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October 3, 2023
We’ve Hit Peak Beverage

“Affordable affluence.” “Permissible indulgence.” What happened to fun?

It is either the best time in the world or the worst time in the world to be thirsty and indecisive. As someone who falls into both categories, I’ve given up on thinking about a quick trip to the grocery store. There used to be one or two kinds of kombucha; now there are four full shelves of the fizzy and funky stuff. Even what used to be an impulsive bodega buy can turn into a minor saga. Once I spotted a glass bottle filled with beige sludge and spent ten minutes googling “what is sea moss?” Apparently, it can improve everything from heart health to weight loss, plus drive up the cost of a bottled juice by a few bucks.

The refrigerated aisle is out of control, and I am a moth to the fluorescent flame. Picking up a “fun drink” (aka, not just water) as a little treat doesn’t just require gauging my cravings but also my physical and metaphysical aspirations and needs. Want better hair? Crack open a collagen water from Vital Proteins. A less screwed up stomach? Get a pre/probiotic power-up from Poppi or Olipop. Lowered anxiety? Opt for Recess or Vybes with CBD, or Moment, which offers a literal “meditation in a can” with adaptogens like ashwagandha. (Whether the drink offers the same proven long-term benefits as meditation is another story.) The “edgy” CBD water of days past has been replaced by a pharmacy’s worth of promises and a boutique “shoppy shop’s” aesthetic appeal.

“Millennials are approaching middle age, and we just made Metamucil cooler,” says Andrea Hernández with a laugh. The founder of the snack forecasting newsletter Snaxshot—the success of which alone is a bellwether of the rising interest in direct-to-consumer brands—is referring to the rise of “functional drinks” boosted with healthful ingredients like probiotics and fiber. Think: Olipop, a pastel-hued, gut-friendly soda that’s become so prolific and deep-pocketed it boasts a splashy placement in the Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice “Barbie World” music video and a valuation north of $200 million.

It’s perhaps not surprising that a generation raised on the concrete evils of refined sugar and trans fats is embracing better-for-you indulgence.

“Olipop has a little bit of nostalgia and familiarity with a unique twist: the probiotic/prebiotic functional addition,” says consumer packaged goods (CPG) consultant Nate Rosen, whose newsletter Express Checkout opines on the industry. “It’s this ‘permissible indulgence’ trend.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that a generation raised on the concrete evils of refined sugar and trans fats is embracing better-for-you indulgence. But it’s not only about health—aesthetics and clout are on display too. “It used to just be [a choice between] buying Coke or buying off-brand Coke; now it’s a way of expression and signaling that you’re in the know,” says Hernández of the charmed days of the monolithic soda wars. “Holding a Recess mood-boosting whatever that influencers and celebrities post, or seeing Olipop in a rap video, gives a cool factor that Coke, which is so ubiquitous, can’t.”

So, to be clear, it’s not your imagination: The refrigerated section is expanding. A Whole Foods representative says their tonic and probiotic beverage sales are up 58% year over year, while kombucha (already better known to consumers than, say, whey-spiked seltzer) is up 5%. “At any given moment, I’m opening up a PDF for something I’ve never heard of before,” says Whole Foods refrigerated beverage category manager Charlie New. “Going back a few years, it was just a story of kombucha.”

This surge in new drink offerings can be attributed to a whole host of factors, from increased interest in drinking our supplements to a diverse group of rising CPG brands. One thing is clear: The relatively low consumer cost of nonalcoholic drinks, compared with pricier products like frozen meals, enables people to take a chance on something new. Worst-case scenario, you’re out a few bucks. “That kind of risk-taking behavior allows for innovation to really blossom and for buyers to take risks, because we know our customers will try new things,” New says.

But as the supply side has grown alongside the trendiness of delicate drink add-ins like probiotics and fresh juice, getting a product into grocery stores has become trickier. “It’s not as simple as just buying another shelf,” says Mike LaVitola, cofounder of Foxtrot, an artisanal convenience store with 30 locations nationwide. “We might be subbing out a traditional three-door fridge to put in more grab-and-go space—that’s something we’ve done and are looking at more.” Beverages are Foxtrot’s strongest sales category across the entire store, with bestsellers like Heywell and Recess often offering added value like caffeine or adaptogens. “Every week or month, we think we’ve hit peak beverage, and then another four or five things come across our desk that are pretty darn good too,” he says.

The refrigerated aisle is out of control, and I am a moth to the fluorescent flame.

This rising tide for new founders is epitomized by Bawi, a better-for-you sparkling agua fresca brand first developed through an entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas at Austin. Bawi’s lotería-inspired cans of pineapple and passionfruit agua fresca hit the market in April 2022. Today Bawi is carried in over 600 stores, largely in Sprouts Farmers Market locations in California, Chicago, and the brand’s home state of Texas. When the brand first began pitching retailers around 2019, its cofounders leaned into the success of seltzer brands like LaCroix, even though their fruit-juice-forward agua frescas are miles away from a typical seltzer’s whisper of “fruit essence.” Once a can is cracked, the only similarity is some fizz. But recently, Bawi’s cofounder says that retailers have become more familiar with agua fresca and the value of carrying cultural products.

“You can only innovate so much on functional attributes—make ashwagandha-infused chlorophyll water—at a certain point, consumer fatigue sets in,” says Victor Guardiola, cofounder and CEO of Bawi. “We’re seeing so many success stories because it’s the first time these cultural flavors have been brought into the food and beverage category in mainstream grocery, especially as more people of color are getting access to entrepreneurship and entering the retail space.”

That doesn’t mean launching a new drink is easy. After securing capital from investors by offering tastings and countless cold pitches, burgeoning brands must rack up enough sales momentum to reach quantity minimums for manufacturing and distribution, plus nail down packaging design to stand out on the highly crowded shelf. And it’s only then that they start to calculate the cost of distribution.

“Liquid is incredibly heavy and adds another layer to your net economics,” says Jordan Hicks, Bawi’s cofounder and COO, pointing to the extreme shipping demands for the beverage industry. “Every beverage entrepreneur has gone through the work of how expensive it is to fulfill these product orders, and every operations person has had a shitty experience where a forklift driver rams into a full pallet of product.”

Working with a centralized third-party distributor, like giant KeHE or newcomer Pod Foods, is one path forward. Doing so often comes with a catch-22: distributors need to see sales, but retailers require distribution. Beverage is one of the hardest industries to be successful in,” says Mark Gallo, sales manager at Nor-Cal Beverage Co., a contract manufacturer for major players like Coca-Cola and AriZona Beverages. “I believe eight or nine out of ten brands won’t last more than two years, with the cost of capital becoming higher and higher, and we’ll reach some level of normality in terms of options.”

For now, it appears that new drinks will continue to hit the refrigerated cases en masse. There’s a wave of celebrity-backed bands emerging, from Bella Hadid’s adaptogenic aperitif Kin Euphorics to Logan Paul’s controversial new energy drink PRIME, which raised alarms shortly after launching in July with six Cokes’ worth of caffeine in a single can. No doubt, grocery retailers will be eager to drop more private-label drinks of their own. Was humanity meant to choose between so many fun beverage treats? Probably not, but it’s time to start deciding.

Aliza Abarbanel

Aliza Abarbanel is a contributing editor at TASTE, the co-founder and co-editor of Cake Zine, and a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Previously, she was an editor at Bon Appetit.