Hello Mr. Hugentobler! Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview so spontaneously!
Mr. Hugentobler, recently The Cascara Society, based in Switzerland, received an award at SIAL in Paris, and now Rivella has been awarded the "Explorer of the year Award 2022" for its new EnerTea line. What's going on in Switzerland?
Yes, it's very interesting. I think it simply shows that we are very innovative here in Switzerland. The nice thing is that despite the many regulations and the sometimes laborious processes that you have to go through, it is still possible to achieve such innovations.
In our case, the Rivella company, there is also the fact that we do a lot of market and trend analysis. In our search for an exciting alternative to the classic energy drinks and coffee, we quite quickly came across mate, guayusa and cascara as promising ingredients. We immediately recognized the benefits of these natural products.
The exciting part, of course, is being a first mover. "Natural Energy Drinks" with exclusively plant-based ingredients, as with our Mate, Guayusa and Cascara EnerTeas, there are not many yet. So our products are born out of market and trend research, which is very intensively cultivated at our company. In addition, an innovation department has been set up to accelerate such innovative processes.
I should perhaps also mention that the Rivella company has been around for 70 years, remains family-run and has what you might call a "traditional" mindset. Rivella is a strong Swiss brand that is also known beyond the country. With our new EnerTea line, the company has broken new ground and for the first time created a product that is substantially different from previous milk serum based drinks.
The EnerTea series also serves a different segment than our established beverages, i.e., as mentioned, the segment of energy drinks based on natural products. And that was precisely the decisive criterion for the jury. Our innovativeness and the associated innovation risk were rated just as positively as our intensive market and trend analysis, which preceded product development and optimally serves the megatrends of Swiss consumers. For the EnerTeas, we also sourced ingredients from outside Switzerland for the first time ever. All this together has finally resulted in a wonderful award.
I can imagine that there was something adventurous about leaving the beaten path. You went on a journey of discovery, so to speak.
You put it very well! I had the privilege of overseeing this project from green field to market placement, and as you can imagine, it's not always easy in a company as traditional as Rivella to introduce new, unfamiliar ideas, especially when new work processes are involved. You can certainly encounter a certain amount of resistance, but that's probably no different for most long-established family businesses, and it makes it even more exciting.
In addition to a lot of enthusiasm, you also need a lot of patience and good arguments. Fortunately, we had enough of these. In the end, the management and the board of directors recognized the potential of the natural energy sources proposed by me and my colleagues for the new beverages and gave the green light.
There are always many trends, and as consumers increasingly want to know what ingredients are being used in a food or beverage, it is important to get a very clear picture of consumer preferences. It is equally important to look to the future; you should be as prepared as possible for what might come next.
Who actually provided the initial spark for EnerTeas, i.e. within the company?
It came from within the company's innovation platform. When we start a new project, the first thing we do is a lot of market research. It's primarily about questions like, "What does the consumer want?", "What doesn't yet exist on the market?", etc. We have carried out a so-called "moment segmentation" and it has become clear, long story short, that the "activation moment" is perceived as being of central importance, i.e. the fact that younger people in particular are looking for a long-lasting energy kick.
It has been shown that people increasingly want natural energy, or more precisely, caffeine alternatives, and ones that last longer than drinks with synthetic caffeine. With such drinks, you feel the effects for one to two hours, but then comes the crash. The body just absorbs the caffeine pretty quickly. But people are looking for a caffeine effect that lasts longer and helps them overcome the so-called "food coma" in the afternoon. Coffee is not the perfect remedy for many, as the 4th or 5th coffee a day can definitely hit the stomach.
With mate, guayusa and cascara, things are a little different. Secondary plant compounds such as antioxidants and polyphenols work together with the high level of caffeine to increase concentration and performance. Vitamins can also contribute to this. The herbal composition of secondary plant compounds, vitamins and caffeine leads to a slower absorption of the caffeine and consequently a gentler and longer lasting effect than that of coffee or conventional energy drinks, for example.
Of course, I must also emphasize that everybody reacts differently to caffeine. Some people can't drink coffee after 12:00 noon because they would then be standing in bed at night, while others can drink their espresso before going to bed without any problems. Of course, this is not only the case with coffee, but with all caffeinated beverages.
In your case, we are talking about so-called "energy drinks". What exactly do you mean by "energy"?
We shouldn't talk about energy in the physical sense when we talk about "energy drinks," but rather about activation. Energy for the body is ultimately sugar, not caffeine. But caffeine activates us. Energy in relation to drinks should therefore be understood more as a category that has now become established, not as the assumption that usable sugars are supplied to the body as a source of energy.
What influence does the degree of extraction have on the composition of secondary plant compounds, vitamins and caffeine, and thus their effect?
It definitely plays a role. We have worked for three years on the development of a cold extraction process with which we largely succeed in retaining bitter substances but extracting the valuable ingredients. Hot extraction releases too many bitter substances, especially if the extraction time is too long - which has certainly happened to everyone when brewing a green or black tea. Cold extraction also has the advantage that, unlike hot extraction, the beverage is very clear. I think we pretty much hit the sweet spot with our process in terms of high caffeine yield and sensory elements."
