Humble Startup Or ‘Monsanto Of Herbalism’? Pittsfield Company Comes Under Fire

A trademark issued to a small business in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for its vinegar-based health tonic is causing a firestorm of criticism. A scrappy small business now finds itself portrayed as a corporate usurper.

In a modest warehouse space in Pittsfield, the three co-owners of Shire City Herbals are assembling a table after moving into a larger headquarters for their business: producing and selling a funky concoction they call Fire Cider. Based on a cold remedy Dana St. Pierre remembers being spoon-fed by his grandmother as a child, it’s marketed as a dietary supplement. It has a very distinct taste and packs a spicy wallop; the recommended daily intake is about a tablespoon.

When sales chief and co-owner Brian Huebner tries to get co-ops and natural food stores to put Fire Cider on their shelves, he says no one’s ever heard of such a thing.

“So a lot of people often think I’m insane when I describe what I’m trying to sell to them, what we make,” Huebner says. “You know, I say, ‘It’s, no, no, it’s a mixture of apple cider vinegar and honey and oranges and lemons and ginger and horseradish and habanero pepper.’ And they say, ‘Whoa, no, that sounds gross.’ There’s a lot of confusion and people are very surprised.”

The product seems so original, in fact, its makers successfully got a trademark on the name Fire Cider in 2012. And there’s the problem, according to a chorus of self-described herbalists. They say the fire cider trademark sets a dangerous precedent, for corporations to swoop into the world of folk remedies and freeze out the herbalists who consider their craft a public good.

Sue Kusch is one of at least a dozen vendors recently instructed by the online marketplace Etsy to take down their own versions of fire cider, after a complaint from the Pittsfield company. Kusch says it had been one of her top sellers.

“Trademark was something that never occurred to me, because I was creating my own stuff based on longtime remedies or longtime recipes,” Kusch says. “Herbal medicine is about the people’s medicine. It’s a long tradition of handing down medicinal information basically for free, and there is no ownership of it.”

The move by Etsy last month triggered a swell of online activism directed against Shire City Herbals. A petition on change. org to revoke the trademark garnered over 5,000 digital signatures in a week. Simultaneously, dozens of scathing reviews for Fire Cider were posted on Amazon.com, calling the three-person business “unethical,” “greedy,” the “Monsanto of herbalism.”

The suddenly controversial trademark does not cover the recipe, only the name Fire Cider. Famed herbalist Rosemary Gladstar even used the term fire cider to describe her version. Whatever you call it, everyone involved agrees the idea of a spicy, vinegar-based tonic goes back decades, if not centuries.

“Everybody’s fire cider is just a little bit different,” says Katja Swift.

Swift teaches herbal remedies to pharmacy students at two universities in Boston. She says a trademark on the words “fire cider” is like a trademark on the term chocolate cake. If it holds up, she asks, what’s to stop a rush of corporations from gobbling up the names of other traditional medicines?

“It’s not very nice, right? I mean it’s just not cool for them to say, ‘Here’s something and simply because we beat you to it we can take away this thing that everybody’s been using for a very long time, and getting along with just fine, but now we’re going to trademark it. And no one else can use it,'” Swift says.

Shire City Herbals co-owner Dana St. Pierre (Amy Huebner, who is his wife and Brian’s sister, is the third co-owner) says he’s just defending himself from bigger, more powerful companies now angling for a larger piece of the growing market for earth-friendly products.

“We’re entering a marketplace that’s relatively cutthroat, the national natural foods market is growing rapidly,” St. Pierre says. “There’s a lot of big companies in it. Yeah, we need to, we need to protect ourselves. Like if we start selling fire cider nationwide and we don’t have a trademark, any company could swoop in, trademark our name and put us out of business.”

The trademark issue may come down to Fire Cider’s intended market—whether the product is meant for the sort of committed folk-remedy fans now flooding the Pittsfield company with complaints, or the broader population of people who’ve never heard of it. That’s according to Berkshire County-based intellectual property attorney Paul Rapp.

“You know, this is a…situation that’s on the line,” Rapp says. “There’s a gray area big enough to drive a truck through and this is right in the middle of it. This is the kind of situation where, you know, different courts and different administrative bodies could easily come to polar opposite decisions, because the law here is fairly murky.”

In the meantime, the furor over Fire Cider has had at least one positive impact for Kusch, the Etsy vendor.

“I sold out immediately, what I had of fire cider,” Kusch says. “So I got, I think, probably ‘sympathy buys’ is what I would call it.”

The three co-owners of Shire City Herbals say they’re still hoping to make peace with their critics. They’re weighing their options, and say they’ll have a more definitive response next week.