Washed Against: The Artisan Throwback

by Jonathan Wright

Real soap, the revival of men’s grooming, and American craftsmanship

Legend has it the Latin word sapo was derived from Mount Sapo, where the ancient Romans sacrificed animals as burnt offerings. As wood ash from their fires mixed with animal fat and rainfall, a soap-like substance ran down the mountainside into the Tiber River, where the Roman women washed their clothing. This part of the river, they discovered, made their wash much cleaner—with much less effort—and so, the word soap was born in the Western lexicon.

But Mount Sapo never existed, though this fable lives on today—even on the website of the American Cleaning Institute, the trade association that represents much of the cleaning products industry. A Babylonian clay tablet circa 2800 BC offers the earliest known evidence of soap production, while the ancient Egyptians, Vikings and Celts can all lay claim to some form of primitive soapmaking.

Humankind has made soap for millennia, but with the post-war advent of the consumer products industry, the skill was mostly forgotten by the average person. Recently, however, one Peoria man has sought to bring it back: in the form of handcrafted, luxury body soaps and a related cadre of high-end grooming products.

Alluvial Inspiration
Soapmaking is both a science and an art, says John Cowan. During the day, Cowan applies his background in environmental biology and microbiology to his work for a local biotech company. After hours, he retreats to the basement of his home in Peoria’s University East neighborhood, where he’s set up a small-scale production lab for aquatic botanical soaps, beard oils, shave brushes and related items. Having previously dabbled in brewing beer and cheese making, Cowan now directs his entrepreneurial spirit to this age-old pursuit.

“I have a science background, and I enjoy cooking a lot,” he explains. “This is something where I can formulate a recipe and draw from my experience in sustainability and science—and leverage that to make a really nice product.” That product goes under the banner Alluvian, a nod to alluvial fans—a geologic occurrence whereby sediment (Latin: alluvium) is washed by flowing water and deposited in a triangular, fan-like shape. Alluvian soaps are an artisan throwback to a bygone era, a statement of resistance to modern consumer culture, with its incessant emphasis on cost-cutting at the expense of quality.

“Many products you use daily are extremely watered-down,” he explains. “They’re not actual soap products—they’re synthetically-derived detergents, and contain potentially hazardous chemicals.” Detergents—marketed as “body wash,” “facial bars,” “cleansing bars” and the like—are not soaps at all, which must be derived from natural fats and oils. In fact, outside of small boutique operations, few real soaps can be found in the marketplace today.

Profiling Minerals and Oils
Alluvian bar soap is real, true, genuine soap. The current line comes in eight varieties, each uniquely composed of naturally harvested minerals and oils. Solomon's Mud, for example, is enriched with Dead Sea mud; Moroccan Lemongrass features minerals derived from the Atlas Mountains of northwest Africa. Aquatic botanicals are employed for their natural cosmetic qualities—the exfoliating kelp flakes of Manitou Scrub, the conditioning carrageen of Fruit of Tangier, the impurity-extracting bamboo charcoal of Black Conifer—and cosmetic clays give the soaps a color: the red, volcanic clay of Volcanic Sea Salts.

Their base oils—organic olive oil and coconut oil, for example—are plant-derived and organically farmed, carefully selected for their fatty acid profiles. Finally, pure essential oils—premium aromatics like French neroli, fossilized amber and exotic citrus—are added for fragrancing, giving Norwegian Spear its “robust undertones of spearmint, clove and neroli” and adding “notes of licorice” to Blood Orange and Fennel.

“There are different properties in each oil,” Cowan explains, “so if you want a stronger lather or a more moisturizing [soap], it all comes down to the profile.” Essential oils enhance the soaps’ physical and cleansing properties with the element of aromatherapy. “Certain oils are supposed to alleviate anxiety or depression, and stimulate different types of moods. So when you’re taking a shower in the morning, you may want something refreshing, or in the evening… something to calm you down.”

