Expo East 2017 Recap

Natural product brands and manufacturers of all sizes and types came from across the country to Baltimore, Md., last week for Natural Products Expo East 2017. From subtle product updates to category-disrupting innovations, this year’s expo, held Sept. 13-16 at the Baltimore Convention Center, gave attendees a chance to see and experience the latest developments in beverage firsthand, and BevNET’s editorial team was there to cover it all.

Dairy Alternatives

Nut-based milks and other plant-based dairy alternatives have taken a larger share of the traditional dairy space in recent years, but Expo East showed the category still has considerable white space to explore and provide consumers with further choices.

Elmhurst Milked, formerly known as Elmhurst Dairy, has ambitiously embraced its new identity as a plant-based beverage brand platform since transitioning out of dairy production in October 2016. The company debuted no less than six new varieties at Expo East, introducing two unsweetened versions for its existing Milked Almonds and Milked Hazelnuts products. Further innovation came in the form of two new whole grain-based beverages — Milked Oats and Milked Brown Rice, each with 20g of whole grains per serving — and from the launch of Milked Peanuts, available in original and chocolate flavors. Packaged in 32 oz. cartons, the products will begin rolling out to stores later this year. Elsewhere in the non-dairy space at Expo, macadamia nut-based beverage maker Milkadamia shared its new unsweetened vanilla macadamia milk.

Cashew-based beverages were particularly well represented at this year’s Expo East. Forager Project, which produces a range of plant-based foods and drinks, has marked 2017 with the successful launch of a 48 oz. bottle for its organic cashew milk line, which company executives called a “game-changer” for the brand at retail. Further innovation will come from Forager’s new line of cashew and coconut milk blends, which use the tagline of “Good Plant Fats” to position the four-SKU line as a more indulgent plant-based offering with flavors like Mexican Chocolate, Orange Cream, Turmeric Gold and a coffee-based variety. Each contains 15-18g of plant-based fat per 12 oz. bottle. Meanwhile, ahead of a November rollout, Blueprint Organic introduced a new 16 oz. bottle for its cashew milk-based blends , which come in three varieties: the energy boosting Matcha Nut and Morning Thunder (made with cold brew coffee) joining Nut & Bolt. The line had previously been available in 12 oz. bottles.

Coffee

With cold brew continuing to dominate the RTD coffee space, brands are seeking innovation by carving out niche pathways to differentiation with unconventional flavor combinations and new brewing techniques.

Among the more notable line expansions at this year’s Expo East show, Chameleon Cold Brew unveiled an RTD line of sparkling cold brew coffee in four lightly-sweetened flavors: black, spice vanilla, citrus, and ginger. The line follows in line with similar recent innovations into sparkling from a number of cold brew makers, including Stumptown earlier this year. Chameleon director of marketing Francey Grund said the line was inspired by the staff of the Austin-based company seeking a more refreshing beverage during hot Texas summers. The “spicier” flavors are also indicative of a rising trend in coffee to add more acidic flavors to the low-acid cold brew formula.

“A little bit of spice builds up in the back of your mouth as you drink it,” Grund said of the line’s Ginger flavor. “The variety of flavors gives something for everybody.”

But Chameleon wasn’t the only brand at the show experimenting with fruit-flavoring in coffee. Rise Brewing Co. sampled its previously announced Lemonade and Blood Orange flavored nitro cold brew coffee RTD line, which is available in retail now.

In addition to flavor innovations from existing companies, several new coffee brands entered the market. Rise-Up Coffee, which has had cafes in Maryland since 2005, launched its first RTD cold brew coffee line at the show. The company’s wholesale specialist Mark Airey told BevNET the line is entering grocery stores, colleges, and restaurants around the Maryland and Washington, D.C. area, and the company is launching a keg business as well.

Heartland Food Products Group also launched its RTD coffee line Java House, announcing two SKUs set to hit shelves early next year. The company is currently in talks with retailers and distributors, according to coffee marketing director Chris Brown.

Functional beverage brand Vim Vitae also announced a partnership with Shared Root Coffee to produce the brand’s new ready-to-drink cold brew coffee line. Final packaging for the line was not ready in time for the show, but the company plans to have the products ready within the next several months.

Plant-Based Waters

The runaway success of coconut water helped break open the doors for the plant-based water category as a whole, and Expo East found brands tweaking their positions in search of more room to expand.

