By Jonathan Eisenthal
First came craft beer, then craft spirits and now craft soft drinks will be quenching thirsty people on their patios, after their workouts and giving them a nice lift after work. They can be sipped or gulped, enjoyed on their own or blended into a cocktail to create a unique taste.
AURI has proven itself a great partner to help entrepreneurs take their craft drink ideas from the kitchen to the grocery store shelves and tables of local restaurants and bars. Two new drinks have become reality this way; King of the North grape juice and Saint Paul Switchel.
Some of these trendy beverages have lineages that reach back into Minnesota’s history. Laura Ingalls Wilder enjoyed a drink she called ‘ginger water,’ which was elsewhere called switchel or haymaker’s punch.
Colleen Schlieper, a stay-at-home mom looking for an economic opportunity first tasted switchel a few years back—several companies on the East Coast manufacture it, but at the time no one made it in Minnesota.
“I thought, I can be the vendor here,” said Schlieper. But she has a background in biological sciences, not food science.
“I didn’t know what was involved in safely bottling a drink product—that’s where AURI came into the picture for me,” says Schlieper. “They helped me develop the process. They also got the nutritional facts printed and ready to go, and then did the testing for the nutrition facts label to assure its accuracy.”
Traditionally, switchel is a beverage made of ginger, apple cider vinegar and a sweetener: honey, sweetened molasses or maple syrup.
“I’m the grand-daughter of a bee keeper so I decided to use honey for my sweetener,” says Schlieper. “People would typically drink switchel when they were cutting the hay. This would be their lemonade or Gatorade, because it’s a really refreshing and hydrating drink. It has the side benefit that it helps the respiratory system. Those hay cutters would breathe easier after a glass of switchel—it counteracts the cold-like symptoms of the hay fever brought on by all the dirt and the dust.”
But Schlieper updated the taste by switching from using ginger powder and distilled vinegar to fresh ginger and fermented apple cider vinegar, creating a more vibrant taste profile.
“It’s a little bit sweet, a little bit sour. Some people say it’s spicy but I prefer to say it’s flavorful. It’s got that special little kick from the ginger,” she says.
While it’s an excellent stand-alone drink, served in Saint Paul restaurants like Naked Nina’s juice bar and Colossal Café, Saint Paul Switchel is also part of the trend in the use of craft beverages as mixers used to create cocktails.
Du Nord Craft Spirits in Minneapolis serves Saint Paul Switchel, both mixed with its small batch gin, and as a straight soft drink.
For about fifteen years Susan Roisen has grown grapes on a corner of her family’s corn and soybean farm in Dawson, producing Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Marquette grapes for a vineyard in St. Peter called Chankaska. But then Susan realized that not everyone drinks wine, so they decided to plant grapes for eating and grapes for juice as well, and King of the North grape juice was born.
“My husband put in 38 table grapes and juice grape plants (in 2009) and for a few years we kind of ignored them. We’d make jam, and the pickers would come out and we would give the grapes away,” says Roisen. “But the 38 plants started producing so much I said to myself, we just can’t let this go to waste. When we picked (and crushed) the entire 38 plants, they produced 50 gallons of juice.
Roisen hit on the idea of selling her juice during ‘The Meander’—an art crawl along the upper Minnesota Valley that takes place every fall.
“There are about forty artists along the Minnesota River, from Ortonville to Granite Falls, who take part in the Meander,” says Roisen. “I sold everything I had that first year—200 quart containers.”
During the Meander sale she discovered her juice wasn’t just a juice beverage. A woman from St. Cloud has come every year since she started bottling King of The North, and buys two or three cases, reporting to Roisen that she likes to mix it with vodka.
“What I like to do when I am serving it is to dilute it with water, or mix it with club soda as a kind of sparkling juice beverage for kids,” says Roisen. “I’ve sold it in farmer’s markets now, but the most success I’ve had is just selling it off the farm.”
Roisen, who is a nurse, is used to working in sterile environments, but felt she needed help figuring out how to make a thoroughly safe commercial product. She remembered back to when her husband and son got interested in winemaking in the early 2000s—the inspiration was a pamphlet put out by AURI, so Roisen decided to go back to AURI for help launching her new juice product.
Now she’s ready to ramp production up to 300 gallons a year, and who knows what the limit will be? Roisen describes the feed stock as a jammy, purple fruit, like a Concord grape. Rich in anti-oxidant riboflavins, flavonoids that lower blood pressure and increase heart health, it fits the trend—people are looking for drinks that are both delightful and healthy.
“Canned” in old-fashioned mason jars, and sporting an image of their red-headed, long-bearded farm truck mechanic, the quart jars of King of the North have a homespun visual appeal declared ‘totally Amish,’ by Susan’s son Aaron, who is now an award-winning vintner (known for his dry Rieseling) in upstate New York.
“What we process is one hundred percent natural grape juice,” says Roisen. “We don’t put any water or preservatives, or sugars—nothing is added to the product. It’s pure grape juice. When I called AURI , they helped me to develop a label, did a bench trial and compared it to the number one brand of commercial unfiltered grape juice. Our juice actually came up with more potassium per serving than this popular brand name grape juice. AURI helped me to understand and now I know how to become commercial. As part of this plan, I have spoken to the state juice specialist and sent a letter to Cornell University, regarding thermal processing, so they can be our third-party authority to say this product has been processed correctly and is safe for human consumption.”