By Jeff Maisey
There’s a new hard seltzer in town — Fountain.
Made in New York City, this new, upstart brand is fun — from the well-carbonated bubbles, zesty citrus and berry flavors to the eye-catching packaging — screams fun.
After enjoying a few cans over a recent seasonably warm weekend, I reached out to Fountain Beverage Co.’s co-founders, Bruce Wilpon and Tomas Larsson, as well as their Head Brewer and Director of Strategy & Product Innovation, Richie Saunders. Sauders is also the Head Brewer for EBBS beer, which was founded by the same team as Fountain, and he was formerly the Head Brewer at Mikkeller NYC.
VEER: How did the idea to produce a product line of hard seltzers spring forth?
Bruce Wilpon: Richie (Saunders, Fountain Beverage Co.’s Head Brewer and Director of Strategy & Product Innovation) had been pushing the idea for a few months. After the “Summer of [Other Brand]”, when they outsold Bud Light, Tomas and I started to believe the hard seltzer boom was not a fad but instead the very early beginnings of a brand-new category in alcohol. There are not too many opportunities in a lifetime to be an early mover in a nascent category, let alone one that is projected to do $10 billion in 2021 sales with a growth rate like what occurred with light beer in the ’70’. When Richie first brought a prototype of the hard seltzer liquid that he had been developing quietly on his own to our weekly lunch meeting, we were so excited about its clean, true-to-fruit flavor. We shared it from a Saratoga water bottle with the waitress (who loved it as well not incidentally).
VEER: Did either of you have previous experience in the beverage industry?
Bruce Wilpon: Yes. I built a brewery for us at Citi Field in Flushing where we began producing craft beer for another brand, launching a brand-new NYC version of their globally Danish-born brand to great success and acclaim. We launched 200+ brands into the market in a little over two years with them.
Tomas Larsson: Yes, but by virtue of selling other peoples’ brands. Most of my multi-decade career in advertising had centered around some of the most storied spirits brands around. I now relish the opportunity to build our own.
VEER: What is the New York City water source (city water?) and can you share what form “natural fruit flavors” as an ingredient looks like (ie lime juice etc.)?
Richie Saunders: The New York City municipal water supply comes from the Catskill Mountains, and specifically reservoirs in the region that are then fed into the city. There is a long history of claims that NYC bagels and pizza cannot be replicated elsewhere because of the quality of the water – it is more or less true! Because of how the water is collected and stored, there are low levels of minerals which can change the taste and expression of water, making the water absolutely ideal for many things…hard seltzer included.
The natural flavors we use for our hard seltzers are often natural (no funny business or chemically synthesized ingredients) fruit flavors that have been minimally processed for use in beverages, often simply reducing the amount of sugar content. There are certain product flavors that we might blend certain fruit flavors together to provide the ideal true-to-fruit experience; it may sound silly, but when you really focus on specific fruit flavors and experiences, not all fruits present as you would expect them to. Some fruits, like berries and melons, require some additional fruit notes in order to perfectly replicate the ideal fruit characteristic of its namesake. It is really quite amusing and fun to have to solve a small puzzle based on a consumable product, especially while staying inside the self-appointed confines of only using materials that can allow us to use the “all natural” label on our packaging.
VEER: Regarding branding, hard seltzer products often use a lot of white in the packaging. Fountain does the same. The colorful, curvy fountain flows are fun and very 1970s retro. Can you share your vision for the can label and 12-pack exterior packaging?
Bruce Wilpon: Our vision for the can labels as a part of the entire brand itself was to visually represent joy. This idea even preceded our having the name “Fountain” for the brand. We felt the name “Fountain” and the expression of it visually gave us ample opportunity to convey the joy we intended for our liquid and brand to have. Interestingly, we think the logo is both “retro” and contemporary, something nostalgic perhaps, yes, but also not out-of-step with today.
Tomas Larsson: It’s so interesting how people see the Fountain packaging and attribute it to a period. We do get a lot of 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s –– I think that’s a testament to the timelessness of the design. Yes, it fits any of those periods, but it also fits today. As Bruce said, the intention is for the design and the brand, and the packaging to exude the idea of joy and fun more than to evoke a period in time.
VEER: How are you positioning Fountain Hard Seltzer verses the likes of White Claw, Truly, and Bud Light Seltzer ?
Bruce Wilpon: We were out to create a better, “elevated” even, experience, from liquid to brand to design. Our liquid is first and foremost our differentiator. Our flavors are made up of single fruits as true to their original taste as possible. We use a clean, clear sugar-fermentation base to allow our all-natural flavors to shine. We never include additional sugar and are always gluten-free. All of this “craft” for a liquid that is often not much more on the shelf, if at all, to consumers than the market leaders. We strongly believe the combination of our superior liquid, competitive pricing, and elevated design positions us to appeal to consumers who want just that bit more from the hard seltzer they choose.
Tomas Larsson: We believe this a category that is here to stay so, we’re in this for the long haul. We’re much more interested in helping to grow the category and idea of quality hard seltzer than to worry about, or compete with, the likes of White Claw and Truly. If this category does well, we all do well. We feel great about bringing a product into the mix that is truly craft made that we’d gladly put up against any other brand in a blind taste test –– and at the end of the day it’s about having fun.
VEER: What was appealing about the Hampton Roads market for distribution?
Richie Saunders: We see a direct connection with our brand ethos and the culture of Hampton Roads. We see Fountain as a brand that is fun and joyful and that is exactly what we see in the Hampton Roads market. Golf courses, boating, the family-friendly environment, and friendly faces make this an ideal location for us to spend time and energy introducing our brand to new consumers that we want to be involved with.
VEER: How did you learn of woman-owned, independent Pretty Ugly Distributing?
Richie Saunders: The introduction to Pretty Ugly Distributing (and Aaron, the owner), came from a long-time industry friend and fellow Brewer, Brian Neville. He mentioned a handful of distribution options for us to consider based on his understanding and experience in the area. From our first conversation with Aaron, it was apparent that she and her team not only understood the industry but were just as passionate and driven about great tasting products as we are. Pretty Ugly’s excitement and hands-on approach is second to none in the industry and it is apparent that the attitude starts from the top of the company, with Aaron.
VEER: Are you and Pretty Ugly targeting retailers like Total Wine & More and grocery chains as well as restaurants?
Richie Saunders: Pretty Ugly has relationships with many large retailers. We have been able to gain exposure and placements in a number of key retail accounts including Food Lion, Kroger, and we are soon to be found in Total Wine.