Austin is known as a hub for craft breweries, wineries and distilleries, but another beverage, completely nonalcoholic, has also begun to flood the city.
Since early 2017, four homegrown sparkling water brands have launched here, joining another that has been on local shelves since 2010.
In a town that seems to pretty much run on Topo Chico — a mineral water bottled in Mexico and beloved in Texas — Big Swig Sparkling Water, Rambler Sparkling Water, Richard’s Sparkling Rainwater, Sway Water and Waterloo Sparkling Water give Austinites more local options for their bubbly summer balm than ever before. Each is the creation of entrepreneurs who recognize the explosive appeal of the fizzy drink.
Sparkling water isn’t just an Austin phenomenon, of course. Nationally sold LaCroix, which serves 15 carbonated water flavors in cans, helped propel the drink into the mainstream, and primarily still water brands like Ozarka and Dasani now have versions of carbonated water, too.
It’s a trend that shows no signs of fizzling. And as retail sales of carbonated water grew by volume — between 2011 and 2016, rising 70.4 percent — sales of soda and other carbonated, sweetened beverages have gone down about 8 percent by volume in the same period, according to Bloomberg.
“The market for both carbonated and flavored waters is, well, bubbling over,” the publication wrote in October.
There’s a big reason sparkling water is making such a splash, according to Waterloo co-founder Brandon Cason.
“At the end of the day, consumers want healthier beverage choices,” he said. “That’s happening in food. In pet food. In fast food. In our coffee. Quality is becoming the driver of consumer adoption, and sugar is out. … Consumers are being far more aware and concerned about what they eat and drink, to a point. Water is great, water is important, but if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not going to last.”
Giving water some carbonation and some flavor is an easy way to stimulate our taste buds. It’s important to note, however, that some researchers worry about the effects of sparkling water’s carbonic acid on tooth enamel; the acid might cause dental erosion.
Effervescence, or the bubbles you see glittering in a glass of carbonated water, soda, beer or sparkling wine, results from carbon dioxide dissolving, under pressure, into liquid. In many waters, it’s added using technological means, in a process called force carbonation, but a little fizz in the life-sustaining liquid is nothing new. Arguably the world’s best-known example of mineral water, Perrier, has been bottled since 1903, when an Englishman purchased naturally carbonated springs in the south of France and saw the potential for mass production.
Mexico’s Topo Chico has been bottled for even longer than that, since 1895, and is also naturally bubbly, though not completely — it gets force-carbonated to restore bubbles lost in the purification process. Texans have been the bulk of U.S. Topo drinkers for years, but when a sale to Coca-Cola was finalized in October, some fans of the drink expressed concern online, worried about potential changes or cost increases.
Staying ‘true to fruit’
Having Topo go corporate didn’t hurt Waterloo’s chances on the shelf, Cason said, noting that Austinites tend to be loyal to local, independent brands.
In many ways, Waterloo’s meteoric rise resembles the early story of Deep Eddy Vodka, which found multimillion-dollar success by peddling fruit-infused liquor like Ruby Red Grapefruit Vodka and sold three years ago to one of the biggest names in the spirits industry, Kentucky’s Heaven Hill Brands. One of Waterloo’s co-founders, Cason, formerly served as Deep Eddy’s marketing director, and he doesn’t mind the comparison.
“I stayed at Deep Eddy for close to seven years, and I never thought I’d have a brand I felt that strongly about again because it was so close to me,” he said. “I have that again with Waterloo. But this is something everyone can drink.”
He teamed up with two other beverage industry experts, Treaty Oak Distilling proprietor Daniel Barnes and Mighty Swell Cocktails founder Sean Cusack, to launch Waterloo in September of last year. It started out with an ambitious nationwide launch in Whole Foods stores of plain sparkling water plus six flavors, including customer favorites watermelon and black cherry; a new flavor, mango, was added this month. So far, 35 million cans have been released, and Waterloo waters are now also available in other outlets, including H-E-B.