As its name suggests, DrinkMAPLE has built its brand around a flagship maple water line, but the Vermont-based company continues to explore opportunities in the broader plant-based waters category. After launching two new products earlier this year at the 2017 Summer Fancy Food Show, the company showcased an additional organic maple water SKU at Expo East: Raspberry Lemon, which will be available exclusively at Whole Foods locations through December. All products are currently available in five Whole Foods regions, with a full national rollout set to be completed in the months ahead. Bonta Hydration, which promotes “Mediterranean sourced ingredients” and launched in March at Expo West, showcased redesigned packaging in Baltimore. Company representatives said the new look better reflects the brand’s positioning of a low-calorie offering by removing callouts to the Mediterranean diet, which created confusion that it was a diet drink.. The company also revealed it has eliminated all added sugar in three of its SKUs.

Elsewhere in the category, brands were seeking incremental change rather than revolution. A year after launching at Expo East 2016, Treo Organic Birch Water Infusions added three new flavors to its existing four SKUs: Raspberry Lemonade, Kiwi Watermelon and Orange Apricot. Longtime aloe vera drink maker ALO presented a new USDA Certified Organic version of its original aloe drink, while Detoxwater, which uses a proprietary aloe formulation that the brand says offers stronger functionality, showcased two new flavors — Peachberry and Appleberry — to its existing three-SKU line.

Even as other plant-based waters have risen closer to mainstream success, coconut water remains the category’s biggest player. At Expo East, coconut water brands sought to distinguish themselves in subtle ways. Kalena, fresh off distribution gains in the Chicago area, emphasized that its four-SKU line of sparkling coconut waters are not made from concentrate. Thailand-based Taste Nirvana poured samples of several new formulations, some still in progress, featuring ingredients such as ginger, chia seeds and coffee. Harmless Harvest highlighted new packaging for its 8.75 oz. bottle which launched earlier this year, with reps noting its cohesion on-shelf with the rest of the brand’s coconut water formats. In terms of innovation, the line of organic coconut water kefirs from Minnesota-based thirty-two degrees caught the eye. Available in a 2 oz. shot format and in 16.1 oz. bottles, the brand showcased a variety of flavors that range from sweet (blueberry pomegranate, mango pineapple) to sour (lime).

Juice

New companies are using foreign fruits to make plays for American taste buds. Two companies, Repurposed Pod and ZAVU, launched at the show with unique single-fruit juice drinks.

Repurposed Pod presented Cacao Juice, a sweet beverage sourced from cacao pods, the fruit which contains the beans needed to process cocoa. Although high in natural sugar with 49 g per 8.75 oz. bottle, the company is presenting the drink as a juice mixer made from 100% cacao juice. The brand is currently available in Albert’s Organics and is pending distribution with KeHE.

ZAVU bring Brazilian fruit flavors to the U.S. with a three-SKU line of high pressure processed Cupuacu, Acerola, and Caju juice blends, the latter of which is the fruit cashews grow from. Based on single-flavors, each variety includes some added sugar and organic tapioca syrup. The Caju also includes lemon juice. While the flavors are popular in Brazil, there have been few major attempts to import them to the North American mainstream. The company is marketing the line as “superfruit juices” targeting the New York and Miami markets.

While new single-fruit juices have the potential to shake up the field for the category in a time where innovation largely involves blending flavors, other companies are finding success in the latter strategy. Evolution Fresh, one of the pillars of the early cold-pressed wave, announced two new smoothie lines at Expo East — Daily Probiotics and Complete.

The new functional juice drinks focus on gut health. The Daily Probiotics line features sweet flavor varieties including Date-licious Greens, Banana Date, Dark Chocolate Orange, and Mango Chai. The Complete Smoothies line, which utilizes probiotics, protein, and fiber, includes Greens, Strawberry, and Banana varieties. All flavors are organic and use a coconut milk base. The organic lines contribute to the company’s goal of becoming 100 percent organic by 2019.

Kombucha & Drinking Vinegar

A perennial hot category at Expo East, kombucha was featured prominently once again at this year’s show. And in the face of kombucha’s continued evolution, both drinking vinegars and some probiotic-centric beverage brands are taking refining their offerings and positioning to create some separation.

