Ginseng and.. Beer?

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With the International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival quickly approaching, local ginseng companies in Marathon County are gearing up for a weekend of celebrating the historic plant that heavily contributes to Wisconsin’s economy and export market. That means we should be seeing some interesting creations as growers are pairing up with other local venues. Some rumors indulge the idea of a vodka fused with ginseng, others have ice cream with ginseng, but we can assert that one of those rumors to be true right now — ginseng and beer.

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The International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival (IWGF) is the first event of its kind and will attract thousands of visitors from around the world. Hotels and travel accommodations are filling fast.

Hsu’s is partnering with Bull Falls Brewery, located near Wausau’s downtown and Riverfront districts, to engineer a special ginseng brew for the festival. The new brew will be a limited-time run for both companies as the fresh ginseng from the Hsu farm is only available for a few months out of the year. While this isn’t the first time a brewery took on ginseng as a constituent, this particular brew is the birthright of two Wausau, Wisconsin-based companies. Two (of many) things that Wisconsin knows best: beer, and ginseng.

Will it be a lager, an ale, a stout, a wheat, bock, pilsner, or even a malt? Stay tuned for more as we will follow up on this story again this summer.

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Ginseng Spans the Globe, but Some Stays Here

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Marathon County, the largest county in Wisconsin, is home to nearly 150 ginseng growers raising about 700,000 pounds of ginseng every year in an area that comprises a microcosm of the county’s available land. Almost 80% of that annual crop will jump ship to China.  But then where does the other 20% go?

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First it should be known, for those who are new to ginseng in general, that although ginseng has been cultivated in North America since about 1904, it has been quietly growing around the North 45th parallel marker for thousands of years. Discovered in China, it became a pillar of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a top tier herb and is still widely used today, here and abroad. Used mainly for its energizing and restorative properties, ginseng’s mystique is something that is catching on in Western culture.

As a finished product, most of that 20% ends up in China towns across the country, with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City being the largest recipients. Hsu’s US branches service all three of the cities mentioned, as well as Houston, TX and New York, NY. Demand for clean, potent American ginseng dictates the pricing for the higher valued Wisconsin variety because Wisconsin soil is low in metal count and nearly devoid of harmful microbial bacteria, which is why Hsu’s also maintains a presence in Ontario and Vancouver, Canada, even though Canada has an output of nearly 2 million pounds per year.

Canada began sourcing American ginseng seeds by the ton when the Canadian government heavily subsidized ginseng operations after watching their US counterparts take advantage of the niche trade.  Although the influx of subsidized Canadian growers flooded the markets and caused a crash around the turn of the millennium, American Ginseng from Wisconsin held its value over a ten year rebound.

Ginseng as an ingredient

Bulk ginseng products constitute a fair portion of that 20% of the ginseng that stays within the US. Our bulk powders are found in supplements, foods, soda, and beer. As functional foods are still on the rise many companies are seeing the value in adding American ginseng to their products. Specifications on ginseng are more articulate than many of the common foods you can find in the produce section of the grocery store, and therein lies the challenge of meeting those requirements.

Manufacturers of food and supplements are intrigued by ginseng’s potential as a beneficial substance, more so now than ever due to the large Chinese demographic on the West Coast and in scattered areas across mainland United States. With more ginseng proponents emigrating here to the U.S. and a growing 2nd and 3rd generation demographic on the rise, the likelihood of more American ginseng staying in America grows.

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DISCLAIMER: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Aftermath: Natural Products Expo East

Baltimore, MD

Booth 5330 at the Natural Products Expo East was well-represented at the large-scale convention in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  Each year Hsu’s sets up for three days of meetings, educating consumers, and learning more about the scope of the Natural Products industry.

Of the many reasons to attend a trade show of this magnitude, the most important is exposure.  Depending on the show, the potential for visitors nears the tens of thousands.  Two symbols that grab the attention of passers-by are the Something Special From Wisconsin logo that we feature on many of our products, and our Hsu’s Root to Health logo.  Sometimes, we run into someone who is, or was, from Wisconsin and then we get into a conversation about beer, cheese, or the Packers and we feel right at home.

We quickly learned from our past experiences that the Natural Products industry has some good eggs, but also maybe a few cracked eggs too.  I for one learned my lesson last year when I got somewhat sick from eating off of each exhibitor’s counter.  Our advice to new exhibitors and visitors is to stay disciplined and try new products sparingly.

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High volume of traffic at Baltimore’s Natural Products Expo East

One thing we realized at last year’s expo was that a gap exists between the Eastern (Asian) and Western (U.S. and Europe’s) outlook on ginseng.  To bridge that gap is to essentially identify an international customer.  More specifically, it means tailoring to both Eastern and Western values simultaneously.  The world is getting smaller and our online presence is continuously being revamped and reevaluated to fit our global needs.  The addition of Hsu’s Amazon page is one way we can stay current.  Our trips to Expo West in Anaheim give us the insight into a broadened demographic with the large Chinese population on the West Coast.