The "energy drink" segment is, as you said, new territory for Rivella. What have sales been like so far?
We've been on the market for just eight months now. We're satisfied in the sense that we're seeing who likes our EnerTeas. And that's mainly with the younger target group, who are much more aware of what they eat than other groups. This includes many students and high school students, who increasingly want to move away from classic "energy drinks" and are increasingly turning to such exciting alternatives as our Cascara EnerTea.
However, we have also noticed that the product needs a lot of explanation. It's not just a new soft drink that has to taste good and give you a kick. So we have to and want to tell people that we only use four ingredients, for example, that we only use plant-based caffeine, or that almost all ingredients are certified organic. The Swiss herbs, beet sugar, lemon juice, and mate and guayusa are all certified. The only non-certified ingredient in our three EnerTeas is the cascara; the conventional cascara was just clearly superior in quality to the certified organic one. Our EnerTeas are also vegan, of course.
Since we buy many ingredients in South and Central America, the caffeine comes purely from the plants and we do not add any synthetic or natural caffeine after the extraction process, our products are consequently somewhat more expensive. It then takes a while until the customer realizes why our products are somewhat more expensive in comparison, but why they also offer clear advantages over other beverages in the same product category.
I think that takes a bit of explanation and education, and that's where we are challenged in the marketing department, of course. It's a new segment that we want to serve, and that doesn't happen overnight. Moreover, we are not the only ones developing innovative beverages. We know that other companies are also working on cascara drinks and will certainly launch them soon. Competition is good for business, as they say. And of course that helps to spur on one's own ambition. It's all still super new.
And after all, everyone wants to get their new products on the supermarket shelves, which doesn't exactly make things easy. But you have to be patient. Developing, launching and establishing a new product is a marathon, not a sprint.
Let's go into a little more detail about the cascara you use. My first question is: why cascara? After all, it's not a product you can find on every corner; you have to go out and find it.
That's right. After we set the goal of using plant-based caffeine for this segment, which is new to us, and one with a high caffeine level so that synthetic caffeine doesn't have to be added, we also came across cascara during our research. We then knew someone in Switzerland who put us in touch with the right people who were very knowledgeable about cascara and advised us.
And where do they source your cascara from?
Our consultant works closely with several cascara producers, specifically in Panama, where very high quality coffee and cascara come from. The cascara samples we got from there were very convincing in terms of sensory but also their overall quality. We then decided to source our cascara from Panama.
Is it cascara from wet coffee processing, i.e. the dried pulp, or is it husk from Naturals?
We only use cascara from Naturals.
What criteria does the cascara have to meet for you? I´m asking because, as we know, there are still no quality standards for cascara.
First and foremost, it has to have a convincing taste. Of course, the caffeine level plays a big role; that's very important to us. It's also important for us to know who the product comes from, how it's made, what the labor conditions are like locally, who trades it, and so on. After all, we had never sourced a raw material like cascara from Panama or anywhere else. With the help of our consultant, we got a very good insight into this.
There is also the question of contamination by microorganisms?
Yes, we are overly cautious about that. As Rivella we are very well positioned microbiologically. We are perhaps even a little "over-picky"; we examine all our ingredients very carefully. As a project manager, sometimes you want to move a little faster, but at the same time it's extremely important that you don't allow the slightest contamination. We are extremely careful.
Do you think that cascara will eventually achieve a similar status like coffee? From the very beginning, the focus has been exclusively on the seed of the coffee cherry, i.e. the coffee bean. Now people are starting to realize that there is much more around the bean. Do you think something like that could be realistic?
I can imagine that to a certain extent. After all, cascara has many valuable ingredients. A well-processed cascara also has a convincing taste. The caffeine content is also impressive. And of course there's also the upcycling idea, which is becoming increasingly important. The beauty of it is that what used to be largely thrown away is suddenly no longer a waste product anymore. That's very exciting.
Of course, this is also very interesting for the coffee farmers, who can generate an additional income through cascara production. Also with regard to the sustainability aspect, the use of the by-products is extremely important, because of course the correct use of the by-products binds a lot of CO2, and the environment as a whole is less polluted. For example, even composting the pulp, while well-intentioned, produces unwanted emissions, as we now know.
Cascara is a very exciting product in my eyes. From that, I already have the feeling that cascara could become a very sought-after product, whether for direct use as a tea-like beverage, as a raw material for cold drinks, or in other uses. Whether it will become as significant as coffee, hmm, probably not quite as significant, but we'll have to wait and see. In any case, the potential is there. The door is open, so to speak. Since it has also been allowed to be used as an ingredient in beverages in the EU since the beginning of 2022, things are sure to get moving.
Beverage manufacturers now like to use cascara extracts, whether in dry or liquid form. You, on the other hand, use the whole, dried cascara and extract it. What do you do with what's left over after extraction?
We're still sitting on that. The residues are already going to an external biogas recovery facility, but we would prefer to use the residues ourselves for the production of biogas. In the ideal case, we could even generate energy for ourselves. That would be a kind of circular economy. I hope we can tackle this soon.
I'll keep my fingers crossed for a successful outcome! Mr. Hugentobler, thank you very much for this very informative interview!