At the Source

Soma juice’s journey to India

by Stella Girkins

Photographs by Sam Armanino

Playing football in high school, Marcus Armstrong would consume up to 4,000 calories a day in order to gain body mass for the sport and he bulked up quickly. “By noon, you were at roughly 1,500 to 2,000 calories and by the end of the day, you were at 4,000,” he said. Once he graduated and started his career, he knew he no longer needed to be carrying so much weight. However, cutting back from consuming that many calories proved difficult and Armstrong, who has a background in kinesiology, began conducting personal diet and exercise experiments to discover what worked best for his overall well-being. Despite a failed venture into fruitarianism, Armstrong found a natural energy and improved digestive tract through consuming juice mixed with herbs and spices. This is how he eventually came to start his brand Soma, a new herbal Ayurvedic* drink made right here in Humboldt. 

So far, Soma, which means elixir of the gods in Sanskrit, consists of three different blends: Namaste, Namaskar and Shanti. Namaste is designed as an alternative to a caffeine beverage for the morning with herbs and spices that can help improve heart and liver health, including ashwagandha that can help relieve stress. Namaskar is for a middle of the day pick-me-up and has ginkgo bilboa, which can improve brain function and memory. Finally, Shanti helps the body relax and prepare for rest with mugwort and valerian root. 

Celebrating the winners of the rickshaw race.

“Juice is healthier than most people think, especially if you drink it the way it’s supposed to be drunk: morning, noon and night,” Armstrong explained. “There’s a high amount of calories in the morning, lower consumption during the day and the least at night.” Although Armstrong thinks many people already know this, they don’t practice it. So he created the Soma beverages to make it easier to get the body on track. 

Armstrong began surrounding himself with a multi-faceted team to help him get the project off the ground. This included colleague Tommy Bastin, Ryan Moran and Mike Lyons of Humboldt Legends and Flower Co., and Nik Erikson of Full Moon Farms. Erikson became a believer in the product the very first time he tried the Namaste morning blend. “It personally changes my own morning habits,” he said. “When I have it, I will skip coffee and I feel way better throughout the day.” From there, the team went down to check out a bottling plant in Sacramento. Seeing the potential, they decided to embark on the Soma journey together.

Marcus Armstrong with Soma in a waterfall in the mountains of Kerala, India.

Although Armstrong had already been working closely with an herbalist to develop the recipe, he wanted to go to the source of the ingredients. So the team decided to go to the state of Kerala, India, where Bastin had family, and seek out herbs and spices to use in the beverages. The trip lasted almost six weeks and they spent time learning from the locals, from pulling ginger and turmeric out of the backyard to going on medicinal farm tours and learning about hundreds of different plants with various health benefits and healing properties. “They’re still so in touch with nature’s original path,” Erikson said of his time in Kerala. “Looking back at a lot of ancient medicines, they start plant-based. I think we got derailed from that course with the onset of monetary value and wanting to produce things in a lab and make them synthetically.”

Their hosts showed them unparalleled hospitality and attentiveness. The team was struck by the sense of community and family pride, not to mention the cultural connection to the earth. “They forage with camels or cows behind them. Cut down this plant. Dig up these roots,” Armstrong said. “Then you have, literally, truck beds full of herbs that they now go and divvy up between all the families every day.”

Besides procuring ingredients from these small farms, the Soma team and their hosts in India set up an information exchange to continue to learn from each other. “We’re doing a cross educational thing with them, as well, about farming practices and being sustainable because they still use a lot of plastics in their methodologies,” Erikson said. However, over the course of their time in Kerala, it became clear to the team that they wanted and needed to have a bigger impact on their host’s state. 

The Soma team saw lots of natural beauty in Kerala, but they also saw a lot of litter. “When poverty and population cross, pollution follows because they don’t have the resources,” Erikson explained. The whole team spoke at length about ways they could help the Indian state they are representing with their brand. Although it is still early and they are just getting ready for their soft launch in Humboldt County, they have major plans down the road. “I feel like it’s part of our duty to do that because we’re gaining a lot from that culture, so we need to give something back,” said Moran. 

Mike Lyons driving in the foothills overlooking tea plantations.

Once they returned to Humboldt and began work on launching the Soma product, they noticed a fault in their plan. Besides sourcing ingredients directly from India, they were almost entirely based in Humboldt from conception to distribution. However, their bottling plant was located in Sacramento. They wanted to be 100 percent Humboldt employed, so they shifted gears and found a new bottling plant in Fortuna. This move set the team back a bit for their soft launch but it was well worth it. “That is something that we hold precious, that we are keeping everything local, but we have this bond with India,” Armstrong said. “We’re not getting every single spice that we’re using from India but the bulk of the spices that we’re using are going to come from India.”

Down the line, Soma plans to launch a CBD-infused line of beverages. The CBD will be sourced from Humboldt at Erikson’s cannabis farm Full Moon Farms. These infused beverages will be clearly distinguishable from the standard version, even going under a different name, Somaras. In order to make this happen, however, the team must work closely with the farms in India to make sure it can pass the same stringent Category 3 testing that cannabis products in the United States have to overcome. “It’s more intense than any other product on the market,” Moran said. “Something that we’re really starting to look into is how we can promote better farming practices and show these farmers how they can farm organically.” 

Although CBD will be a part of the Soma brand eventually and many team members currently work in the cannabis industry, Soma is a Humboldt-based product rooted outside of that industry. “This is purely an organic venture as a feel-good move outside of cannabis,” Erikson said. “I really think the cannabis industry can be draining at times and it’s good to have a positive focus outside of that angle.” That being said, legalization has blurred the line between the growing community and the non-growing community. Permitted farmers are using the opportunity to openly invest in the people, putting money into sustainable farming methods and donating to local nonprofits. 

One of more than 40 rivers running through the mountains of Kerala.

In a way, Soma is a bridge between the two communities, a team comprised of players inside and outside the cannabis realm, coming together to inspire change in their consumers, the Humboldt economy and abroad in India. They hope that their products encourage a healthier lifestyle full of natural energy throughout the day, mental and physical peace, and a restful, rejuvenating night’s sleep. They firmly believe in a grassroots approach based in Humboldt County from local production to local distribution and marketing. Finally, they look forward to working with the farmers in Kerala on a cross-educational level, learning from each other, and hope to eventually benefit India outside of the state of Kerala. “It’s an India-meets-Humboldt thing,” Moran explained. “We’re all in Humboldt and not only do we want to have a positive impact here, but we also want to have a positive impact in India because we’re going to be representing India.”

In the team’s eyes, Soma is less of a beverage and more of an alternative lifestyle brand. Not only do they hope that people get behind the potential physical and mental transformative powers of the product, but they also hope people see the possibility for change on a grander scale through Soma. “It feels so good to do something for you and for other people, something that you can really stand behind and creating a culture around it,” Moran said. “You are so fortunate if within your lifetime you can create a positive culture.” 

Stella Girkins is a freelance writer based in Southern Humboldt.