The scope of competitors we find at the show typically doesn’t vary outside of Korean ginseng companies, but even they do not always travel to Expo East because of the lack of an Asian demographic on the East coast as opposed to the West.  This year we had the second American ginseng company join the Expo, the Ginseng Herb & Coop from Marathon, WI, along with a representative from the Ginseng Board of Wisconsin.

Brand identity is very important to all of the exhibitors because for every category of product there could be up to fifty or more competitors or like-minded businesses competing for the same pool of consumers.  At Expo East, one can see a lot of similarities in brand strategy, aura, and even product likeness among vendors.

The most volatile yet buzz-generating section is most always the food/confectionery aisles where vendors are displaying their organic cookies, smoothies, candies, and even finished pizzas, tacos, and much more.  Another pro-tip we have is to remember that even if something is labeled as organic, certified organic, all-natural, etc., do your research on the products, consult your physician, and know what you are putting in your body.  Non-dairy products almost always contain nut products such as cashews and coconut and the amount of children and even adults in the United States that suffer from food allergies is overwhelming.

We prepare for the Supply Side West trade show in Las Vegas starting on Thursday, October 6th by shifting focus to our ingredient division.  Hsu’s supplies many large-scale operations with clean and potent American and Asian ginseng powders and powdered extracts for private-label use.  Our ginseng is found in supplements, liquid extracts, and even a beer or two.

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Brief: Wild Ginseng

September 1st marks the beginning of the Wild Ginseng season in Wisconsin. Each State is allowed to set its own parameters for length of season, but since ginseng is most potent after August the trend is roughly the same across the country. Also, with Wild American Ginseng being listed as endangered, the season does not typically last more than two months.

Already, Hsu’s has seen its fair share of Wild Ginseng hunters bringing their fresh finds in exchange for hard-earned money. With the season being short, and the value of Wild Ginseng being as high as it is, thousands of people across the country are searching through anything that remotely resembles a forest.

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Kaitlyn Backhaus (left) and the Wisconsin DNR representative auditing the Wild Ginseng brought in by various hunters.  Pound for pound they must be inspected for the State’s records.

In its natural habitat on the forest floor, ginseng is able to sustain itself for many years and gain considerable potency as it ages. The only way to estimate Wild Ginseng’s age is to count the ‘rings’ that appear on top of the root. Those rings are actually the lifeline of the root, and if the original root dies, the lifeline, known commonly as the ‘mother root’, will spawn a new root in its place. If a root sustains a series of harsh winters and conversely a series of favorable winters the lifeline will expand and contract based on its conditions under the surface. The fluctuation of size found throughout the lifeline is how we determine the root’s age and thus will eventually be separated by age and size for its use as a finished product.

Rumors of 100-year-old roots are not uncommon, as we may have one of our own. However such an anomaly is something few hunters will witness within their lifetime. Given the amount of Wild Ginseng harvested every year, the days of finding a root of that caliber and age may be over, especially for future generations. That is why the cultivation of American ginseng may become more important than ever in the next few decades.

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EST. 100-Year-Old Wild Ginseng Root.  Found by Hsu’s founder and President Paul C.Hsu, east of Wausau, WI

 

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Berries – Field and Forest

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Late August is a special time for ginseng growers in Marathon County, WI. The arrival of the ginseng plant’s berries is a sign that the harvest season draws near, and simultaneously thousands of Wild Ginseng hunters are scouring the woods across the nation for the most valuable ginseng in the world.

In our fields, groups of workers are beginning to manually pluck those berry clusters from the plants and collect them in their baskets.  From there, they will be transported to our new farm facility which is the hub for creating seeds and sending them through the stratification process.  Each berry contains up to two seeds, and a mature ginseng plant may yield between twenty and thirty seeds every year. Through stratification, we are able to store our seeds throughout the entire winter so they can be used for next year’s planting season starting in July.

Harvesting berries to create a seed stock is important for two reasons:  we are able to maintain our own stock for future harvests, as well as offer our seeds to aspiring ginseng growers around the nation; and, when the berry cluster matures and is harvested, the potency of the root increases as the plant is signaled to send its resources downward.  For that reason ginseng farmers in Marathon County will wait until the end of September to harvest.

For Wild Ginseng hunters, the arrival of ginseng berries makes the search significantly easier. In the viridescent forests of Wisconsin, the bright red clusters are far more telling of the presence of ginseng than the plant’s other physical characteristics.  Hunters have a fairly small window of opportunity to find, dig, clean, and sell their Wild Ginseng (legally).

