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The Life of An Artisan Essential Oil Distiller With Clare Licher of Phibee Aromatics

CBW 12 | Artisan Essential Oil Distiller

Have you ever wondered what it takes to create the essential oils we use in aromatherapy? In this episode, Amy talks with Clare Licher about her amazing journey as an artisan essential oil distiller. Clare and her husband, Max, are the founders of PhiBee Aromatics, and they have been distilling medicinal and aromatic plants in Sedona, AZ, for over 20+ years. Her deep spiritual connection to plants and their magic is deeply inspiring for anyone interested in learning more about essential oils and plant medicine. In her chat with Amy, she discusses the process of creating essential oils and the importance of understanding when and where you should get your plants. Clare also introduces some aromatic plants from the Southwest of the US and shares the benefits of aromatherapy and plant medicine to one’s health. Get to know more about the process of distilling essential oils and the ethical and conscious ways to do it by tuning in.

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The Life of An Artisan Essential Oil Distiller With Clare Licher of Phibee Aromatics

The Magic of Aromatic Plants from the Southwest of the US

In this episode, I’m super excited to introduce you to a very dear friend of mine who is a Certified Aromatherapist and Artisan Distiller in Sedona, Clare Licher. She and her husband have a company called PhiBee Aromatics. Clare has been studying the native plants of this particular region in Arizona since 1992. She’s been distilling the local plants since 2005. I thought it would be fun to talk to Clare about what it means to be an artisan distiller and how she even got started in distilling local plants. Clare, welcome. I’m so excited to have you here.

Thank you so much. It’s so nice to be here.

It’s great. I can’t wait to talk about it because I know that you’ve told me your story many times. I can’t wait for you to share it with my readers and my students who are checking out this episode. Please tell us, how did you start distilling plants?

I moved to Arizona in 1991 from the Pacific Northwest. I might as well have moved to another planet in terms of what I knew about the plant life here. I had been very interested in medicinal herbs and had been studying them for a couple of years. I immediately enrolled in a native plant class. I took some ethnobotanical books with me so that as I was learning to identify the plants, then I could understand what their medicinal uses were as well.

For years, I made tinctures, lip balms, teas, infusions, decoctions, and everything that I could with them. I had heard of aromatherapy but I didn’t understand what it was at that time. I met my husband soon after moving here and we had a baby in 1995. We realized at a certain point that she had a very severe case of congenital hip dysplasia.

I pretty much dropped everything and made her healing my number one focus. At that time, a nurse practitioner that we were working with mentioned using essential oils to assist her healing. I was willing to try anything and I think she had recommended birch and frankincense. My daughter was in a body cast for six months. When she came out of that cast, she had to be in a brace for another three months but her hips were frozen in the position of the body cast.

We needed to do a lot of massages to help her legs relax. I used those essential oils and I noticed not only helped her healing process and helped speed up the relaxation of her hips. I also noticed how we felt using them and how uplifting they were. The room would be infused with these beautiful aromas. During that time, I was also having a fair amount of migraine headaches, I’m sure because of the stress of everything.

I asked my husband to rub an oil combination into my shoulders and within five minutes, my migraine headache was gone. That was the first time that I ever experienced anything moving a headache that fast because they could last for days for me. It was my first experience of an immediate physiologic effect from essential oils.

CBW 12 | Artisan Essential Oil Distiller
Artisan Essential Oil Distiller: Using essential oils was my first experience of an immediate physiologic effect.

That shifted something in my perspective at that time. Max was also very interested in the native plants. We started looking at what essential oils we could find and we noticed that none of the native medicinal plants from this area were part of the normal repertoire of essential oils. On occasion, you might find something like white sage but there were so many aromatic plants here that we were very surprised.

We had this conversation about this for years and we finally took a weekend workshop, an essential oil workshop. We got so inspired that we bought a small copper distillation system and started working with pretty much every herbaceous plant we could get our hands on. We had a lot of fun working with that. Both of us were quite passionate about it.

We worked with that system for about two years then we wanted to expand the number of plants that we could work with. We wanted to work with the conifers. The system we had, had a little five-gallon tank. We knew that we needed to collect more plant material to make any volume of essential oil. We bought a system with a 55-gallon drum. It looks like an oil drum and last condenser and separator, then we could pretty much work with anything that we wanted.

We obtained permits from the Forest Service and we started working, I would say mainly in the Coconino National Forest. We have about six different large areas that we can work in. That permit also includes several areas in the Sedona Verde Valley region from probably about a 4,000-foot elevation up to about a 9,000-foot elevation on the top of the San Francisco Peaks. We work with seven native Arizona junipers now, four different firs, and lots of herbaceous plants.

