Picture it: You’re on a beach. There’s just the right amount of people--enough so that you feel the happy vacation vibes of distant laughter and different kinds of music playing, but that you’ve got all the space, peace, and chill you want. The sky is crystal blue, the ocean is turquoise. You can’t remember any of your problems--lol what even is “work?” The only things on your mind are the gorgeous scenery, that perfect warmth-and-breeze combo, and the friends with you. Oh, and your drink. Obviously, to go with a day this ideal, you’ve got the dreamiest of summer beverages in your hand. You take a sip--what is it?
Why, it’s tropical, refreshing, thirst-quenching, bright and beautiful coconut water, of course, with just a kick of booze. And it’s from the trailblazers in this beverage space, Osena.
A crack of one of Osena’s cans is enough to transport you right to this magical paradise. We hope you’re lucky enough to actually drink this spiked coconut water by the sea this summer, but rest assured that you’ll feel the “aaaah” of that setting even if you’re drinking it sitting next to your noisy window AC unit in your creaky, sweaty 6th-floor walk-up.
Chris Allen and Vicente Surraco founded Osena in 2019, effectively bringing the novel rejuvenating effects of coconut water into the alcohol space for the first time. That’s a big deal, and imbibers are luckier for it. It’s not every day a drink this flavorful, lightly bubbly, and easy-drinking, free of gluten, just 100 calories and 5% ABV comes along. It’s one of those concepts that seems so brilliantly simple yet so innovative. So, we just had to know: How did Osena come to be? What’s the story behind this delicious hard coconut water? And how does Osena stand to revolutionize your summer imbibing while also gifting your winter with a whole summer mood? We caught up with Chris Allen to find out, and Chris also sent us a Spotify playlist that captures the whole vacay-in-a-can vibe of Osena--enjoy it here!
What’s been your journey to starting Osena--had you worked in beverage alcohol before?
The Osena story started back in 2019. My cofounder, Vicente Surraco, and I were MBA students, working in Philadelphia. And we were both in the finance world prior to getting our MBAs full-time, and we were both looking for something different to do that was a little more consumer-facing. In my case, I was looking to do something a little bit more entrepreneurial.
Vicente was super interested in the beverage space, and I was working at a consumer startup called Faherty Brand. And he came to me towards the end of the summer with the plan, hard coconut water, and I thought that was an interesting idea. And basically, that was the time when hard seltzers were kind of just really peaking. When we saw a lot of similar products hitting the market, and we felt like spiked coconut water would be a really strong differentiating point. So we decided to go into business together, and then it wasn't necessarily a sure thing that that was going to be our full-time work coming out of school. But it became clear pretty quickly in the fall of 2019 that the opportunity was there. And we kind of went all-in on it, and have been at it ever since.
What inspired the brand and your vision for it?
So, I think what we felt was the case is that spiked seltzer had uncovered something about the drinker. That they were interested in new options, and they were looking for new things to try, and new things to drink. What we felt would happen is that consumers would start looking for quality, and paying for new, interesting beverages, with different interesting properties. You kind of see that happened with the ready-to-drink cocktail revolution, in the last year or so. So what we felt like needed to happen is that we needed to give the consumer all the best things about what the seltzers were giving them. A clean label, a less-bloated feeling, a sleek sort of premium design--but we also wanted to give them quality in the form of coconut water, which is obviously a premium non-alcoholic beverage. And we felt like that would be an interesting take on what was happening with spiked seltzer.
What sort of was the inspiration there? Because that wasn't something that anyone else was doing, and really still aren't--what would you say is special about coconut water that you and Vicente were like, "This is something that can be a quality alcoholic beverage?"
Well, I think, first of all, Vicente and I are both fans of coconut water. It's something that we drink in our day-to-day life. And we felt like its formulation kind of lends itself really well to an alcoholic product because of the taste profile and also because the product contains electrolytes. So it gives you this kind of like easy-drinking, full-bodied flavor…And we were kind of reflecting on the fact that when people go on luxurious vacations to tropical places, a lot of times they'll drink their cocktails out of a coconut with coconut water in it. And we were like, "Oh, that's funny that people do that on vacation, but it hasn't really been canned and put into the mass market yet." So that was something that we were reflecting on. And honestly, I think that what we've done has really lived up to that. I think the product has a very differentiated, different taste profile that appeals to consumers.
Especially trying to build a business during the pandemic and everything, 2019 feels both like yesterday and like a lifetime ago. So what's the journey building the business been like? How have you maybe started to feel like you're connecting with consumers? What have the last sort of couple of years or so been like?
Yeah, it's been a real challenge building a business through the pandemic. There's no shortage of challenges in building a business during any period, but this has been especially challenging and it's been challenging for different reasons. I think the first thing is when we started the business, so the first six months, we were pre-pandemic, and obviously the next two years have been kind of during the pandemic, I guess. We were, before the pandemic, working together, Vicente and I, in coffee shops and coworking spaces and things like that on an almost daily basis. And in-person collaboration was what we were used to, getting things done together. And then, of course, the pandemic hits and everything is being done through Zoom. At first that was a real challenge for us, adapting to that. I was always fond of saying that we basically got this product to market and I had seen him a dozen times over the course of a year in person, which is just so rare, to be doing such a monumental piece of work with somebody that you hardly ever see. That part is really difficult.
