After helping build the market for in-store kombucha fountains, Aqua ViTea is teaming up with FreshBev Craft Juicery, makers of Ripe cold-pressed, high-pressure processed (HPP) juice, for the next phase in that program’s evolution.
Earlier this month, the two brands partnered to launch a new draft tap system and program called Mix It Up, which debuted at a newly opened Whole Foods Market location in Sudbury, Mass. The first of its kind machine, comprised of four tap lines of assorted Ripe juices and one for Aqua ViTea’s unflavored kombucha, allows users to experiment with different proportions and combinations of each as they fill either 16 oz. glass bottles or 64 oz. growlers.
During a visit to the BevNET offices last week, Aqua ViTea founder and CEO Jeff Weaber explained that the idea for a tap arrived in the aftermath of the infamous 2010 incident in which kombucha was pulled from store shelves due to concerns about alcohol levels.
“When the alcohol issue first hit in 2010, we realized it was the secondary fermentation in the bottle that was causing elevated alcohol levels and everybody realized that and reformulated,” said Weaber. “At that moment, I started thinking it would be awesome if you could flavor the kombucha right as it’s pouring on draft. That way you aren’t worrying about what’s happening inside the keg after you put it there.”
Despite launching inquiries with several engineers, the idea stalled until a recent meeting with Whole Foods in which Weaber was introduced to Ripe’s self-service juice fountain. FreshBev, based in New Haven, Conn., has a close relationship with the natural grocery chain, supplying its in-store juice bars and producing a line of private label cold pressed juices for its North Atlantic region stores. For on-premise service, the company uses a proprietary HPP, bag-in-box (BIB) technology which maintains the juice’s nutrient content even when dispensed and blended, and has a shelf life of one-and-a-half to two weeks after bottling.
Upon seeing how it worked, Weaber recognized the potential to integrate Ripe’s unique BIB system with Aqua ViTea’s own in-store fountains. Soon after, Whole Foods connected Weaber with FreshBev CEO and founder Michel Boissy to discuss collaborating and the pair quickly reached an agreement.
“Both Ripe and Aqua ViTea have always pushed the envelope in the beverage subsets we represent,” said Boissy in an e-mail to BevNET. “The draft system combining both products is a way to break the norm of pre-bottled offerings allowing the perfect combination of juice and kombucha to happen just as the customer fills their container. It’s like pulling a bottle off the end of the bottling line just after it’s been filled.”
In keeping with the spirit of experimentation, juices can be easily rotated in and out of the machine, meaning the fountain system can be constantly updated and adapted to allow for more variety. When watermelon season is over, for example, it could be replaced to a tropical juice for the winter, Weaber said, describing the system for swapping juices in and out as “plug-and-play.”
“It’s an evolution of the system we already have,” said Weaber. “We try to stay in the four to six percent juice range with our product. Here you can add more juice to it and really balance those flavors. When we put in a new flavor, we can control that ratio, so it’s pretty fun.”
The pairing or RIPE and Aqua ViTea capitalizes on some of the natural synergies between the kombucha and cold-pressed juice categories; both are positioned as natural and organic better-for-you beverages that emphasize a craft production process. Perhaps more importantly, they are both categories in which consumer awareness is still growing, making the interactive aspect of the fountain system another way to build interest and understanding of each.
“It’s neat standing back and watching people interact with it, because people are still trying to understand kombucha, and then they are still trying to understand self-service kombucha in the store,” said Weaber, adding that the fountains could be rolled out to further stores in the future. “This is another level above that. We are trying to target people who already understand those two things, but you don’t get that luxury. So you stand back and you watch people interact with it, they want to grab an empty bottle and pull that lever. You are giving people an opportunity to get exposed to something that’s hard to do otherwise.”
Speaking of exposure to something new, the company has also taken another partnership in a distinctly adult direction. Aqua ViTea recently purchased a spinning cone column, a machine that uses pressure to separate alcohol from a base liquid like kombucha, they did so with the intent to ensure its product was compliant with alcoholic beverage regulations. The last thing they expected was that it would provide the spark to launch the company into the spirits business.
Nevertheless, last month saw the debut of Aqua Vodka, the company’s first venture outside of kombucha, an organic vodka made from a distillate by-product of the kombucha brewing process. Weaber explained that the product, currently available exclusively in Vermont, was about connecting Aqua ViTea’s story and craft production ethos with a larger audience.
“Part of the reason why we chose the vodka category was because people generally understand what vodka is, and we’re introducing a new concept to them — a kombucha vodka,” said Weaber. “So we want to try to target places that already know and understand what kombucha is too, so we’re not having to confuse them. We’re trying to hit the vodka drinkers and the kombucha drinkers and tell a story about the fact that we are extracting the alcohol from our kombucha.”
That process is made possible because of the spinning cone column, a machine designed to extract alcohol from fermented kombucha by reducing atmospheric pressure to atomize ethanol at a low temperature. Alcohol is extracted from the liquid in the form of a distillate; once there is enough supply built up, it’s then run back through the machine and concentrated to 60 percent alcohol by volume, or 120 proof.
From there, the resulting liquid is passed to Appalachian Gap Distilling, located on the same street as Aqua ViTea in Middlebury, Vt., who complete the process of bringing it up to 190 proof — a requirement to be classified as vodka — and then back down to the spirit’s normal 40 percent ABV.
“It was a natural fit for us to reach across the street to the distiller and say we’ve got all this unique alcohol, let’s pair up and do something together,” said Weaber.
The final product is unique; though pairing with kombucha may seem like a natural use occasion, the company sees Aqua Vodka as having a subtle taste profile that rewards sipping. Though no flavors are added during production, the vodka is labeled as having “natural flavor” because of the nuanced characteristics that are retained from the kombucha.
“It’s not like the flavorless Ketel One or Grey Goose or what modern vodkas have become, but more of the old world Stolichnaya, Smirnoff profile in that it tastes like something,” said Peter White, Aqua ViTea’s “spiritual advisor.” “We haven’t flavored it with anything but it’s so unique that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) didn’t really know what to do with it.” Rather than sacrificing months lobbying the TTB to be categorized as unflavored, White said the brand chose to not fight that battle in order to bring the vodka to market faster. “The flavoring on the label is more about the uniqueness of the origins and where the spirit comes from,” he added.
While Aqua Vodka is only on store shelves in Vermont for now, Aqua ViTea’s partnership with Appalachian Gap has opened the doors for distribution in Massachusetts, California and New York. Having access to kombucha-savvy consumers on the West Coast has been particularly beneficial thus far; along with some San Francisco restaurants, Aqua Vodka has already secured placement at Levi’s Stadium, home of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Once the product is more widely available, Weaber said, Aqua ViTea would look to make a greater promotional push.
“We want to capitalize on all of our marketing efforts and I feel like it needs to be available in that area before we do that so people can go to the stores and get it,” he said.
Aqua Vodka, however, is just one of many possibilities for further innovation that the spinning cone column provides. For kombucha, controlling the level of extraction allows for flavors to be fine tuned and balanced, adding another element of craft to the production process. Weaber said that while kombucha is still the primary aim, Aqua ViTea has a robust R&D staff that is shifting the company into more of a beverage innovation company that just a brewery. Before using the distillate to make vodka, they explored a range of other potential uses, from organic lighter fluid to an alternative heating source for the brand’s 60,000 sq. ft. production space.
“This is a little more health focused,” said White, placing vodka on the spectrum of potential products. “Without getting specific about the mission in where it started in the marketplace, it’s a healthy product with great ingredients and made with a lot of love.”