Friday, August 14, 2015

Product review: Skratch Labs

It's another steamy August week in Maryland, not that we really get any other kind.  As a teacher, I have the luxury of being able to escape out west for a good piece of the summer, but when I'm home I can either sit around waiting for better conditions or make the most of the time I have.  Sometimes this means being out climbing, going out with no real expectation of doing anything hard (but often surprising myself), and just focusing on the opportunity to check out new places or learn to move more efficiently in familiar ones.  Other days this means training, whether that be core workouts, long walks in the woods, or getting my fingers ready for the prime bouldering season that's just around the corner.

                                                                                              Photo: Ben Dooley
Whatever a summer day brings, it's pretty much a given that I'll be sweating.  Over time I've gotten better about bringing enough water when I go out to play, though for a long time I left it sitting in my pack until I was already feeling my performance slip.  As I often forget to eat too, I got into the habit of bringing a sports drink with me, both for the electrolytes and to get at least a few calories back into my system.  It did the trick, but between having to stop and buy one every time I went climbing, and wondering what kind of chemicals I was putting into my body, I frequently found myself thinking that there must be a better solution.

I've been hearing about the hydration products from Skratch Labs for a few years now, initially from Dustin before he moved west, and more recently from Dana.  As she had already motivated me to take my training seriously, especially after she almost tied my score at the Sourland Smackdown despite missing the first two or three hours of the competition, following her recommendations seemed like a safe bet.

Still, even hearing about the Skratch products from two motivated athletes, I wondered if they actually lived up to the hype.  Then I tasted the Exercise Hydration Mix for the first time and was hooked.  Not only was it delicious, but I loved the fact that the ingredient list was short and entirely comprised of words I knew.  Words like "raspberries."  Not "raspberry flavor," not "extract of."  Just "raspberries."  

Last month during our week in Boulder, we had the opportunity to stop by Skratch Labs for a tour. It was fun to hear the stories behind the company and products, from their early days supporting competitive cyclists to their subsequent expansion into the greater world of outdoor recreation. Many of those stories can be found on their blog, along with detailed information on why various ingredients were chosen and how to most effectively use the products as part of an active lifestyle.  Just walking through the place though, it was clear that their commitment to balancing nutrition and taste went far beyond the things they sold.  Constantly developing new recipes for their athletes or for each other, these were good people who believed in sharing good food, and who recognize the importance of community.

Before we left we got to taste several flavors we hadn't seen at home yet, and picked up a good assortment to get us through rest of our trip.  Obviously everyone's preferences will vary, but here are my thoughts on the current flavors:

The first one I tried, and still my favorite.  Fresh raspberry flavor, lightly tart with just the right amount of sweetness.  Even better, the bottom of the bottle ends up coated in a layer of raspberry seeds.  As a Maryland native, I liken the seeds to the presence of shell fragments in crab soup.  Yes, it can be a shock if you unexpectedly bite one, but at least you know what you're eating is real.  This has been my go-to drink this summer.

My second favorite after the raspberry.  Like eating fresh pineapple, but without the mouth-numbing acidity and syrupy sweetness that I usually associate with the flavor.  And like the raspberry seeds, the cloudiness from the pulp is a nice reassurance that what you're drinking is actual fruit.

Lightly sweet orange flavor that reminds me more of orange soda than orange juice (in a good way), and not as sour as I expected.  For you big orange juice fans, it still has a nice cloud of pulp.

Lemons + Limes-
I noticed more lime than lemon in this one.  Probably the most similar to other sports drinks, but it was a clean lime flavor instead of tasting like cheap margarita mix.  Even better when I accidentally drank it hot, thinking it was the matcha flavor.  Speaking of which...

Matcha + Lemons-
Made with ground green tea and lemon, it tastes just like you'd expect.  Drink it hot.  Or iced.  Really no way to go wrong with this one, especially with the little caffeine boost from the matcha.  Perfect for those post-work training sessions when that mid-afternoon tiredness is creeping in.

Apples + Cinnamon-
In an area where our best climbing comes during cold weather, I've found that maintaining core heat is the biggest factor in performing well.  Bringing a thermos of hot water has made a huge difference in my winter climbing, as long as I'm willing to deal with the unpleasant metallic taste.  Now it can taste like apple pie instead.  Brilliant.  I'll be going through a lot of this stuff...

The flavors are also fun to combine, with my favorite combo at the moment being the raspberry with the lemon-lime.  Being back to work now, I'm also enjoying mixing the raspberry and the matcha for a little caffeine boost to keep me motivated through afternoon sluggishness.  As a whole, the mixes are all well balanced... enough sugar for a boost without feeling syrupy, enough sodium without a salty burn, and low acidity even from flavors where I would expect more.  I've been making a 32 ounce bottle (generally raspberry) for all of my climbing and hard training sessions this summer, and it's gone a long way toward maintaining my physical and mental energy even on the nastiest of days.  Given my history of forgetting to hydrate, it's especially nice to have something that I actually look forward to drinking.

In addition to their standard Exercise Hydration Mixes, three other levels of hydration mix are available from Skratch.  At the lightest end is the Daily Electrolyte Mix, designed for when you're not really sweating, but still want something a little more substantial (and flavorful) than water.  In the other direction is the Rescue Hydration Mix.  I found this one particularly interesting because it was developed based on the World Health Organization standards for the solutions used to treat dehydration in developing countries, but with better taste and no artificial ingredients.  Skratch has an awesome writeup about the Rescue Hydration Mix here, which also has some great information about dehydration in general.  For even more extreme needs, they make the Hyper Hydration Mix, though they do specify that very few people will actually lose enough fluids to justify using it.

For those in need of a little extra carb boost, Skratch also makes Fruit Drops in both raspberry and orange flavor.

These are similar to other energy chews on the market, but like the hydration mixes are made with recognizable ingredients, and are designed to be friendly to the gastro-intestinal system.  Unlike some I've had that feel like they'll pull a tooth out, I found these much easier to chew, and the light sugar coating on the outside gives them a nice little crunch.  Skratch's blog gives all of the technical info and advice on their use, but I like the fact that they seem to view these as a backup option, preferring to rely on freshly made portable foods whenever possible.

As I said before, Skratch is a company full of people who like to eat well, and they've devoted a lot of time to perfecting recipes both for home meals and portable options.  While they don't sell most of these directly, they do have two cookbooks full of great recipes in addition to the ones they post online. I held off on getting one since we were already running low on car space, but everything I saw while flipping though looked awesome.

The one portable food product that they do actually sell is the mix for their cookies, which I haven't tried yet (Dana has promised to fix that), but from what I've read they sound like a great alternative to energy bars.

I'll admit that I was a little surprised when I first saw the cookies on their site.  Thinking about some of the dry energy bars I've choked down though, it made total sense.  After being conditioned to think that some of these pre-wrapped lumps must give us some magic edge, we often settle for the ones that taste the least terrible.  But let's face it, most of us would rather be eating cookies anyway, and Skratch points out that cookies are often easier to digest while still giving us the same nutritional benefits.  That works for me!

For anyone in or passing through Boulder, I'd highly recommend stopping by Skratch if you get a chance.  Good people making good things.  Plus they're conveniently located across from Boulder Beer, whether you're looking to pre-hydrate before lunch or grab a packet of of the rescue mix afterward.

And for those in the Columbia, MD area looking to give Skratch a try or restock your dwindling supply, Race Pace (near the climbing gym) has the best selection I've seen so far.  Lots of flavors in stock, and they even carried the cookie mix.  Check them out if you get a chance.

Special thanks to Jason for the awesome tour, and cheers to all the folks at Skratch Labs making the magic happen!

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