After spending a decade working to build beer and cider brands for companies like Boston Beer and Seattle Cider, Caitlin Braam decided it was time to become an owner.
“I’ve always been drawn to small beverage business,” she told me. “I’ve spent many years helping others grow their businesses and brands, and now just felt like the right time to start something of my own.”
Earlier this month, Braam announced the launch of two new ventures – Yonder Cider and The Source.
The former is a new craft cider brand, made with hand-picked and pressed apples from Wenatchee, Washington, that will be available for purchase next month. The latter is a full-service contract manufacturing operation that borrows the wine industry’s “custom crush” business model and offers emerging cider brands access to premium juice and custom fermentation.
Like Braam, the founders of several other alcohol brands I interviewed expressed a desire to scratch the proverbial entrepreneurial itch after recognizing a void in the marketplace for products they wanted to drink.
“In 2015, I was at a crossroads,” said Amy Walberg, the founder of PRESS Premium Alcohol Seltzer. “I was a newly single mom doing my best to manage a full-time job in corporate marketing and my 24/7 job as a parent to an infant and a lively toddler.”
During a dinner with a friend, Walberg was sipping on a non-alcoholic seltzer and wishing it was spiked. That’s when she had her a-ha moment.
“I was suddenly certain that I couldn’t be the only person looking for a modern option to traditional cocktails,” she said.
Similarly, Bridget Connelly, the co-founder of Luna Bay Booch, a hard kombucha company headquartered in Chicago, said she recognized a chance to bring a beverage popularized in San Diego to the Midwest.
“Luna Bay was able to help create a segment for hard kombucha in Chicago, and now we’re doing so in other markets across the U.S. from coast to coast,” she said.
I asked the women leading six early-stage alcohol brands — including craft beer, hard kombucha, canned cocktails, hard cider, hard seltzer and canned wine — about their experience building an emerging beverage business. Here’s what I learned.
The following responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Chris Furnari: What compelled you to launch a beverage company, and what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced or lesson you’ve learned since you incorporated?
Alix Peabody, founder, Bev: I never really set out to build a beverage company. I had a brand and a mission I wanted to bring into the world long before I landed on beverage as my industry. A lot of what I care about centers around gender dynamics, drinking culture, and the sexualization of women in advertising, and as I started to think about industries that had the ability to make a real impact in this space, beverage seemed to be the right fit.
There have been so many challenges along the way, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to trust my instincts, and to understand that a lack of experience is an edge if you let it be. It’s so important to surround yourself with experience, but at the end of the day the vision is yours, and the choices are yours.
Amy Walberg, founder, PRESS Premium Hard Seltzer: I had a mission to put my new seltzer product into the public’s hands. Specifically, I wanted to create this product for moms like me. Taking inspiration from my favorite pre-kids cocktail of choice, a vodka press, I turned my kitchen into a mixology lab. Suddenly, PRESS came to life and I found myself leaving my corporate job behind to bring my product to market.
If the doors are closed, climb through a window. The hard seltzer category didn’t exist when I first began pitching PRESS to distributors and retailers. Previous market attempts to sell hard soda had fizzled out, so I was met with a lot of closed doors. I’d developed a product with women like me in mind, and I was told they just didn’t see a market for a low ABV beverage geared toward women. I disagreed, and hit the pavement to prove the naysayers wrong.
Bridget Connelly, CEO and co-founder, Luna Bay Booch: I started a beverage company because I saw an opportunity in the market for hard kombucha while living in San Diego. California is normally the breeding ground for innovation. I’m from the Midwest, so I wanted to take this opportunity back to my hometown. One of the biggest challenges was creating the product itself. I reconnected with an old friend, Claire Ridge, who was brewing kombucha at home and was willing to help find a way to create a boozy version.
Bronya Shillo, founder, Fishers Island Lemonade: I wanted to create a brand that reflected New England summers and island living. The idea for canning the Pequot’s signature cocktail came to me while working late nights behind the bar; we could minimize the time to serve a craft cocktail and meet demand on and off the Island.
Caitlin Braam, founder, Yonder Cider and The Source: Yonder and The Source are the culmination of years of not only experience, but experiences. My travels, my clients, my industry friends, the hours spent in taprooms and retail stores looking at the shelves. I’m putting everything I’ve learned and observed over the years into these two companies and it’s exciting to see them come to life.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge challenge for us as we worked toward our launch for both companies. Take every timeline and triple it. Cans went from 3 weeks to 7 weeks. Licensing went from one month to three. As a person who loves a good timeline and keeping to it, it’s been a challenge to hit our goals and marks due to something that is completely out of our control. It’s been a serious lesson in patience and being flexible.
Jennifer Newman, CEO and co-owner, Young Lion Brewing Company: In 2011, after years working in business and co-founding and selling three software startups, I finally felt that I had reached a point in my life where I could dedicate myself to this business. The project became a reality when I was approached by my co-owners, both women, who shared my vision of opening a brewery at our current location.