For Waterloo, having a veritable rainbow of flavors in bright, colorful packaging — intended to be noticeable on store shelves — is part and parcel of the brand’s identity. Cason said it also stands out because the creators found a way to capture bold fruit flavor in every sip, preceded by an aroma that lures you in.
“What we wanted to do with Waterloo was create the essence of the fruit, a concept we call ‘true to fruit,’” he said. “We want you to know, even without looking at the can, that you’re drinking watermelon sparkling water. Lime sparkling water. Grapefruit. It’s all about the convergence of real aroma with real fruit taste.”
As with many flavored sparkling water brands out there, LaCroix most prominent among them, Waterloo relies on “elements of oils and extracts” to taste like fruit, Cason said. Fruits have natural oils that can be extracted in a heating process that pulls vapors from the skins and rinds. The vapors are condensed at highly concentrated levels. Waterloo then combines the resulting oils — sometimes used just for the aroma, or the finish, or to get to the “meat” of the fruit taste. The oils don’t impart any sugar or calories.
Cason said he thinks watermelon has done so well because it’s typically a hard flavor to capture, and it has the sweetness of a Jolly Rancher without being too cloying. Mango should be a similar hit, he said; that aroma in particular is evocative, instantly capturing memories of eating the juicy, bright-yellow tropical fruit. But black cherry might be your best bet if you’re trying to kick a soda habit: “To me, it’s Dr Pepper without the sugar,” Cason said.
Straight from the clouds
Richard’s Rainwater was the first company in the U.S. to bottle rainwater in 2002, but that’s far from the only achievement of the growing Dripping Springs brand founded by forward-thinking entrepreneur Richard Heinichen.
In 2010, he developed a method to carbonate rainwater. Water that hasn’t been bottled straight from the sky generally has dissolved minerals like potassium sulfate in it that help facilitate the carbonation process, according to the new CEO of Richard’s Rainwater, Taylor O’Neil. Rainwater’s lack of those tiny compounds makes it difficult — but not impossible — to carbonate, and when Heinichen managed to pull it off, he called the result Happy Water.
O’Neil and Austin philanthropist Steve Kuhn joined Richard’s, a previously one-man operation, last year to help expand operations. Heinichen, O’Neil said, is still involved but has taken a step back.
“He knew the product was good enough to be bigger than what he could do. We are doing our best to be that partner,” he said.
Part of their plans for expansion is a rebrand that has overhauled the look of the bottles and renamed the sparkling water to Richard’s Sparkling Rainwater, so that it’s clear where it comes from. A patent is pending on the carbonation process Heinichen created, one that takes a lot of time, pressure and cold temperatures to work. It’s so effective, O’Neil said, that a cracked-open bottle of the sparkling water stays bubbly overnight.
“There were people that told Richard (carbonation) couldn’t be done because his water is too pure, but it’s the curiosity in him, the engineer in him, the tinkerer, and his love of rainwater that got him to get water that pure to bind to the carbonation,” he said. “Right now, the process takes more than a day, but we’re working on making it quicker.”
O’Neil said he came onboard as CEO not knowing much about rainwater and its appeal as a resource. He was sure, after hearing from Kuhn about Heinichen’s Dripping Springs rainwater collection facility, called Tank Town, that it was some kind of gimmick. Now, he’s a believer who said he thinks rainwater collection could well serve as a simple, powerful solution to the ballooning global crisis of clean water shortages, something Richard’s wants to be part of helping to fix.
For now, the company is focused on drawing new customers — at local stores including Thom’s Market, Royal Blue Grocery and Wheatsville Food Co-op — to Richard’s Rainwater and Richard’s Sparkling Rainwater. Their main selling point is that they are as pure as water can get, with “nothing in the water other than the water itself,” O’Neil said.
Richard’s catches water off the 20,000-square-foot roof of its bottling facility at Tank Town, with the rain dropping directly into a series of fiberglass tanks. It is then filtered with ultraviolet light and osmosis and finished with ozone, O’Neil said. It’s a lot more captured water than you might think.
