Video: Expo West 2014 – Sweet Leaf Tea Co-Founder Gets into Coffee Biz with High Brew

When asked why, after a highly successful run in the tea business, he decided to start a new coffee brand, David Smith stated simply that coffee “seemed like the best opportunity out of all of the beverage [categories] that I was looking at.”

As one of the co-founders of Sweet Leaf Tea Co., Smith steered the development of a national sales organization and hybrid DSD network, propelling the company’s Sweet Leaf and Tradewinds brands to nearly $70 million in sales by the end of 2011. Smith exited the company in December, 2011, seven months after Nestle Waters North America completed its acquisition of Sweet Leaf, and later co-founded Live Soda (now Live Kombucha Soda) and Rhythm Superfoods, which markets tortilla and kale chips. Today, he’s set his sights on the coffee category with High Brew Coffee, a new line of ready-to-drink, cold-brew coffee beverages, which made its debut at the recently held Natural Products Expo West 2014.

Formulated with Fair Trade Arabica coffee beans, water and cream and sweetened with a blend of stevia and cane sugar, High Brew is packaged in 8.4 oz. slim cans, High Brew is shelf-stable and comes in four varieties — Double Espresso, Mexican Vanilla, Salted Caramel and Dark Chocolate Mocha — each priced at $2.49. The line today launched nationally in Whole Foods.

In an interview with BevNET CEO John Craven, Smith said that High Brew would “attempt to reverse that trend” of sweet coffee products with a formulation that features a stronger coffee flavor than competing brands along with reduced sugar and calorie content, as compared to other coffee drinks. Depending on the variety, High Brew beverages range from 50-60 calories per 8.4 oz. can.

Of course, Smith knows that he faces a Goliath in Starbucks, which dominates the RTD coffee market with over 90 percent share of the market. Nevertheless, he sees significant opportunity in the segment with rapidly growing demand for iced coffee drinks and High Brew’s differentiation as a lower-calorie and cold-brew product.

“When I looked at this, I wanted to differentiate from Starbucks as much as possible,” Smith said. “A lot of people have done that, and a lot of people have failed trying. They’re really good at what they do. But… on their ready-to-drink side, to me, it’s more of a dairy beverage. It’s a really sweet, milk-based drink that’s got a little coffee flavor.”

In this video, Smith discusses more about the positioning and branding of High Brew as a coffee product that can appeal to a wide variety of consumers. Smith also shares his views on the coffee category as whole and the response to High Brew from attendees at Expo West.