The number of gently sweetened, flavored carbonated drinks has exploded over the past several years, from Spindrift to Olipop, but Shrubbly is the only “sparkling shrub drink.”
Shrubs, not to be confused with bushes that grow in the ground, are concentrated fruit syrups, sometimes called drinking vinegars. Typically made with apple cider vinegar and a sweetener, shrubs were popular in the 19th century as a means to preserve fruits, and then, all but disappeared as refrigeration became the norm. Today there are a handful of artisanal shrub companies across the US, such as Siren Shrubs in Wisconsin and Rhoot Man in Georgia, mostly crafting beverage flavor mixers for cocktails or mocktails (shrubs are non-alcoholic).
Shrubbly founder Matt Sayre is out to change that. He’s created the first sparkling shrub drink, ready to drink out of the can, no mixing necessary. It’s delicious, and it has another selling point. The key ingredient in Shrubbly are aronia berries, which might be the next pomegranate or acai berry.
He’s got a huge task ahead of him in the highly competitive beverage category, which is capital intensive. But he’s also on a mission to create a healthy, organic beverage with a unique, refreshing taste made with aronia berries grown on his farm that will appeal to the mainstream consumer.
“We’re trying to be the category defining brand for a new type of beverage,” says Sayre.
He launched the company in 2020, and says sales are doubling each year. Shrubbly is aptly named: Not only is it a blend of “shrub” and “bubbly,” but its featured ingredient, the aronia berry, sometimes called black chokeberry, happens to grow on, yes, shrubs. Sayre grows and harvests Shrubbly’s aronia berries on his 15-acre organic farm in Hinesberg, Vermont farm, just south of Burlington.
Packaged in an eye-catching black can with colorful illustrations of the fruits inside, Shrubbly sells all over Vermont among other New England states, retailing at about $3 per can. It’s also carried in MOM’s Organics in the mid-Atlantic states and in greater Los Angeles’s Erewhon Markets, among other specialty shops and cafes across the US, and ecommerce platforms like Faire. Both Shrubbly flavors are crisp and flavorful, and sweeted with a touch of honey.
In addition to Sayre launching a new category of drink, Shrubbly is a vertically integrated brand – which makes it very unusual in the consumer packaged goods market.
Shrubbly is one of just a handful of CPG (consumer packaged goods) brands selling nationally in markets that grows and harvests its key ingredient. In fact, Sayre doesn’t know of one other nationally sold ready to drink beverage, made from multiple ingredients, which grows its own main ingredient. Some 95% of artisanal CPG brands that sell nationally buy, rather than grow, their featured ingredient, estimates Zachary DeAngelo, the CEO of sales agency Rodeo CPG.
“I knew that I wanted to grow a perennial fruit farm, specialty fruit, and then make a value-added shelf stable product out of that,” recalls Sayre, in a phone interview as he drives to Boston, MA, to meet with a distributor.
There’s been a surge in demand for flavored carbonated water. According to the Dubai-based Future Market Insights’s report, the US flavored water market is projected to surpass $3.7 billion this year. InsightAce Analytic in New Jersey recently issued a report stating that the global sparkling water market was valued at $29 billion last year, as some customers are gravitating to sparkling waters that have flavor, but far less sugar than soda.
While there’s strong consumer demand for flavored sparkling water, the competition in the consumer packaged food and beverage space is fierce. According to DeAngelo, it’s estimated that 85% to 90% CPG businesses close down in the first two years.
“Every category is competitive, but beverage is unique that it’s very capital intensive,” says DeAngelo, “the co-packing infrastructure—there are very high minimums, so that’s a barrier to entry.” He also notes that the cost to ship beverages can be challenging for business owners. In terms of supermarket placement, the cold case is the fastest moving spot for a beverage, but it’s often controlled by DSD (direct store delivery) distribution, says DeAngelo. “That means they have people going into the stores, and merchandising the stores on a regular basis, so it’s very competitive,” he says.
