BevNET’s Best of 2017 Awards: La Croix Wins Brand of the Year

BevNET’s Best of 2017 came from growing companies and startups, identifying rising stars and the most important trendsetters. We honor the products, the plays, the packages, the leaders and brands who were the hardest working, or just the cleverest. Timing is key: last year’s outstanding performer might have leveled off, formulations might change, function might best flavor; new packaging might not be right.

But it isn’t always easy to drink your way to enlightenment. So when the team started trying to sort through the stacks of veteran performers and newcomers, understand, there were plenty of arguments.

Important message: Really amazing year! It’s clear, obvious, probably intuitive. Excellent discoveries, these honors invite surprise when only regarded dismissively. Forget outlandish reactions. What’s our reply? Deserving. These recipients are deserving.

LaCroix is about as far from an overnight success as anything we’ve ever recognized as brand of the year, but its romance with consumers doesn’t seem to be letting up at all. The selection recognizes both the long climb the brand has made over the past decade and the people who brought it there. But it’s also to point out how well the brand has sustained momentum with a public that seems to regularly shift between trends. In fact, we say it’s time to admit that LaCroix is the brand that lit the fuse for the unsweetened, flavored sparkling water explosion. Its combination of flavor, cool design, consumer outreach, and simple accessibility – that most underrated of attributes – is what has turned it into the leader of the pack. The fact that other companies spend so much time chasing LaCroix, paying it the compliment of imitation while not quite matching its winning formula, shows just how powerfully influential it has become – and should help us all to recognize how much it deserves to be our brand of the year.

It’s hard not to like Todd Berardi. Good-humored, enthusiastic, and firmly individualistic, people root for him. But charisma can only get you so far – the reason Todd Berardi is BevNET’s person of the year for 2017 is that he’s showed an admirable knack for making the hard decision, for never exceeding his own grasp, and for demonstrating incredible perseverance while never selling out the core principles of HiBall: organic sourcing, great design, great taste, good times. For years, he kept the company an inch wide and a mile deep, guidance that’s often cited but rarely followed. That doesn’t mean that Todd has just been conservatively sticking to his knitting – he took the brand into and out of categories like protein and coconut water to see what fit, but he was never afraid to kill something that didn’t make the cut. Todd took a risk about 18 months ago, spending significantly to increase his approach to marketing and to grow a deeper national sales force – but even before the results of that spend could be fully realized, Anheuser Busch InBev swept in. The purchase of HiBall, a comparatively tiny brand, by such a giant beer company, doesn’t mean it’s about to expand overnight into a threat to Monster or Coke. But the fact is that the big company brass recognized what Todd and his core team – aka Alyssa and Dan – have managed to do over this 12 year trip: keep up the quality, never stop trying things, never over-promise, and always deliver a really good time, be it in a bottle, in a can, or in person. Todd Berardi is BevNET’s 2017 person of the year because we knew him when, we know him now, we know how it happened, and we all know why. It’s a good feeling to be able to recognize that, and to have it inspire the rest of us.

With a “less is more” approach to branding, Heyday Coffee has developed a nostalgic aesthetic for a product in an emerging market. Relying on clean type and bold colors, the brand jumps off the shelf with an instantly identifiable style. By using a different dominant color for each flavor, all four SKUs are quickly distinguishable from one another, yet they remain unified with the iconic ‘circle H flag’ and only the most important descriptors in Heyday’s standard red and orange palette. By ignoring overused adjectives, statements, and clutter on the front panel, the result is an eye-catching package that is all about the brand.

Powered by dynamic growth in sales of its innovative Draft Latte products, La Colombe has been a standout performer within the surging RTD coffee category. Led by charismatic co-founder and CEO Todd Carmichael, the Philadelphia-based premium coffee company embarked upon a highly ambitious distribution strategy in 2017, adding tens of thousands of new points of sale, including national placement at Wegmans, Whole Foods, Target and Trader Joe’s. The retail expansion synched with the opening of a new 55,000 sq. ft. production facility in Western Michigan, a plant capable of producing 250 million cans annually. Meanwhile, La Colombe’s innovation pipeline yielded several impressive new Draft Latte flavors, including outstanding seasonal varieties Pumpkin Spice Latte and Peppermint Mocha.

