Juniper Ridge – The Call of the Wild

 

 

In 1998, Hall Newbegin founded wild plant distillery Juniper Ridge and started bottling the scents of majestic Californian landscapes like Big Sur or the Mojave Desert in flasks.

In the production and storage hall at the russet-colored headquarters of Juniper Ridge in Oakland, a white van stands amidst heaps of freshly harvested plants, herbs, leaves, tufts of moss, and wood cuttings. The hall is redolent with the scent of wild sage, Douglas pine needles, and oak sap. Emblazoned on the sides of the van in elaborate Victorian letters is the name Field Lab: The outdoor laboratory is a concept that is legendary among Juniper Ridge fans – but more about this later. Hall Newbegin pulls open the double doors at the back of the van and points to an antiquated still: “They used to distill whiskey in this!” Today it’s used to extract the essential oils from hand-harvested wild plants. It is a core feature in creating Wilderness Perfumes, and something that makes the hearts of lumbersexuals across the globe beat faster. Inspired by the emergence of the Maker Movement that led to the creation of such artisanal products as Mast Brothers Chocolate or Blue Bottle Coffee, Newbegin made the transition from a home-and-hobby perfumer to bona fide entrepreneur on the road to success. Concept and lifestyle stores across the US, Europe, and even Asia are proud to present Juniper Ridge products such as the liquid Trail Soap, Cabin Spray, or Backpacker Cologne on their shelves.

We hike, drink beer, and forage about like squirrels; we sniff at plants, dirt, bark, and moss.

“Here,” Newbegin says, pouring a drop of the Topanga Canyon oil mixture into the palms of his hands and briefly rubbing them together. As he slowly opens his hands under our noses we inhale the heady perfume of oak buds, wild lilac, sun-warmed resin, and tender young sage – earthy, solid, and enchanting. Closing our eyes we really do feel as if we’re hiking along a canyon in the Los Angeles backcountry; we sense the southern Californian sunlight, even the beating wings of a humming bird. Seeing our reaction, Newbegin smiles with satisfaction. “This is a lot more than just a nice fragrance,” he clarifies and explains that the olfactory sense, the most basic of our senses, is located in a primal part of our brain that bypasses logic and makes a beeline for our emotions. “Real natural fragrances touch us somewhere deep inside, and we can’t rationally explain how we respond to them.”

When we breathe in Wilderness Perfume, we’re in touch with something very beautiful and primal inside ourselves.

He relishes the role of the perfume rebel who prefers to rummage around in the dirt and scrape tree bark, and whose nose creates organic fragrances. Blending synthetic scents into stylized perfumes in a sterile laboratory environment is of limited appeal to him: “The idea of imitating nature just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m looking for the genuine thing, the real McCoy.” With his Wilderness Perfumes, the unconventional founder of Juniper Ridge uses fragrance to portray the vast, majestic landscapes around him. To him, the perfumes of big international brands are no better than junk food.

His own two legs and hands have long ceased to provide enough manpower to turn out the Juniper Ridge products. Meanwhile, an entire team pulls on their hiking boots and shoulders backpacks to pitch in. Avid hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who are happy to scrape the sap off trees, crawl under bushes, ferret around in the dirt, and camp in the wilderness. The plants they harvest are distilled on location in one piece – stems, leaves, blossoms, roots – in the Field Lab still to extract their essential oils The materials are so fresh that they don’t lose a single atom of their aromas, thus creating a one-to-one olfactory imprint of the wilderness. “At night we sit around the camp fire, drink bourbon, and play the ukulele,” Newbegin enthuses. It’s hard to imagine a better company story.

Our customers want us out there in the backcountry getting our boots dirty. The Field Lab gives Juniper Ridge credibility.

