Xoca builds functional beverage brand around upcycled cacao fruit
Launching in Chicago, Xoca comes in three flavors: original, mint, and ginger, and is the brainchild of Jacob Lopata, a propulsion engineer with a background in aeronautics who learned that hundreds of thousands of tons of cacao fruit rots in farms every year via a friend that owns a chocolate company in Ecuador, and sensed a business opportunity.
“600,000 tons of cacao fruit pulp is discarded every year and I felt that was a huge waste and an environmental problem.”
While some brands such as Repurposed Pod have launched 100% cacao fruit juice products, Suavva attempted to familiarize Americans with the fruit via smoothies, and Mondelēz is now experimenting with concentrated cacao pulp extract in a new line of snacks called CaPao, it hasn’t (yet) become the next ‘superfruit,’ in part because the juice is so perishable, said Lopata.
“If you don’t do something with it, it goes bad very quickly. Once the pods are opened, you have about 24 hours But we found a way to collect the juice in partnership with the large producers in Ecuador in a way that doesn’t disrupt chocolate making and we actually have a patent-pending process for that.
“I can’t talk much about it at this stage but it’s a fruit juice reduction [via a heating process] that creates something similar to molasses or honey in terms of consistency and once we do that, it’s stable. Cacao fruit naturally has a kind of tropical fruit flavor, but the reduction process also adds additional flavor notes and a hint of molasses.”
The fruit reduction is then transported in bulk to the US where the beverages are put into cans, said Lopata, who has a small team in Chicago and Ecuador and has raised “two small seed rounds from angel investors,” and is “working on a third right now.”
While some sparkling fruit beverages such as Spindrift contain 5-10% juice, Xoca has opted for 50% juice and 50% sparkling water so consumers get the taste but also some nutritional benefits from cacao fruit, which contains theobromine, a natural stimulant which has some similar properties to caffeine without giving people the ‘jitters,’ claimed Lopata (click here to read more about theobromine).
Each 8oz can of Xoca has 15g naturally occurring sugar and also contains 2g of fiber from the cacao fruit, which Lopata claims has prebiotic qualities (ie. it is selectively fermented in the gut, providing food for ‘good’ bacteria) although this is not backed up by much clinical data.
While Lopata talks about ‘clean energy,’ he chose not to use the word ‘energy’ on the front of pack, and is not positioning this as a direct competitor with Red Bull or Monster, but a functional beverage with energizing effects and gut health benefits that sits in the functional beverage category.
“It doesn’t have to be refrigerated but we try and get it in the [more premium] cooler sections because it’s best enjoyed cold.”
Moving forward, the branding could change slightly as Lopata gets more feedback, he said, “We weren’t quite sure at the beginning how much to talk about the functional benefits, but my guess is that it will be more functional forward on the label next time around based on all the feedback we're getting now that the product is in the market.”
The target audience
So who will be the early adopters for this brand?
"It's a little too early to say," said Lopata, but "in general people are looking for healthier alternatives to sodas and energy drinks, they want transparency and short clean labels and something that makes them feel good about the product.
"We're using a product that is currently discarded and we're providing additional revenues to farmers that grow cacao, and that resonates with people for sure."
The go to market strategy
Xoca Cacao Fruit Soda is available online nationwide (12pk/$35.99 or c.$3/can) and first started hitting physical retail stores ($3.99/can) in Chicago in September in specialty retail with lots of demos and sampling to get feedback before taking the beverage to a broader audience, said Lopata.
“When we do the demos, people definitely pick up some fermented notes, although it’s not nearly as strong as kombucha. It’s got a sweetness and tanginess and people really do love it. It’s early days, but we’re getting a really good response.”