We knew Tolago was different from the moment we first saw their unique flavors. It’s hard to stand out in the sea of hard seltzer these days, but this brand certainly manages to do so with those flavors and more to come, with a commitment to actually natural ingredients and craft methods, and with a brand team made up of artists, musicians, athletes, and creators. Tolago is more than a brand, in fact--it’s a lifestyle. Its creative, collaborative approach includes events and partnerships, all elevating the hard seltzer at the center of the brand and emphasizing their message that Tolago seltzers are for drinkers who really care about what they’re sipping on and want to be excited about it.
We were so intrigued by this ethos and of course by the drinks, themselves, that we caught up with co-founder and CEO Nick Greeninger and co-founder Matt McCormick. They filled us in on how Tolago originated, what makes this brand so special, and where those genius flavor ideas come from.
Can you talk a little about what led you up to starting Tolago--were you working in the beverage industry before, or how did you take a special interest in it?
Nick: Yeah, I mean, I'm from the beverage industry; Matt is a fine artist and so we come from very different backgrounds…So, yeah, my background is being in beverage for 12 years; prior to that it was building lifestyle brands in the action sports space. We worked with athletes, and did a ton of deals with beverage companies in working to grow those brands. But then I really kind of had a jumping-off opportunity in 2010 when a friend of mine who's a movie producer had an idea to start a craft beer company in San Diego called St. Archer. I kind of took to it, invested in it, helped him bring on some athletes and people to back the brand. And then through that process of helping him raise money and whatnot, he asked me to join the founding team. And so I quit my job, moved in with him and his family in Encinitas, raised the rest of the money, built a 36,000-square-foot brewery, and got more people involved. And really took on kind of like the marketing and business development side of things for the brand from its inception all the way through to when we partnered with Molson Coors in 2015 and were acquired.
So that was my run in my first stage of beverage. And then I kind of worked on as a consultant on a number of other small brands in California before partnering up with the founders at Beatbox Beverages, which is a party punch brand out of Austin, Texas. It was most notably recognized for its “Shark Tank” episode and Mark Cuban's investment. I came on right after Mark Cuban’s investment in 2016 and was the Director of Marketing and then the Director of Business Development over three years. And we really grew that brand from being in a couple of states doing less than a million a year in revenue to being in 22 states doing north of 15 million a year in annual revenue. So we built the foundation for that brand success and then I was really hoping to get back to building a lifestyle brand. I got introduced to Matt through a mutual friend and co-founder of the business and Matt really took to the vision of who we wanted involved with this brand and put a look to it. And so I'll let him kind of explain his thought process as to developing what this brand looks like, and how it's been able to kind of come to life through that regard.
Matt: I think it was a shared kind of feeling amongst the whole group: we wanted to create a brand that kind of felt like where we all came from. All the founders are from California, and then my personal art is a lot of western kind of Americana themes. So for me, it was really easy to blend that California Baja surf kind of coastal thing with the kind of western aesthetics that I'm more known for in my personal career. And at the time, there was no…the Topo Chico hard seltzer hadn't come out yet. I was like, "There's a whole new space for something that kind of feels similar to these non-alcoholic seltzer waters that I've been drinking my whole life. I want to bring something like that to the table, something that goes great with a burrito in the Mission District,” where I spent a lot of time in my formative years.
So that was kind of the beginning stage of it, and then it was kind of like, "Okay, well, now how do we bring together a team and group of people that really get this mission and this identity we're creating?" And so that's why we reached out to a bunch of our friends in music industry, and clothing space, and action sports. It was just like taking all these different kinds of creatives and personalities that we thought would really lend a hand to building this kind of ethos and look and feel for the brand just on a personality level.
Nick: And so it's a similar kind of build from a ownership perspective as we did with Saint Archer, where we have artists, musicians, athletes--both in lifestyle sports like skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding--and creative entrepreneurs coming together to create a brand with these values that we all hold. And with respect to the product itself, it was all about--growing up in California, it's all about sustainability, farmers’ markets, local sourcing, all these different things.
And so when working to create the four unique flavors, each of those was kind of like, "Okay, let's differentiate the alcohol in a way where we're taking it to that next level." And as being part of a craft beer company, I was like, "There's really only two ways to do these things. And it's use better ingredients, and then filter your alcohol so it doesn't have any residuals.” So removing any residual sugars, any yeast sediment from the ferment to make it completely as clean and as pure as humanly possible. And then batch in those real ingredients to make those unique flavor profiles, which is what we set out to do.