“You can catch roughly 550 gallons of water for every 1 inch of rain and every 1,000 square feet of roof that you have,” he said.
The purity is something you can taste, too. Or perhaps it’s the lack of any kind of flavor at all — a clean, blank-slate sort of palate — that makes it stand out and tells you you’re drinking what Heinichen has called “cloud juice.”
For all our hot summer days
It’s just water, in the end, but when you drink the carbonated stuff all day long, you start to realize how different each of the fizzy brands can be. The amount of carbonation added, as well as the specific technique used to carbonate it, can influence just how bubbly it feels.
That’s something fundamental the owners of Big Swig focused on. If you gulp down water with a more intense level of carbonation, it’s “going to get stuck right in your chest,” co-founder Sean O’Connor said. He and business partner Ben Erwin, who own a beer distributing company together, designed their sparkling water to have a gentler bubble profile.
Hence the name Big Swig — with Texas having so many months of sweltering weather, they wanted “something that would quench your thirst,” he said, and a name to denote that. Like Rambler and Waterloo, Big Swig comes in cans for myriad reasons, but a big one is their portability.
The appeal of cans was immediately obvious to O’Connor and Erwin in part because of their distribution business, Austin Specialty, which handles local distribution for about a dozen Texas breweries including 4th Tap Brewing Co-op in North Austin, Barrow Brewing in Salado and Community Beer Co. in Dallas.
Running Austin Specialty and having an extensive background in the consumer packaged goods industry have also given Big Swig’s founders an understanding of what makes customers buy products. It’s a science in its own right, and a big part of the sparkling water brand’s early success, O’Connor said, has been the result of knowing how to keep a store well-stocked.
“Being seen is really important,” he said. “Having those relationships and making sure you’re in the right aisle, being visible, being one of those guys that’s going to fill it every day and not make extra work for the retailer, that’s all key. There’s that level of consumer confidence that anyone has going to the store seeing, ‘Man, they have pallets of this stuff.’ You’re more likely to buy stuff that’s not just stocked but stacked and displayed.”
Of course, taste also matters. In addition to an unflavored original sparkling water, Big Swig is available in Key lime and ruby red Texas grapefruit, two flavors chosen because they tend to be “best-sellers — the flavors people always like,” O’Connor said.
Plus, citrus fruits have natural oils that you can extract more easily than those from other fruits, he said, which made choosing lime and grapefruit as Big Swig’s initial options appealing from the start.
“Zesting a lime for a margarita, you might notice all the flavor comes from the peel. So citrus fruits provide the most natural, dominant flavors that you can get — the cleanest, the purest,” he said. “When you think about peach or watermelon or berry, it’s just a lot harder to get that flavor because those are essential oils (that are) not as natural as what’s readily available in the peel.”
Currently, Big Swig is at a number of H-E-Bs around Austin, in addition to smaller retailers and bars and restaurants in town, but the hope is to have the canned sparkling water available all over the state. The business plan calls for slow, steady growth — settling deeply into a market to understand certain factors, like pricing strategy and how people are responding to the brand, before expanding into another one.
O’Connor and Erwin have ample chances to study: “The nature of our distribution business requires us to be in stores every day,” O’Connor said.
Steeped in fruit
The creators of Sway Water recognized people’s desire for fruit flavors three years ago, just before the local sparkling water boom; Sway originally launched with a line of fruit-infused (and even some veggie-infused) still water flavors. Last year, a variety of bubbly options hit the market in bottles: strawberry, mango, grapefruit peach and lemon ginger.
The sparkling varieties were the result of listening to Sway customers at Austin farmers markets, where the water was first sold, co-founder Kate Herling said. You can now find the water at Central Market, Snap Kitchen and other retailers in Austin, San Antonio and Houston.
“People kept asking us for a sparkling version; they were quitting soda and wanted the carbonation aspect of a sparkling water,” she said.