I think another real challenging part is just conducting business virtually in an industry that is so focused on relationships and really doing business sort of the old school way. Certainly, the beer industry, the distribution side of the business, is somewhat old-school and likes to do things in person. So doing that and gaining favor, gaining a kind of consensus from your partners, and getting support for your product in a virtual way has been very challenging.
And then finally, it's put a barrier between new brands and consumers. It's been a very challenging time for new brands because what you saw a lot of, especially with people ordering products through ecommerce, is that new brand discovery is more difficult, obviously, because you're not able to discover the product in a store environment, how you might just have sort of [walked past] something new. So we’ve just had to get a little bit savvier in terms of our digital strategies--partnering with TapRm has been a really beneficial part of that. And we were really lucky that last year, the conditions around the virus sort of allowed us to get back into the store environment and sample the products in some of our markets where we're at retail. So that was a real challenge, thinking about, "Okay, we can't get the product into the sampling environment; it'll be very difficult to get people to try it." So as things get better in that sense and more events are happening, there are more opportunities for people to engage with new brands.
I also think that as we go forward here, there is a massive appetite among the consumer base to try new things now because the last couple of years, they haven't been attending events, they haven't really been shopping as much. And I think that the rubber band has been pulled back to some degree, and it's ready to sort of snap back. So I think that new brands are going to have a good time in the next couple of years meeting consumers, and consumer tastes are definitely going to change, which is exciting.
It must have been exciting to get to actually see in real life people trying the product, right? And getting the reaction first-hand at sampling and things like that?
Absolutely, yeah. Our sampling events are run by a promotional agency, so we have enough of them that it's difficult for me and Vicente to get to all of them. But I will tell you, honestly, when we first launched, we really did make an effort to go to just about everything we ran--that's like a hundred plus events last year--just to drop by meet consumers, and honestly, get that feedback. Because it's not just about us finding the consumer, it's about the consumer helping us get better, too, right? And we learned a lot about what consumers liked about our different flavors, what they maybe didn't like as much, what different types of consumers prefer one flavor over another…We took suggestions from people in terms of future flavors, things like that. Especially when you're building the brand, essentially, on a screen for two years, and then you see it come to life, and you see consumers trying it; there's no way to possibly overstate how useful that is, to get that real-time feedback.
What can you tell us about the product itself, like what's actually providing the alcohol? And what are some other features that might be unique?
We felt like when we launched this product that we had to give the consumer the sort of label that they were used to. It's something that the consumer has been trained on, and especially in a better-for-you space. We needed to have a label that would replicate some of the better-selling seltzers out there. So in order to do that, we decided to make and sell a naturally fermented product--Osena is naturally fermented. It has 100 calories per can, 5% ABV. It is sweetened with monk fruit, and it has obviously naturally occurring electrolytes. It's gluten-free and has zero sugar per can. So it has sort of all the attributes that you would expect from a seltzer these days, but obviously the differentiating factor of a coconut water base.
This question is tough because the answer is really, “everything,” but what occasions is Osena great for? Are there any food pairings or activities or anything that it’s just extra essential for?
We just launched our Osena variety pack, an eight-pack featuring two of each: Exotic Pineapple (our best-selling flavor), Ripe Mango, Divine Guava, and Lush Dragon Fruit (all three new flavors). We decided we needed to be in a variety pack as soon as possible because this is a product that is about community. It’s about sharing with your friends. It’s obviously a moment of discovery for people as well, because it’s sort of a new category. So, it’s meant to be shared, and enjoyed and with friends. The variety pack is really perfect for that occasion where you’re either going to a nice party or cookout outdoors, sort of gathering during the day--a pool party, a beach, going out on a boat, even just grilling in the backyard. It’s really perfect for those moments of connection and those good vibes, good times…and not necessarily good weather only, right? Because this is a product I think allows you to curate summer vibes all year long. What we’re looking to do for people is give them a tropical vacation in the can, regardless of what time of year it is.
In terms of food pairings, it depends a little bit on the flavor, but the coconut base note pairs very well with barbecue of pretty much all kinds. My personal favorite pairing is our original flavor with a pulled pork slider--it’s a great pairing.
What would you say is the Osena vibe, the culture, the lifestyle?
When we created Osena, it's really about sort of a place…imagining a place where you are sort of relaxed, calm, surrounded by people you love, enjoying your life. And the island of Osena, which is what we are going to be creating in some of our branding, is where all of this sort of comes to life. And we asked ourselves, what is the soundtrack of the Osena vibe? And the answer was pretty obvious to us that tropical house music is a natural, musical manifestation of our brand. Right? It's relaxed, it's very evocative of a tropical place, but it also makes you want to dance with people, right? It makes you want to get up and move and enjoy your life. So actually when we created the brand for our branding sessions, we used to have all of our branding partners listen to some of our tropical house picks and some SoundCloud mixes and YouTube mixes that we would make of tropical house music and sort of inspiration from the creation of the brand. So it's really actually quite funny that we're now crafting a Spotify playlist because truly, the brand did sort of come out of musical inspiration.