There is no shortage of challenges in startups, especially opening a brewery. The margins are small, the capital outlay is substantial, the three-tier system and liquor laws are challenging to navigate and with over 8,000 breweries in the U.S., it gets more challenging each day. You do it because you love it and with grit and persistence, hopefully you are successful.
CF: What is your company’s mission?
AP (Bev): Do it different. Do it better. Break the glass!
AW (PRESS): As soon as I had the idea for PRESS it became pretty clear that my mission was to simply deliver a premium seltzer experience. Our team at PRESS is focused on that in all they do with the consumer and our customers.
BC (Luna Bay): Luna Bay’s mission is to offer a beverage that makes you feel good, helps you do good for one another, and to do better for the environment. We want to be a catalyst for joy, connection, togetherness — all core elements of the human condition. Luna Bay choses to celebrate life, spread joy and leave the world better than we found it.
BS (Fishers Island): Fishers Island Lemonade’s purpose is to create and promote a great-tasting, ready-to-drink canned cocktail. Like our ingredients, we strive to grow our business with the same high-quality standards, every day.
CB (Yonder): For The Source, our mission is twofold: We aim to provide cideries with access to high quality juice and cider, as well as the ability for growth without the capital expense. At Yonder Cider, our mission is to create ciders using a blend of culinary and cider apples that are full-flavored and complex, while remaining affordable and wrapped in packaging that’s perfect for any occasion.
JN (Young Lion): While we aim to impress the experienced craft drinker with an educated palate, our mission is to expose new craft drinkers to the artisanship of craft beer.
CF: What is your product, what makes it unique or different, and how are you generating brand awareness?
AP: In 2017, I cashed out my 401(K) and bought 300 gallons of rosé. That’s how Bev rosé was born! In 2019, we launched two additional SKUs: Bev Blanc (sauvignon blanc), and Bev Gris (pinot grigio). All three varietals of Bev are 11.9% ABV, 0g sugar, and made from high quality grapes sourced from the central coast of California.
What makes Bev particularly unique is that it represents much more than canned wine. It’s a movement rooted in the concepts of empowering underrepresented communities and redefining the traditional adult beverage industry from the inside out.
AW: When I set out to create PRESS, I had three no-compromise goals. First, my seltzer had to be delicious. Second, the flavor profiles had to be sophisticated. Finally, in a commitment to responsible sipping, it had to be low ABV. We use all-natural ingredients, so the true essence of the fruits and spices shines through the crisp seltzer bubbles. I create the flavors myself, guided by culinary experiences from my global travels.
BC: Luna Bay is a hard kombucha that is uniquely brewed with Yerba Mate tea. Each can is made from the whole, non-GMO ingredient you see in the name and brewed to 6% ABV. We have natural, live culture in our product, so we are a better-for-you booze. We are also the only female-run, female-founded and female-brewed hard kombucha.
We are driving brand awareness through community and connection in all of our markets, including samplings, events, social media and being there for our accounts to drive point of sale. We also get involved with health-minded influencers and experts who are talking with consumers, and who see Luna Bay as a fit for someone who wants to celebrate a day well-lived without undoing the good work of the day.
BS: Fishers Island Lemonade is a ready-to-drink, 9% ABV canned cocktail; a mix of premium distilled vodka, whiskey, lemon, and honey that is certified gluten-removed. Fishers Island Lemonade is recognized for the yellow and white striped cans and New England summer feel. Our team of full-time staff and over a dozen brand ambassadors can usually be found at many events throughout New England.
CB: The Wenatchee Valley is one of the largest apple growing regions in the country, home to more than 100 known apple varieties — both culinary and cider apples — plus hundreds of unknown wild varieties. We provide cideries across the country with access to these apples as juice or fermented cider, by tanker or by tote. Meanwhile, Yonder Cider is blending modern apples with traditional apples for ciders as balanced, bright and complex as the land they come from.
JN: Obviously being a female owned and managed brewery has set us apart. However, we were delighted when organically our brand resonated with the female market. Over 57% of our followers are women.
CF: The biggest choke point for any new beverage venture is distribution. How have you earned (or plan to earn) wholesaler, retailer and ultimately consumer mindshare for your offerings?
AP: We were able to secure distribution with Southern Glazers Wine & Spirits, one of the largest alcohol distributors in North America, which has led to rollouts in major chains such as Target, Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions, Safeway, Kroger, HEB and more. I think that no matter what size brand you are, you can win in one of two ways — share of mind or share of heart. When you’re a young brand, like Bev, share of mind is not really an option as you don’t have the resources to make it one. So, you must capture share of heart by working tirelessly to prove you are worthy of an investment of your partners’ time.