Sayre is no stranger to sustainable farming, business and ecological economics. Not because he grew up on a farm, though. Sayre was brought up outside Syracuse, New York, his father was a factory worker. But because of Sayre’s position as senior program developer at the University of Vermont, in Burlington. He creates programs and bootcamps that focus on sustainable farming and food systems. “I still have my day job,” Sayre confirms with a laugh.
When Sayre and his wife Amy bought their farmland over ten years ago, Sayre researched fruits crops that were resilient to unpredictable weather conditions due to climate change. Sayre came across a collaborative aronia berry study between the University of Connecticut and the University of Maine. He eventually attended an aronia workshop in Maine, given by Dr Lois Berg Stack and Dr Mark Brand. Both are aronia experts, one Dr Stack’s areas of study is growing aronia as a nutraceutical crop; Dr Brand, an aronia whisperer of sorts, has patented two hybrids of aronia plants for landscaping.
Some aronia berry plants are native to North America. They grow in the wild, as crops, and more recently, a landscaping shrub. The actual berries are similar to blueberries in appearance, but taste slightly astringent, not sweet, thus the nickname “chokeberry.” Aronia berries are filled with antioxidant properties; the hardy shrubs, which can grow to be 6 feet, seem to thrive in various soils and environments.
At the end of the Maine workshop, aronia shrubs were graciously offered to the participants for free, all they had to do was return the following spring. “When I arrived,” recalls Sayre, “to pick them up, I happened to be the only one who followed through. So instead of just getting a dozen or so plants, I walked away with 325 aronia plants.”
There are several aronia hybrids and according to Dr.Brand, Sayre’s Shrubbly plants are Aronia mitschurinii. Despite aronia’s known health benefits, the berry remains relatively unknown in the US, adding another challenge to marketing Shrubbly. A review of scientific literature, published last year, found the berry has anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antiviral properties, among others.
Of course, aronia could become “the new acai,” but isn’t quite yet. “I think Aronia has become more popular over the last 10 years, but growers are still struggling to find markets for the berries and their juice,” writes Dr Brand in an email. “A lot of aronia concentrate in the U.S. is still coming from Poland,” he adds, noting that the bulk of aronia growing in the U.S. comes from the Midwestern states rather than northeastern states like Vermont.
Sayre planted his first aronia plants in 2013 and the first harvest collected in 2016. “My eyes were open,” says Sayre, of the challenges producers face who grow crops through his job at UVM, “but they were opened a lot wider once I started to get my hands in the dirt myself.” So far, Shrubbly has been funded by a small loan, a USDA producers grant for $250K and a convertible debt offering less than $100K that is open to friends and family.
Good-Bad Timing of the Pandemic
The first cans of Shrubbly—which comes in two flavors, aronia berry with pomegranate and aronia berry mixed with lemon and ginger—hit the retail shelves in February 2020, one month before the pandemic caused pandemonium in March. It was unfortunate timing for the burgeoning brand, but Sayre used the pandemic pause to study Shrubbly’s scalability options and applied a slow and steady approach to brand growth.
With the caveat that the “total sales are still not, like, that impressive,” according Sayre, who isn’t the type to wildly toot his own horn, but he notes that Shrubbly’s growth doubled in 2021 from the year prior. “And this year in 2022, we’re close to doubling again,” says Sayre, adding that the company’s growth, especially during this time of surging household expenses and financial uncertainty, is reinforcing Shrubbly’s proof of concept.
While the Sayre’s farm now grows just under 500 aronia plants (plus black currents) there are plans to expand Shrubbly operations to Earthkeep Farmcommon, a collective of agricultural businesses on 600 acres in nearby Charlotte. Last year Will Raap, the founder of the plant emporium Gardener’s Supply in Burlington, bought a bankrupt dairy farm create a regenerative farm community to support local entrepreneurs. Regenerative farming is the agricultural practice of restoring and rebuilding soil biodiversity.
“Will’s commitment is to promoting regenerative agriculture and so my mission, the Shrubbly mission,” says Sayre, “to make regenerative drinks to help reinvigorate people and places.” Sayre aims to plant more fruits, as well as herbs and spices at Earthkeep in 2023 as well as expand the number of retail stores that carry Shrubbly.
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