At this point, we have about 110 things on our website. By the way, we distilled for about eight years before we opened our website. The name PhiBee Aromatics is a combination of our girls’ names. My older daughter’s name is Sophia and in the Greek alphabet, the letter Phi is representative of the golden mane, which represents harmony and form. Our younger daughter’s middle name is Bee. We love bees. We have a wild hive that’s in the corner of our roof. It felt good to combine our girls’ names and all of those elements.

I didn’t realize you have over 100 different plants that you’re distilling. That’s remarkable.

We have distilled over 100 different plants, then the offerings on the website, there are probably 30 or so hydrosols. There are over 50 different essential oils that we distill. I have some offerings from Jamaica and from Iceland also. It’s a pretty big collection of things. Hopefully, soon from Haiti as well.

You mentioned those other areas, Iceland, Haiti, and Jamaica. Why those three?

In 2016 or 2015, we traveled to Iceland to help a woman whom we’d met. She had gotten a grant from the Iceland government to come study with us because she wanted to start a distillery herself. She came and spent about a week and a half with us in January. She went back home and her nephew built her a distiller. We visited her in June and helped her set it up.

We think it may be the first essential oil distillery in Iceland. She works for the Iceland Forest Service and her job is to help support people growing trees. While we were there, we distilled Norway spruce, pinus contorta, and lodgepole pine. We did yarrow and one other plant as well. She has a lovely business. We did that. I was then contacted a few months later by Partners of the Americas asking if I would want to accept an assignment in Jamaica.

It was with Yerba Buena Farm, who has a soap business. They were wanting to scent their soaps with essential oils. They had a distillation system, a five-gallon system that they hadn’t been able to get to produce any oil. They needed to troubleshoot it and get it working. Also, they wanted to present public free workshops to the community. They are beekeepers at Yerba Buena Farm. They had done many trainings with Partners of the Americas. They trained over 1,200 beekeepers in Jamaica.

They had this huge community that they were connected to and a lot of people were interested in essential oils, so I went there. I was a little bit nervous because I didn’t know what was wrong with their system. We had four days to get it working before we were going to have hundreds of people come to these workshops.

Luckily, we did get it going. We had to go to Kingston and find someone to make a part for us. That came together and I think it was maybe the day before the first workshop. We did a distillation and got about an ounce of oil from lemon grass. We’re ecstatic about that and wound up doing four distillations or distillation training workshops.

They went on to distill all kinds of oils, both introduced plants that were high-yielding oils and lots of little special native more obscure plants. I wound up caring for nine of their essential oils. With Haiti, I was contacted by Prosperity Catalyst and they also support beekeepers in both Haiti and Southern Iraq. They focused mainly on supporting women, women’s businesses, and small farmers.

They also had a very busy beeswax candle-making business. They had a small distiller which wasn’t working well for them. They were needing to or wanting to produce essential oils to scent their candles. I wound up going there and I’ve continued to work with them. We’re working on a project now of creating spa products. They are now also making their own fresh, beautiful cacao butter and coconut oil.

We’ve tried to think of as many products as possible just working with very basic, simple but pure and beautiful ingredients that are all made by them, their own essential oils and hydrosols, carrier oils, beeswax, and cacao butter. Anyways, I hope to, in the not-too-distant future, be able to offer their products as well.

We've tried to think of as many products as possible just working with very basic, simple, but pure and beautiful ingredients. Click To Tweet

That’s amazing. You’ve had such an impact, Clare, on all of these communities. Look at what they’re offering, connecting with as far as plants. It’s amazing.

It has been extremely fulfilling for me to be part of the greater world. Not of aromatherapy but being involved with people all over the planet who are working in not just physical beauty but working with the beauty of nature. It’s made me happy to be involved in all of that.

It must. Amazing. I have a question. You’ve been distilling now for many years. When you distill in the focused intensity that you do, you learn about this incredible process of distillation. When you started, what was it about the experience of distillation that hooked you, do you think? You told that beautiful story about essential oils and how they resonated for you and you had this a-ha moment.

What do you think took you to the next level to want to distill and start exploring that? A lot of people who become aromatherapists or have a real a-ha moment with essential oil don’t necessarily go that next direction into becoming a distiller. Also, what’s so fascinating about your story is that you were doing it for a while before you even started a business. What was it in the beginning that stirred your soul or got you involved in knowing that this is something that you wanted to dedicate time to?

I would say both Max and I found the process very exciting. Also, as you’ve been asking these questions and I’m thinking about it, it wasn’t just that the process was exciting. The oils themselves, working with them, and being in a room where this is taking place, it’s incredibly uplifting. I don’t think I had experienced anything quite like that before. Something that I realized later on, was in a workshop that I took that Kurt Schnabel offered.