So Agave Lime, we use real lime juice sourced from Nielsen Citrus Farm, which is in our backyard of Orange County. It's an organic citrus farm down there. If you pour the can out into a clear glass, you can actually see the lime pulp floating around. And then a FDA-certified organic agave fair trade from Mexico is our natural sweetener used across all flavors. The Cherry Rose is our most unique flavor. We actually steep rose petals and make a rose petal-rose water tea, with cherry juice that we source from up in the Washington state area. Then there’s Ginger Pear. We use fresh-pressed organic ginger that we make ourselves in the brewery. And then pear juice that's sourced from Oregon. And then the last flavor, which is Guava Mango, is guava and mango purees. And the fruit, both the guava and the mangoes, are grown and processed in San Diego, so California again, and then batched in to make that flavor. So it’s a very, very unique process; a very elevated process. That was kind of what we were going for, knowing that Matt's aesthetic and the looks that he's putting out there are very highbrow and pretty unique. And so we needed the product offering to really mirror that.
That is the big takeaway, I think, for Tolago--it stands out as such an all encompassing lifestyle brand, right? It's just so the opposite of a lot of other things on the shelves that are just the thing in the can. Why was that so important to you? I know it makes sense based on both of your pasts, but why was that so important to create that for Tolago, and how do you think that effectively helps you connect sort of more authentically with consumers?
Matt: I mean, for me, I owned another brand. I've been in that space, so I've been operating for a little while at some companies at various levels, but the thing that rings true across the board every single time is that there's a lot of options for consumers. And generally, when you're picking the kind of products and things that you want to partake in, you generally want to buy into kind of something that you can feel a part of. And so we wanted to create something that the people that are drinking Tolago, buying into the brand--they want to be a part of something rather than just like, "Oh, this is just another drink on the shelf." It's really kind of creating a world that was inviting, was all inclusive. Our ambassadors, our team, it literally comes from all sides of the spectrum. There's people that are--we've got people that are musicians, rappers. We've got people that are surfer guys. We've got photographers. It's so many different personalities, which could maybe seem conflicting at points, but it actually works in a very kind of harmonious way.
It was really creating a space that anyone could find an entry to point to, and there wasn't a closed door, and that it really just spoke to the flavors themselves. It's been really interesting to watch. I actually, I don't drink, so I can't actually drink them, but I'm always very much asking people and kind of reviewing what their views are. And it's funny because I find that one person may like be really obsessed with one flavor. The Cherry Rose, my girlfriend, that's the one she likes. And someone else may love the Guava Mango. There are just like different types of people involved with the brand, and the flavors mirror that in a beautiful way. And it's been interesting to watch how that all kind of mixes together and kind of the energy.
Matt: Yeah. And I think just to reiterate on the community aspect of this brand, I think that that was what we set out to do, and it wasn't about it being my brand or Matt's brand or this or that. We all have our collective roles to be part of that community and make it something special, and we want all of our consumers to feel that same way, that there's a place for them internally in this community and as a part of Tolago. And we felt like the best way to do that was create a collective group that is very diverse and is well rounded and does touch on all these different things, but all have like-minded values and beliefs, and then that would resonate authentically.
We’ve got a list of your ambassadors here for folks to check out: There are athletes, skaters, and surfers including Elena Hight, Curren Caples, Ish Cepeda, Louis Lopez, Griffin Cola, Elijah Berle, Mitch Coleborn, Ian Crane, Travis Rice, Mason Silva, and Nico Hiraga; actors like Jasper Dolphin; artists including Sandy Kim, Omar Apollo, Victoria Moura, and Noah “Waggy” Wegrich; musicians, producers, and songwriters like Kenny Beats, Lolo Zouaï, Dominic Fike, Ryan Bingham, and Matt Maeson; models and entrepreneurs like Alden Steimle; and streetwear and brand founders like PIZZASLIME, Dead Kooks, and Online Ceramics.
Can you talk a little bit about how the collaboration process works? You're saying, it does work out really harmoniously; how are your ambassadors/team members pitching in and actually having an impact on shaping Tolago?
