The spiked seltzer trend is in full swing, but so many varieties taste like your grandfather’s pocket hard candy or even cough medicine. Enter Willie’s Superbrew. Willie’s believes you should drink real ingredients like fruits and spices instead of “flavors.” Their cans list their ingredients and nutrition facts right on the side, so you actually know what you’re drinking. We chatted with Nico Enriquez, founder and CEO of Willie’s Superbrew, about how the drink came to be, the company’s environmental mission, and what’s next in the world of superbrew.
Downtown: Were you at all interested in being an entrepreneur or joining the alcohol industry before you discovered the superbrew?
Nico Enriquez: Before starting Willie’s Superbrew, my plan was actually to be a Neuroscientist. I was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, had recently published a paper with a Nobel Prize winner, and was working with an amazing professor who had just approved a research study that I proposed. But… when he said yes, and the next step was to move forward with it, I had a moment of clarity. I saw my whole life laid out before me and realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. You could say that I had a bit of an early life crisis! All I wanted to do was go back to the beach on Cape Cod where I had my fondest memories. So I did. And that’s when I realized that Willie’s could actually become something. Willie (a very good friend of mine) had been homebrewing this recipe (our Sparkling Ginger & Lemon), and I had been bugging him for years about doing something more with it, but it wasn’t until that moment that I saw the true opportunity.
Downtown: What was R&D like transforming a home brew to a consumer project?
NE: We had some really great support along the way from industry folks, both through our early brewing partners and just people that were excited about the concept. But the key to our production has always been what we call our “fruit not ‘flavors'” philosophy. It’s about using the best possible ingredients, and letting them create the flavor, instead of trying to imitate it in other ways.
When we started, we were blending ginger in food processors for hours and hours just to get enough for a batch. Now, we’re steeping thousands of pounds of it in 300-barrel brew tanks at Isle Brewers Guild in Rhode Island. It’s pretty incredible to think about how much we’ve grown. That said, we still make our test batches one gallon at a time until we love the flavor, and then we figure out how to make more of it.
Downtown: How did you come up with the flavors?
NE: The Sparkling Ginger & Lemon was Willie’s original brew. It was the one that got me and everyone else hooked on the concept. From there, we thought about other flavors that paired well together that we could create using real fruits and spices. We want to make options for everyone to enjoy, and pomegranate, which was our second flavor, was the perfect foil to our flagship ginger. It’s tart and light, and the acai gives it a great tannin-y mouthfeel that’s reminiscent of a Rosé. For our newest flavor, Sparkling Mango & Passionfruit, we wanted to really get summer going with something tropical, and we were pretty disappointed with what we saw that was currently on the market. When we tried the early mango batches, we couldn’t believe how much mango flavor and body came through with such little sugar, so it was a no brainer. The passionfruit and lime complement the mango and give the drink a lot of depth and character.
Downtown: The labels are gorgeous! How did you come up with the artistic concept?
NE: We knew we wanted to create something really different and were pushed by some of the beautiful packaging we saw coming out from non-alcohol brands. We wanted to celebrate our ingredients and emphasize that this was something truly different from the other hard seltzers you can find on the shelf.
It was also important for us to find a blend of light, fun ingredients, and the necessary maturity of an alcoholic beverage. Keeping that in mind, we partnered with an agency that really pushed us creatively, and as a result, the illustrations came out beautifully.
Downtown: What makes Willie’s so different from other trendy sparkling seltzers?
NE: The main thing that makes Willie’s Superbrew stand out from traditional hard seltzers is that we use real fruit, and that means we have so much more flavor. And color! You can tell there’s something different as soon as you pour it in a glass. Then, it’s confirmed by your taste buds. We aren’t using “natural flavors” that give an “essence” of fruit – we’re using thousands of pounds of fruit and spices each batch. Because we’re using real fruit, we don’t need to cover it up with lots of sugar – with allows the real fruit flavor to shine.
We think that there’s something more to what people are looking for as they’re trying out a new drink. It’s not just low calorie – they want low calorie and flavor and quality ingredients. They want a drink they can feel good about. And that’s what Willie’s Superbrew is.
Downtown: How did the 3% pledge come to be?
NE: The 3% pledge really came from our team wanting to do more than just make drinks. It’s why we use quality ingredients, why we hire great people, help them grow, and why we bring the team out to meet Willie and the goats – which started it all! We want to be more than just another alcohol brand, and we think that that’s what people want from their favorite brands, too.
We thought about what we could do to give back to the place that created Willie’s, and we tried a few different ideas, before we landed on letting our consumers decide. Our only rules are that it supports environmental causes, and that it’s a legitimate non-profit. After that – it’s up to our fans! It feels more authentic that way, and it lets people have a say in what the companies they support do with their money.
Downtown: What has the reception been like?
NE: The reception has been amazing! It’s been a wild ride, and we’ve had tons of great support from distributors, retailers, and consumers all over the world! We get emails from people that don’t even live in the Unites States telling us they wish we could ship it to them, and we have people that give up their weekends to do tastings, just because they like the brand. We raised our first $20,000 on Kickstarter solely from people that knew about the origin of Willie’s and what we were trying to do.
Downtown: What’s next flavor or distribution wise?
NE: Well, we just launched in NYC, the Hudson Valley, New Hampshire, and Maine within a matter of weeks, which is crazy and exciting at the same time. Given that, it’ll be a little while before we make any other major moves.
It’s easy to expand quickly and lose sight of what matters, which is making a great product and making great relationships, and we don’t want that. So, for the near future, we’re going to focus on cultivating new relationships in these markets and maintaining the awesome ones we have in our home markets of Massachusetts and Rhode Island – and then we’ll see what’s next. Thing is, our next move is all dependent on where people want us to go! That’s the exciting part. You try a few things, see what people think, see who likes what, and then give it a shot.
As for flavors, we have something really awesome coming this fall, but I can’t tell you what just yet, so stay tuned!
You can keep up with Willie’s Superbrew on Instagram at @drinksuperbrew.