It was a weekend workshop. He talked about how a lot of tribal communities don’t have as much need for something like aromatherapy because the people are eating the animals that are eating the wild plants. In their systems, they have all these constituents or chemistry that most of us in the Western or developed world don’t have. It’s not in our diet.

CBW 12 | Artisan Essential Oil Distiller
Artisan Essential Oil Distiller: Tribal communities don’t have as much need for aromatherapy because the people are eating the animals that are eating the wild plants. So in their systems, they have all these minute constituents or chemistry that most of us in the western or developed world really don’t have.

When we started distilling and started using these oils, it was maybe on a subconscious level, I was feeling something that I had been missing. It profoundly affected me. For years, it was like I couldn’t get enough. A lot of people who go into aromatherapy go through this period of passion where they want to know, feel, and experience more.

We made this huge list of aromatic plants. Most of which were native that we wanted to experiment with. At this point, we’ve picked off almost every single one of them. There might be 1 or 2 that are left on that list that we haven’t worked with but that’s not to say that we’ve done everything. We’re always excited to try new plants.

I have a question for you that I know a lot of people ask me. A lot of my students ask me that they say, “When you’re distilling, it requires so much plant material to yield such a tiny bit of oil.” I know when I’ve gone to work with you and I’ve been to your distillery, we’ve collected in some instances over 100 pounds, only yielding 4 ounces. A lot of people will say, “That’s not sustainable,” and they have all these comments about that. What is your take on all of that?

My take on that is that every plant is different. There are some plants that are highly aromatic here that we’ve never touched in terms of distillation because the populations are too small. It would be criminal to do that. There are other plant populations that are enormous. Ponderosa pine, for example. Arizona, and this goes off into other states, is the home of the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. It’s enormous.

Everybody who flies from Phoenix to Flagstaff says, “I had no idea there were so many trees in Arizona.” To gather 100 of ponderosa pine, we will take lower branches of ponderosa pine trees. We’ll take the bowels then we’ll trim them down into just the branch tips. Maybe we distill 100 pounds of that. In that case, I know qualms about working with that much plant material because one thing that we’re also doing is we’re taking dead wood off the bottoms of the trees.

We’re reducing the fire ladder for those trees so that if a grass fire comes through, the tree is much more protected. We’re taking a few lower branches off of each tree and we consider all of these things with every plant that we work with. Something like snakeweed, for example, is a super-abundant plant in all of the West. There’s a ton of it in Sedona and the Verde Valley.

If we’re working with a population, we’ll take maybe 1/8 of a plant. By the time you finish collecting your distiller load, which is also a much different poundage per plant as well. A distiller load of snakeweed might be 40 pounds as opposed to 100 pounds for a conifer. We’ll collect and you turn around and you look. You can’t even tell that anyone was even there. You need to be conscious of every single plant that you’re working with, like what’s the size of the population?

Also knowing when is the best time to collect. For example, conifers produce the most essential oil in the winter. If you collect conifers in the summertime, you’re wasting your energy and plant material. If you’re lucky, you’ll get half of the yield that you would get in the wintertime. As you go along and you learn your plants, you start to learn when the best time is to work with the plant. What has the highest yield? Also, the best aroma, the sweetest and most complex aroma. For a lot of the herbaceous plants, it might start in the late spring and go through summer. Some of them have their greatest yield in the fall. You need much less plant material to obtain a nice yield of essential oil.

You need to be conscious of every single plant that you're working with like, what's the size of the population, and when is the best time to collect? Click To Tweet

Thank you for talking about that because I know it’s a topic that a lot of people always ask about. I know that there are some great resources now coming out like the Airmid Institute that is put together by Kelly Ablard. It’s making us aware of which plants are in crisis or in becoming in danger that we should be more mindful of. This is something that is good for all of us to know.

In the past, I’ve taken students of mine to work with Clare in Sedona. Many of the students, even though they were aromatherapy students of mine, had no idea of the experience of collecting the plants directly out of the forest, out of the mountains, and what that was like. It brought a whole new level of consciousness people don’t think about because, with essential oils, they’re in a little bottle. It’s so easy to feel very disconnected from the plant from which they came. This is important to be aware of and to think about.

With every business, when you order anything, go to the store, and you pick up a package of something, you have no idea what it took for all of the factors to come together for that product to be in a package. It’s like that with essential oils as well. Even with herbs, if you’re buying a couple of ounces of herbs that are in a package, it’s hard to know until you experience or do the work yourself the amount of time and effort that it takes to get that one little bottle or whatever it is. The oils are so highly concentrated that it is sometimes hard to fathom how much energy. It is distilled energy on a lot of different levels or concentrated energy, I should say.

