Off a long, narrow dirt road outside the village of Poultney stands a large, classic red barn. There is no sign, no parking lot, nothing to indicate what it houses: a family-run craft natural soda business. In fact, most people in town couldn’t tell you where the business is or even that it exists. But it is the fully realized production facility for Vermont Sweetwater Bottling Co., an idea hatched 20 years ago by brothers Rich and Bob Münch of Poultney.
Like many good ideas in Vermont, this one was born during maple sugaring season.
Apparently, the Münch brothers have always been full of good ideas. As auto collision repair specialists who have run their own business in Poultney since 1978, both are more than a little mechanically inclined and, over the years, have developed a variety of ideas for potentially patentable machines for their shop. Unfortunately, they never found more than a limited use for these ideas.
But in the early 1990s, they at last cooked up an idea with much broader appeal. While backyard sugaring and sampling the boiled sap, they decided it was sweet and tasty enough to carbonate and turn into an everyday beverage.
Like any good inventors, the brothers did extensive market research and developed their formula, learning quickly that, because it spoils so quickly the sap would need to be pasteurized before bottling. And, most importantly, they bought a bottling machine.
Not just any bottling machine: a vintage Crown Cork and Seal Bottling Machine—nicknamed “Dixie,” the machine dates to the early 1940s. According to Rich Münch, it took “lots and lots of work to restore it and get it operational,” but these handy brothers were up to the task. Dixie, or at least the saturator element of Dixie, is how they carbonate the sap.
Thus, in 1993, Vermont Sweetwater Bottling Co. produced its first product: maple seltzer. All-natural, made entirely from local Vermont sap with no water added, the seltzer is crystal clear and bubbly, with just a hint of maple sweetness. After only one production season, the brothers received a patent for the seltzer’s unique pasteurization and carbonation process.
While the seltzer was a success, the brothers began to get feedback from their local customers that they wanted something a little sweeter as well. A few years later, Vermont Sweetwater introduced its second product: an all-natural maple soda, sweetened with one full ounce of pure Vermont maple syrup. In the nearly 20 years since then, seven other fruit- and cola-flavored sodas have been added to the Vermont Sweetwater lineup.
Yet despite a great idea and a popular product, manufactured in thousands of cases per year, Vermont Sweetwater remains a hobby business for the Münch family. One issue has been the seasonal production limitations of their best-selling product, the maple seltzer. Because sap only runs in the spring, a year’s worth of seltzer must be produced almost entirely during the month of March. And primarily in early March at that, as Rich Münch explains that the getting the flavor right is tricky; sap tastes slightly different depending on when during the runtime it is harvested, and the early run is the best.
“We have a very short window of time to do a lot of work,” he notes.
Another issue for this family business is distribution. The brothers have not been able to assume the distribution end of the business themselves, based on the time it would take away from the other family business, which is still their first love. Outside of the mixed case Rich Münch hand-delivered to the local general store at the end of our tour of the production barn, distribution is handled by three or four independent distributors who sell the product within New England and parts of northern New York. In truth, the brothers are never quite sure exactly where their own product is being sold.
Additionally, Vermont Sweetwater is an entirely family-run business, which it has been since the brothers set up shop in the barn of their parents’ farm before relocating to the current location when the family farm was sold. Rich Münch is quick to mention that he is extremely indebted to his mother, who has provided not only financial but also hands-on production assistance over the years. And while the Münch children have always helped in the family business, they are beginning to have less and less time to pitch in as they head off to college to begin their own ventures.
Despite these challenges of running a small, family-operated business in Vermont, however, Rich Münch is not deterred. The brothers are hoping to expand and make Sweetwater their primary, profitable business. He’s also hopeful that, with growing concerns nationally about the obesity epidemic and overuse of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages, natural craft sodas such as his will be getting more attention and a bigger following.
Additionally, Münch sees Vermont’s association with the natural, local-food trend as a big potential benefit for Vermont Sweetwater. Since the beginning, the sodas have been all-natural with no preservatives and made with as many local products as is financially feasible: While their bulk sugar comes from Florida and the natural flavors for the non-maple sodas from a 175-year-old company in Brooklyn, all the maple sap and syrup, as well as the water, comes right from the Poultney area.
One place to start growing the business might just be locally. When Rich Münch tells people in Poultney that he and his brother own and operate Vermont Sweetwater Bottling, local neighbors often respond, “That’s you guys?” Laughs Münch, “We manage to sell a lot of product, despite the fact that we’re definitely more well-known [in the community] for our repair business.”
Regardless, Rich Münch says his family is “still having fun” in the craft soda business. “It takes perseverance, but we’re in it for the long haul.”
You can find Vermont Sweetwater Bottling Co.’s all-natural seltzer and sodas at many local retailers or order them online at VTSweetwater.com.