," Gladstar said. "No matter what happened in the case, I wanted this book to keep the origin story alive."
Gladstar gave the herbalist community an opportunity to participate, ultimately weaving more than 100 contributions into the book. "We sent letters out saying, 'We're writing this book; if you have a recipe or story or song or poem, send it!'" Gladstar said. The result is an open sharing of ideas befitting the herbalist tradition.