Some people add habanero, turmeric, or even a touch of elderflower. But the basic recipe for fire cider is the same: apple cider vinegar, horseradish, garlic, and spices.
A local farm and herbalist group in Washington, D.C. will teach the uninitiated how to make the non-alcoholic, medicinal tonic, which herbalists say is good to clear out the sinuses or warm you up on a winter day. Common Good City Farm in LeDroit Park and the D.C. chapter of the American Herbalist Guild recently posted an advertisement for an event to taste and make fire cider at the farm on January 25.
If that all sounds warm and cozy, you may have missed the seven year legal battle and boycott over what fire cider is and who gets to use the name. The legal dispute’s conclusion is the occasion for the D.C. event and the reason why the ad for it hawks the otherwise cryptic slogan “fire cider is FREE!”
The dispute started in 2012 when a Massachusetts-based company Shire City, now known as Fire Cider on their website, trademarked the name “fire cider” to refer to their recipe for the tonic. Shortly thereafter, the company started contacting herbalists on Etsy and told them to change the name of their products or stop selling.
Herbalists told the Wash that it is traditional to share recipes in the medicinal plant community and that the recipe and name for fire cider dates back to the 1970’s.
“Everybody shares everything, so when this happened it freaked people out,” said Claudia Joy Wingo, who leads the health promotion department at the Maryland University for Integrative Health (MUIH), a school for alternative medicine that has no affiliation with the state’s University of Maryland.
The dispute heated up. Herbalists called for a boycott. In 2015, Shire City Herbals sued three herbalists for trademark infringement and economic damages from the boycott. The case ended up in a Massachusetts district court.
On September 30 the judge handed the victory to the herbalists, declaring fire cider a generic term.
While the trial itself centered in Massachusetts, local herbalists said that it was a big topic in the D.C. metro area, which was the site of the American Herbalist Guild’s annual meeting in October. The guild is a nonprofit organization for herbal practitioners.
“You can’t trademark tradition,” said Betsy Miller, an herbalist who also teaches at MUIH. While she wasn’t party to the case, she said that everyone in D.C. watched it closely.
The idea for the D.C. event came when Elizabeth Gilhuly, President of the D.C. chapter of the American Herbalists Guild, posted on the chapter Facebook page the idea for a party “in honor of the Free Fire Cider win.” An organizer at Common Good City Farm quickly responded offering to host.
“It’s a folk thing like chicken soup,” said Gilhuly. “There is no official way to make chicken soup.”
The invite for the fire cider event in LeDroit Park advertises a tasting, workshops on brewing and cooking with the tonic, and a lunch with dumplings.
Common Good City Farms has a small medicinal garden where it grows passion flowers, echinacea, and mullein, among other herbs, according to Josephine Chu, program and outreach manager at the farm. She said that the farm has regular programming on medicinal plants and herbs.
There is no clinical, peer-reviewed evidence for the medicinal benefits of fire cider, and some medical experts caution that herbal supplements aren’t always held to the same scientific scrutiny and can carry risks as well as benefits.
When it comes to fire cider, most of the ingredients are common kitchen ingredients, although Gilhuly cautioned against consuming too much at once. “You don’t drink a glass of vinegar,” she said.
Shire City Herbals did not respond to a request for comment about the trademark dispute.
A statement on the FAQ page of its website acknowledged the loss it court. “The Judge thought the term should be generic, and now it is! We will continue to make our Fire Cider in the same small batch, hand-made process our customers have come to know and love.”
The website for the Massachusetts-based company lists ten stores in Washington D.C. that stock its fire cider tonic, although at least one store told the Wash that they were no longer stocking it.
The Wash picked up a bottle at Glen’s Garden Market near Dupont Circle. The tonic opened with a sharp sour bite and ended with a slightly spicy taste of garlic. We were unable to sample a fire cider batch home-brewed in the District before publication. Miller, of the Maryland herbalism academy, said that she had a batch brewing, but it wouldn’t be ready for another week or two.
“Every herbalist has their own recipe,” said Miller, who adds an unconventional elderflower to her tonic. “I’d encourage people to learn how to make it themselves.”
For now, herbalists are celebrating their win.
“The trial started in the Spring Equinox with the moon in Libra and ended with the Fall Equinox with the Sun in Libra,” proclaimed the website Free Fire Cider, which was started by a group of herbalists to fight the Shire City Herbals trademark. “LIBRA is JUSTICE!”
Details on the event:
When: Saturday, January 25, 2020, 11am-1pm
Where: Common Good City Farm, V St NW between 2nd and 4th
What: Taste fire cider and learn to make it