In this edition of New Product Explorations, we follow the product development process of a new alcoholic beverage, learn some tips and tricks from beverage development house Imbibe for creating the ideal protein drink, and check out what’s hot in beverages at the 2016 National Restaurant Assoc. Show with help from an expert at flavor company FONA International.
When Peter Stearns decided to create an alcoholic version of the aguas frescas—fruit-flavored water—he’d grown up drinking on trips to Mexico, he faced a product development conundrum. That is, what class of alcohol these would be considered. The beverages, which are fermented from batches of real fruit and yeast, aren’t what consumers typically consider a beer, but they legally weren’t a wine or cider, either. Unable to create a new category for his beverage, Stearns consulted for months with lawyers and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau before his creation, Hard Frescos, officially became a malt beverage—technically a beer.
Stearns is careful to differentiate his beverage from other malt beverages on the market, particularly hard sodas. Unlike these products, which draw on high alcohol neutral malt spirits, Hard Frescos are fermented from fruits such as tamarind, guava, pineapple, orange, lime, as well as hibiscus and kola seed. Comparing the carefully monitored process to making kombucha, another homemade product gone mainstream, Stearns explains, “We want to be the craft experience.”
For Stearns, an IFT member, the formation process was a labor of love. Stearns is strongly invested in Mexican culture; growing up in California, he took many trips to Mexico, stopping often at roadside food stands that sold these refreshing drinks. With a sister living in Mexico City, Stearns wanted to share what he calls the “high-low street culture” of the city with everyone.
That’s where his friends came in. Working with his longtime friend, Mauro Gomez, Stearns developed his product and tested it informally using Gomez’s family—which owns two food manufacturing facilities—as well as at picnics and in the Latino community where he lives. “We don’t want to appropriate the culture,” he explains. “This product is 90% about education about the culture [of Mexico].”
In addition, Stearns drew on his California connections to test his production process using the Anheuser-Busch pilot plant at the Robert Mondavi Institute at the University of California, Davis. There, he spent two years on fermentation trials and worked with UC Davis staff including Charlie Bamforth, president of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, and Candace Wallin, who runs operations in the pilot plant. “I owe a ton to UC Davis,” says Stearns. “They were amazing in their help, so structured and analytical. People getting their master’s degrees were helping us bottle and send the product away for analysis. I feel so lucky for all the talented help.”
The final product has been on the market in California since August 2015 and is created in a shared facility in the Portland, Ore., area owned by the founders of Crispin Cider. Each of the four flavors takes between four and five weeks to produce, beginning with brewing following by two to three weeks of fermentation; in addition, the Mexican hibiscus flowers used in the Jamaica flavor are steeped for two to three days before brewing can even start. All flavors are then cold filtered, blended, back sweetened with cane sugar, and carbonated.
Stearns is focusing on strategically introducing Hard Frescos into targeted markets such as Austin and employing bilingual brand ambassadors to spread the beverages’ story. The company is also collaborating with institutions such as minor league baseball team the San Jose Giants to create pop-up restaurants at the ballpark and working with the San Franpsycho Clothing Co. brand to design giveaways and use this merchandise to tell a story about the brand. “You can’t buy cool,” he says, explaining that he sees Hard Frescos as more of a lifestyle brand than simply an alcoholic beverage.
Stearns aims to build a production location in the future to service the Midwest and East Coast, but for now, Hard Frescos can be found primarily along the West Coast. Eschewing traditional distribution methods, Stearns is currently driving shipments of the drinks up and down the California coast himself. “You have to support your brand,” he says.