Kombucha’s versatility as a beverage has always been one of its defining characteristics, and some brands at Expo East were continuing to seek further ways to present the bubbly fermented tea. Dallas/Fort Worth-based Holy Kombucha showcased a new label design for its blends made with yerba mate, thus named Yerbuchas, that offers a more energy-forward take on kombucha. Meanwhile, Health-Ade showcased the return of Holiday Cheers, the spiced seasonal variety that debuted in winter 2015. The product’s limited run begins October 1 at Whole Foods locations nationwide, as well as at select retailers. At the KeVita booth, Roots Beer and Blueberry Basil were on display as the newest additions to the brand’s kombucha line, both packaged in the brand’s familiar 15 oz. glass bottles.

Two growing Mid-Atlantic-based kombucha brands showcased at Expo East for the first time since their recent merger. North Carolina-based Buchi and Washington, D.C.’s Capital Kombucha shared a booth at the convention, where they shared plans for a water kefir soda set to launch January. Reps said the company was also exploring a potential 8 oz. shrub soda product that would be geared towards hotels and bars in the New York City market.

Offering both new flavors and formats, drinking vinegars were well represented at Expo East this year. In offering 14 oz. Drinking Vinegars, the more concentrated 8 oz. Sipping Vinegars and a new line of honey sweetened apple cider vinegar shots packaged in single-serve pouches, Vermont Village has positioned its products to compete at multiple price points, formats and locations in-store at retailers. Booth representatives said the strategy would allow the company to take advantage of growing acceptance of drinking vinegars in conventional grocery channel, while pouches also set to play as wellness product at places like Walgreens and GNC. Elsewhere, Vitox, which has long offered apple cider drinking vinegars concentrates, showcased a new pre-diluted ready-to-drink format in 8 oz. glass bottles. As part of the launch, the brand introduced a new blend called Ultimate Cleanse, which includes ginger, cayenne pepper and activated charcoal. Fire Cider, meanwhile, showcased a new label that keeps its quirky hand-drawn art in place with stronger color differentiation for its different SKUs.

Functional Drinks

Early stage functional drink brands came to Expo East prepared with line extensions and rebrands.

Remedy Organics, a line of multi-purpose, plant-based beverages, launched in the New York metro area last month with Dora’s Naturals. For its launch, the company premiered a redesigned bottle which highlighted its wellness benefits. Each SKU contains different functional ingredients for unique usage occasions, including energy and cleansing, as well as probiotics.

Healthy energy brand MATI debuted new packaging and a product reformulation that sweetened certain SKUs while lightening the calorie count of others. Up until its Expo East relaunch, all six flavors contained 45 calories per bottle. The reformulation sweetens the brand’s Cherry, Tropical Pineapple, and Blueberry Pomegranate lines and ups the calories to 90 per bottle, while the rest of the line was reduced to 40 calories. The new products are expected in stores within the next two weeks.

Wonder Fuel, a line of medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil based energy drinks, showcased new packaging designed to downplay the use of coconut while emphasizing its clean energy bonafides. According to retail and brand development expert Rachel Forillere, the original thick bottle design gave consumers the impression that Wonder Drink was a protein drink. In contrast, the new packaging is slim and reduces the liquid content per bottle from 10 oz to 9 oz., which allowed the company to drop the price from $4.99 per bottle to $3.99. Elsewhere, Koia, a plant-based functional beverage with high protein content, added two new flavors — Cold Brew Coffee and Cinnamon Horchata. The company also lowered its SRP per bottle from $5.99 to $4.99.

Probiotics

While probiotics are a prominent feature in other beverage categories, Expo East reflected how probiotics are continuing to evolve into its own distinct category.

Lifeway, best known for its kefir products, has been employing its expertise in probiotics to push the brand into new types of beverages. Lifeway showcased Plantiful, a new organic pea-based protein drink made with probiotic cultures and featuring 18g of protein per serving, which is being prepped for an early 2018 launch at retail. Samples were not available, but 24 oz. bottle mockups showed flavors, including coconut cream, cocoa bean and tropical mango. The company’s line of sparkling probiotic sodas made their debut at Expo West 2017, but reps in Baltimore said they have since removed stevia from all varieties of the product.

Elsewhere, Kite Hill exhibited its new four-SKU line of probiotic drinkable almond milk yogurts, available in original, mango, berry and vanilla flavors. Each variety features 10 g of protein per cup and is currently rolling out to Whole Foods retailers.