Fire Cider Controversy

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The end of summer is my most dreaded time of year. It is however, a good time to harvest plants and make plant medicine. One of my favorite ways to start preparing for winter and beat my blues is by brewing a big batch of infused apple cider vinegar, known in the folk medicine world as ‘fire cider’. (I will refer to it as a cider concoction henceforth, until the explanation of the controversy).

The cider concoction is a spicy and sweet folk herbalism recipe taken to alleviate symptoms of the common cold. It has helped me through past winters, to kick a cold in the pants and get rid of it quickly. The beauty of herbalism is that it is medicine that is available to all people because plants are used. Folk medicine has survived for centuries because it gives access to self-care for everyone and anyone. Natives of every land make plant medicines for the ailments of their peoples, so needless to say there are many variations on this cider.

Basically, this spicy cider concoction is a tonic made by macerating (or infusing) a combination of herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits in apple cider vinegar for a month, then straining the liquid (discarding the solids) and adding honey to taste. Depending on what you add to it, it can be super spicy or pungent. In my own brew, I include jalapeno, horseradish, ginger, thyme, reishi mushroom, elderberry, onion and copious amounts of garlic. Some people take a one-ounce shot a day as a preventative medicine to keep colds away during the winter flu season. At the onset of a cold, I take a spoonful of cider 3-4 times daily. I love to add the cider to soups, cooked veggies and homemade salad dressing. I also add it to my immunity-boosting gummies. I am one of those weirdos that actually loves the zing of vinegar, but some people add the cider to juice or tea to make it more palatable. (I’ve also heard of folks adding it to cocktails for a “healthy” twist).

Rosemary Gladstar is a renowned herbalist who coined the term fire cider decades ago. Gladstar taught her students the fire cider recipe, among many other folk recipes, (such as Queen of Hungary’s Water) that were common among herbal communities as well as known in various cultures by different names and slightly different recipes. Gladstar has even published her recipe for “fire cider” in her books. The cider recipe is variable and is an excellent example of folk medicine, because it can be made in infinite ways, all dependent upon what the creator has in their kitchen.

So, what is this controversy all about? A company named Shire City Herbals bottled their own version of fire cider, which was not an issue. However, they decided to trademark the name “fire cider”. The controversy is over the actual trademark of the name “fire cider”. Thousands of herbalists worldwide have been using this name as a general term for decades, and it is understood that each person makes their own version of cider. Many think it is wrong to trademark the phrase “fire cider” and liken it to the idea of trademarking something like “coffee cake”. Each bakery makes their own version of coffee cake without worry of being sued. The herbal community came together because Shire City began sending “cease and desist” letters to small business owners using the phrase “fire cider” for their products, (some of which had been in existence years before Shire City). The argument that is made in the herbalism community is that you cannot trademark a tradition, which essentially fire cider is. I had read about fire cider in Gladstar’s books a few years before I ever heard about the trademark controversy. If Gladstar coined the term and there is written proof of that, how can this company take ownership over it? The US legal system granted Shire City the trademark, withstanding the written proof of the existence of fire cider before they created it. The idea of trademarking a traditional folk medicine is counterintuitive, if it is not available to the people, then it is not a folk medicine.

Blaire Edwards, Herbalist and Product Developer, explained to me the importance of opposing the trademark of fire cider:

The trademarking of "Fire Cider" by a corporation is a perfect example of the way that capitalism exploits tradition. It turns something that is meant to be rich in history and tradition, accessible, community orientated and locally made into something that is nothing more than an overpriced commodity. It deletes and dishonors the tradition behind Fire Cider and turns it into another gimmick.

Check out this video, which explains the story behind the controversy, and also lists below it what you can do to help. You can buy fire cider tonics from your local herbalist, apothecaries or at farmer’s markets. Or, you can be a chemist and make your own. There are so many recipes out there that really you can tailor your cider to meet your needs or use whatever you have on hand. Watch this instructional video of Rosemary Gladstar making cider to get started.

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