CBW 12 | Artisan Essential Oil Distiller
Artisan Essential Oil Distiller: It’s just hard to know, until you experience or do the work yourself, the amount of time and effort that it takes to get that one little bottle.

Do you want to talk about that a little bit more? What do you mean by that? That’s an interesting topic.

You think about what essential oil is in the first place. It’s a secondary metabolite of a plant. As long as the plant is having its needs met in terms of water, soil minerals, microbes, and sunshine, and it’s a healthy plant, then it can produce its immune system which is the essential oils. It’s two different things. Essential oils can either be part of the plant’s immune system or the plant’s reproductive system.

It’s a concentration of minerals, nutrients, and sunshine that the plant then converts into an essential oil. There’s the first concentration of energy. We have to go out, locate the plants, and then we have to pick them or collect them, which is a lot of work. We have to do what we call high grading. That’s maybe in the case of an herbaceous plant. It would be picking off any leaves that are slightly yellowing or that don’t quite look right and clipping it all down and making it distiller ready.

In the case of conifers, there’s first the sawing of bows and lopping them into smaller pieces, clipping them, and hauling. There’s the next concentration of energy before it makes it into the retort. There’s the steam. There’s the electricity or your heat source and then the water to condense the essential oils down into a distillate. For us, that’s anywhere from a 4 to usually 8 or 10-hour process. We’ve done some up to 24 hours even. It’s quite a bit of focused energy.

That was beautifully told. That gives everyone a very clear picture of what goes into creating and putting together an essential oil when you’re distilling, for sure. Clare, if you want to talk a little bit about PhiBee, I want to talk a little bit about whom you’re selling essential oils to. Do you ever sell larger quantities? Do you supply other businesses now that your business has grown? Are you mostly doing small, tiny batches, etc.?

In the beginning, we for sure were doing tall, small, tiny batches. Those oils, we gifted. It was quite a few years before we started selling anything. Mostly that happened through local essential oil companies who were doing workshops. We might do one day of their workshop where we would take their students out so that they could get an experience of distilling. Oftentimes, their students would be interested in buying some of our oils.

Those companies carried a few of our oils. Once we had our own website, then we started doing a lot more retail and still doing wholesale. At this point, I’m finding that doing wholesale is quite exhausting. I’m doing less of that these days. In the past, I was doing anywhere from maybe 4 to 16 and sometimes even 32-ounce bottles of oil. I rarely do more than 100 mil bottles, and quite often that goes to perfumers and to formulators. We are still selling to some of the bigger companies. They’re okay with doing 100 mil specialty bottles of things. I’m doing a lot less of that because I don’t have quite the energy.

I used to go out by myself. I would collect 1 or 2 distiller loads of plant material. At this point, I need to have someone with me. I have an apprentice now. We’ve been doing a tremendous amount of work together but I find that I need the company and the camaraderie, and the chatting makes the whole process fun and not feel as much hard work in the blazing sun.

I say that I’ve slowed down a little bit. I’ve also done a lot more writing these days. I’m loving that as well. I’ve written for a lot of different magazines. I’m hoping to write a book myself. We’ll see what happens with that but I love the writing process and sharing the experiences that I’ve had in working with the oils or the plants. Spending that much time out in nature has made me a lot more aware of natural processes and also, the magic of nature. That’s what I hope to share in a book someday, some of the magical experiences that I’ve had have been extremely meaningful to me.

I can’t wait to read it, Clare. I know you have so much to share. I’m so grateful that you took some time out and shared with us here on this episode.

Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

This was a wonderful conversation. For those of you reading, you could reach out to her and look at her website and connect with her if you have any more questions. Clare, again, thank you so much for joining me and talking about distilling and the work that you do.

Thank you. It was my pleasure.

Me too. Everyone, until the next episode.

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Clare began studying medicinal herbs in 1987, and is a certified Clinical Aromatherapist and a professional member of both AIA and NAHA. She speaks nationally and internationally on the aromatic plants of the Southwest, and has written for Aromatherapy Today and the International Journal of Clinical Aromatherapy. She also has consulted on numerous international distillation projects, and has conducted volunteer distillation trainings, sponsored by Partners of the Americas and Prosperity Catalyst, in both Jamaica and Haiti.

About Clare Licher

CBW 12 | Artisan Essential Oil DistillerClare and her husband Max are the founders of PhiBee Aromatics . It is a family run business (named after their daughters) and began out of a love and passion for the native plant world. We bought our first distillation system in 2005, and have since distilled over 100 different species of native and locally cultivated plants. We wildcraft in a sustainable fashion, attempt to benefit the plants in our trimming techniques, and are permitted by the US Forest Service. We have also worked with the Nature Conservancy on many occasions.

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