But for some, finding it is over half of the battle.  In Wisconsin, places like the city of LaCrosse and many towns along the Mississippi River in Southwest Wisconsin are still the leading areas where hunters can still find ginseng in its natural state.  Outside of Wisconsin, the most abundant source of Wild Ginseng is the Appalachian Mountains in an area that span from New York to South Carolina.  There, hunters and poachers alike take part in the fast-paced and often lucrative Wild Ginseng hunt.

Certain social blights have marred the U.S.’s Wild Ginseng trade’s reputation in recent years.  In the opening week of Wild season in 2015, a North Carolina farmer reported that over $6000 worth of Wild Ginseng was stolen from his property.  It is a situation encouraged by over-dramatized reality TV shows such as ‘Appalachian Outlaws’ and will likely continue as the price of Wild Ginseng per pound remains high.

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Wausau Marathon 2016

Saturday August 20th, 2016, marks the 5th annual Wausau Marathon in Wausau, WI.

The importance of this race can’t be stressed enough as it serves as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon in April of 2017.  Runners from all over the country, even the World, participate in the Wausau Marathon because it has that small-town atmosphere yet is serious enough to advance runners to other marathons across the United States.  The featured runs are the full marathon, the half marathon, a 5K (3.1 mile run), and the Kid’s Fun Run.

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Since most runners are exhausted and starving by the end of their 26.2 mile endeavor, Hsu’s involvement in the marathon expands to offering each runner, staff member, and volunteer a gift of our Ginseng Granola, Gin-Max, and a discount on a future purchase.  We believe the granola would be a favorable snack after the race, before everyone starts slamming burgers and beers that is.

If you haven’t already signed up for the Wausau Marathon or the affiliated races, you can register here.

Last year, Brendan Thielsen took first place with an elapsed time of 2 hours, 53 minutes, and 28 seconds, which believe it or not was actually faster than some of the half marathon runners at a 6 minute and 40 second per mile pace.  So if you are a running enthusiast, or you’re just in need of some action on August 20th, head to Marathon Park around 7:00 AM.

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The Grant

On Thursday, July 14th, 2016, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism granted the International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival committee, led by head organizer Lisa Berry, a lump sum of nearly $40,000 to facilitate all of the activities planned for the upcoming festival in September 2017.

The grant will help cover the costs of transportation, use of products from the affiliated ginseng companies, such as ourselves, and the use of facilities such as the Monk Botanical Gardens here in Wausau, WI.

Will Hsu hosted the grant ceremony with about thirty attendees at our ginseng gardens on the outskirts of Wausau, WI.  He was interviewed by WAOW TV 9 (ABC) on a few quick facts about ginseng and also what the festival means to him as the largest exporter of American Ginseng in the U.S.

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Accepting the grant check at our gardens in Wausau, WI

“Let’s not just think about the international aspect of this festival, but also the Chinese-American consumers here in the United States that will be traveling from California, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Texas, and other pockets of the United States where immigrants have settled here over the last one hundred to two hundred years and are still consumers of this product to this day.” – Hsu said.

The amount of work and effort going into the festival is sure to give everyone  who attends something to remember about Wisconsin tourism, agriculture, and way-of-life.

For more information on the International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival you can visit their website here.

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Ginseng and Straw, Lifelong Friends

60 semi loads.  That’s how much straw we will go through as we are finishing up our planting season.  The piles of straw bales form a mountain aside our fields as our modified shredders distribute them over the terrain.  Groups of workers led by Nick Sandquist, Farm Manager, send whole large bales through our shredders and plaster our gardens with a thick layer of straw.  The ginseng root itself is so susceptible to the elements that without the protective straw, our yields would simply plummet to pre-World War II capacity.

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Mount Straw – a mere fraction of the straw we go through during our planting season.

Groups of workers rake the straw with pitchforks to spread the straw evenly so that the seeds are well-hidden from wild turkeys, yet not too deep so that next year the plants can emerge from the ground.  The straw will remain there through the entirety of the plant’s life cycle.  It fills several needs:  protection from the elements of rain, ice, snow, and even wind; shields our ginseng from turkeys, slugs, and other creatures we run into in the fields; protects the root itself from additives applied to the plant that protects it from invasive pests and fungi.

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Straw is applied with our customized shredding machines that can fit under our shaded cloths.

After the straw is evenly distributed by hand over the raised beds, we can begin to stretch our shaded cloth over the garden.  Shaded cloth is an upgrade over traditional wooden sections because it gives us more control of the drainage during heavy rains and it is consistently blocking out 78% to 82% of the sunlight at all times.  The shade structure is removed around our harvest season in October so our plants may go dormant.  None of this would even be possible though, if we did not have our straw.

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This is what our garden will look like one year from the planting date.

You can watch the latest video of spreading straw here.

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