After more than a decade of steady, incremental growth, 2017 was the year in which Brew Dr. Kombucha ascended to elite status within this ever-expanding beverage category. Drawing from parent company Townshend Tea’s expertise in ingredients and craft production, the Portland, Ore.-based brand has created a range of brews with appeal to both hardcore kombucha enthusiasts and newcomers alike. During the past year, the company made major strides forward in sales and distribution outside of its home base in the Pacific Northwest, landing placements at Target and Costco stores on the West Coast as well as having its Clear Mind flavor picked up nationally at Trader Joe’s. After doubling sales to nearly $12 million in 2016, Brew Dr. is poised to build upon its captivating blend of delicious product and engaging brand identity.

Since its inception, Humm’s approach to kombucha has been focused on bringing new consumers into the category with inviting flavors and irreverent branding. But despite the brand’s easygoing vibe, everything the Bend, Ore.-based company did in 2017 underscored the seriousness of its ambition to be accessible across all regions, retail channels and demographics. After becoming only the third kombucha brand to be carried nationally at Target in late 2016, Humm followed up by pushing further ahead this year, raising over $8 million from Velocity Made Good (VMG) Partners and announcing the construction of a new 40,000 sq. ft. East Coast brewery in Roanoke, Va. set to go online in 2019. With strong momentum behind the brand, Humm looks primed to go from strength to strength in the months and years ahead.

Juice Served Here continues to impress as it steadily expands beyond its home base and toward a national presence. The cold-pressed juice company, which began in 2012 as a Los Angeles-based brick-and-mortar chain of juice bars, has already established a strong beachhead in Southern California, but now, via a robust innovation pipeline, has emerged as a fast-growing player in the packaged super-premium juice category. An anchor brand in the refrigerated juice set at Sprouts and several regions of Whole Foods, Juice Served Here has driven new retail placement with a range of functional juice shots, tonics and lemonades. The new products have bolstered its foray into retailers along the East Coast as it simultaneously increases grocery and on-premise distribution in California.

*(Editor’s Note: Yeah, we know. Shortly after winning the award, Juice Served Here moved from Rising Star to Black Hole. It happens with awards sometimes. We award on innovation, on originality, on market impact, on a variety of factors – and sometimes what we award, the consumer doesn’t, sometimes brands run out of money, and sometimes, things just get too difficult. Not every Rising Star can shine forever, and some just don’t shine for that long, at all.)

Developing a brand with a niche target consumer base can be bountiful, so long as you have a full understanding of who they are and where they hang. Soylent did, burrowing right into the ‘Deep Web.’ The Silicon Valley-ishness of this meal replacement company managed to raise our eyebrows initially, but they won big this year with their core audience of techies when they launched “Soy Route,” a promotional online marketplace hosted on the darknet, an anonymous section of the internet mostly known for nefarious activity. With a tongue-in-cheek reference to The Silk Road, Soylent sold limited edition flavors and branded collectibles that could be purchased using – natch! – Bitcoin. Designed with firm Wieden+Kennedy, Soy Route was only accessible via the special Tor web browser and went largely unheard of among the mainstream consumers Soylent is now targeting with its launch into retail. But that was the point: the site was a smash hit among its web-savvy subscribers on Reddit and word quickly spread throughout the tech world, the exact base Soylent wants to hold on to as it pivots toward the meatspace-based, RTD conventional retail world. Innovative, edgy, and funny, Soy Route proved Soylent’s loyalty to its loyalists.

Soylent is a function-forward meal replacement beverage first and foremost, which is part of the reason we were so impressed with the balanced flavors in the Cafe Chai variety. The chai spice is well integrated and helps smooth out the aftertaste left behind from the artificial sweeteners, making this a step forward for the line in terms of taste profile. Beyond the liquid, Soylent’s clean label design and eye-catching square bottle give the brand an added level of sophistication.