When Newbegin founded Juniper Ridge in 1998, nobody was very interested in artisanal products. In good-old North Californian hippie tradition, he made homemade soaps and aroma bags in his own kitchen, sold them at the Berkeley and San Francisco Farmer’s Markets – and earned just enough to get by. “I wasn’t exactly the model son my parents had hoped for,” the former philosophy student who grew up a couple of hundred miles to the north in Portland, Oregon, says cheerfully. But that didn’t stop him pursuing his career as a “wilderness perfumer.” Newbegin admits he’s pretty obsessive about the fragrances of the wild: To him there is nothing that can beat the scent of Big Sur’s sage-covered mountains, the moist earth at the Redwood national park after a downpour, or the wildflower meadows along the forest border of Mount Hood in Sonoma Valley. So he started reading up on the old techniques of perfumery and taught himself all there was to know about maceration, enfleurage, infusion, and steam distillation. “Our production methods today are still based on these techniques, some of which are almost 2,000 years old.”

I’ve spent my whole life around plants. It took me years to find my way around the wilderness and to learn where I could find the plants I need.

The production hall with its aged, worn workbenches, tools dating from our great-grandparents generation, and flasks and tubes in a vintage look evoke the spirit of a long-gone era. “Basically what we’re doing here is completely insane,” Newbegin muses as he strokes the stubble on his jaw. “The effort is enormous and the costs actually much too high.” He points at a pile of bottle tops for packaging of the liquid “trail soaps.” Each top is made of wood and cut by hand. “But, at the same time, that’s also what makes us unique.” Or in other words: It is what satisfies the yearning of digitized city dwellers for authenticity, traditional craftsmanship, and unspoiled nature. However, to dismiss the approach merely as nostalgia would be wrong, too: “Yes, we are inspired by old traditions because we think they’re great. At the same time, we’re using them to create something new and making our own rules.”

We’re not just spinning a nice yarn about our company and our products. We are living our story and we don’t need to invent any storylines.

“We,” meanwhile comprises 15 employees, including Obi Kaufmann, who in a more conventional setting would probably be something like a marketing director. Except that he’s just as passionate an outdoorsman as Newbegin is; he also contributes actively in the Field Lab and makes the artwork for the labels. Fittingly, his title at Juniper Ridge is Chief Storyteller, a function that has meanwhile been introduced into big companies such as Microsoft – with the big snag that the software giant’s Chief Storyteller doesn’t get to sit around a campfire every night. Whereas Newbegin is more the unshaven, outdoor geek wearing a wrinkly flannel shirt, baseball cap, and wire-rim spectacles, Kaufmann is the embodiment of the “lumbersexual.” Fulsome amounts of hair on head and face, but trimmed to the exact millimeter, and clad in an immaculately ironed check shirt. “We’ve been expanding in double-digits for three years,” the Chief Storyteller tells us. “And we have to absorb the increase in demand without outsourcing. Because everything we produce has to come from us, 100%, and be a part of our story.”

To cope with the rapid growth, yet not lose touch with the spirit of the enterprise, Juniper Ridge has launched the Harvest Line. This consists of green waste from the forest and park management of different State and National parks and is delivered directly to Oakland for processing – the last batch was unloaded in the production hall when we arrived. With this approach, Juniper Ridge is able to sustainably produce larger quantities. At the same time the products from the Field Lab have advanced to the sought-after Limited Edition status.

What we’re creating is a new type of luxury.

During the expansion process, Newbegin has discovered a new side to himself. “I like business,” he declares with a big smile. “I like the whole game, the risk that’s involved.” And, yes, Juniper Ridge still has considerable potential for growth. Newbegin’s role model is his Maker Movement comrade James Freeman, the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee. Today Freeman operates over twenty cafés with several hundred employees. “Yet he ensures that every single cup is perfectly prepared because he’s always on top of everything,” Newbegin says, visibly impressed. “That’s exactly what I want to do with Juniper Ridge. And drive everybody nuts with my control mania,” he says in gleeful anticipation. “There’s no way we’re going to start producing inferior products. You can’t fool my nose. No one knows as well as I do what the true scent of Big Sur and Sierra Granite is. After all I’ve trekked around the backcountry long enough.” And what if somebody tries to imitate his successful concept? “That won’t be easy. You’d have to find another freak like me first,” he says with what we could call a cocky grin.


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