If kombucha and ginger ale had a love child, its name would be switchel.
Superior Switchel founder Melina Lamer discovered the refreshing, zingy beverage while she was a student at St. Olaf; it was the hockey player’s alternative to Gatorade. Also known as “Haymaker’s Punch,” the 17th-century tonic is made from a brew of water, ginger, apple cider vinegar, and a sweetener like honey or maple syrup. Lamer enjoyed its purported homeopathic benefits, which range from promoting digestive enzymes to replenishing electrolytes as well as reducing inflammation and nausea.
After she graduated with an environmental studies degree, she was offered an environmental analyst position. “It was a stable job, but it didn’t really excite me that much,” she says. “I’m not really one for beakers and digging in the soil.” She decided to give selling switchel a try instead, prepping the beverage at Gia kitchen in St. Paul and selling her then non-carbonated Haymaker switchel in mason jars at local farmers markets starting in 2015.
Most folks there didn’t know what switchel was, so when they tasted samples, the reaction was mixed, mostly due to the taste of apple cider vinegar. Some people were averse to the flavor; others swore by the stuff, claiming it to be a cure-all.
But over the years, as drinking vinegars, shrubs, and cocktail mixers have become more popular, so, too, has switchel. “It’s swinging towards, ‘Oh, I think I could acquire a taste for this’ or ‘Oh, this is awesome. I love apple cider vinegar,’” says Lamer. Switchel is caffeine-free, but the ginger combined with maple syrup or honey makes it naturally energizing. It can be served hot or cold, either as a soda substitute, cider alternative, or non-alcoholic beverage option.
Halfway through her first year of sales, co-ops approached Lamer about stocking her trademark flavor, now known as Honey Cinnamon Kick. By her second year, she wanted to participate in Twin Cities Veg Fest, but had to get the honey out of the beverage to do so. So she came up with Orange Maple Splash, which uses maple syrup instead. “It’s not covering up the apple cider vinegar, but it’s not too tangy so you’re spitting it back in my face,” she says of the flavor. “We try to hit that threshold. We don’t want to be an unhealthy drink or have it be too cloyingly sweet.” Lavender Lemon Lift followed shortly thereafter, completing the flavor trifecta.
The idea to carbonate came from people who provided feedback at demos. Lamer tested the fizzy version by putting it in kegs and getting it on tap at a few locations. She also repackaged from costly mason jars to streamlined 12-ounce bottles. Now, Superior Switchel is available in more than 50 locations across the Upper Midwest, and is expanding to Oregon this month.
Superior Switchel isn’t just a business, though; it’s also a vehicle for philanthropy. The company recently received its B-Corp Status and a Certified 1% for the Planet designation, affirming a commitment to giving back. Each year, the company donates to different land and water conservation organizations, like the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
Conservation is a cause close to Lamer’s heart. Born and raised in Healy, Alaska, she grew up hiking and whitewater kayaking, and later worked as a guide for Boundary Waters trips. “It’s been in my blood since the very beginning, and this is the one way I know how to represent that and give back to it,” she says.
Though she never expected to become an entrepreneur in the colonial-era bubbly drink business, she’s all in now. “Every day’s a new adventure. It’s fun. And it’s exciting to see something come of it, where the ultimate goal is to give back to the area I love.”