Q&A with Keenan Smith, Goodwolf Water Kefir Founder & CEO

/ / Businesss, People

When Keenan Smith made his first batch of water kefir, it was for his kids. He wanted something more nutritious for his young daughters, avid sparkling water drinkers. 

Tangy, bubbly and packed with probiotics, water kefir hit all the right notes. The next year was full of home kitchen experiments, creating enticing flavors and perfecting the four-core formulation — purified water, kefir cultures, cane sugar and mission figs.

“My daughters are my best taste testers,” Smith says. “We used to be big kombucha drinkers, but water kefir is providing a different alternative. Water kefir is lighter, less sour and it has no caffeine. The kombucha flavor doesn’t work for some people, and water kefir is a perfect entry into the probiotic drink space. It’s a bridge between kombucha and sparkling water. People can still have a yummy, probiotic drink with water kefir.” 

Smith is hardly a kombucha hater, though. He’s a big fan of the fermented tea. Smith was a sales broker for many natural brands for almost two decades — including Health-Ade Kombucha, one of the nation’s leading kombucha brands.

“When I was their broker, they majorly grew their company. But they’re still fermenting in individual glass vessels,” Smith says. “I look to that model because they’ve been so successful without sacrificing the fermentation process.”

By November 2016, Smith rented a commercial kitchen near his home in Portland, Ore. and began brewing kegs of water kefir under his label: Goodwolf Feeding Company. His first customer was Airbnb’s corporate offices. By late 2017, Goodwolf opened their own manufacturing facility, scaling up without sacrificing small batch fermentation. Even now as Goodwolf expands from a Pacific Northwest brand to the West Coast, Goodwolf continues to ferment  in 50 gallon stainless fermentation vessels, cultivating additional kefir cultures as the business grows. 

“Production is moving very quickly. It feels like we’re in a rocket ship,” Smith says. “It’s a great time for water kefir.”

A few months after his big win as the Expo East Pitch Slam winner, Smith shares how he responsibly built a fermented drink brand.

The Fermentation Association: You were formerly a sales broker for natural food and drink brands. How did your background help you launch Goodwolf water kefir?

Keenan Smith: Knowing the industry, understanding how retailers and distributors work, knowing the cost of doing business upfront. That’s why it’s taken so long for us to grow — we didn’t raise venture capital out of the box. We’ve been slow and steady. We haven’t taken on much investment at all.

A lot of brands will start selling at farmers markets, then pitch to stores, but I had the connections to the retailers. We went right to the retailers.

It’s been a blessing and a curse. The blessing is we’ve been able to get into a lot of the retailers, but where we’ve been short-sighted is the on-premise channels. We haven’t done much with food service and the alternative channel side — like local offices, beer distributors and bars, they’re wanting non-alcoholic options. We’ve missed out on that keg business. These were things I didn’t think about when I focused on the retail challenge.

TFA: Functional beverages are shaking up the drink industry. How do you stand apart from other functional drinks?

Smith: Our best IP (intellectual property) is definitely our recipes, our flavor. We have really good recipes because we really came into it, that was our main goal, to create a very good tasting and nicely packaged product. We announced our social mission at Expo East around mental health. We didn’t want to lead with that though, we wanted to make sure the product and the branding was dialed in.

And also our packaging and position stands out. If you look at the kombucha case, there’s a lot of yoga, spiritual, Hindu vector art. Everything screams yoga. It’s a lot of white. And our packaging is black. We are trying to be a challenger brand. We don’t want anything that’s superfluous in there. We want to position ourselves as a challenger brand to the industry norms. We’re trying to stand out that way — with our marketing and positioning that we’re a little different. 

TFA: Tell me about the genesis of the name, Goodwolf.

Smith: Before I started Goodwolf, I was dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety. I was working on eating better and exercising. I was running one day and listening to a podcast and heard the popular good wolf legend story — the classic story on the good wolf, bad wolf. The good wolf is full of joy and love, you feed it by eating healthy. The bad wolf is angry and succumbs to fear, and you feed it a box of donuts. The one that wins is the one you feed. So I had this idea of the Goodwolf origin story.

