When Paul Evers drank his first cold brew coffee, he said it was a revelation on par with his first craft beer. It was an experience he remembers vividly in detail — a single-origin cold brew from Stumptown, which immediately struck him with an aroma of what he described as “freeze-dried blueberries.” The scent matched the flavor, and on that first sip he was immediately overwhelmed by the same wonder and excitement of the day he drank his first porter.
“I think for many of us, our experience with coffee is like our experience with beer back in the 1980’s,” he said.
And Evers would know. He co-founded experimental craft brewery Crux Fermentation Project in 2011. But toward the end of 2016, Evers was winding down from his day-to-day at the brewery and became increasingly passionate about coffee. Now, as CEO, he and a team of coffee industry and brand building veterans have brought the same experimental, craft mindset to a new venture: Riff Cold Brewed, an Oregon-based startup set to launch in retail in March.
In addition to Evers, the founding team includes former Stumptown cold brew product developer Nate Armbrust, former LinkedIn director Steve Barham, marketing consultant Kevin Smyth, and Evers’ son Bobby, who previously worked with his father at Crux and craft branding agency Crunchy Peanut Butter.
“When we first met in a room with a whiteboard, we didn’t talk about product, we didn’t talk about our plan to scale, or gross revenues or anything like that,” Evers said. “What we talked about was what cultural values we seek to establish. We all brainstormed on a board and some of those values really have to do with an egalitarian approach to culture. We wanted to make sure this company had fun and enjoyed what we were doing, that we were always in pursuit of innovation and creativity, that we would put values above profits.”
Evers began the project in December of 2016, and by July he had gotten his founding team and begun working on developing the vision.
Bringing in Armbrust was key to that following through on that cultural mindset, Evers said. Having joined Stumptown in 2013, Armbrust was a crucial component of the coffee roaster’s early cold brew strategy, working on innovative products such as their nitro, dairy, and sparkling coffees.
“Cold brew as a category is still at the beginning,” Armbrust told BevNET. “We’ve done a lot but there’s still much more to do.”
Armed with $750,000 in initial investments — raised from 30 angel investors from across the country who contributed $25,000 each — Riff has acquired a 9,000 sq. ft. production facility in Bend, Ore., which Evers said will be up and running by mid-February. The company is currently producing product in a commercial kitchen, selling kegs to several local on-premise accounts including Urban Farmer in Portland and Washington Dining & Cocktails in Bend. Riff also plans to open a 3,500 sq. ft. tap room in Bend.
The company’s retail launch in March will begin in Oregon chain Market of Choice with four to-be-announced SKUs packaged in 11 oz. bottles. Once the brand begins scaling Riff will also release a canned line, which Evers said is easier to manage large scale. Riff is also exploring a potential bag-in-box option for on-premise and office accounts. At launch, Evers said he hopes Riff will be a 60 percent retail, 40 percent on-premise business, but eventually would like to see those numbers shift to 80 percent and 20 percent respectively.
“We are going to be very coffee forward and very focused on coffee quality,” Armbrust said. “My first love is black cold brew with nothing else going on in it, so it’s important for me to start with that pure black coffee and innovation will come after that.”
He wouldn’t comment on the initial SKUs, but Armbrust said he intends to develop nitrogen-infused offerings as soon as possible.
As cold brew moves further into the mainstream and larger beverage conglomerates get in on the trend, the Riff team sees potential for the category to resemble the craft beer shelf, where startups can still succeed even as the category leaders like Starbucks and Nestlé dominate. According to Evers, Riff will stay focused on Oregon for the foreseeable future, with long-term plans to expand across the Pacific Northwest, and down into California and Arizona.
“We want to be known as having the highest level of integrity you would associate with a craft beverage and be known as the premiere innovators in the space,” Evers said. “That’s an ever-evolving landscape and challenge that we’re always going to seek to achieve.”