What sets Sway apart from other local sparkling waters on the market is that the fruity flavors are all the result of infusions — fruit juice or purée steeped in purified water for five to 10 hours. The infusions mean there’s a little bit of pulp in the bottles, a small amount of calories and, in some cases, sugar as well (the sugar is not added — it’s the gram or two found naturally in fruit, with certain kinds, like strawberry, containing more than others).
But the calories in Sway Water are worth it, Herling said.
“The real fruit tastes great, so why not use it to flavor your sparkling water? We have a few calories in them, but what that gives us is a bunch of fun, completely natural flavors,” she said.
She and her two Sway co-founders, Albert Swantner and Paul Westmore, each contribute particular skills to the company. Swantner, she said, was “the linchpin” for the project, as he began the infusions that have become the heart and soul of Sway in his backyard. Westmore, an organic farmer, earned a degree in water management from Texas A&M. And Herling has experience in sales, she said.
Next month, Sway Water flavors, both still and sparkling, will get a certified organic designation on bottles that have also been rebranded with a more polished look, Herling said. The product has been organic from the start, but Herling, Swantner and Westmore decided to make it official as yet another way to help Sway stand out in consumers’ minds.
“It’s a really competitive market when it comes to sparkling waters, and we were using all organic products anyway, so it was just a matter of getting certified,” Herling said.
Each infusion steeps for up to 10 hours and is then heated, pasteurized and put into glass bottles, a process that is more automated than it was when Sway launched in 2015. The lemon ginger is a particular best-seller, Herling said. The trio behind Sway is “constantly experimenting,” she said, so fans of the brand may see a new flavor added to the sparkling water lineup this fall.
Rambling through Austin
Rambler Sparkling Water, the youngest of all the Austin sparkling waters, might have an extra bit of Austin cachet because of its link to local music venue the Mohawk.
Co-founder James Moody, who owns the Mohawk and Guerilla Suit advertising agency, wasn’t looking to add any more projects under his purview, but he couldn’t resist leading the charge a few years ago on the development of an Austin sparkling water that would also serve a philanthropic purpose. A percentage of Rambler’s annual profits will go toward the Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation at the end of each year. The philanthropy effort is such an important piece of Rambler’s identity that the name of the foundation is now included on every can, along with imagery of the wild Texas landscape the foundation seeks to maintain.
“We wanted to make sure that if you’re pulling from a water source, you’re also giving back,” Moody said.
Rambler took a while to launch in part because a lot of the R&D process went into getting the “flavor and bubble profile just right. We didn’t want to go to market until it was perfect,” he said. Savvy sippers will notice that, though it lacks fruit or any other ingredients, the sparkling water does have a bit of flavor, a mineral softness to it along with what Moody calls “refined bubbles.” There’s a reason for that: Rambler is filtered through Texas limestone to imbue it with local terroir.
To get the water into cans, Moody and his team turned to one of the biggest canned beer producers in town — Austin Beerworks. The North Austin brewery had undergone a major expansion at the beginning of last year and had the capacity to help bring Rambler into fruition, canning the water to this day. It’s available primarily in Austin bars, restaurants and hotels so far, as well as H-E-B stores.
Moody developed Rambler with other big-name partners including Leo Kiely, former CEO of MillerCoors, and Bill Kiely, owner and director of Windowseat Entertainment. Part of his inspiration for the project came when he kicked a diet soda habit by drinking sparkling water and realized there weren’t a lot of Austin-made seltzer options.
Though he acknowledges that Rambler is now on a more crowded retail shelf than when the initial idea was conceived, Moody said he thinks sparkling water has plenty of room to grow.
“We still have so many more people to convert” from the soda category, he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by the other sparkling water producers, who said they feel they are competing less with each other and more with the big-brand sodas and sparkling waters of the world. O’Connor said that even after a buy two, get one free sale of LaCroix at one of the retailers where Big Swig is available, his comparatively small brand still wound up in people’s grocery carts. And Cason thinks he knows why Waterloo has done so well, too.
“People need full-flavored sparkling water if they’re going to turn away from Coke and Sprite,” he said.