It’s not often that herbalists are called to court, but this summer dozens of them gathered at the federal courthouse in Springfield to defend fire cider, a traditional folk remedy, from being trademarked. Their opponents, who sought such a designation, were the founders of a small company called Shire City Herbals.
The herbalists were not typical court watchers. They brewed fire cider — made by steeping ginger, onions, and horseradish for weeks in apple cider vinegar — and distributed it to the court’s security guards. When they weren’t testifying, they had potluck picnics on blankets in the glass-walled lobby, reveling in the magnificent copper beech and towering linden trees outside.
“I don’t think they had ever seen anything quite like this,” said Katheryn Langelier, who runs the wholesale shop Herbal Revolution in Maine and was a defendant in the trial, one of those arguing that fire cider cannot be trademarked.
Despite their genial presence at trial, the herbalists drove a hard legal fight and have now claimed victory in federal court. Judge Mark G. Mastroianni of the US District Court in Massachusetts issued a ruling late last month in favor of the herbalists, declaring that fire cider is a generic term and cannot be trademarked. (“In lieu of money damages, [they] seek a public apology,” Mastroianni wrote in his judgment, but he did not order the plaintiffs to express remorse.)
“It’s a huge relief. It was never necessarily just about fire cider,” said Mary Blue, a defendant in the lawsuit and the owner of Farmacy Herbs, an herbal shop and school in Providence. “It really was about all of our generic herbal, cultural, traditional language that could be taken from any corporation at any time.”
Blue said she relied on such calming herbs as lemon balm and skullcap throughout the trial, which was a grinding nine days.
Fire cider has been a popular antidote for sore throats and stomach aches and poor circulation for decades. But the real uproar surrounding it began in 2012, when the Pittsfield-based Shire City Herbals trademarked the name of its signature vinegar tonic (made with ginger, horseradish, onions, and apple cider vinegar) and then attempted to make small producers online stop selling it under the name. Herbalists, who said they had been making and selling variations on fire cider for years, started a petition and a boycott to keep the name “fire cider” in the herbal commons.
“It’s like cooking and sharing chicken soup recipes. We want to keep it collaborative,” said Nicole Telkes, a co-defendant in the case who runs the Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine in Austin, Texas.
In response, Shire City sued three leaders of the protest — Blue, Langelier, and Telkes — claiming that the women had infringed on its trademark and hurt their business.
Dana St. Pierre, who founded Shire City Herbals with his wife and brother-in-law, declined to comment. He has previously said that he invented the name “fire cider” and trademarked it because he was trying to protect his company from bigger ones who might try to steal the product. In his verdict, Judge Mastroianni wrote that St. Pierre said he had brought his homemade brew to a potluck in Arizona in the late 1990s. “A man at the potluck to whom St. Pierre referred as ‘a hippie’ called the mixture ‘fire cider.’ ”
The herbalists, who were represented pro bono, were still delighting in the verdict weeks later.
The “trial started during the Spring Equinox with the moon in Libra and we ended with the Fall Equinox with the Sun in Libra… LIBRA is JUSTICE!!!” the group of defendants wrote on the Facebook page “Traditions not Trademarks.” Almost 200 people responded to the post, cheering the verdict.
“I am truly choked up,” one woman wrote.
“Yes! Jumping up and down here in No. Cali!” wrote another.
“If fire cider had been allowed, it would have set a precedent for all these other traditional formulas to be trademarked,” said Rosemary Gladstar, who is considered by many to be the godmother of modern herbalism and the true inventor of the term “fire cider.”
In a new book of 101 crowd-sourced fire cider recipes, Gladstar wrote that she started making the brew at the California School of Herbal Studies around 1980. Her original recipe called for people to “shake the jar every day to help in the maceration process,” and advised that “a small shot glass daily serves as an excellent tonic.”
Gladstar attended every day of the trial, drawing inspiration from the trees outside the courthouse and the wild herb garden that had sprung up beneath them. She said she never suspected that her fellow herbalists would wind up in court over such a basic, widely shared recipe.
“It’s just this simple formula that anyone can make in their kitchen,” Gladstar said. “The fact that it became such an icon for free herbalism is pretty amazing.”