AW: Word of mouth is big for us. As an independent brand, we don’t have the advertising budgets of our corporate competitors and we don’t have the instant distribution networks. Every placement is hard-earned. As the seltzer category continues to exponentially expand, our customers, both distributors and retailers see the role a brand like PRESS can play to add incremental volume and profits to their businesses. We recently hired Bruce Jacobson, a former Constellation executive, as our COO.
(Note: Constellation Brands owns a minority stake in PRESS)
BC: The connection aspect has been important as we’ve now launched our brand in seven markets. We are trying to get to know buyers on a personal level, which is especially important at this point when the grocery channel is busy and at capacity. Active communication is critical. We are also finding ways to adapt to the current times and educate the consumer in lieu of samplings.
BS: Fishers Island Lemonade was first launched in Connecticut, followed by Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York. Our first distributor in southeastern Connecticut taste-tested the product before it launched and gave us valuable feedback from a distribution standpoint before proceeding with full production. We are committed to being intentional with our distribution and stuck to our belief of “mile deep, before mile wide.”
CB: We’re just about to sign with a distributor in Washington for Yonder Cider that I’m very excited to be working with. Because we won’t be opening with a traditional tasting room to start, having a distributor, as well as online sales, was vital to make sure we reached a broad audience quickly. In addition, we’ve implemented a robust media outreach and social media plan that has already begun to draw people to the brand.
JN: Ironically, Young Lion’s only distributor, Wright Beverage Distributing (WBD), is one of the rare women-owned and managed distributorships in the U.S. I think many suppliers do not view the wholesaler relationship as a partnership, and that is a mistake. From the beginning, WBD has invested an inordinate amount of time and resources in developing the Young Lion brand. In turn, Young Lion does its best to take ownership of our retail relationships. We provide three experienced sales reps in a territory where most suppliers would only have one.
CF: What stage of growth is your company in right now?
AP: Bev’s first funding round was led by Founders Fund in Spring 2019. Founders Fund, known for investments such as Facebook, Spotify, and SpaceX, had never before invested in a beverage company. Presently, Bev is in an early, yet aggressive growth stage and we’re expanding our footprint rapidly. With the support of Southern Glazer’s, we have plans to open new markets across the U.S., though some have been delayed due to COVID-19.
AW: We’ve moved past the startup phase, but we’re still in a phase of young growth. We have so much untapped potential in terms of distribution, retail points of sale, and awareness. In 2019, we did about 482,300 cases (more than 3X what we did in 2018). We’re off to a great start this year, and while COVID-19 has had an impact, we expect to finish the year in a great place — around 1 million cases.
BC: We launched in August 2019. We gained distribution in seven states within 8 months of launching and we’re seeing growth week after week. We are still a startup, and we have accomplished so much in a short time. I am grateful for the team we have built.
BS: We are currently distributed in New England, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and Georgia. Fishers Island Lemonade has experienced double digit growth every year since 2014 and is on pace to deliver 80,000 cases in 2020.
CB: We are weeks away from launching both companies and it’s a race to the finish. Yonder Cider will be launching in Washington state, as well as for online sales to 40 states. The Source will be working with cideries all across the country.
JN: Just finishing our third year, we are just now evolving out of the startup phase; but we are still young. In 2019 our distributed sales increased by 36% and points of distribution increased by 42%. And while Young Lion’s sales are down as a result of the pandemic, our points of distribution are up 36% year-to-date in 2020.
CF: What has been the biggest surprise since you’ve launched?
AP: The same day I incorporated Bev, I got a cat named Harold. Now, we have a company policy that qualifies you to receive a cat after completing your first year at Bev. I truly did not anticipate starting a cult following surrounding Bev cats, nor did I anticipate facilitating upwards of 10-plus cat adoptions.
AW: Coming into this as an outsider to the alcohol industry, the rules and regulations probably took me by surprise the most. I always say, I was just naive enough to make this happen. If I had known what I was getting myself into, I’m not sure I would have had the resolve to do it.
BC: COVID-19 has been the ultimate surprise. If you would have asked me last year where we’d be now, I would have said we were in every bar and restaurant. We were just dabbling our toes into on-premise when COVID-19 hit, so we’ve had to shift our strategy quickly.
BS: Fishers Island Lemonade was born behind the bar, which is where many canned cocktails strive for placement. When COVID-19 happened, it was almost the perfect storm for us. With the uncertainty in the market, we were able to stay relevant as a canned cocktail, allowing for convenience and consistency. Fishers Island Lemonade is ready-to-drink; helping bars and restaurants limit contact risks, which protects customers, waitstaff, and bartenders. For states that still permit to-go liquor sales, a sealed canned cocktail is a simple and ideal way to serve customers quickly.
CB: The overwhelming support. I’ve made a lot of connections and friends over the years in business and in my travels. To see how genuinely excited people are for these two companies and the ongoing offers of help in any form has been humbling.
JN: I think the outpouring of interest and support I have experienced being a woman in the industry has been my biggest surprise – albeit a flattering one. I did not feel as limited in the beer business as I did working in other male-dominated industries.