Got MALK? Start-up seeks to disrupt nut-milk market with organic, cold-pressed options

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

MALK founders Joel Canada, Justin Brodnax and August Vega
MALK founders Joel Canada, Justin Brodnax and August Vega

Related tags Milk

While the plant-milk market is maturing, there is still room for new entrants offering a premium take on the category, says the CEO and founder of Texas-based MALK, which uses high-pressure-processing (HPP), and no preservatives, thickeners, or emulsifiers in her ‘cold-pressed’ organic nut milks.

The refrigerated MALK range - which has a 49-day shelf-life and is now available in four states (distributed by UNFI and KeHE) - includes almond, pecan and cashew milks in multi-serve 28oz bottles, and single-serve 12oz bottles (pecan & cold brew coffee; pure cashew; pecan & raw cacao).

Unsweetened almond MALK contains just three ingredients: organic almonds, Himalayan salt, and filtered water; whereas mainstream brands typically add starch, carrageenan or other thickeners, emulsifiers such as soy or sunflower lecithin, flavors, and vitamins, said August Vega, who co-owns MALK with her brother Justin Brodnax (who handles production) and cousin Joel Canada (who works with Vega on sales).

It’s not about whether these ingredients are harmful, they just seemed unnecessary

While there is nothing wrong with these ingredients, consumers are attracted to MALK, first because it has a cool label, and second, because the ingredients list contains what they would use if they made nut milk at home, said Vega.

“I used to make almond milk for my son with nuts and water and salt, because fresh almond milk is just one of the best things I ever tasted, but I didn’t really have time to make it, so I started buying it, but there was nothing on the market that was anything like what I made at home.

“It’s not about whether these ingredients ​[that are added to commercial nut milks] are harmful, they just seemed unnecessary. I just felt there had to be a better way, and HPP allows you to do that. Because of the HPP and the fact we don’t use thickeners, MALK​ [which is manufactured and HPP treated in Houston, Texas] also tastes completely different to the nut milk brands you buy.

“Even if you don’t understand HPP technology or you don’t care, it just tastes better, and people can immediately taste the difference. So if you’re used to drinking the leading brands, MALK will taste different, but that’s because it is​ different.”  

MALK selection
The MALK range includes 28oz multiserve products and 12oz single serve products

Are we going to convert every single nut milk consumer to our brand? No

But how tough is it to compete with brands such as Califia Farms, Silk and Almond Breeze when you are a minnow in a sea of sharks?

It’s a challenge, but MALK has a point of difference, said Vega, who scooped the top prize in BevNET’s New Beverage Showdown in Santa Monica in December, beating a string of aspiring beverage brands competing for a cash prize from Coca-Cola’s Venturing and Emerging Brands.

“Yes, you can buy a $2.99 almond milk or buy ours for $6.99 (28oz bottle), but it’s organic, it’s HPP, and it’s a premium product. Are we going to convert every single nut milk consumer to our brand? No, but if these things (cleaner labels, organic ingredients etc) are important to you, we’re here.”

Malk co-founders
Left-to-right: MALK co-founders August Vega, Justin Brodnax and Joel Canada

Consumers are prepared to pay a premium

And so far, consumers have been prepared to pay extra for cold-pressed nut milks, just as they have with cold-pressed premium juices such as Suja and BluePrint, added Vega, who first sold her wares in farmer’s markets before securing deals with coffee shops, and her first Whole Foods Market store in in November 2014.

“I can still remember that day as they said we’ll put you in this one store in Houston, and then you’ll have to go around and try and sell to other stores in Texas.

“The very first day we got into their system in Houston, I started getting orders from a Whole Foods store in Dallas, so I phoned up the Dallas store to find out what was going on, and they told me that a customer had requested MALK because they had tried it at a farmer’s market, so we looked you up, saw MALK was in our system, and ordered it. It was just amazing.”

Malk square

The label has been key to MALK’s success, says founder August Vega: “We wanted something clean and simple, because that is what the brand is all about, minimal ingredients, but we didn’t have $50,000 to design a label, so it was a case of coming up with the best looking label that would stand out on shelves with the money we had, that we could evolve later. But the label we have today isn’t far off the first iteration. People really have an emotional connection to our label and our brand that I wasn’t really expecting, so it’s been a blessing and a shock at the same time.”

Retailers are still trying to work out how to categorize all these different beverages

Today MALK is in all Whole Foods stores in the southwest region, plus Natural Grocers stores in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas, plus independent stores and coffee shops.

The larger bottles are typically stocked in the dairy case next to brands such as Califia Farms and premium dairy products such as goat milk; while the 12oz RTD bottles are positioned in a variety of locations, depending on the retailer, said Vega.

“We’re not really in the juice case; we tend to be put next to cold-brew coffees and things like that, but there are so many new identities popping up in the beverage category now that these cases are shifting all the time as retailers try to work out how to categorize all these different beverages.”

Interested in new beverage trends? Register for our FREE beverage innovation summit​ on Feb 18:


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