Each ingredient has been thoughtfully considered for its holistic impact. “I went through a whole series of trial and error to get these different profiles,” he notes. “People have been making soap products since the beginning of time—but to make something that doesn’t dry your skin out, that doesn’t… dissolve quickly or is not aromatically pleasing… that’s where my science background came into play.”

American Craftsmanship
“There are two different methods of soapmaking,” Cowan says. “There’s a cold process and a hot process.” The cold process involves combining the desired oils and minerals with lye—which is fundamentally necessary to make soap. The resulting chemical reaction is called saponification. “Once the combination reaches a point called trace, which is basically a thickening point, the soap is ready to pour into the molds… Then they cure for about four weeks, which removes the excess moisture.” The hot process is similar, with heat applied to speed up the saponification process.

Alluvian shaving soaps come in three varieties—Himalayan Cedar, Bohemian Coast and Malabar Cabaret—and differ in both process and ingredients. “To obtain the really small, resilient bubbles and thick, shaving-cream lather… you must have stearic acid. So I use [that] as well as kokum butter, which is a natural, fat-based plant extract with stearic acid.”

Utilizing similar ingredients and the same guiding philosophy, Alluvian also offers a beard oil and beard balm. Its Wild Grove Beard Oil blends high-quality organic oils, aquatic botanicals and essential oils to soften and condition the hair and skin beneath. It’s easily absorbed, “and leaves a nice fragrance,” Cowan says. “Beard balm, on the other hand, has a thicker consistency derived from beeswax and lanolin, which is a wax product from Merino sheep. It’s a good natural replacement for any petroleum product, like Vaseline.” Besides moisturizing and conditioning the beard, Alluvian’s Beard Balm de Garde provides a light to medium hold. Some men opt for one of these products, while others, like Cowan, include both in their grooming routines.

To accompany its shaving soaps, Alluvian offers four varieties of shave brushes fashioned from American hardwoods—walnut, mahogany, cherry and broad-leaf maple—with premium silvertip badger hair for the bristles. Each brush is carefully handmade, showcasing Cowan’s affinity for craftsmanship, which aligns nicely with his company’s social and environmental philosophy.

A New Age in Business
In addition to supporting various local nonprofits, Alluvian donates a portion of its proceeds to the Coral Reef Alliance, which works to protect the ocean systems from which many of its products’ ingredients are harvested. “Ocean systems are extremely important—and underappreciated,” he says. “With Peoria being a river town, there’s actually a stronger connection than people might think, because a lot of our storm runoff goes into the river, which goes into the ocean…”

As the City of Peoria develops a long-term plan to reduce sewer overflows to the Illinois River, Cowan knows his products are not part of the problem. In the future, he hopes to codify Alluvian’s social responsibility practices by becoming a B Corporation—a certification for companies that have folded social and environmental concerns into their core missions. And just as sustainability is a hallmark of millennial business ventures, the current boom in men’s grooming products is not lost on Cowan, who likens it to the rise of microbreweries over the last decade: a focus on quality over cost-cutting, craftsmanship over mass production.

“I’m really happy to be involved with this resurgence in men’s care and men’s grooming,” he says. “It’s something that has really been forgotten... But these high-quality products are relaxing—and part of a good routine.”

Last November, Q Brothers—a division of Merz Apothecary, the 140-year-old Chicago institution—opened its doors on Lincoln Avenue, specializing in high-end men's shaving and grooming products. Closer to home, Menzoil Men's Grooming Station & Barbershop has picked up on the trend as well. The old-fashioned barbershop, which opened in East Peoria last year, offers straight razor shaves, shoe shines and other bygone services—a purposeful throwback to an age when grooming was an integral facet of men’s lives.

But while Cowan explores business opportunities and hopes to expand his regional presence, he’s not interested in full-scale production. “It will be all made by hand, rather than machine,” he declares. It’s part of Alluvian’s philosophy: “wild harvested aquatic botanicals, organically farmed plant-based oils, and recycled packaging… created for a society that demands a high standard of sourced ingredients, sustainable practices, and a return to American craftsmanship.” a&s

Find Alluvian products at Relics in Peoria, on Etsy and at alluvian.co.

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