The Bigger Picture in the Fire Cider Controversy

heallocal / Herbs in History / 15 responses

-Dawn Combs

By now some of you may have heard about the controversy over fire cider. If you know about fire cider you either are an herbalist or know one. If you don’t know about it you’re part of the rest of the world. So here’s a quick summation:

Since time out of mind there has been a traditional recipe known to many cultures at once. The recipe has always included various combinations of vinegar, honey, onions, garlic and cayenne. It’s been used as a digestive tonic and an immune system supportive and is a traditional medicine owned by no one and no culture. In the 1960s an herbalist named Rosemary Gladstar was working to repair the loss of traditional medicine culture in the US. Part of that work was teaching others all she was learning from old-timers, antique books and her travels. She wrote a manual for these students and wanted to teach them some of the traditional medicine she had gathered. No one had really written down the formal recipe, but Rosemary captured it in her own interpretation and dubbed it “Fire Cider”. Since then the recipe has continued to be in her lesson manual and in several copyrighted books. Rosemary has never claimed to own “Fire Cider” either as this is just her term for the distillation of several cultures around the world. She has passed her version of the recipe on with a larger understanding of the mix of powerful plants and what they can do. She has also passed it along with the understanding that while her recipe is a placeholder on the map, so to speak, it is really just a place to begin each individual’s own innovation. Our version of “Fire Cider” is called Buckeye Fire and contains turmeric and sage in addition to the traditional ingredients. I have seen some pretty clever innovations over the years.

Enter the Controversy
A couple years ago, one of the folks who had heard about Rosemary’s “Fire Cider” tried making her own version of the recipe. Everyone in her community loved it. This individual started her business, Shire City Herbals, and had some really clever ideas about marketing the ancient recipe. At the time there were many products on Etsy, on personal websites and at farmer’s markets that called themselves “Fire Cider”. No one minded that each person had the same name on their product. It was understood that everyone was making their own version of traditional medicine. Unfortunately, the individual I mentioned above got some legal advice. They were told that the only way they could make it to the big time of product sales would be to protect their claim to the name “Fire Cider”. They proceeded to file a trademark. To understand clearly what this meant, it would be like someone wanting to own the word “cupcake”. We can agree that that’s a common name many people use at home and many more use at bakeries. Everyone understands what a “cupcake” is and everyone knows that each bakery is going to make their own version. This is why the trademark office has a list of common terms. Anyone applying for a trademark must be held up against that list and if they have chosen a name that is common in cultural relevance they are turned down.

The Meat of the Problem
In the case of Shire City Herbals, when their application to trademark “Fire Cider” was compared to the list, the term wasn’t there. A cursory search on the internet would have revealed a plethora of instances where the term was already in use. No one knows why this wasn’t done. The trademark was approved. Once you own a trademark you are required to defend it, so Shire City set about doing that. Many herbalists have been threatened and currently three herbalists are being sued over this controversy. Some have been threatened because they have been making “Fire Cider” for 20 years or more and now aren’t allowed to call it that. Some have been threatened because they are speaking out over the appropriation of a medicineway that belongs to everyone and shouldn’t be held by just one person or company.

The Real Issue
If we get caught up in the current fight we miss the forest for the trees. There are many other bits of folk medicine that are out there. The real issue is that they are no longer in a place of cultural relevance that they can be found on a list such as the trademark office prepares. You may have started reading this piece and thought, “what the heck is Fire Cider”? Traditional medicine is there for us all, but many in our culture have become disconnected from the importance of that. Because the culture at large has no awareness of this birthright they are ripe for someone to trademark it and sell it back to them. Let’s pause for a moment there. Because we no longer value our own belongings (in this case, our rich local medicine tradition) they can be stolen from us and then sold back in our communities with a slick marketing campaign one bottle at a time.

What Can Be Done?
First, it is important to share the knowledge. We can all make traditional recipes at home instead of purchasing them. You can find the Fire Cider recipe here. Making Fire Cider at home can be an act of protest. Each bottle that is made by you or purchased from your local herbalist is a vote against the trademark of cultural knowledge. If you see Shire City advertising in your favorite magazine or showing up at your favorite conference, write and ask why their tactics are being supported. Currently, Rosemary Gladstar is working with the US Patent office to create a list of common traditional medicine terms. I think this is brilliant and will head off the next attempt to creep into our houses and take another recipe that we own.

Here At The Farm
I’ll be teaching a class on traditional recipes on August 17. Four Thieves is another recipe and name that has been stolen. Young Living Essential Oils has trademarked that name and it is even older than Fire Cider! I use it for cleaning around the house and not in an essential oil format. It is a close race for me which is my favorite traditional recipe, but I think that the Queen of Hungary’s Water might be it. I just started some a few weeks ago. It takes fresh lemon balm, chamomile, rosemary, calendula, roses, lemon peel, sage and comfrey. When it’s done it makes the best beauty treatment you can imagine… and it’s beautiful to look at while it’s brewing! Join me in my farm shop on August 17 and learn these recipes.

15 comment on “The Bigger Picture in the Fire Cider Controversy

  1. wow! For some reason it doesn’t surprise me. There is a huge disconnect between modern culture and the lineages behind us. Everyone is chasing their big break and unfortunately the honoring of past wisdom is lost by the majority.
    Thank you for this!

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