One of the biggest hurdles in the food and beverage industry is getting a product to market — an even bigger challenge for fermented food and drink brands featuring live bacteria.
“Fermented foods in general are still relatively new in the commercial marketplace. When we started, most beer distributors knew nothing about it. And that’s still a big challenge, how to communicate what you have. What is a fermented food? Why should people care about it?” says Joshua Rood, co-founder and CEO of Dr Hops Real Hard Kombucha. Rood shared his advice during a TFA webinar, Launching a Fermented Brand.
Rood officially began Dr Hops in 2015 with co-founder Tommy Weaver. They met in a yoga class, and turned their passion for health and great hops into a kombucha beer they started brewing in Rood’s kitchen.
At the time, there was a lot of variety and craft beer and kombucha, but hard kombucha was unheard of. “You don’t have a lot of focus on health in alcohol,” Rood says.
Rood went to investors with a pitch deck that outlined why traditional alcohol products don’t appeal to a health-conscious consumer — craft beer is made with gluten, cider is high in sugar and hard alcohol is too strong for regular use. Dr Hops, meanwhile, is gluten-free, low in sugar, unfiltered, made with organic ingredients and full of active probiotics.
“We have a passion for creating more delightful, health-conscious alcohol, and really pushing the envelope with that,” Rood says. “One of our biggest challenges is still how to communicate that into a very tiny amount of time to consumers, retailers and distributors.”
Starting in a category that didn’t yet exist, figuring out licensing took years. Dr Hops began with $13,000 raised from a Kickstarter campaign, then crowdsourced another $10,000 the following year. By 2017 — with labelling, alcohol licensing and product stability figured out — investors pledged $115,000, enough to start small-scale commercial production. Dr Hops officially went to market in 2018, self-distributing and selling at street fairs and beer festivals.
“Part of the key to selling stuff without a huge marketing budget is focus,” says Alex Lewin, webinar moderator, Dr Hops advisor and TFA Advisory Board member. “Dr Hops started in the Bay Area, and won over relationships we had with some retailers — we had some real advocates. Don’t do a national launch if you have no budget.”
Rood stresses education is a key piece of marketing for the fermentation category.
“How much is the whole community speaking about and educating the world about and celebrating the value of live fermented foods? The more we’re all doing that, the more it works to sell these products,” he adds.
Test audiences, consumer feedback and word-of-mouth marketing have been key to Dr Hops success.
“The fact that we were able to grow our business almost three times in 2020 even in the pandemic with no marketing is one of the best things we have to say about what we have. People want this,” Rood says.
Highlighting strengths helps Dr Hops distinguish itself in a newly-competitive field of hard kombucha brands. Dr Hops’ product line includes flavors that compare to well-known alcohol beverages. Their Kombucha Rose flavor is a substitute for wine, Ginger Lime for a cocktail, Kombucha IPA for beer and Strawberry Lemon for a mimosa.
“While people might not understand hard kombucha, they pretty much already have a preference between beer, wine, cocktail and champagne or spritzers,” Rood says.
Health is core to Dr Hops, but higher-alcohol drinks are also higher in calories. Seltzer has been a key competitor to hard kombucha because seltzer’s calories are low.
“But it’s not interesting,” Rood says. “If you really love alcohol or food or beverage in general, you want something more interesting than that. At this point, we’re willing to gamble on enough people who care about transparency and authenticity that if we put the nutrition label on there and list all the ingredients, even if it doesn’t compare very well on a calorie level, there’s enough else to it that people are going to try it.”