Norwich business positions its vinegar concoction as the next big beverage trend

  • Corina Belle-Isle, left, and Russ Schleipman, are marketing an apple cider based switchel beverage under the name Corina's Switchy. "It's been a family tradition to drink vinegar," said Belle-Isle of the historical thirst quencher while at home in Norwich, Vt., Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A bottle of Corina's Switchy sits on the desk of Corina Belle-Isle in Norwich, Vt., Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. The couple is still fine-tuning their sourcing of ingredients which include fresh lime and ginger juice and spices."This is more of a Caribbean version," said Belle-Isle. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Russ Schleipman drinks a glass of Corina's Switchy, which he his marketing with his partner Corina Belle-Isle, at his home in Norwich, Vt., Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. Belle-Isle said that the prebiotic qualities of acetic acid in the vinegar based beverage are beneficial to digestion. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Russ Schleipman loads cases of Corina's Switchy into his car for delivery in Norwich, Vt., Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. The beverage is available locally at the Latham House Tavern, Dan and Whit's and King Arthur Flour. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 11/16/2019 8:40:02 PM

Southerners call it haymaker’s punch. Midwesterners know it as ginger-water. A Vermont doctor who swore by its medicinal properties called it honegar, but most in the state know it as switchel.

Corina Belle-Isle and Russ Schleipman just call it switchy.

Corina’s Switchy to be exact.

Belle-Isle, 57, and Schleipman, 70, are driving around New England in an effort to sell the world — or at least a small corner of it — on a drink developed from an old Belle-Isle family recipe that they think can do for non-alcoholic beverages what kombucha did for fermented tea.

That is: have a breakout product in the craft or artisanal beverage market, one of the fastest-growing segments in the industry.

With roots that reach back to the 18th century, switchel — in its basic form — mixes apple cider vinegar with ginger and a sweetener into a thirst-slaking drink that is sometimes called “the Amish version of Gatorade.”

But unlike the neon-colored sports drink, switchel does not contain any artificial ingredients, and fans praise its purported salutary effects for everything from replenishing depleted electrolytes and soothing indigestion to alleviating tennis elbow, balancing blood sugars and combating allergies.

“I grew up drinking apple cider vinegar. It had been part of my family for generations,” said Belle-Isle, a native of Bellows Falls, Vt., and now a Norwich resident who has had a career spanning real estate sales, financial advising, beauty care product development and art consulting. “My mother would mix it with water and sometimes honey and warm it up and say, ‘Drink this because it keeps you healthy.’ ”

Switchel drinks aren’t as well-known as cold-pressed juice, kombucha and nitro-brewed coffee that have all become trendy within the nonalcoholic craft drink market. But two other Vermont switchel makers have been plowing the field in recent years: Hardwick-based Vermont Switchel Co., which has been producing the concoction since 2012 and this year was acquired by new owners; and Up Mountain Switchel in South Londonderry, also begun in 2012.

A handful of other U.S. switchel makers, including Superior Switchel in Minneapolis, Cide Road in New Jersey and Vitick’s in Virginia are also selling in stores and online.

“I started making switchel in my grandmother’s barn and selling it at the West Rivers Farmers Market,” said Ely Key, co-founder of Up Mountain Switchel, who sweetens his switchel with Vermont maple syrup.

That was five years ago, and today Up Mountain — now made in co-packing plants in New York and Pennsylvania — is sold in more than 30 states, including in Safeway supermarkets in Northern California and Whole Foods in the Northeast.

“We’re now looking at growing our own ginger,” Key said.

The inspiration for Belle-Isle to try a new twist on the old-time farmer’s rejuvenator — there are references to switchel and ginger-water in the stories of Herman Melville and Willa Cather — she says came one hot and humid summer day in 2017 when she watched Schleipman, who is her partner, and his father working up a sweat while they were repairing a stone wall and apple trees.

