“Could you do us a favor?” asked Sam Smith-Stevens, one of the small team who make up the operations of Bushwick’s Up Mountain Switchel factory. “Could you not call us hipsters?”
“Hipster” is a label that publications have been quick to apply to Up Mountain, perhaps because the men that make up the company are young, bearded, vaguely scruffy-looking, Brooklyn-based, and making their livings off an obscure heritage beverage once popular among American farmers. (Modern Farmer ran an article with the title “Are You Cool Enough to Drink Switchel?”) Switchel, for the unitiated, is, according to Up Mountain co-founder Garrett Riffle, “a kind of tea.” It’s a drink that’s made from simple ingredients: ginger, apple cider vinegar, water, and a sweetening agent. The sweetener that Up Mountain uses is maple syrup, in part because that’s varietal of switchel that co-founder Ely Key, who grew up in Vermont and New York City, was most familiar with, and in part because other sweeteners, such as molasses, give the drink an unappealing, muddy color. The result is a spicy-sweet elixir, vaguely reminiscent of a sharp-tasting ginger beer, that the crew at Up Mountain has been packaging in mason jars. In two years, they’ve gone from selling their switchel at Vermont farmer’s market to placing the stuff in grocery stores and bodegas all over New York City.
Up Mountain began brewing up Switchel in Ely Key’s grandmother’s barn in South Londonderry. Key had heard about the drink from his father, and introduced Riffle to the beverage. The two began experimenting with different proportions of the ingredients. “We used customer feedback,” Riffle said. “People would come back and say, oh that’s spicy, or that’s pretty sweet, and we’d go back and change the recipe.”
The main difference between Up Mountain’s Switchel and the traditional stuff is that Up Mountain began using fresh ginger instead of the dehydrated stuff. “It makes a huge change to how it tastes,” Key said. “It’s much better.” As a result, the Up Mountain crew has become experts on the subtleties of the root: which country’s ginger is spicier, which is sweeter. For the most recent batch, they’ve used Peruvian ginger. “Their standards for roots are really high, because of their potato industry,” Key notes.
Up Mountain shares their space with Kings County Jerky Company, in a large warehouse space filled with offices of various artists and small-scale manufacturers. The Bushwick spot is relatively new; Up Mountain just moved to Brooklyn last year. The set-up is a fairly simple one: There’s a large steel counter, stacks of mason jars, a huge drum of maple syrup in one corner, and various pots and pans hanging from the ceiling. After the ingredients for switchel are added in their correct proportions, they’re boiled and steeped in a large kettle, one designed specifically for the purpose by the Up Mountain crew.
Switchel is meant to be drunk by itself, as a pick-me-up, but it also lends itself well to use as a mixer, which Key and Riffle demonstrated by breaking out a bottle of gin to mix with a sample of their latest batch. “It also helps with hangovers,” Key mentioned, “because the ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory.” The gin and switchel made a good cocktail: just enough spice and sweetness to compliment the liquor. Up Mountain had tried switchel in almost every form possible: Ice cold with lemon, hot in a mug, with tequila, with rum, with bourbon. “Someone made a Switchel-rita,” said Smith-Stevens. “It’s been done.”
In the beginning of 2015, Up Mountain plans to release some new flavors of switchel, as-yet-under-wraps variations on the traditional drink. “We’re going to keep spreading the word, keep experimenting,” Riffle said. “We’re going to bring switchel to the masses.”