TFA: What’s your most popular flavor.

Smith: Ginger. But our Gold is creeping up there. It’s cold pressed organic ginger, lemon, lime, pineapple and spices like turmeric and a little bit of black pepper. Our newest flavor is Habanero Fire, it’s our 5th flavor. It’s a nice addition because most brands don’t think about habanero, there’s a lot of cayenne cleanse, but no habanero. I tasted a habanero-infused cider and it had more of a round flavor, while cayenne is more of a single note of heat. Habanero is more well-rounded. We add cayenne, but the habanero really comes through. And it’s cold-pressed with ginger and apple cider vinegar. 

TFA: It sounds like a lot of work goes into crafting your flavors.

Smith: Yes. There’s a lot of R and D. Our No. 2 ranked SKU is called Bloom. That was originally called Wolf Berry because Wolf Berry was another name for goji berry, which we were fermenting with in the beginning. The way we use figs now, figs are used to culture the wild yeast out of the air, they float to the top of the water when fermenting, then you throw them out. We were doing the same thing with goji berries. But something happened in fermentation that made it very foamy with goji berries. So we stopped using the goji berries and now we’re using figs. 

TFA: You announced a social mission at Expo East. Tell me more about your social mission. 

Smith: Coming from a broker world, I worked with a lot of brands that were social mission first. “Buy our product and we’ll give our product to someone that doesn’t have this product!” But this doesn’t always work. Maybe this product isn’t something needed, or it’s not as good as something else on the market so it didn’t make sense. We didn’t want to lead with that social mission. 

We could slap 1% for the planet on the bottle, that would be easy. But I struggled with anxiety, I have family members who have struggled with depression. I can really get behind that interest because I relate to it. This felt unique. It’s part of the challenger brand position. And it’s feeding the good wolf, making the right choices.

We’re trying to do something harder, align our brand with mental health awareness. We can’t just donate our money to it because we don’t have money yet, all our money is going back in the business. You can’t really volunteer unless you have a degree, they don’t just want anyone off the street working with people suffering with mental health issues. A friend who is a doctor is consulting with us on how we can best use it. Maybe profits go to the National Association On Mental Illness. Right now it’s an intention versus a full fledged mission. It will be baked into the company as we grow.

TFA: How can brands effectively advertise the health benefits of their product?

Smith: I personally think you have to be crafty. You don’t want to scream health at the customer because you alienate people who think it won’t taste good because it’s healthy. Or you’re preaching to the choir because the healthy people know it’s healthy. You need to be able to imply the benefit without being too forward.

TFA: What challenges do fermented food and drink producers face?

Smith: Education. Even though we’ve made strides, there’s still so much education to be done. One of the big challenges is how do we stay true as smaller brands that are doing traditionally fermented products against larger brands with tons of venture capital and are adding probiotics. It’s apples and oranges when you’re talking about products sitting on a shelf together. Are they a brand funded by Coke? We have to tell our story. It’s advantageous when you’re going into retailers and say we’re small, we’re traditionally fermented. If you can tell that story to your buyers and convey it to your customers. We pushed the traditional fermented aspect.

TFA: What are the fermented food and drink industry strengths?

Smith: Well look, there’s a global pandemic happening and I think that ultimately, you will begin to understand that health is your only wealth. Health and your family are the only things that matter. When people understand that, your product is like gold because you’re providing health to people. And that’s the most important thing we have. 

TFA: What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs starting a fermentation brand?

Smith: My advice is some advice I heard recently: Find a space that isn’t already crowded. Maybe we don’t need more sauerkraut and kombucha brands or water kefir, frankly. But try to focus on how you can expand to your maximum potential locally and regionally. Don’t just look at national chains and distributors, but look at on-premise sales. How can you get your product into universities, schools, tech campuses? Think outside the box, find something truly unique that the markets are not flooded with. Or else we’re all just cannibalizing each other.