Seeing they were in dire need of refreshment, Belle-Isle went into the kitchen and tried a twist on her mother’s recipe, this time squeezing in some lime juice with grated ginger and mixing in some organic cane sugar to the apple cider vinegar and adding seltzer water. She brought it up to “the boys in the field,” they gulped it down, and she repaired back to the house to make a second batch.

“Wow,” Schleipman recalls thinking when he down his first glass, “it was really tasty and different, the unusual blend of flavors, ginger and lime. I had never tasted anything like it.”

Over the next several months, Belle-Isle developed her switchel recipe, adding “aromatic herbs” (which she declines to identify) and adjusting the ratio of ingredients “to get the balanced version” a drink that was equal parts “fun” and “healthy.”

That’s because in the spectrum of beverages, with sugary sodas at one end and sugarless kombucha at the other, Belle-Isle was looking for a middle ground. “We wanted to be different and to bridge the gap between the soda drinker and people who are looking for a functional beverage,” she said.

But neither Belle-Isle nor Schleipman, a commercial and fine art photographer who grew up in Norwich, had any experience in the food or beverage packaging industry.

However, each had run their own small enterprises — Schleipman also helps to run his family business, Telescopes of Vermont, which makes the re-engineered Porter Garden Telescope — and know how to learn the questions to ask and to find the resources for answers.

In addition to finding where to source the quality ingredients they insisted on — fresh organic ginger root (4,000 pounds annually) and organic cane sugar from Brazil and lime juice from Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Co. in Florida, apple cider vinegar from Fleischmann’s — they also had to find a manufacturer, known as a co-packer, where the drink could be made.

That provided a challenge because Corina’s Switchy, unlike other switchels, is lightly carbonated, and carbonation requires a de-aerator to first extract oxygen from the water before injecting carbon dioxide to give the water that fizzy feel in the mouth. They couldn’t find one in Vermont.

Belle-Isle and Schleipman eventually located a co-packer, Nobl Beverages in Exeter, N.H., a fast-growing five-year-old startup known to the public for its nitro cold brew coffee in slim cans on store shelves but which also has a co-packing and distribution operation.

Initially, Belle-Isle and Schleipman cold-called retail outlets on their own to place their switchel into such Upper Valley stores as Dan & Whit’s, King Arthur Flour Bakery & Cafe, Stella’s Cafe and the Hanover Co-op as well as bars and restaurants such as Latham House Tavern in Lyme and Pine, Lou’s and Jesse’s Steakhouse in Hanover and Jake’s Quechee Market.

In addition to Nobl covering the Seacoast area of Maine, they recently signed on with Pine State Trading in Maine and are about to sign with their third distributor in Massachusetts. Belle-Isle said they are now in about 100 stores in four New England states in addition to selling through their online store.

So far, with money tight, it’s a lot of guerilla marketing through Facebook and Instagram, but Schleipman is also setting up a folding table outside of Dan & Whit’s or the Woodstock Farmer’s market on weekends to offer tastings and samplers as people cycle through the stores.

Belle-Isle said they have also begun talking with Wegmans about placing Corina’s Switchy in the supermarket giant’s stores.

And, in a rite of passage of many Upper Valley startups, Corina’s Switchy has been selected by Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business for a Tuck First-Year Project, a required course that pairs Tuck students with business and nonprofit “clients” in a moot court version of management consulting to help the business through strategic challenges they face.

So far, Belle-Isle and Schleipman say they have invested into the switchel “in the very low six figures” to buy ingredients, hire a branding agency and pay lawyers, but it will require more capital if they want to keep growing, Belle-Isle said.

“We’re looking for industry experts to guide us through our next growth stage and also investors who would help us to scale up. I’ve really enjoyed being involved in the process of creating a beverage that rewards healthy choices. ... It’s our passion, but we’re not young and we’d love to hand it over in maybe three or five years.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

Correction

Corina Belle-Isle is 57. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported her age.




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