CideRoad is paving a new thoroughfare for the growing switchel category with its low-calorie, sparkling Spritzel. Taking the traditional water/vinegar/maple syrup blend and carbonating it expands use occasions and creates a refreshing new experience for the classic mix. With growing demand for lower calorie, better-for-you carbonated offerings to replace traditional soda brands, Spritzel is definitely an on-trend expression, one made even more impactful by its snazzy slim can package.

Humm’s hot streak of seasonal flavors continued this summer with the release of Hopped Grapefruit. While the citrus flavors give it the feel of a bright summer drink, that doesn’t quite do justice to the complex interplay of sweet and bitter notes, courtesy of Cascadia and Citra hops, that creates something altogether unique and refreshing in any season. From the liquid to the playful illustration on the bottle’s label, Humm’s execution on this product is a triumph.

Relatively new to the scene, cold brew coffee brand Rise has nevertheless created one of the best tasting nitro cold brews we’ve encountered. The brand uses only sustainably sourced Peruvian coffee beans and nitrogen gas, but the end result is bold and incredibly smooth, with a natural sweetness and creaminess. Add in extra points for standout branding, and we expect more good things from Rise in the years to come.

Just as the brand did when introducing its Italian-style sparkling juice line, Alta Palla put its own unique style on an established category in launching its Sparkling Waters line at Expo West this year. Made with organic fruit flavors and presented in stylish 16 oz. cans, the four-SKU, zero-calorie unsweetened line made for a natural extension of the Alta Palla brand as it continues to build out its craft beverage offerings.

GT’s Kombucha’s seasonal varieties, Sharing Gratitude and Liberty, each showcase the brand’s impressive ability to innovate with craft-quality products. Each release has legs that could easily carry it beyond just being a seasonal flavor. They’re extremely gulpable and will appeal to mainstream-oriented consumers, an indication of the way that GT’s team has continued to refine and develop its skills: this product is light years from the vinegary origins of the category. The packaging on these seasonals reinforces the quality of the liquid: both use painted-on designs that give the products an artisanal and sleek look.

Bonafide Provisions Drinkable Veggies, a drinkable marriage of vegetable juice and bone broth, is a union that might just create greater potential than either concept does on its own. The USDA Organic certified products contain chicken broth at the base of each savory flavor, along with vegetables, salt, spices, and vinegar (apple cider vinegar and white vinegar). The five flavor varieties are more savory and flavorful than either bone broth or drinkable soup. Meanwhile, Bonafide has created something that looks and feels like a super premium product, with graphics that present meaningful visual appeal thanks to the clean arrangement on the label and the use of a single accent color for each product.

Finding the right balance of potent caffeination and smoothness in a coffee shot is a tricky task, and it’s one of the reasons we loved this three-SKU line from Bizzy. Even while packing 130-150mg of caffeine per 2 oz. shot, the cold brew coffee flavors (Black, Vanilla, Caramel) are fully expressed, while the sharp and energetic package design injects some much needed style into the small format category.

By extending the brand’s Draft Latte line to include the traditional spiced tea, La Colombe has created the best ready-to-drink chai we’ve ever tasted. The product is rich and creamy, spiced up by turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and pepper. The product’s sweet blend of honey and sugar perfectly complements the tea and spices at its core, while the nitro does its work by adding a frothy layer of foam and a silky smooth body. This texture, which adds a new dimension to the experience of drinking chai, is really why we want to keep drinking this product again and again.

With the addition of curcumin, the key bioactive ingredient in turmeric, the Arya Sparkling Water line has brought something unique and appealing to a category crowded with me-too products. Through the infusion of the brand’s proprietary curcumin variety, which delivers the equivalent of one tablespoon of turmeric in each 12 oz. can, Arya gives an on-trend natural ingredient a platform to shine in the form of a refreshing, fruit flavored zero-calorie drink with mainstream appeal.