Nick: Yeah, well, for example, Matt and I have been working through a collaboration event in San Francisco with Live Nation at a local venue here. And one of the owners, who's also a designer--he's a rapper, he owns his own label--his name is Anoir Carris, it's his birthday. And so it's “Anoir Carris presents with Tolago at August Hall” this moment where he's bringing his rapper friends to headline, so Currency is going to be headlining. And then he's got one of his artists on his label that's supporting, and it's this huge event. And Tolago is activated with sampling on site: collaboration merch, specialty cocktails on offer at that festival…
Matt also has a bar that's coming on board in New York for our launch event with TapRm, Ray’s, down on the Lower East Side. And so we'll have a tattoo artist, which is a blast from the past in Matt’s world. We'll have a specialty drink there that's kind of on-brand with that. And then the advocates that live in New York, the musicians and whatnot, and the skaters that are there will come out, and the photographers that are going to shoot it, they're all going to be part of that community.
When did Tolago officially launch?
Nick: We launched December 2020 in California. And then we launched in June of last year in New Jersey, and now we're in New York.
Just looking at those launch dates, it's like a wild time to launch a brand, especially when you're bringing together so many people. And I feel like events are starting to really be a huge part of your whole lifestyle component. So has that been super challenging during the pandemic and everything?
Nick: Yeah, it was super challenging. I mean, it just changed a few things. And I think having a really unique look and feel really gave us a bit of an advantage in that regard. We do super well with our digital merchandising, and Matt’s ability to create a consumer packaged good…And digital merchandising is one of the most important things for any brand these days. Delivery is as real as it comes in our space, as well as any other. And we've been able to hone in and optimize our ability to bring the brand to life through online retailers.
At the events you’ve been having, how's it been being able to actually get feedback from people? And how are you sort of experiencing the way the consumers are engaging with the brand?
Nick: I mean, definitely through social and digital media, it's a big thing. I think people love to talk about what they're doing and drinking and trying and all that. But in-store demos and tastings, that's a huge place to track consumer appeal. And I've developed with all of our sales team that's running these demos, I've developed a questionnaire…So we can get some real-life kind of data towards what they're feeling. Our product is not like other hard seltzers. It's not as sweet. There's no processed sweeteners. And we went for drinkability. We wanted it to taste just like Spindrift and taste the juice that's in it. And so it's for a different consumer than the person drinking White Claw or High Noon. Although I think High Noon is good. I like the taste of High Noon, but it is still a little bit sweeter than ours.
So you got into the actual process and ingredient-sourcing for the four different flavors before. Which obviously sets these apart. What was that brainstorming and inspiration process like? How did you sort of come to those four flavors?
Matt: We were kind of throwing our favorite flavors into the hat. And then it was I think once we actually teamed up with the flavor specialist guy that we worked with out--that's when we kind of really narrowed down. But I think the idea out the gate was not to try to get too extreme with it. Add a little bit of fun…but then obviously dropping the Agave Lime is a pretty standard kind of choice for an opening one. But then Cherry Rose is something we hadn't really seen in the space. And just to kind of go back to what I said before, that's what I like about it, is they really attract different people, you know what I mean?
And we have a second round of flavors that we've been developing that come together and take it to the next level as far as kind of more…”experimental”'s not the right word, but you know. Just kind of less what you expect…With all those, it was kind of to echo Nick's point about it not being too sweet. It not being better for you. It was, how can we check off those boxes that are important to us? While also maintaining a product that everyone wants to drink.
Speaking of drinking these delicious seltzers--you mentioned burritos before, does anything stand out to you or are there any particular food pairings you’d highlight? Or, maybe some cocktails you make with Tolago seltzers for another fun twist?
Matt: Yeah, and I think Nick can really speak to that. And there's definitely been lots of different pairings out there in a sense. My dad loves drinking them with a tequila on the side…I think it really depends on the consumer.
Nick: Like the Michelada It's like a hard seltzer take on a michelada. And then, a Tolago-Rita? So that's like our take on a skinny margarita. And we're talking like, you're using a Tolago, which is 100 calories, instead of margarita mix and whatnot. So it is a 110-calorie drink. And it's got a shot and it's like a double almost, you know? And then that Michelada is pretty cool because it's a Michelada, but it's light. It's refreshing and drinkable. Whereas like, a Michelada is kind of heavy. You're doing a beer with this paste. You know? So, those are pretty cool takes on a couple that we've definitely seen some success with at events and in the on-premise space.
Get shopping and creating your own Tolago cocktails here!