Melina Lamer grew up drinking Gatorade and wishes she’d had a better choice. While a student at St. Olaf, she began experimenting with brewing her own ginger tea in her dorm room, “Like my grandmother used to,” she says. When she discovered that centuries ago, there was a ginger-based drink called switchel (also known as a haymaker) that was a favorite summer libation of thirsty farmers, she and a friend decided to try to make their own.
There are many variations on switchel, but most involve ginger and vinegar. There are also a number that call for blackstrap molasses, which Lamer tried, but without success. “It was too viscous, too thick and creamy,” she said — not an appetizing thought for a drink that’s supposed to be refreshing. After more research and experimentation, Lamer came up with a combination of ginger, vinegar, honey, and cinnamon that hit the refreshing mark and still fit the category of switchel. After Lamer shared it with friends who urged her to try to sell it, Superior Switchel was born.
Lamer touts it as a perfect post-workout drink, but she sees uses for it beyond a Gatorade replacement. The Superior Switchel website has recipes she developed, including cocktail ideas, a drunken chicken, and hot cider- and tea-based drinks. “It’s an all-year beverage,” she says. “Ice cold for a workout, warmed up in fall, and it’s a great base for a cocktail.” A couple of tastings found she was right: When served cold, the switchel is tangy, bracing, gingery, and refreshing; served as a hot toddy with bourbon, it’s a perfect cool-fall-evening warmer-upper.
Lamer is also determined to keep the product as local and environmentally sustainable as possible by buying her ingredients (mostly organic) from small local providers.
Superior Switchel is less than a year old, but Lamer has already succeeded in getting it into farmers markets, including Linden Hills, Tiny Diner, and The Market at Target Field. At the markets, switchel is available in both small jars and growlers. The smaller version has been picked up by several brick-and-mortar stores, including the Eastside and Linden Hills co-ops and France 44, among others. Word of mouth has gotten the drink off to a good start. “People tell me, ‘This reminds me of my childhood,’ or ‘This reminds me of a drink I had on vacation,’” Lamer said. She currently produces the switchel in a little commercial kitchen in St. Paul, but is looking for bigger things. “I aspire to Whole Foods, Lunds and Byerlys, Kowalski’s,” she says. “And I’d love to get into environmentally focused restaurants with mixologists.” She acknowledges that could be difficult, given that mixologists might like to try their own versions. “But are they going to steep ginger 48 hours for a richer ginger flavor, like I do?”