PITTSFIELD — Dana St. Pierre's grandmother, Elisabeth Donaj, was born in Germany and worked as a nurse. She was known for concocting home made remedies that had been passed down through her family for generations.
She brought these home made remedies to the Berkshires after moving to the United States, and gave them to her grandson as he was growing up. Dana liked these home made tonics so much that he began making them himself.
"He started making this sort of kitchen sink kind of remedy for seasonal allergies, bronchitis and respiratory stuff," St. Pierre's wife Amy Huebner said.
Huebner was battling a cold once when St. Pierre suggested she try a sip of his homemade tonic for relief.
"He said you should try some of my fire cider," she said. "I said, 'what the heck is that?' Which is a common reaction."
Lots of people know what fire cider is now. Huebner and St. Pierre took grandma's homemade remedy, refined it, and created a business around it, Shire City Herbals, which is headquartered in Pittsfield.
Marketed as a "vinegar and spice tonic", fire cider is currently sold by Shire City Herbals in 1,700 stores in 48 states, according to Huebner. The business, which the high school sweethearts started with Amy's brother, Brian, in January 2011, grew 70 percent last year, and is on track to grow another 70 percent this year, Huebner said.
Based in rented space in an office/warehouse building at 703 West Housatonic St., Shire City Herbals has 12 full-time employees and is in the process of adding more, including two more full-timers by the end of this year.
"We hired our first employee three years ago," Huebner said.
With growth comes new challenges, one of which involves the company's ability to legally trademark the fire cider name. That controversy evolved into a $100,000 civil lawsuit that Shire City Herbals filed in federal court in Springfield against three small business owners who are part of a grassroots movement to cancel that trademark, which the U.S. Patent and Trade Office granted to the Pittsfield firm four years ago.
In May, the court dismissed five of the 10 claims that Shire City Herbals had filed against the defendants, according to the website freefirecider.com.
We're working towards a settlement with them," Huebner said.
A second challenge for Shire City Herbals is finding more space for the firm's operations. Heubner and St. Pierre, who first met as students at Wahconah Regional High School, originally manufactured their concoction in the kitchen of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Wendell Avenue, which was just down the street from their apartment.
But as their business grew they needed more room and had to go outside of the Berkshires to find it. The two brands of fire cider that Shire City Herbals offers — the concoction comes in sweetened and unsweetened versions — is currently manufactured at a commercial kitchen at the Franklin County Community Development Corporation in Greenfield, a three hour round trip from Pittsfield.
Shire City Herbals wants to bring all of its operations back to the Berkshires. The firm is currently working with Mayor Linda M. Tyer's office, 1Berkshire economic development specialist David Curtis, Lee Bank and Jan Perry Realty to find a suitable location where all three of its operations can be located under the same roof.
Huebner said they'd like to have the office and warehouse relocated and the first phase of the new kitchen project underway by next August.
"We're doing everything to make it happen, but there are a lot of moving pieces," she said.
Moving pieces, lots of ingredients. Fire cider is made from a combination of several fruits and vegetables.
Besides apple cider vinegar, fire cider contains honey, oranges, lemons, onions, horseradish, garlic, tumeric and habanero pepper, which are all certified as organic ingredients, according to the bottle's label.
The couple begins the process by chopping up the roots of all these items, than steeping then in vinegar by placing them in a sealed container for up to six weeks.
They then run the solids through a large juicer, which the couple calls the "juice moose," Huebner said. Fire cider is formed by taking the concentrate that results from the all those pressed fruits and vegetables and putting it back into the liquid that it came out of. The honey is used as a sweetener.
Fire cider's sweetened version, which is smoother than the unsweetened tonic, contains African bronze honey to blunt the rougher edges.
Shire City Herbals obtains that product from The African Bronze Honey Project, an organization that supports indigenous African beekeepers and grassroots organizations.
"They ship it from Africa to Canada and then ship it to us," Huebner said.
Fire cider is classified as a food, and is promoted for use in salads, marinade and even healthy Bloody Mary cocktails, Hubener said. Recipes can be found on the company's website, firecider.com.
The couple isn't legally allowed to make health claims about fire cider.
"We say that it's a food-based tonic," Huebner said. But she said the idea of using food as medicine is an "old fashioned concept."
St. Pierre's grandmother would probably agree.
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224.