Although she didn’t live long enough to see the fruits of her labor’s long-term impact on her son, Marlene Cerise’s legacy lives on in the form of a Minnesota-made drink brand that’s becoming a hit within the non-alcoholic beverage industry.
And how: In 1975, Cerise started singing with friends in Flint, a cover band that morphed into the Phones (later Stickman), one of the most popular bands to come out of Minnesota in the 1980s.
“I was singing everything from Bad Company to Rush to all this cover stuff and my throat was just raw and sore,” said Cerise. “I couldn’t even talk after a couple of rehearsals, and my mom was kind of a hippie housewife at the time, with four hockey-playing boys in Moorhead, Minnesota. She looked like a typical suburban mom, but behind the scenes she was making apple cider drinks and reading books on folk medicine and doing yoga. It was the ‘70s, she had us in white smocks and painting and stuff, and she made me this concoction when I came home that day.
“I couldn’t even talk, and she made this non-carbonated switchel. She said, ‘Alright, take this, gargle it, and swallow each gargle.’ And at the end of that glass I could talk, I could sing, and my throat was clear, incredibly. So I learned how to make it, and I took that recipe with me on the road and I was making it in hotels in Kansas City; in Austin, Texas; and whenever I felt a throat problem coming on, I’d be making switchel in the hotel room. Pretty soon the other singers in the band were, ‘Gimme a glass of that switch.’ Back then I was just calling it my ‘honey-apple-cider-vinegar drink.’ I didn’t know really that it was called switchel then and I really didn’t understand all the other health benefits, as a prebiotic.”
Cerise eventually stopped singing in bands and started slinging brands with his advertising company, Secret Agent Man, Inc. He launched Hobby Farmer after he and a friend started making, canning, and selling pickles, which proved to be wildly popular at area farmers markets. In 2017, he decided to make a batch of switchel for sale.
“This was the wintertime; we always sold out of all these cucumbers, and we had nothing left [to can] the rest of the winter,” said Cerise. “And I got a good deal on these bottles. My son Franco worked at this warehouse and if he wouldn’t have called to say, ‘Dad, they’re throwing away these bottles. I know you want to make your switchel and a little Bloody Mary mix.’ That’s kind of what started that whole thing. When you’re making stuff by hand, the cost of a bottle and lid is pretty expensive, so it really offset the cost of doing what we were doing and made us go, ‘Well, let’s try it.’
“We got 12 pallets for free from a warehouse, built a barn out back of our home in Ramsey, where we’ve got three acres, and had them delivered, and we’re still using them to this day. I made a Switchel, put a shot on Facebook, and it caught the attention of the curators of the Keg & Case. They came to one of our first events and watched our booth all day long. I couldn’t take a bite of a sandwich that day. We were selling pickles and Switchel at a rate of $500 an hour for seven hours straight.
“Keg & Case was like, ‘This is exactly what we want in this market. This is unique, and nobody’s heard of it. I think it would be good to open a store,’ and they literally offered us a storefront on the spot. We went home that night, our heads were spinning, we started to brainstorm and the next thing you know, we changed our whole business plan completely and said, ‘Let’s open a store and that’ll be a good way to introduce the brand. Let’s give it a whirl.’ And so we did, and Switchel took off.”
As Cerise explains, switchel (or “haymaker’s punch”) is a term and drink that’s been around since the 17th century, and favored by the American colonists and first Congress. Hobby Farmer’s Switchel a prebiotic beverage made from organic ginger juice, apple cider vinegar and honey, and comes in four flavors — turmeric, ginger, cayenne, and cinnamon — and has become a go-to drink for health-conscious club crawlers and a non-alcoholic alternative made popular by trends such as Dry January.
“It’s a functional beverage,” said Cerise. “And what I mean by that is it’s not empty calories. You’re getting something for your buck. You’re drinking something that gives you electrolytes and energy and takes away pain and inflammation … No high-fructose corn syrup or caramel-coloring, here. Nothing artificial, no preservatives. Nothing like that.
“I just know how it makes me feel. I still drink [alcohol], but I just feel better on this stuff, and I wanted to share that with the world. I love the fact that we are also getting pretty involved in the sober-curious movement, a new movement here in town that’s kind of working together to create more dry bars.”
At this point, Hobby Farmer’s Switchel is truly a family business, with Cerise’s wife Gio acting as chief brewer and bottler, and their twentysomething sons Franco and Dominic working as brand ambassadors and clerks at the Keg & Case storefront.
“We get everybody in here from chemo patients to athletes to hikers and bikers,” said Jeff. “These stories are great. They will come by with bandanas on their head, and I can obviously tell they’re going through chemo [because] my wife went through breast cancer. I’m like, ‘Take this home, drink it and you’ll feel better. It’ll calm your stomach down and help take that nausea away.’ We were selling a lot of bomber bottles to cancer patients and just trying to help people out whenever we could. And then that led to Gio kind of taking over the brewing of all this, and she’s Native American, so she started adding things like elderberry, and we were even doing cedar teas for medicinal purposes.”
Switchel can now be found on the menus of such James Beard Award-winning restaurants as Owamni by the Sioux Chef in Minneapolis and W.A. Frost and Company in St. Paul, and in Lake Winds co-ops around the cities. Now, Cerise is researching and developing CBD and THC-infused Switchel, which he believes “will also be a big hit.” All of which can be attributed to the work and inspiration of Marlene Cerise, who passed away in 2001 after suffering a heart attack, and whose photo adorns the back of the Hobby Farmer’s Campfire Cocoa.
“At this age (63), spreading that healthy message and whatnot, especially to my musician friends is super important,” said Cerise. “I mean, we’ve all been through the war together, and the [musicians who] are still playing these clubs, they’re the ones that are doing it the right way. They’re not abusing their bodies like they used to; nobody can do that.”
For a former band leader, how do the two creative processes compare?
“Coming up with research and development and making our pickles first and then coming up with Switchel and whatnot is a lot like writing a song,” he said. “You do it over and over again until it’s a hit. And people love it. And then what do you do? You make it in mass. So you either record that or play it live. In this case, we’re mass producing it like recording a song. The stores are our radio station, and people are buying our hits over and over again.”
Two-hundred and fifty thousand bottles of Switchel sold and counting.
“For me it’s as satisfying as writing a good song, coming up with a new product,” he said. “Now we’re dinking around with stuff like salsa Switchel hot sauce gummies and all kinds of things. And this is so fun — to work on that stuff, do test markets, get some honest opinions and then you can go back to the kitchen and figure it out and tweak it, and it’s got to be great.”